How to Overhaul an Already Successful Meeting

Meetings Associations Now September/October 2014 By: Gayle Bennett

Looking to shake things up in a big way at your next meeting? Take a page from the American College of Emergency Physicians. Although ACEP 's annual meeting had been a consistent success, organization leaders made some innovations that have led to even greater success.

Great ideas don't necessarily require reinventing the wheel. Often they come from slightly repurposing it.

That's what Bobby Heard, CAE, and Debbie Smithey, CAE, of the American College of Emergency Physicians did with a great idea they came across at the 2012 ASAE Annual Meeting & Exposition in Dallas. A session presenter mentioned that his lodging industry association built a "hotel room of the future," showcasing new hotel room technology, at its annual conference.

"We heard that and instantly looked at each other and said, 'Why not an emergency department of the future?' " says Heard, associate executive director of ACEP.

ACEP's annual four-day Scientific Assembly generally attracts more than 5,000 paid attendees. It's the largest emergency medicine meeting in the world, "with a tremendous reputation for top-notch clinical education," says Heard. Even the recession didn't dent Scientific Assembly attendance—the 2010 gathering was the largest to date.

But Heard, who took over ACEP's educational products area in 2012, knows that complacency is dangerous. "A great product doesn't always stay great. What will continue to make it great in the future? You can't just rest on your laurels."

Heard and Smithey, ACEP's director of educational meetings, decided that with the event's education on solid ground, they needed to focus on providing a memorable experience. People attend an event; they remember an experience. So, in 2013, they put in place a series of enhancements, big and small, that led to the best-attended Scientific Assembly yet.

Here's how they did it.

The ER of the Future

Though they only had about seven months to pull it off, Heard, Smithey, and their team created a build-out of the emergency department of the future in the exhibit hall at ACEP's 2013 meeting in Seattle. They called it InnovatED—a combination of "innovative" and the acronym for "emergency department."

The exhibit hall had always been well-attended, so InnovatED was an addition; traditional exhibitors' booths remained. As the emergency department of the future, the InnovatED section of the exhibit hall included an ambulance at the entrance to the space and, inside, a check-in desk, several exam rooms, and nurses' stations, with cutting-edge vendor products showcased throughout.

Exhibitors applied to appear in InnovatED, and the chair of the education committee selected them based on whether their product or service was deemed innovative enough. The committee also developed a self-guided audio tour. "We really told a story about those areas, about an emergency department using those products, around patient cases," says Heard. For example, a patient case might explain that a 34-year-old white male hit by a car and presenting with low blood pressure was better treated with the help of an InnovatED product.

The InnovatED vendors, who were allowed to provide information only—selling was to take place in their booth space—"were happy to have such specific interactions with all of these emergency physicians," Smithey says.

By the numbers, InnovatED was a success: Nearly half of Scientific Assembly attendees spent time in it, and of the 32 companies that participated, 15 were new to the show. Heard says ACEP sold about $250,000 in InnovatED sponsorships, which covered the build-out and other costs. In its first year, Heard was just looking to break even, but InnovatED made a profit. For this year's Scientific Assembly, which takes place in Chicago in October, Heard's goal was to double sponsorship revenue. That happened when InnovatED space sold out in July.

Pumped-Up Parties

Until 2013, ACEP hosted the typical hotel ballroom reception for the opening and closing parties. Attendees "would come for the first 10 to 15 minutes, make their appearance, and go do something fun in the city," Heard says. "We kind of had a boring event."

New This Year

Not content to rest on last year's success, ACEP is adding a few more enhancements to this October's Scientific Assembly in Chicago.

"My commitment is to continue to test new ideas," says Bobby Heard, CAE, ACEP's associate executive director. "We've got to continue to do new things that create a better attendee experience and help us drive revenue for the organization."

Preferred-Access Pass. Taking a page from the airlines, ACEP is selling a "Preferred-Access Pass" for $300 that's limited to the first 200 takers. Among other things, the pass will offer four-day paid registrants a guaranteed room at the primary hotel; a private, guided tour through InnovatED; express-line access to party shuttle buses; access to the exhibit lounge; VIP seating at the opening session; and hotel room delivery of the registration packet, eliminating the need to wait in line at the convention center. Pass holders also may leave their bags at the hotel when they check out, and ACEP will have them checked at the airport.

Encore Presentations. "Our program starts on Monday," says Debbie Smithey, CAE, ACEP's director of educational meetings, "and by Tuesday you might be hearing about this great course that you missed." So ACEP will hold "encore presentations" the day after the most trending, talked-about courses. Smithey and her staff will watch social media and have their ears to the ground, but they aren't putting strict parameters on how they will choose the sessions to repeat. After all, "some of the speakers may have already gone home," says Smithey. "We have to be a little bit loose about it."—G.B.

Continuing with the theme of creating a better experience for attendees, ACEP decided to hold both parties offsite, providing shuttles to the venues. The idea was to bring attendees to the city sights they might not have time to see on their own.

For the opener, ACEP rented out Seattle's Experience Music Project. They immediately knew they were on the right track because the event quickly filled up. To accommodate additional attendees, ACEP rented space at the nearby Space Needle and Chihuly Museum, creating a block party in the Seattle Center area that the three venues share. The closing celebration was at the Museum of Flight at Boeing Field.

"The 'wow' factor was there, especially with younger members," Heard says. "That is important for us for retention. It was a talked-about, tweeted thing."

Both events were paid for by sponsors, and "they were so happy with last year, they are back again this year," Smithey says. In Chicago, the Navy Pier will be the site of the kickoff event, and the Museum of Science and Industry will host the closing celebration.

Taking the Work Out of Networking

In addition to the expo hall and social events, networking is an important part of any annual meeting. Attendees who are new to the field or a little on the shy side might need some help developing or expanding their network. So for the first time in 2013, during the two open evenings, ACEP offered "Dine Arounds." These were networking dinners hosted by an ACEP dignitary—former presidents, popular faculty members—at a local restaurant.

"We know that people use these meetings to network," says Heard. "So we really focused on 'build your emergency medicine network, build your career, build your contacts.' "

The 10 Dine Arounds (each with about 12 people) sold out immediately, according to Heard, and this year they will try to expand the number of people who can participate.

"It was really well received last year," Smithey says. "People were taking pictures together and posting them in our social media feeds and sending them to staff saying what a great time they had."

Smithey says the Dine Arounds don't generate revenue, but they enhance the event for attendees, particularly those who don't come in with a preset professional network.

Keeping It Fresh

Until last year, the best-attended ACEP Scientific Assembly was in 2010 in Las Vegas, always a good city for the association: Paid attendance was 5,952 that year. Last year in Seattle, paid attendance was 6,224. While Seattle also is a good city for ACEP, it had never beaten Las Vegas. "We think that a lot of that has to do with these enhancements we've made," Heard says.

Both Heard and Smithey are focused on continuing to make the Scientific Assembly better. "One of the things I've noticed in the association community is that it's easy to stay stuck with something when we think it works well," Heard says. "It's important to test new ideas, explore new opportunities, and challenge ourselves to reinvent the educational products we are offering."

Even the most popular products can plateau or start to decline, he says. "Just because you've got a great meeting now, it doesn't mean it's going to be a great meeting five years from now. And it doesn't mean that there won't be competitors to your meeting, other people that enter the marketplace that have new ideas and do it better," he says.

Keeping the Scientific Assembly on the cutting edge is especially important at ACEP: The meeting is the organization's second-largest revenue source after dues, accounting for 23 percent of total revenue. And Heard's goal is to increase that percentage in the future.

Smithey brings up ACEP's virtual meeting package—audio and slides from the 300-plus courses offered at the Scientific Assembly—as an example of successfully moving outside the association's comfort zone. ACEP started offering Virtual ACEP in 2012. "We were a little bit fearful—a little bit, not a lot—when we first started doing Virtual ACEP because you never want to cannibalize your program," she says. "If people can get this, will they still come?"

Given the meeting's record-breaking 2013 numbers, the answer apparently is yes.

"You make it so that they would not miss going to your show because it's so exciting and there's so many things happening," Smithey says. "They would miss out on so much if they didn't go."

[This article was originally published in the Associations Now print edition, titled "Shift Change."]

Gayle Bennett

Gayle Bennett is a freelance writer and editor based in Washington, DC.