Teetering on the edge of no return – how can events continue to keep our attention?

Last week I put my promotional hat on at HC2014 and spent two days bestowing the benefits of Highland Marketing’s infamous cowpat cookies. Whilst they remain a popular incentive along with the usual pens, USB sticks, travel mugs and much more, it was clear from the discussions that ensued that there was an underlying sense of disappointment in the event. Exhibitors speak to each other and the general consensus was that the event was very quiet, which is disappointing when you consider the time and financial resources invested.

There will always be a need for events. How else do key announcements and developments from government and industry get communicated effectively? Where else can private and public sector providers showcase their latest products and solutions to a captive audience?

What is needed is change. There needs to be a degree of flexibility and the capacity to adapt when necessary. Conference organisers rely on the investment companies make when they commit to exhibit. It is this investment that pays for the events. If companies are beginning to question the benefit of attending such events, change needs to happen fast.

The primary concern was the ‘glut’ (as one contact referred to it) of events that focus on health. How do delegates and exhibitors differentiate between which event offers the greatest benefits? Delegates want quality content that focuses on key policies and demonstrates how others are addressing issues through best practice. Exhibitors want high numbers of delegates who fall into their key target audience as well as conference streams that their solutions support. It’s a difficult balancing act.

The key issue is that budgets are tight. Without access to a bottomless pit of cash, we are forced to prioritise and content is key for delegates and exhibitors alike.

Creating successful exhibitions relies on providing good content through quality speakers – the big names we all expect to see. In addition we need to look at alternative and innovative ways of delivering their messages. This could be by focusing on those who benefit directly – the end users, whether that be frontline staff or their patients. By taking their experiences on board and providing your audience with quantifiable evidence, you gain a greater understanding of how products, solutions and processes actually work in practice. It then becomes real rather than theoretical.

Another consideration is to vary the way presentations are delivered – perhaps encourage audience participation? If people are able to engage directly with the decision and policy makers, they will feel a greater sense of involvement and are more likely to find the experience positive.

Despite some questioning around the value of events, exhibitors still invest in stand space, collateral and significant man hours. There may be an element of worry about the impact of not being at an event. Sometimes the absence of a key player on the exhibition floor plan raises questions about their current status. This shouldn’t be the case. Every pound or dollar spent is being scrutinised. With some companies investing thousands, you can understand why declining attendance numbers may cause some to question the return on their investment.

The onus shouldn’t just be on the conference organiser however. Companies who choose to exhibit need to think of creative ways to engage with their audience. Simply arriving with a pull up banner and a couple of freebie pens isn’t going to excite anyone! You need to draw your audience in – tell them you are exhibiting, provide them with relevant content, incentivise them to talk to you. It sounds easy but it takes a lot of planning.

Events still have an important part to play in the supplier healthcare community relationship but we do need to review the format and content in order to keep them fresh and compelling. Key speakers are busy people and have lots of other commitments. Busy diaries means last minute changes to conference schedules and delegates and exhibitors may feel short changed if a commitment to attend has been based largely on the presence of someone or something.

In my opinion, less is more. You could argue that there is an opportunity to consolidate some of the health events where there is a common theme. The result would be that not only would companies need to spend less in exhibiting across the year but the content would remain interesting and relevant. Delegates would find it easier to justify attendance and more delegates equals happy exhibitors. Happy exhibitors equal return business. If only it were that simple!

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