Attending Professionals' Annual Meetings

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Attending professional society meetings for the various specialties that your condition affects can be important for a number of reasons. You will learn more about the condition and about the specialties that serve the condition, and gain credibility with the specialists. Search for the specialties’ professional organizations on the Internet, contact the exhibits coordinator, and ask if you can exhibit at the meeting. Alternatively, ask one of your advisors to give you an orientation to their annual meeting and ask his or her advice about exhibiting. Registering for, exhibiting at and attending professional society meetings can be expensive with lodging, transportation and registration costs, but may be worth the long range investment.

Connecting with Professional Organizations

Professional organizations for physicians and scientists typically focus on a medical specialty. Specialty generally means the level at which physicians might train after completing medical school—for example, "neurosurgery" or "orthopedics"—as opposed to a specific expertise they might develop in fellowship or as a provider, such as "spinal surgery." you can search medical meetings here: http://www.nejm.org/meetings/

Here is a short list to get you started thinking about professional organizations:

Start with websites and other information for the groups in the areas that provide care to your members. View conference programs when available, too—they will usually list the committee meetings being held at the conference. One pathway for involvement with these groups is exhibition at their annual meetings. As your organization becomes more involved with public policy or research, you may come to make presentations at some of those meetings.

In addition to major international and national annual meetings, consider exhibiting at or attending periodic regional meetings as well, and research which meeting might be more productive. For example, in dermatology, different meetings during the year focus in different ways. The American Academy of Dermatology Annual meeting, usually in February, is a large meeting with many clinicians attending. They attend to learn, network, and visit vendors—the vendors number in the thousands. The Summer Meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology in July is much smaller and less formal, with fewer exhibitors. Still another way to meet dermatologists is the Society of Investigative Dermatology meeting, usually in May, where many clinician-researchers and researchers gather to engage in serious discussion about research on dermatologic conditions and concepts.

Each of these meetings require a different response from your organization—for a large annual meeting you may prepare a table-top display stocked with some sample patient-information—brochures and newsletters. You will probably want to rent a "card reader"—a mini-computer that you rent to use for the duration of the meeting. Typically at these meetings, the attendees will have been given a card with a magnetic strip that encodes their name and contact information. You can insert the card into your card reader. It stores the information on a hard drive in the reader. You can even annotate the entry. You might want to annotate entries with the number of patients with your condition that this clinician has or the clinician's special interest. You might also note requests—for example, this clinician would like to receive all the back newsletters, or multiple copies of your printed materials.

You will need to order the card reader well before the meeting. The cost is usually about $150. You can order a portable or electric reader. The portable is battery operated, and when you return it, the card reader service gives you a floppy disk of the scanned data. The electric model is larger, requires that you rent an electrical outlet for your booth, and provides only a printout unless you pay an additional fee for a disk file.

If the meeting does not offer readers for meeting-issued cards, consider bringing a business card reader. These small, handheld devices scan the information on a business card, and usually store them in a searchable format. Alternatively, provide a sign-up pad and collect business cards.

In the case of a research meeting such as the Society of Investigative Dermatology meeting, you would encourage members of your research advisory board or staff to network with researchers. Learning which audience is at what event for what purpose helps you tailor your approach (and budget your funds) to reach the right audience in the best way.

Preparation

You will need to register months in advance to attend a medical or research meeting. Most associations will ask you to pay to exhibit. Ask them if they have any special arrangements with advocacy or nonprofit organizations. Some associations offer free or low cost exhibit space. If you cannot get a discount on space (and straight costs can be as high as $1500 to $3000 for a simple 10'x10' space), contact other advocacy organizations with your clinical specialty interest and ask them if there are any arrangements between the professional association and advocacy organizations, or if they are interested in working together to develop a partnership with the professional associations.

Sometimes the professional association has an arrangement with umbrella organizations. For example, members of the Coalition of Skin Diseases exhibit free at the American Academy of Dermatology. Other associations, such as the American Academy of Ophthalmology, may require a description of what you offer. They then choose which organizations are allowed to exhibit. Once you do secure space, you will receive a detailed description of it. In most cases it will be a tabletop space, a poster space, or a small booth. You will be given information about whether you need to rent a table, a table skirt, a chair, a waste basket, carpeting and so on. Most organizations find they need two chairs and the requisite table skirt and carpet, but skip the wastebasket and any other frills (who ever would have thought of a wastebasket as a frill!). Some advocacy organizations obtain small items like card tables and wastebaskets from members local to the conference so that the booth has the items that need but they do not incur costs. However, some conference organizers do not allow any furnishings except the ones available for rent through the conference organizers. In addition, most conference centers do not allow exhibitors to bring anything in to the hall other than what can be hand carried in one trip.

Supplies

Go to the meeting with an exhibit that fits your space. This can be as simple as a science fair poster board with some information about your organization or as elaborate as a tabletop or floor-model display exhibit. Make sure your message is clear on the exhibit board: show your mission, goals, activities and anything you offer clinicians in large, easy-to-read writing. Make sure your materials look as professional as possible.

You may also wish to have a vinyl banner made with your organization's name, logo, and perhaps website address. Vinyl banners are durable, easy to store and carry, and can brand a generic exhibit space instantly. You may even be able to get one designed or made for your organization for free or in exchange for an acknowledgement of designer or printer's contribution. You can also consider a table skirt—again a simple way to display your brand.

Exhibitor Survival Kit

Adapted from:
Shelley Bowen, President
Barth Syndrome Foundation

"Attending a professional conference is an opportunity to gain visibility for your organization, create contacts with professionals who can assist your membership, and become involved in research, clinical, and policy activities. How much you make of this opportunity depends on how ready you are to seize it. Here is a short list of items whose presence can help free you to make the most of your attendance.

  • Tool case on wheels (rugged enough to be shipped)
  • Removable insert for compartments to hold:
    • Pencils
    • Pens
    • Business cards
    • Stapler (and staples!)
    • Staple remover
    • Paper clips (large and small)
    • Breath mints
    • Box cutter
    • Packing tape
  • Small hand held vacuum or rolling lint remover: It is costly to use exhibit vacuum services, so save a few bucks and bring a handheld vacuum or use a rolling lint remover (it will pick up anything)
  • Electric strip with extension cord for your vacuum and electrical equipment
  • Card holder
  • Brochure holder
  • Newsletter holder
  • Plastic trash bags: Trash receptacles are expensive. Bring your own bags or scope out a box each day to dispose of your waste.

Even if you have printed pieces, you may need more than you bring, and not everyone may wish to give you contact information. Rent a small work-table to set up your laptop computer and a small printer for additional items that may be requested by visitors to your booth such as:

  • Guidelines for diagnosing the condition you represent
  • Guidelines in the management of care
  • Announcements for upcoming meetings"

On the table, in front of the exhibit, display your written materials—any pamphlets or brochures and samples of bulletins or newsletters. Have plenty of business cards, preferably in the form of a rolodex card. Display your website URL and email address prominently on both the exhibit board and your business card. Clinicians may not pick up much written material, but they appreciate a card or a pointer to a website. Give clinicians a reason to tell their patients about you and focus on what is interesting to the clinicians. If you say, "we offer support services," you will not elicit as much interest as if you say, "we are enrolling affected individuals in a registry."

Get contact information from clinicians and consider staying in touch with them with a regular communication of some sort. If you wish to use contact information for this purpose, tell them how often they can expect to hear from you (for example, quarterly or after your organization's annual meeting). Do not take names of affected individuals from clinicians. It violates a person's right to confidentiality if a clinician reveals their name and diagnosis. Collect contact information only from individuals who have given written consent for you to have their information in your database or registry.

Some organizations wonder how to make these meetings affordable. First, make sure you are not paying full exhibit fees—remind the professional association that you are a nonprofit organization, exhibiting as a service to their members. Next, find other advocacy organization leadership attending the meeting—try to share rooms and find ways to cut costs together. Book travel on the Internet—it is very often much less expensive. And look for discount airlines and alternate airports. Try to get grants to cover the cost for your professional education program.

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