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Hosting a successful scientific conference presents a few more challenges than your average industry meeting. There are different expectations from the audience and the level of learning is often dictated by continuing education requirements. But if you’re up to the challenge, this article will help you understand how to make your scientific conference one of the most successful yet.
Medical symposium and scientific conference attendees are looking for:
- A strong agenda with topics of interest, continuing education opportunities, and cutting-edge techniques or treatments
- Hands-on learning or other interactive learning
- An ability to network with other practitioners, researchers, and medical/science professionals
- An experience tailored to their career level
Here are some ideas on how you can go about providing them with what they’re looking for.
Science Is the MOST Important Thing at Your Event
While many elements are important to a successful scientific conference, this one trumps them all. The quality of learning and exchange will define the success of your meeting in your attendees’ eyes. You need “good science.” More specifically we’re referring to:
- Sought after speakers and researchers, the best in their field
- A combination of in-depth practices and subject matter and general sessions
- Sessions and activities for all career stages
- Continuing education sessions
- Multiple tracks so attendees can choose their learning
- Hands-on interactive learning and presentations on publication findings
- A call for papers (to let attendees share their findings as well)
- At least one networking or awards session focused on new research and findings
Some scientific conference planners host pre- and post-sessions or special interest mini-tracks within their larger conference. For example, at the 2018 Annual Meeting of the Canadian Society of Otolaryngology at the Québec City Convention Centre, they are hosting a special (free) interactive workshop the day before the official start of the conference.
Create an Easily-Accessible Atmosphere for Global Learning
As an event planner for a scientific conference, you know the learning and networking are major components of the event experience. Competition is steep and you want to create an event that attracts the best international participants.
The learning opportunity means little if your conference is in a remote spot that is difficult for guests to get to. In a sought after symposium, you could be attracting attendees from all over the globe. You want a destination with many transportation options; options that are both affordable and easy to navigate.
You want to know:
- The number of direct flights and how often they arrive
- The number of airlines that service the airport
- ‘Nice to haves’ that improve attendees’ experiences while traveling – like free WiFi
- Alternate transportation options to flying
- Transportation to/from the airport (does the city have good transfer links available or will you need to cover it?)
- Is a car necessary or can the attendee explore easily without one?
Understand Attendees’ Time Preferences
Another big deciding factor in an attendee coming to your scientific symposium is understanding the amount of time they have available and what days are preferable to maximize attendance rates. Recently a medical conference polled its physician members and realized instead of week-long events, they preferred four days stretched over a weekend. Understanding what works best for your attendees’ busy schedules is critical to them taking part in your event.
Instead of guessing, you should ask them their preference on:
- The ideal number of days for the conference duration
- Which days they prefer (with the conference spanning over weekends or weekdays only)
- Full days or half-days (if you have a lot of local attendees, they may prefer to have some time in the office, hospital, clinic, etc.)
A final note about timing, be cognizant of anything else going on during a calendar year that may make it difficult for certain sections of your attendee demographic to attend such as finals (if you have a lot of medical students), new resident assignments, etc.
It’s also important to plan scientific conferences with plenty of time for schedules to be cleared. This target market is less likely to jump on a flight at the last minute to go to your conference. Plan on at least nine months clear marketing time, preferably 15.
Create Exciting Breaks to Stand Out from the Competition
Most scientific meeting planners will work with committees to attract the most well-known scientists and researchers in the specialty because they know keynotes and presenters are some of the top draws. (More about that later.)
Another way to stand out from other meetings is to create exciting breaks. These are two-fold. There’s the general break your event creates from daily professional life with a chance to inspire and introduce them to new research and practices.
Then there are the literal breaks you provide during your conference. These breaks needn’t just be about snacks, you can incorporate a change of scenery into your learning that provides a break from the conference room. These are still valuable opportunities for networking and discussions, as well as offering some local culture. Smaller groups can break off to enjoy a session at a historic inn or add an activity that encompasses learning something about historical medical practices in the area.
- Group activities that will enhance their enjoyment of the city.
- Academic exchanges with local universities or corporations.
- Arranging a trip to attend a learning session that coincides with your conference such as an academic lecture on a topic of interest to some of your attendees.
Think about opportunities that appeal to attendees’ interests like:
- Enjoying live performances
- Walking meetings or exercise clubs
- Exploration of historical spots
You can also help attendees explore the city by arranging your own group activity. For instance, the Canadian Paediatric Society organized an early bird run for its participants each morning at 5.30 am.
Leverage Local Leaders for Stronger Scientific Symposiums
You want to ensure you select a destination and venue that can accommodate your special needs of incorporating good learning opportunities and appealing to “celebrities” in the relevant scientific fields. Those needs may include special audio-visual equipment, lighting, electric, survey or polling capabilities, as well as qualified leaders to facilitate the learning.
Options for learning sessions:
- Live or video demos of cutting-edge techniques
- Virtual reality simulations
- Open mic exchanges where attendees share their experiences
Pro Tip:Make sure you understand as early as possible what special requirements your faculty and speakers have to lead the simulations and training sessions.
Look for a destination with a strong scientific and academic community specializing in the areas of interest to your participants.
The convention and visitors bureau may be able to help you understand the strengths of their community as well as their specializations. Often, they can put you in touch with local leaders in your fields of interest and may even be in a position to help work with your selection committee or curriculum group to create more dynamic learning experiences for your attendees. For instance, Québec’s Ambassador Club aims at connecting the city’s leaders and organizations who are interested in Québec as a meeting destination. They can help with different levels of details from planning to helping to identify local speakers.
Budget Bonus:Bringing in local speakers is advantageous for two reasons: you needn’t worry about travel time or missed flights and it may be less costly as you’re not paying for air travel and hotels for your speakers.
Cultivate Additional Learning Opportunities
Researchers, scientists, and physicians are bombarded with opportunities to attend conferences. The conference competition is steep and it’s difficult for these professionals to take time off from their research, scientific pursuits, or practice, not to mention scheduling conflicts and budgetary restrictions. As Jean-Pierre Després, Director of Cardiology Research at the Centre de recherche de l’Institut universitaire de cardiologie et de pneumologie de Québec and professor at the Department of Kinesiology at Université Laval found when assisting in planning a recent conference, the quality of the scientific program is of paramount importance to your attendees.
Primary in your attendees’ minds is the scientific program. They want to know:
- What topics will be covered
- Who will be presenting
- How will the information be covered (lecture-style or hands-on learning)
- Which influencers will be attending
- Additional learning opportunities offered by the scientific conference
Other learning opportunities do not have to be limited to the actual conference and could include:
- Creating an online community or group in which collaborative learning could take place outside of the scientific conference at their convenience.
- Videos of the conference learning that could be shared with colleagues post-symposium. These can be free to attendees or sold as a package.
- Virtual reality simulation packages of the concepts and training covered at the conference.
- Podcasts of the learning on cutting-edge topics.
- Boards where research materials could be shared.
- Opportunities to go live at the conference for learners at home.
In partnering with local thought leaders, you can create a very different experience than one with the same circuit speakers.
Pro Tip:work with your destination or learning committee to ensure that all ages/life stages of attendee careers are considered when scheduling conference speakers/educators.
Appeal to Sponsors for Greater Non-Attendance Revenue
Next to ticketing income, sponsors are going to be your largest source of event revenue to enable you to deliver your scientific conference vision. Sponsors want options for creating quality time to be spent with those in their target demographic. For instance, a cardiology meeting sponsor may be looking for innovative ways to connect with physicians and educate them about their pharmaceutical or procedural solution.
Sponsorship opportunities can (and should) move past networking coffees and meals. You can begin to attract more sponsors by setting aside time in your agenda for demos or interactive training sessions. However, make it clear to your sponsors that the goal of these sessions is the pursuit of knowledge, not a sale. If your sessions become thinly masked sales ops, you’ll attract a lot of sponsors but fewer and fewer medical professionals will turn up.
Take a tip from the Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS), which creates co-developed symposiums with corporate sponsors. CPS committee members select and work with speakers on learning objectives and content. Sessions also adhere to sponsorship guidelines from the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada and the Canadian Medical Association, as well as to the CPS Code of Ethics.
In addition to learning opportunities and networking, conference planners can also work with sponsors for creating fun outings, tours, and tastings at the destination which allow relationships to be built in different ways.
Pro Checklist:In some countries, sponsors such as pharmaceutical companies need to declare what they are providing to physicians and medical researchers. If they cover the cost of a ticket or a hotel room, they likely have to turn that information in. If you can help them keep track of it or assist them in some way with the reporting, they will enjoy working with you and that means they’ll be likely to return to your next conference.
Set Aside Time (and Resources) to Make Attendees Feel Valued
At a scientific symposium or medical conference, you have many different groups attending and the challenge is to ensure they all feel a valued part of the experience.
You likely have researchers, students, speakers, and many more who are looking for networking and learning but casting a spotlight on them for their contributions can be key to creating a community people want to be a part of.
For students, cost is likely a prohibiting factor in attendance. Creating scholarships and discount payment practices can help attract more of them to your conference. The Québec City Convention Centre, for instance, in partnership with Québec City’s Ambassador’s Club has created a development program focused on helping up-and-coming scientific talent by making space for them at more conferences held in the city.
For your mid-career attendees who have started publishing their findings, consider creating a journal review session of some of the best/most worthwhile articles in your area of specialty over the past year and highlight the rising stars in the field.
Help audience members shine but don’t leave out your speakers either. Speakers at a scientific symposium are often there to present their findings or teach new techniques. Selecting a destination that is known for its innovation will help them feel like they are an expert among experts. This setting offers much better feedback and a richer learning exchange for all involved.
- A destination with a strong scientific community in the area (or a similar area) that interests your attendees.
- The “been there” factor in selecting a destination. Some science-focused communities are popular with event planners. Be careful though. While well equipped, these destinations may lack fresh appeal for guests since the since they host similar conferences every year.
Showcase Cutting-Edge Tech at Your Event
Scientific conferences often showcase technology in two ways. There’s the conference tech that attendees use on site that helps them connect with others, navigate the conference, and answer questions through surveys and polls. There’s also the technology that sponsors, exhibitors, and innovators present as part of cutting-edge education sessions.
Tips for Conference App Tech:
- You must market for app adoption. Telling people there’s an app in your event brochure won’t give them an incentive to use it. Consider having the app company on hand at your event to help with training.
- Roll out the app weeks in advance so attendees can gain experience using it and connect with one another prior to the event.
- Look how the app highlights your sponsors as well as being a resource to search abstracts and plan their attendance.
- Choose wisely: a good user experience is critical. You want it to be user-friendly and utilitarian. There must be a reason for attendees to use it, such as it’s accessing the agenda and searching the abstracts.
- Consider incentives or gamification to increase adoption. Make it fun.
A growing trend in scientific conferences is the use of virtual reality. This technology allows for “hands-on training” and experimentation that would have been very difficult even a decade ago.
Can Virtual Reality Improve Your Conference?
Virtual reality is growing in popularity particularly among researchers and medical practitioners. It helps students gain practice without using humans or animals, it allows researchers to try new techniques, and it provides a way to illustrate those techniques without arranging for willing subjects or cadavers.
But is it right for your conference?
Perhaps. Especially if:
- You have continuing education requirements
- Your event’s area of specialty is largely physical, not theoretical
- You attract a younger demographic
When selecting a destination, keep technology in mind. Can they meet your requirements and what can the local community add of value? Understand that a destination that has a good marriage of education and corporation will attract thought leaders. These thought leaders share the technology being developed in this area with the audience for a truly memorable experience that can inspire attendees in new ways.
Select a Destination That Understands the Unique Needs of Scientific Conferences
Just as a patient may ask a physician how many times they’ve performed a surgery or procedure before allowing them to perform it on them, selecting a destination that has worked with hundreds of scientific events will help put your mind at ease because you know the destination team is aware of the unique needs of your audience. The more experience someone has with a specific type of event, the more prepared they are to host it.
Tip:when asking a convention and visitors bureau for references, compare apples to apples by ensuring that the conferences you’re discussing are relevant to yours. Are they of similar size, attract a similar audience, and of comparable scientific merit?
However, while you want a destination that understands your needs, do your research to find out if any similar or related scientific conferences have been held recently at that destination. If your ideal attendee participates in two conferences a year and the other one was just held at the destination you were considering, make another choice.
Plan an Event with a Supportive Team
Due to the unique requirements of scientific conferences, many do not employ the help of a professional event planner. They often have members and a planning committee handling the details. This can place a difficult number of details on those who are planning the event secondary to their career. This difficulty is compounded when you work with a destination that’s geared toward traditional event planners.
Pro Tip:Talk to the destination to get a better understanding of the types of groups they work with. Find out specifically the percentage of traditional event planners they work with as well as the services and support they can offer.
For instance, does the destination you’re considering have a team of dedicated professionals with local expertise and industry knowledge that can help with event planning tasks from conception to completion such as:
- venue location and booking services
- accommodation booking service
- production of bid documentation
- site visit itineraries
- partner and vendor suggestions
- civic funding applications, funding for site visits, and/or bursary awards offered by the destination
- marketing targeted to the interests of your audience
Keep in mind: Science-focused conferences often need additional resources such as translating services, extensive lighting, and public address systems, and audio-visual and multimedia services (particularly if the event caters to a global audience and will be broadcasting or filming for those not in attendance). Introductions can be made through a list of vetted partners from the CVB.
Choose a Venue for a Greener Tomorrow
It’s likely your scientific attendees have shown a growing concern over recycling and sustainability. Going green at events is a wise move these days. Selecting a venue that accommodates those concerns is important and can bring an additional marketing angle for your event. But don’t forget the destination itself. Some cities are more concerned with sustainability than others. You can also consider initiatives to reduce the ecological impact, such as committing to planting trees to offset the carbon footprint.
Dig Deeper:Find out what your venue’s sustainability focus is. Is it less waste? Is it attendee participation? Is it using only local goods and services to cut down on transportation tolls on the environment? It’s easy to state the venue is “green” in marketing collaterals but you should know exactly what that means for your event before booking it.
The Learning Needn’t End with the Conference
You’ve taken a lot of time compiling an ideal learning and networking environment for people in the scientific fields. There’s no reason that learning has to end when your conference does. There are a few things you should consider as the event wraps up.
- Conduct an exit survey to find out what they enjoyed and what they’d change. Do they plan on attending next year? Why or why not? The data you gather should then be applied to your next conference.
- Publish your proceedings in applicable medical journals. Negotiate this ability ahead of the conference. If the journal is local, they may ask someone to cover your meeting.
- Send a recap of conference events to your mailing list.
- Upload photos and videos to your website and appropriate social media platforms. Be careful about uploading sessions to public spaces if patient information was discussed.
- Send a thank you with links to the sessions (if applicable) and photos to those who attended.
- Poll your sponsors to understand their experiences and receive feedback.
- Create a learning and networking portal to help keep attendees connected and discussions continuing long after your event ends.
There are many additional aspects to consider when planning a scientific meeting or conference. Not only are you looking to provide an enjoyable experience for attendees but you want to address their primary concerns of learning and connecting. While this can be accommodated at many destinations, some are more in tune with the needs of the scientific community than others.