Getting the best returns from conferences and trade shows


Medical tourism, conferences, exhibitions and trade shows can be enormously important to medical travel destinations and providers. But these events can also be a waste of time and money. Successful conferences are beneficial to those involved, delivering excellent return on investment (ROI) for the sponsors and participants, as well as for the professional conference organizer (PCO). Unsuccessful conferences are a disappointment to everyone.  A badly planned or failed trade show can dampen or end a destination’s pursuit of the medical travel market itself. Given their high investment and high risk, understanding and planning for conferences is essential. Yet, it is amazing how often countries, regions, states and providers invest enormous amounts of time and money in conferences without a clear plan and achievable goals

Keeping the goal in sight

Certain facts should be clear from the outset: 

  •     Destinations want travelers (medical and dental consumers) to choose their locations over their competitors.
  •     Consumers (patients) do not attend medical travel exhibitions, conferences or trade shows.

Why then, given these facts, do destinations or individual providers attend conferences and expect to receive “patients” as a result?  This expectation does not reflect an achievable goal.

There are two immediate explanations for this disconnect between expectations and success:

1. There is confusion in the sector about “customer”, “consumer” and “buyer”, and

2.  Professional conference organizers (PCOs) make more money by attracting more exhibitors, sponsors and attendees. Their goals may conflict with yours.

For example, when a professional conference organizer tells a potential sponsor that there will be hundreds, or even thousands of potential “customers”, or “buyers” attending its conference, the marketing pitch is attractive, yet may be misleading.
Screenshot of VIP Hosted Buyer Program for medical tourism conference

Before signing up as a sponsor or exhibitor, understand clearly who are the “customers” or “buyers” expected to attend.  The PCO should have statistics about attendees from prior conferences.  Ask to speak to previous sponsors and participants to determine if the conference attracts the right audience for your marketing messages.

What’s in a name?

Healthcare markets are complicated!  In the medical travel sector as well as in healthcare all over the world, the markets are dominated by three terms that are often used interchangeably:

1. Consumers/patients - These individuals are the “users” of medical, dental and wellness services.

2. Customers - These individuals and organizations are the “choosers” of the services on offer. Sometimes the “chooser” is also the “user” (patient), but often the chooser is not the end consumer. Sometimes the customer is the wife or daughter of the patient, since we know that the majority of family healthcare decisions are made by women. At other times, the customer is an intermediary such as a government or an insurance firm. Insurance firms and governments responsible for providing health care are often referred to as “buyers”.

3. Providers – This category refers to the hospitals, doctors, clinics and other professionals who provide direct services to the patient or consumer.

In the international medical travel sector, there is a fourth important agent – the medical travel facilitator. Strictly speaking, the facilitator is not a customer because the facilitator does not make the choice for the consumer. But certainly the medical travel facilitator influences the consumers to select particular providers, and can be an important channel partner for destinations and individual providers.

Why go fishing where there are no fish?

When attending a conference as a sponsor or exhibitor, the strategic marketing goal is to build awareness of, and preference for your destination among both consumers and customers. The challenge, of course, is identifying where those opportunities exist, and then engaging these audiences successfully. Unfortunately, consumers hardly ever attend professional conferences and trade shows, and medical travel customers seldom do.

Should we give up on attending conferences and trade shows completely? Absolutely not! It is important, however, to have clear expectations and well-defined objectives so that a realistic return on investment can be estimated and measured.

Do not give up… but do get smart!

By all means, plan to sponsor and attend an intelligently selected trade show if your objectives are any, or all of the following:

  •     To learn best practice from others
  •     To understand more about the sector
  •     To gain insight from others who face similar challenges
  •     To identify market opportunities
  •     To find business partners
  •     To network with the like-minded
  •     To influence the direction of the sector
  •     To meet your competitors... (lots of them)
  •     To satisfy governmental or political objectives

The following point must be clear: Attending a medical travel trade show will not generate consumer leads or directly improve the number of medical travelers visiting your destination.

Conferences & trade shows – what they are, and are not

Conferences do offer knowledge and innovation as well as networking within the sector.

Many professionals attend trade shows and conferences in order to gain some insights, or learn about new or innovative ways to deal with challenges. Conferences are successful when the participants, sponsors, delegates and attendees leave with something which they did not have when they arrived. This goal may be an actionable idea for business, a clearer understanding of a trend, business contacts or referral sources that can be pursued afterward, or clear plans for how to improve the conference and the conference experience in the future. Exhibitors who invest time and money in conferences, and realize at the end that all they have done is spend time with their direct competitors will be disappointed, - even bitter and angry. Attendees who come to learn, but find only mediocre speakers, tend not to come back.

Knowledge diffusion and innovation

The primary purpose of professional conference events is knowledge transfer and innovation diffusion. In other words, go learn something that you did not know when you arrived, and bring these good ideas home with you! In the nascent sector of medical travel, innovation is at the heart of differentiation, which is critical at the early and growth stages of the marketing lifecycle. Too often, sponsors have been encouraged to simply promote and preach, without being required to share specific knowledge or showcase an innovation. It is like watching infomercials instead of acquiring knowledge.  Here, the PCO’s have failed the sector by not requiring sponsors and speakers to offer substance. Time after time, sponsors purchase podium time to deliver a sales pitch, telling the audience the features of their particular destinations. No details, no data, no innovation and often very little actual information. While this approach may be good business for the PCO in the short term, it does not serve the sector in the long term.

Before committing time and money to a conference, ask to see past years’ presentations to judge for yourself if the information being presented is useful, and the content substantial.

Networking – the meet and greet

The second, equally important purpose of participating at professional conferences is networking. Conferences can be great opportunities to make new friends, meet colleagues and network! But it is amazing after almost 40 years of conference attendance, how poorly most companies and individuals leverage conferences as networking opportunities. We invest so much into conferences, and as the cartoon suggests, we should derive more than bruised elbows!

When attending conferences, set objectives, look at the attendance list in advance and target whom you want to meet, collect cards, and then follow up. Trade show marketing and networking is an excellent opportunity, yet these opportunities are often poorly leveraged.

  • Take plenty of business cards. It is astounding to me how often I ask for a business card and the other person has none!
  • Pay attention to your name badge. Be sure that your name is on the upper right side of your torso (not dangling at your beltline) and can be easily read at a comfortable distance.
  • Focus. Stay focused on the person with whom you are speaking, refraining from looking all around, giving the impression that something or someone else is more important.
  • Make eye contact and say, “Hello!” Not everyone is outgoing and gregarious, but if you are attending a conference you must “reach out” to others, otherwise you will have missed many opportunities to meet your colleagues, and make new friends and business associates.

A growing trend in business to business conferences is for the PCOs to organize one-on-one business meetings between interested parties. Prior to the conference, registered attendees are given access to lists of other attendees (sponsors, speakers and delegates). Conference participants are then able to schedule a brief private meeting with individuals or organizations of interest during certain blocks of time. The result is a bit of scurrying around, but if well-organized these private conferences within the conference can produce very satisfying opportunities to meet and explore mutual business interests.

Getting the most from conference participation

Pick and prioritize conferences and trade shows carefully; you don’t have to be in all of them. The decision to sponsor or participate in a professional conference or tradeshow must be accompanied by a commitment to derive every possible benefit from the considerable investment of money, time, and staff.  Be clear on why you select certain conferences over others, set your objectives and goals, and then make sure they can be met by picking and choosing those conferences carefully.  Behave like a consumer, apply the simple principles of “need & want”, determine what you need from a conference and what you want from a conference, and make a knowledgeable choice.

Then follow-through with enthusiastic participation while at the conference, and follow through afterward to realize the greatest success.


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