Making Your Meeting Matter

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By Brady Delander

National or local, organizing an O&P association meeting is a challenge, but not an insurmountable one.

An out-of-breath Joann Marx, CPO, FAAOP, juggled a phone call between patient visits and a quick bite to eat on a recent Friday afternoon. "I could live here at the office and still never get caught up," says Marx, echoing what is certainly a familiar sentiment among busy prosthetists, orthotists, and pedorthists everywhere. Now consider that in addition to her hectic duties as a practitioner, Marx is also secretary of the New York State Chapter of the American Academy of Orthotists and Prosthetists (the Academy) and is one of the main organizers for the group's annual association meeting.

The logistics involved with putting together an association meeting--whether on the state, regional, or national level--can be nothing short of overwhelming. A couple of veteran planners know that to be true. "A lot of the time you have someone running a busy practice and also trying to run a meeting. Their focus is divided," says Jane Edwards, account manager for PrimeCare Orthotics & Prosthetics Network, Memphis, Tennessee, which coordinates the annual PrimeFare East and West meetings. "For us, these meetings are one of our primary missions... It's a full-time job there for a while."

While the keys to a successful association meeting are no secret, successfully bringing together all of the disparate elements is a delicate balance. Respected speakers, hot topics, and continuing education credits draw in the crowds. Venue and location also play a role, as does the date on the calendar and even what is offered for breakfast and lunch. It is a fact that many, if not most, O&P association meetings are seeing consistent attendance rates and continued enthusiasm year after year. For example, the Academy's 34th Annual Meeting & Scientific Symposium in Orlando, Florida, pulled in nearly 1,600 attendees, including exhibitors, speakers, and vendors. The American Orthotic & Prosthetic Association (AOPA) 2007 National Assembly in Las Vegas, Nevada, nearly set a record with more than 2,100 registrants. While these national professional and educational meetings and exhibitions are considered "can't-miss" opportunities for many practitioners, just as many practitioners rely on state or regional meetings for professional development opportunities and continuing education credits. And increasingly, these meetings have a respectable draw as well. The Michigan Orthotics & Prosthetics Association meeting averages more than 100 attendees each year, the Texas chapter of the Academy usually sees more than 200 people, and the New Jersey Academy chapter often tops 300 participants. The Georgia Society may top them all with about 400 on hand each year.

However, given the relatively small size of the O&P family in and around the United States, the success of one meeting can squeeze the life out of another in a neighboring state. And anyone with plans to start a new association gathering in the current climate may want to think twice as some say a saturation point has been reached. "Not only are budgets tight, but exhibitors get really loaded up with so many meetings and can be stretched thin," says Cathie Pruitt, president and CEO of PrimeCare O&P Network.

Speakers and Sessions

Opportunities for educational, clinical, technical, and professional development are the bread-and-butter of association meetings. Securing the best speakers available is not only the trickiest part of organizing an association meeting, it can also be the linchpin for success. "The biggest aspect for success is the quality of presenters and speakers and keeping it new and different," says Scott Jameson, CPO, the secretary treasurer for the Texas Chapter of the Academy. "It is certainly challenging. You start to run out of ideas after a few years, and sometimes it can feel like you're doing the same thing over and over again... We have five members on our executive board, and all of us keep an ear out for something new and interesting. And we make a lot of calls to colleagues asking what they might have heard."

Location, Location, Location

Finding the perfect destination is not just for real estate anymore. It's no accident that AOPA chose Las Vegas for its 2007 meeting and Chicago, Illinois, for 2008, or that the most recent Academy meeting settled in Orlando, home to Disney World. Bustling cities offer attendees an added appeal. "I would guess that a third of the people who come to our meeting do it because of the location," says Bob Silvestri, CPO/L, president of the New Jersey chapter of the Academy, which holds its meeting in Atlantic City. "There's nightlife [and] it's by the ocean, so our location makes it easier for us to draw in more people."

The ability to select an "exotic" location is clearly an advantage for national and regional organizers, as well as for some state organizers like Silvestri. But not every state has a Las Vegas or Atlantic City, or even a place like Austin, Texas, to choose from. In that case planners look to larger cities that can provide all the needed amenities such as proper transportation, a relatively central location within the state, and venues that can handle large turnouts and provide accessibility to those with disabilities.

The venue can be nearly as important as the city. A suitable exhibition hall and comfortable rooms are essential when choosing a hotel. "When we first started these meetings [in 1996] we were in a different venue with a hotel that wasn't as nice as what we use now. As a result we had less attendance and fewer exhibitors," says Silvestri. "The thing for us was moving to a bigger place that's in the same area of the city but with a larger exhibit hall&. In the past we only had six-foot tables for exhibitors, but now we've added 8x10-foot booths."

In this case bigger is better--as is foresight. Pruitt and Edwards say they book venues at least one year out, while others delve even further into the future. The Academy already has dates and locations set for its annual meetings through 2012, and Dianne Farabi, executive director for the Ohio Orthotic and Prosthetic Association, says she is following the five-years-ahead plan too. "You want to get the word out early and often, so we are looking to book our primary facility five years out," says Farabi, who wins the prize for best motto to ensure a successful meeting. "A consistent, relevant program planned early. Everyone gets tired of hearing me say it, but I think that's it more than anything else."

Save the Date

Quality and consistency will keep attendees coming back, so beware of shuffling association meetings to different dates on the calendar. "Our meetings are usually the first week or two of November," Silvestri says. "People know that, and they can plan for it and clear their schedules. If you change the date, it can throw some people off."

More than anything else, however, keep an eye on the big guys. A meeting could be slated for the same time, same day, and same location every year, but if it butts up against one of the national meetings, well...good luck. "It's a matter of trying to find a spot on the calendar so you're not competing with other meetings," says Carl Brenner, CPO, FAAOP, president of the Michigan Orthotic and Prosthetic Association. "You don't want your meeting to be too close to the national meeting because people will go to the national and not the state." Others like Farabi fully agree, saying that Ohio's meeting dates are "driven by national meetings."

What's for Lunch?

While quality speakers and a metropolitan location are the main elements needed for a successful meeting, one of the best ways to keep attendees happy--and coming back--is to feed them well. "If the food is bad or there is not enough of it, people will remember that and won't come back," says Edwards, who estimates the cost of a regular sandwich lunch buffet at about $25 per person.

Cost can be prohibitive when deciding on a menu, but Silvestri says this is not the area to cut corners. "Some meetings you get a sandwich, coffee, and Danish, if you're lucky," he says. "At our meeting we do coffee breaks in the morning and afternoon, a little snack in between, and a nice lunch. And we'll do things like a two-hour cocktail hour where we will basically foot the bill."

But Silvestri is quick to point out that while no organization can work in the red, profit is not a goal when putting on an association meeting. "These meetings are expensive, and they take a lot of help and coordination," he says. "But we do it for the betterment of the profession." 

Brady Delander can be reached at 303.255.0843 or brady@opedge.com