By Lauren Burns
The Chicago Midwinter Meeting's aim, according to the Chicago Dental Society Director of Exhibitor Services Lisa Girardi, is to "educate, stimulate and entertain all members of the dental team, as a team." The Midwinter Meeting sees visitors from around the world. "We want each attendee and exhibitor to come away from the meeting feeling that their time spent at the Midwinter Meeting was valuable," claims Girardi. This could be an insincere claim from any major meeting director, but I'm quite confident in Girardi's sincerity and positivity about things that may seem like challenges, but turn out to be "perfect" in all actuality.
Baby, it's cold outside
The first example of this obstacle-turned-benefit is the scheduling of the meeting. Evident from the name of the meeting, the Chicago Dental Society's annual Midwinter Meeting, appropriately themed "A Midwinter Night's Dream" for 2013, is held in the midst of the winter season (February 21-23) in one of the coldest cities in America. As Girardi points out, they were "lucky to inherit a meeting that has been held for more than a century in our fabulous city [of Chicago]." Lucky? She continues, "People may question our February date, but we know it is the perfect time for this kind of meeting." See what I mean by turning an obstacle into a benefit? But this isn't an unsupported claim. There is evidence that Girardi provides to support it. The first consideration: the weather. "It can be challenging," she admits, "but those who attend the meeting stay longer at the convention center during business hours," which, she goes on to say, benefits everyone who attends. And despite the chilly season, Chicago has a lot to offer by way of entertainment in the evenings. "Theater, food, and our beautifully-lit skyline cap off long days of work perfectly." We all know hot chocolate doesn't taste as good in the summertime, so she may have a point.
It's business time
Of course, attending the meeting isn't all about the nightlife. It's also an opportunity for tech-savvy and progressive dentists to witness new products being launched; it's a good way to be hands-on with cutting-edge products while you work the exhibit floor. "Some will tell you that the Midwinter Meeting is a ‘business meeting,'" she says. This is a good thing (despite it sounding a bit dry). It attracts small businesses as well as larger, international dental companies. Small business leaders won't be left out in the dark for the larger dental providers, though, as the exhibit hall at the Midwinter Meeting limits products and services that serve dental professionals and small businesses. "By maintaining this standard," Girardi asserts, "we support the exhibitors who have long contributed to the growth and success of this meeting and our members."
The meeting, like most dental meetings in America, has seen peaks and lulls in attendance numbers over the past few years, but Girardi doesn't fret. "We can predict fluctuations in the attendance at the Midwinter Meeting — to some extent — in two ways. We know that our international attendance figures will dip in odd-numbered years, when the biennial International Dental Show convenes in Cologne. We also know that the local attendance number will rise in the years of mandatory CE in Illinois, which is every three years."
The Midwinter Meeting's attendees are regulars to the meeting, but Girardi and her team still reach out to find new attendees every year and make sure that the regulars are signed up. Many meetings have hopped on the Twitter and Facebook bandwagons (and indeed, so has the Chicago Meeting), but Girardi finds that they get the most out of traditional promotional methods, such as being face to face or publishing a brochure providing the details for the following year. When I asked her at what point the CDS started to promote the meeting, she asked me in return, "When are we not promoting our meeting?" Touché. Girardi explains that they are adding new ways to engage exhibitors in social media all the time, and as soon as one meeting ends, they begin to place ads in dental journals and digital publications around the world. "Throughout the year," she continues, "we engage in a variety of promotional events," the first of which is the submission of their Highlights brochures and promotional items to other dental meetings around the country (the Chicago Meeting, in an act of reciprocity, promotes other dental meetings at their session as well). The other promotional methods are to send CDS representatives to other dental meetings, where they either participate as spectators or as exhibitors, in which case they set up a booth.
As far as satisfying exhibitors at their own meeting, Girardi has a very welcoming attitude toward the exhibitors at the Midwinter Meeting. "Our exhibitors are our partners, and it is our job to bring the attendee to them." The CDS, she says, knows that the main reason for their success is the exhibitors. "We try to come up with incentives to give them more bang for their buck." What kind of "bang" is she talking about? For the 2012 session, they launched a digital floor plan to coincide with the traditional face-to-face floor plan. The exhibitors have access to their digital booth, where they can upload podcasts, coupons, and releases. It is open from October 1 of the previous year to September 30 of the year of the session so that people can go online and see products that they saw in person. This is such a great idea, as, she explains, "it gives exhibitors variety and the ability to be free-flowing and expressive – plus they can put their media accounts there to communicate with attendees."
For the 2013 meeting, the digital floor plan is on the main part of the CDS site, so that attendees can see it more easily. (Before, people had to search for it.)
More annual sessions, like Koelnmesse, are taking advantage of digital communication methods, but the Chicago Midwinter Meeting is going one step further by reintroducing live TV at the show site. One of the pioneers of live, closed-circuit television, the CDS will once again start showing a dental procedure being done on a patient at the exhibit hall and on an online stream. "We started doing that in the 1950s, and at that time we were at the Chicago Hilton," Girardi explains. But when OSHA regulations became more stringent, the CDS was forced to move the procedure to the University of Illinois Dental School before they stopped doing it altogether only a few years ago. The program was reinstated in 2012. "We have a theater at the back of the exhibit floor, where we have one program a day (in the morning)." There is a method to this, Girardi advises. "It draws the attendees to the back of the floor so there's no ‘bad booth' in the house." A good idea for floor traffic, but even if you are unable to attend the meeting, you can still gain something from watching a live dental procedure from home. "We stream it on Facebook, so even if someone can't come to the meeting, they can still see the program."
And though dentists can buy products online at any time of day in any season, Girardi believes there is a benefit in buying straight off the exhibit floor, where products can be handled and experimented with, and dentists can ask questions. And should a dentist not feel inclined to purchase right away, there will be enough incentive to change his or her mind. "We also give $75, $50, or $25 rebate coupons to dentists to encourage buying on site from an exhibitor." And back to floor traffic: the exhibit hall has several food options and is close to meeting spaces so that visitors have few reasons to leave the exhibit hall once they arrive, she says. This benefits them in the end: for every three hours that a dental professional spends on the exhibit floor, they are offered one CE credit each day.
Keeping things fresh
"It is our annual challenge to stay a few steps ahead in order to keep the meeting relevant and fresh," explained Girardi. Though the 2013 meeting is the 148th annual session of the CDS, she claims that no two have been the same. "Technology changes everything – from the products being displayed to the equipment used in clinicians' classrooms." Girardi knows that dental professionals can get most, if not all, of what they need online: they can attend sessions, shop, and connect with friends on social media sites – all on the Internet. "Certainly this is a change from the days when attendees came to the Midwinter Meeting to attend sessions, acquire their CE, purchase products on the exhibit floor and visit colleagues and old friends," she admits. "I still believe in the value of the face-to-face meetings; nothing can match seeing and handling a new product rather than just viewing an image, and having a cup of coffee with a colleague far outweighs a text or a tweet." So though it's possible to meet the national requirements set forth for dental professionals by doing everything online, it's not necessarily the best option.
Attendance numbers over the years:
2012: 7,040 dentists, 31,169 total
While Girardi believes the traditional method of doing things is the best way (in some instances), she isn't afraid to be progressive with ideas for the meeting. She's already planning future changes to keep the meeting moving forward successfully. "We are constantly working to improve the meeting experience for our attendees, through things like a mobile app and greater ability to access meeting information through smartphones and tablets," she assures me. But there are aspects to the meeting, such as the speakers engaged and the manipulation of the exhibit floor, which cannot be forgotten for the sake of moving forward. "Our speakers are second-to-none. We don't recycle our educators; we bring together the best we can find from around the world, in most every specialty. We will continue to book speakers whose topics are the most relevant and of interest to the entire dental team, from the dentist to the lab tech to the office manager."
Girardi's confidence that there are major advantages to being hands-on with products and having a face-to-face conversation is evident in the style of the meeting and in the way in which they combine the new world of digital with the old world of personal, taking the best from each and creating a successful meeting, year after year. Who doesn't want to be a part of something that uses the best of both worlds?
American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry