By Lauren Burns
Many aspects are involved in planning a successful and enjoyable dental convention, especially one that has the unique characteristic of being a regional conference while maintaining a national feel. I spoke with Stefanie Cunniffe and Shannon McCarthy at the Massachusetts Dental Society about their yearly meeting, the Yankee Dental Congress, and found out the inside tricks they use to make it so successful. Attended by an average of 27,000 people a year, the brains behind the Congress don't often miss a chance to make an improvement and go above and beyond. Read my interview with Shannon McCarthy to see what changes have been underway at Yankee and what you can expect for future meetings.
I spoke with Stefanie Cunniffe, Manager of Exhibits and Operations at the Yankee Dental Congress, about your attendance trends over the last few years, and she boasts that you have remained stable at around 27,000 attendees a year. What do you attribute your numbers to?
I attribute our large numbers to the fact that we have a regional feel, even though we're national, because we partner with the six New England states, which has helped us sustain our numbers in the last few years. It's a relatively easy drive and you can just stay one night, so you don't have to fly. That has a lot of appeal for attendees right now.
When do you start to promote your meeting? What methods do you use to promote it? Do you use online communication methods? Facebook, Twitter, etc.?
We promote it year-round. We travel to all of the national meetings – some we have booths set up, some we don't – but we're always there. We always exhibit at all the New England state meetings.
"There's the question: What's going to happen with tradeshows? We have over 100 hands-on courses. Our feeling is that this is a profession that works with their hands. They want to try new materials and play with things."
When we made the move to the new convention center, we started to work more closely with all the dealers in the area. We go to all the dealer kick-off meetings: Benco, [Henry] Schein, and Patterson. They bring in all the manufacturers to highlight what the new products are and what the specials are going to be for Yankee. All of the sales reps are there, so we bring in our general chair, who informs the dealer reps and the manufacturers about what's happening at Yankee that year – the sales promotions that we're doing that they should know about in order to encourage their customers to come.
For each of the dealers, we create expo passes so each of the reps can go to their customers and give them the free expo passes – and that's been a huge success for the last couple of years. One of the things we found through surveys was that if the rep can't give the doctor a reason to come to the floor, they wouldn't come. The reps have a lot of influence with their customers.
We also create custom fliers for all of the companies that request them. Say Proctor & Gamble request them, we'll put their information on there – highlights of the meeting, their special promotions. It's great.
We also use all modes of social media: we've got over 3,200 friends on Facebook, we're on Twitter, and we're putting together an Instagram right now. The social media is a huge push for us. We also do the regular marketing as well: the monthly email newsletter to our attendees and prospects, specialty fliers. We try to customize everything for each group. Perio has their own targeted flier, so do endo, hygiene, lab tech, women dentists, to name a few. We try to focus our marketing.
What are some of the best aspects of your meeting – the things you like to brag about?
There are a few things: the fact that we have 800 volunteers helping every year to ensure that the meeting runs smoothly.
How do you get all of those volunteers?
We have committees for all the different groups, so every year the president of the society selects a general chair, and the general chair selects a core chair for each committee: exhibits, hospitality, arrangements – we have a committee for everything. Each chair is responsible for finding volunteers for their area, and they have to do a lot of networking to get those shifts filled. Our society isn't big enough to cover all of the positions, so it's helpful. We also do two training sessions for the volunteers as well to let them know the tools they need to succeed.
Another thing I like to brag about regarding our meeting is that every year the general chair of our meeting selects a theme – a message – this year the general chair is Dr. Paula Friedman, and her theme is "Building Bridges." Every year we change the look of our show to reflect our theme.
We also work really hard to partner with other groups: LVI, Pankey, Dawson. This year, we've partnered with PennWell – we're doing an RDH Under One Roof event at Yankee, so that's really exciting. We've also partnered with Bentley University to do an MBA program. They'll start the program at this year's conference, continue throughout the year, and then finish it up at next year's conference.
There's the question: what's going to happen with tradeshows? We have over 100 hands-on courses. Our feeling is that this is a profession that works with their hands. They want to try new materials and play with things. In the past, we've had as many as 180. The program committee starts three years ahead to look at what they want to accomplish at the meeting, and the vendors really support us with donating the materials to the hands-on training courses.
What changes have you seen in your show over the last five years?
Our biggest challenge has been our move from the Hynes Convention Center over to the BCEC [Boston Convention and Exhibition Center]. There were a lot of people that weren't happy with the move, but we needed to ensure that the exhibitors are having a successful show.
At the BCEC, everybody is in one area – we're not sending people out to different hotels. We're making progress. Every year there are new restaurants. We just found out today that the BCEC just purchased lands to open new hotels for 2015. Our biggest thing is focusing on getting the trade show more modern technology. We're pushing for attendees to download the information about the show to iPads and other mobile devices. We're cutting back on print, and encouraging people to use our website and the Yankee app. This year, there will be iPads at different areas, so our volunteers will be able to use the app to find information for our attendees, rather than attendees finding paper guides.
What are some changes you are making for future meetings? What should visitors look forward to, that they haven't seen at your meeting before?
We have an oversight committee made up of a group of doctors, and their sole focus is to look three years out at Yankee. Some of the fun things we'll have this year are a 10'x10' video wall on the show floor – and there's a lot of glass at the BCEC, so you'll be able to see this thing from miles away. The attendees can come down and have their photos taken which will be posted to this wall, and they can upload their own to their Facebook or Twitter and they can go up on the Yankee page. Not only is this great marketing, it's drawing people down onto the show floor.
Another thing that's been a big focus for us is that it's not just dentistry: it's overall health. Last year we had a new food service vendor, and they did a survey about the food that the convention center was serving. I was shocked to see the number of attendees that were looking for alternative meal options, so we created the Healthy Living Pavilion. We have a woman speaking who won the dietician of the year award, and we have Nancy Clark, a famous sports nutritionist. The focus is all about healthy living, and the attendees will have the opportunity to get a vegan, vegetarian, or gluten-free lunch.
We also hired ethnoMetrics to videotape our floor to understand the traffic pattern – where and how people are spending their time, which traffic builders are working and which aren't – so we know how people are moving our floor.
How do you keep your exhibitors happy so that they come back again?
We have a small staff – there are only four of us that handle all exhibits. We make it a point to travel to every show, and to really work with our exhibitors. We're extremely open to partnering with different groups. We're in constant communication, we send out monthly e-newsletters to local reps and regional managers. We host exhibitor advisory meetings at our office to let them know what we're doing for them and how we're trying to make Yankee a better meeting for them. We're the only meeting that provides free lead retrievals. We provide every exhibitor those machines for free – at most shows you have to rent them. With keeping the exhibitors happy, the main focus is to get attendees on the show floor.
And how do you do that?
We've created several programs to encourage people to come to the floor: we have Yankee Rebate Program: this goes out in the doctors' registration packets. If they spend $2,500 on the show floor, they have until March to return copies of their receipts, and the following year they get free registration to Yankee [Dental Congress]. This is our second year doing it, and we had a 27% jump in doctors participating since the first year. We also have the Daily Rewards Program. If a doctor or a staff member spend $5,000 on the show floor, they are eligible to win a $500 American Express gift card. And finally, we have "mystery shoppers." On Thursday and Saturday, we send our exhibit committee of doctors out on the show floor to look for people who are making purchases. They give some shoppers a $25 gift card and explain the importance of our exhibitors before thanking them for taking the time to shop. These efforts show the exhibitors that we are trying to encourage people to go on the show floor.
How else do you draw doctors to your show?
We are the only national meeting that gives a free lunch on one of the show days, and on Friday night, every year, we have some sort of party. This year, we're having a Sangria party. Because we're New England based, we like to partner with local groups like Cabot Cheese and Harpoon Brewery. This year we're working with Stonewall Kitchen, who will be giving out free samples to all of our attendees.
Another thing we do for our doctors is encourage them to come to Yankee by making it a place where they can bring their whole family. We offer extensive social and cultural programs and special events. Every year on Thursday, we have a big party to kick of the meeting: this year it's the them is "Boardwalk," and everybody is invited. We've got Candace Olsen from HGTV, we've got a Neimann Marcus beauty course, we've got a tour of Chinatown, we have Elizabeth Smart speaking about adversity, a Boston Chocolate tour, Zumba classes, and lunch with Jennifer Weiner. We have something for everybody.
That sounds like a lot of fun! To wrap up what sounds like a great meeting, can you provide a synopsis of what your meeting aims to do, and how?
Our overall goal is to provide the best experience for our attendees; to provide outstanding CE in a setting on the show floor where they can see the latest technology and products that exhibitors have to offer. But it's also about having fun and networking at the same time. That balance is important.
Thank you to Stefanie Cunniffe and Shannon McCarthy for speaking with Proofs about the upcoming Yankee Dental Congress, to be held in Boston, January 31 through February 2, 2013. If you would like more information about the event, visit www.yankeedental.com.