Shopping at dental exhibits

Feb. 1, 2005
Shop until you drop is the mantra for all who love spending hours checking price tags, fingering goods, and leaving with the ultimate prize - a coveted item with either a reduced price or a special goodie attached to the original purchase.

Shop until you drop is the mantra for all who love spending hours checking price tags, fingering goods, and leaving with the ultimate prize - a coveted item with either a reduced price or a special goodie attached to the original purchase.

It’s easy to look at the exhibit hall during a dental convention as being a compensatory part of going to a professional meeting. In reality, a trip down the aisles can be a magical experience that truly alters how we practice. Some people think that a visit to the exhibits is simply a place to order supplies, get another free toothbrush, or a sample of prophy paste. With some careful preparation, however, the exhibits can become a very important part of our continuing education. We can learn a lot in the exhibit hall. We can develop relationships that can make our clinical days better than ever.

First, find out who will be exhibiting at the meeting. Often, a list can be found in the meeting brochure or on a meeting’s Web site. Most of the time, the list is in alphabetical order by vendor, and sometimes there is an additional listing by product category. This is especially true for large meetings and is very helpful if you are on a mission to talk to all of the companies that make a particular product such as prophy angles.

Highlight the companies that you must visit in one color. Use a contrasting color for those that arouse your interest. Make sure to note the booth numbers so you can make a strategic plan that will make the best use of your time. It’s always nice to say hello to the folks that you know, even if you don’t plan to purchase anything that day.

Think of the exhibits as a trip to a special dental shopping mall where there are giant companies surrounded by smaller stores and custom boutiques. From a business standpoint, the exhibits contribute to the overall financial structure of any meeting. Companies pay a fee to have a booth at a meeting. The larger, more prominent spaces cost more and are often reserved years in advance. Smaller, newer companies are strategically placed between the giants or in the nosebleed section way in the back, behind some kind of pillar. The financial support of companies helps meeting planners provide quality continuing education programs in attractive surroundings at reasonable registration fees.

Years ago, exhibitors would hardly glance at a hygienist. They wanted to spend their time with the decision makers - the purchasers, the dentists - but times have changed. We are now a force to be reckoned with in the dental marketplace. Smart companies want to develop relationships with all the members of the team. Yes, they want us to purchase their products, but they also want to develop products that will serve our clinical needs.

More and more hygienists are purchasing their own big-ticket equipment such as loupes and chairs. Some are even buying their own disposable supplies such as gloves and masks. Hygienists who make their own purchases see ownership as a sign of professional commitment. Others view it as a necessity. They want to have equipment that fits their bodies, works well in their hands, and helps avert preventable workplace-related injuries.

Great products and supplies make our professional lives easier. Salespeople are colleagues and specialists. They know their product lines inside and out and are well versed in the art and science of the products that they represent. If we give them a chance, they can help us with technique issues. Their advice can be invaluable in troubleshooting, making products work better, or giving shortcuts.

Companies that really want our attention often hire dental hygienists as sales specialists, consultants, or in marketing. After all, it takes one to know one. Who better will understand our needs than a fellow dental hygiene professional? If given a choice, wouldn’t you rather have a conversation with a hygienist who knows what it is like to scale around the mouth of a gagger than a person who has never picked up a mouth mirror? Often, these corporate hygienists continue to maintain their clinical skills on a part-time basis.

Since there is always something new, take the time to listen to the vendors. Don’t just race by and grab a handful of samples, never making eye contact with the people behind the counter. Give yourself enough time on the exhibit floor; show them that you are interested in learning about their new products or the old products that have been given a face-lift. Remember, the exhibits can be a real-life demonstration of the science you just learned about in the continuing education courses that you attended at the meeting.

Sharp companies are also interested in our thoughts. They want positive relationships with dental hygienists. For example, if you have not been happy with a product, or perhaps with customer service, let them know. If we keep quiet, they can’t remedy a situation. This is also a wonderful time to tell them what you would like to see in a product. A lot of great ideas come from practicing hygienists. We’re smart, and we often know what will help us practice dental hygiene better and more easily.

Speaking of smart, beware of the hard sell. Reputable companies have products that don’t need to be sold this way. Professional sales specialists will gladly show you their products, answer your questions, explain the benefits of their products, and be willing to discuss any possible downsides. Despite the fact that there is a lot of competition in the dental marketplace, there is no need to put down another company’s products. Companies that are serious about the business opportunities that we represent are interested in forming relationships where we can partner together to provide excellent patient care. They treat dental hygienists with respect.

There is a lot more to learn about many products than the ingredients or what something costs. Make sure that you understand trial periods, warranties, payment plans, and other customer service policies when ordering items such as ultrasonic scalers, magnification systems, and ergonomic chairs. These are serious purchases, so make sure you get your questions answered and obtain the business card of the person with whom you talked. As in life, you get what you pay for, so bargain-basement equipment can turn into a nightmare after you’ve left the convention floor. It is one thing to be unhappy with a box of prophy paste or a handful of patient bibs, but it is a lot more problematic if you don’t have all of the information about a big-ticket item.

Sometimes, a booth will be swamped. At other times, your co-workers will need to see a product as well, or it needs to be evaluated in your dental office. In these cases, it can be a great idea and very appropriate to schedule an individual meeting for a lunch-and-learn at your office. Representatives are generally interested in developing sales leads and in-office meetings that allow everyone to learn at a more leisurely pace.

Have fun at the booths. Learn a lot. Get some great ideas and samples and, most importantly, enjoy the respect you’re going to receive from your fellow dental professionals in the corporate world.

Tips for cruising at the exhibit hall

• Remember to create your own meeting comfort zone. Plan your wardrobe accordingly. Stiletto heels are a no-no. Save them for a glitzy night on the town. Wear comfortable shoes and clothes. A heavy winter coat will be a total drag on the busy exhibit floor; bring a light jacket.

• Take a lightweight, roomy bag to collect all your goodies. It’s a good idea to put a luggage tag on the bag so it can be returned if you leave it behind.

• Arm yourself with a note pad and pen, bottle of water, a snack, and a stack of business cards or self-adhesive labels. It’s also a great idea to have a few band-aids and your favorite OTC pain medication tucked in your pocket if you’re prone to tension headaches or you develop a blister on your feet from all the walking.

• The pocket in your badge holder is a convenient place to store business cards, a handful of your own cards, and even your hotel key.

• Many times, sales representatives are willing to sell a floor model at a reduced fee at the end of a conference. These items are considered used, so the prices are adjusted accordingly. Just let the representative know ahead of time that you’re interested. I’ve known several hygienists who have purchased ergonomic chairs this way. It is an exhibit hall win/win!

• Often, you can pick up extra samples at the end of the meeting, especially if the company knows that the products will be used for a special project like an association fundraiser or can be used in an area clinic serving an underprivileged population. At a recent conference in Toronto, all of the extra samples were donated to the Shout Clinic, which provides free dental services to street kids and homeless persons under the age of 25. Area dental hygienists and dentists donate their time to help these kids. Any company would be proud to have the supplies used in a project like this.

Anne Nugent Guignon, RDH, MPH, is an international speaker, has published numerous articles, and authored several textbook chapters. Her popular programs include ergonomics, patient comfort, burnout, and advanced diagnostics and therapeutics. Recipient of the 2004 Mentor of the Year Award, Anne is an ADHA member and has practiced clinical dental hygiene in Houston, Texas, since 1971. You can reach her at [email protected] or (713) 974-4540 and her Web site is