By Lauren Burns
When Shannan Cook started working for the Minnesota Dental Association in 2007, their annual meeting was called "Star of the North." In fact, at that time, it had been called "Star of the North" for over 20 years. When the Greater Houston Dental Society started calling their meeting "Star of South," neither of us knows for sure, but Shannan has an idea that it was certainly after the MDA's change in 1986. A born Texan herself, she is not quick to point the finger, but it should be noted that she did her research and discovered the origins of MDA's annual session title in the midst of our interview, just to clear the air.
With the 130th annual session to be held April 25-27 at the Saint Paul Rivercentre in Minnesota's capital city, Shannon discusses exactly what "Nationally Known, Close to Home" means for the 2012 session.
What attendance trends have you seen over the last few years at your meeting?
Our attendance has decreased slightly in the last two years, but our revenue from course registration is up. Attendees are very price-conscious because of the economy, so I think they are making the most out of their attendance by coming all three days and taking as many classes as they can.
When do you start to promote your meeting?
We send out a postcard with timelines, speakers, and speaker topics about six months prior to the conference. Our 56-page preliminary program with detailed information about speakers, exhibitors, and special events is mailed four months before the show.
Do you use social media as well?
Yes – we ramp up our Facebook posts in the six months leading up to the conference. This summer, we bought a Facebook ad and have increased our "likes" by over 700 people. We plan to incorporate some giveaways to attendees who like us on Facebook and then register for the meeting. We also send targeted emails to our members and attendees of past shows.
What are some of the best aspects of your meeting – the things you like to brag about?
I always hear from our out-of-towners how friendly and helpful everyone is --- they really enjoy the hospitality. I think our convention center is very user-friendly --- it's very compact and easy to navigate. The city of Saint Paul is a great host for our event as well, with lots to choose from for entertainment in the evenings. Our keynote program is always a big draw --- attendees can hear an inspiring story from an author, explorer or celebrity at no cost.
What changes have you seen in your show over the last five years?
Technology and social media have taken over. We offered an app for the first time in 2011 and over 40 percent of our attendees downloaded it. It offers exhibitor listings, schedules, speakers and room numbers for classes. We've made a major investment of time in our Facebook presence, plotting out weekly posts and developing marketing videos. Since I started in 2007, we've moved towards online exhibitor registration, paperless handouts, interactive exhibit software, fillable PDF's for contract submissions --- really trying to streamline and use technology to make the meeting more efficient.
What are some changes you are making for future meetings?
We are trying to add some draws to the back corners of our exhibit hall. We're providing complimentary digital portraits in one corner and a new members lounge in the other --- a place for members to gather, network and learn more about MDA/ADA member benefits and ways to volunteer. For 2014, the planning committee is working on a mini-lecture format for the attendee who doesn't want to sit through a traditional three-hour lecture. We are also looking at incorporating audience response systems to make the presentations more interactive.
I noticed that the Greater Houston Dental Society has an identical meeting name – while the MDA meeting is the "Star of the North," their meeting is "Star of the South." Who had it first?
From what I've been told, Minnesota did! According to our old program books, it looks like we officially adopted "Star of the North" in 1986. Before that it was simply the "MDA Annual Session."
Several of the folks in Texas have told me straight out that they copied us! At least they admit it. I'm originally from Texas and worked for the Texas Dental Association for six years, so I am good friends with all the Texas people!
How do you keep your exhibitors happy so that they come back again?
We serve our exhibitors lunch on set-up day, provide coffee and tea in their lounge each day and our Board of Trustees delivers breakfast to them on the last day with a huge thank you for their support. We hear from a lot of exhibitors how much they appreciate that thank you from the leaders in our association.
We added an interactive online floor plan about five years ago and have enhanced the features that exhibitors can access to promote their products and services to attendees (coupons, flyers, sales contacts). In 2012, we added free Wi-Fi to all exhibitors.
The most popular thing, though, is our Exhibit Hall Premiere Night --- this is an invitation-only event for dentists to preview the show floor before the official opening. We provide complimentary beer and wine, plus light appetizers for almost four hours on Thursday night. It's designed for dentists, and we encourage them to bring their office managers and buyers and spend quality time on the floor talking with exhibitors and trying out new products. This has been a huge success for us and the exhibitors love it! We've been told from numerous exhibitors that they meet their sales goals for the entire meeting on that first night.
At our 2012 meeting, we hired a videographer and commissioned two videos --- one targeted to attendees and one to potential exhibitors. These were posted on YouTube and on our website and social media sites.
How do you draw doctors to your show?
We market to surrounding states and to our own members and non-members in the state. In 2013, we are offering a discounted registration fee for non-members to attend and check out the meeting and the exhibit floor. We are also offering a pass for the exhibit hall only for those dentists who just want to visit the show floor. Our member dentists do not pay a registration fee to attend the meeting, so many stop by just to check out the exhibit hall. We also actively recruit nationally known, cutting-edge speakers to attract dentists and appeal to their staff members as well. Since all dentists are required to get continuing education hours, it is a convenient way to get CE without having to travel around the country.
How do you make sure the doctors are spending time in your exhibit hall?
This will be our fourth year of offering the invitation-only event for dentists on the show floor. It's uninterrupted time dedicated to exhibitors. We also offer a two-hour break on Saturday between CE classes and encourage attendees to visit the floor during this time, and we provide treats and give away door prizes while they are visiting with exhibitors. We also invest in a "traffic incentive" to get people down on the floor --- we've done a digital caricature and a photo booth, and this year we are offering a portrait studio for dentists and their staff to update their professional portrait and take home a digital file for marketing purposes.
Can you provide a synopsis of what your meeting aims to do?
Our theme for 2013 is "Nationally Known --- Close to Home." Our committee really wanted to focus on the idea of how we bring together all of these nationally-known speakers and companies and we bring them directly to you! You don't have to close down the office for a week, pack a bag and travel across country to get your CE or test out a new product or service --- it's all provided conveniently to you. There is a tremendous value in being able to drive over from Wisconsin or up from Iowa or down the street from Minneapolis and have all of these speakers to choose from at a reasonable price. In addition, attendees have the opportunity to talk face-to-face with over 270 different companies, all in one convenient location. We want to be the source for their continuing education and provide this tremendous benefit to our members in a professional setting that encourages participation and camaraderie.
Editor's note: To find out more about the Star of the North Meeting, visit the meeting site at star.mndental.org.