Opinion Pullquote

Opinion: The Insanity of Dental Meetings

April 28, 2014
The exchange demonstrated in your article and Dr. Blicher’s letter is exactly the same as past exchanges in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, and now 2010s. The definition of insanity is that you keep on doing the same thing over and expect a different outcome.

May 2014

See this article in the May digital issue of Proofs

I am writing this article in response to the article “Goliath Falling: Huge industry meetings not all that they’re cracked up to be” and the response from Dr. Michael Blicher, the 2013 chair of the Council on ADA Sessions.

I have been part of the dental industry since 1977 and have spent approximately 1,800 days of my life at dental meetings (that’s almost five years). I was a member of the Dental Trade Alliance (DTA) exhibits committee for over a decade and the chairman for many years. I am a past president of the DTA as well.

The exchange demonstrated in your article and Dr. Blicher’s letter is exactly the same as past exchanges in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, and now 2010s. The definition of insanity is that you keep on doing the same thing over and expect a different outcome.

What dentists like and don't like about trade shows

First, Dr. Blicher’s response is very interesting and should be closely examined. Dr. Blicher explains, “More than 90% of attendees surveyed said they were pleased with the meeting and 95% thought the meeting effectively addressed their reasons for attending. Attendees were able to successfully combine work and play by taking 40% more continuing education courses than the previous year.”

Were attendees pleased with spending time visiting exhibits, viewing demonstrations, and placing orders for products and services? I would believe that unless attendees are building a new office or an addition, this is not a major reason for attending. Are exhibits a reason they were pleased?

Dr. Blicher goes on to list the new cutting-edge programs, such as live patient operatory learning, education on the exhibit floor, live streaming of courses, new noncommercial additions to the floor, including the Pride Institute Technology Expo, preventive equipment maintenance zone, hands-on cadaver learning, small group-led discussions via learning labs, dental office design center, health and fitness center, and a 40% increase in CE courses taken.

What do all these “innovations” have in common? They all take attendees away from the commercial paying exhibitors.

Nowhere in his letter to the editor does Dr. Blicher mention any new attempted programs or benefits for the exhibitor. He does not even acknowledge exhibitor support. If the attendees are happy, the meeting organizers are as well.

We pay the same rate, no matter the attendance of a meeting. If we were buying advertising on TV or in a magazine, would we continue to pay more for a decreasing audience? Would we pay for an audience for which we have no believable audited attendance figures? Do organizers understand that exhibitors spend about $15,000 per every 100 square feet to exhibit? That’s $60,000 for a 400-square-foot booth. That’s a lot of mirrors and gauze!

The DTA has made numerous attempts to partner with meeting organizers to seek improvement. Some are more welcoming than others.

What you can’t measure you can’t improve
We need to know if registration numbers are enough to determine a meeting’s viability — and we also need to know if registration is the same as attendance. If they’ve registered, how can you guarantee that they’ve actually attended? And how do you know how many days they attended (and if not all days, we need to know what days). More than that, we need to know what dentists are doing while they’re at the meeting: are they on the exhibit floor? For how long?

About 10 years ago, the ADA had a firm perform research on what attendees did at their annual meeting and for how long. I recall there were some interesting metrics that were reported. The average dentist spent a bit more than two hours on the exhibit floor out of about 24 hours of exhibit time. The average dentist visited fewer than four exhibits. Dr. Blicher can go back and review these numbers, as I’m stating them from memory, but I assure you they are very close. (My memory is still ok after five years at dental shows.)

There are always specific concerns about meetings, such as:

  • Meetings that change cities every year held in the Eastern U.S. do not draw dentists from the West. Does a dentist in Malibu go to Washington, D.C.?
  • Holidays mean dentists stay home with their families or travel with their families instead of attending meetings.
  • Dentists closed for holidays cannot afford to close their offices for extra days to attend a meeting.
  • People don’t want to travel in traffic or pay for parking.
  • Many meetings have been scheduled on important religious holidays like Easter or Rosh Hashanah.
  • The site selection was awful and many potential attendees believe the city was a bad choice.
  • There are no direct flights to the event city, so getting there is expensive and takes too long.
  • The hotels and other costs are too expensive in addition to closing a dental office.
  • Most meetings are only busy a single day, but my staff and expenses are for three or four days.
  • Shows are starting to compete with one another and many claim their show is a better time of year or doesn’t conflict with a holiday.
  • Unless you sell capital equipment, the shows are a terrible ROI. If you’re selling $49 merchandise, the only way to be successful is to have a large attendance and volume of orders placed.

There is no denying that overall meeting attendance, and especially exhibit floor attendance and participation, has decreased over the last two decades. There is no more lining up the morning of the first day of the show to rush in to see the new products and get the show specials, because dentists and staff can have almost any product brought to their office and demonstrated any time they want — without going to a show. All large equipment is available for demonstration at local showrooms or manufacturers will fly you to their factory for a tour and demonstration.

There is always a “show special,” so no need to attend the show itself. The access to product information via online learning, CE, webinars, etc. provides a constant flow of product and marketing promotions every day, every month. There are many specialized CE events focused on new emerging technologies and services that are produced at self-sponsored events.

If we continue to do what we have been doing for decades, both show organizers and show exhibitors will continue to be dissatisfied. Exhibitors will go to fewer shows and take less space. Show revenues will drop and dentists will have to pay more to support their local or state society. Shows will die — and maybe are dying — a long, slow death.

We need to be honest and transparent, both in the profession and industry. We should have regularly scheduled meetings between the show organizers and exhibitors and make sure exhibitors of all sizes and types are represented.

But most importantly, we need to really measure registration, attendance, exhibit floor attendance, time at the show, and days at the show. Use new technologies to track attendees via smart badges or other traceable devices and technologies. Organizers should not be afraid of what they will learn, because they can use the data to be better for the industry and their members.

Allow the industry to be open and aware that honesty will not harm their location at next year’s meeting. I have been shocked over the years by how reserved some exhibitors are when registering their concerns so they will not be penalized. I have been equally shocked by organizers who have severely penalized exhibitors who have voiced concerns.

My advice? Don’t let it get personal. Keep it professional and understand everyone wants it to get better. It’s in the best interest of the profession and industry. Understand what exhibitors want: more dentists and staff spending more time at their exhibits getting informed, getting samples, scheduling future meetings, or placing orders. The profession should work with the DTA, the largest organized group of dental manufacturers, dental dealers, and dental labs.

Looking forward to a decade of change, innovation, and success.

See this article in the May digital issue of Proofs

Carey Lyons is the CEO of Integrated Dental Systems (IDS). He can be reached at [email protected].