By Lauren Burns
Betty "B.J." Dencler has been coordinating the Valley Forge Dental Conference for as long as it's been around, which, as of March 2013, is 27 years. The meeting was originally set up to bring together the 1,600 members of the Second District "for leadership, fellowship, and camaraderie," and Betty says that it's done just that.
As the meeting coordinator and CEO at BJ Dencler & Associates, she has had the advantage of working through every stage of the conference, from its initiation to its comfortable later years, and has learned to adapt to the changing CE requirements and manipulate the relatively new forms of social media in order to communicate with exhibitors and attendees. Though there has been a dip in dental show attendance across the nation, it hasn't been hurting the Valley Forge Dental Conference.
Attendance numbers over the years:
2012: 500 dentists, 1,000 total
If anything, Betty notes, attendance isn't decreasing – it's just not growing. She outlined the causes of this with three points: dental companies are doing their own CE courses for dentists, younger dentists are taking courses online, and the state of Pennsylvania, where the conference is held, has eliminated practice management from being an acceptable topic of CE courses, "which is fine, because [the dentists] need scientific credit, but taking out practice management has changed the format," she claims. Before these issues became relevant to the attendance numbers, Betty says you could count on seeing growth every year. "Now you see a little bit here and a little bit there, and you can pretty much estimate how many people are going to come."
What are they doing to target the wider audience and change the direction of the meeting? Make sure you take care of returning attendees and exhibitors, sure, but that's not all. According to Betty, a lot of the Conference's budget has been spent on "courting new dentists." Recently, they sponsored a special program for new dentists (those who have only been out of school for ten years or less) with the ADA. 100 new dentists attended the New Dentist Leadership Conference and were given presentations on social media, publicity, management, and of course, leadership skills. "It was so funny --- while our speaker was talking about social media on Saturday, the young dentists couldn't write fast enough!" Betty says the Conference is making an effort to design programs that will appeal to younger dentists, who are not largely represented at dental shows like Valley Forge.
Like most meetings, promotion for the meeting starts at the previous year's meeting. Valley Forge targets both attendees and exhibitors with their promotions, handing out speaker and course information to attendees and contracts to exhibitors, offering them 10 percent off the booking price if they sign up on the floor (or within 30 days of the Conference). Another thing that helps, Betty says, is that the meeting is always during the same week. "We haven't changed the date in 10 or 12 years. At that time, we moved from the fall to the winter. With the ADA Annual Session and the Greater New York Dental Meeting in the fall, there was a lot of conflict --- but there isn't as much conflict in March."
And with the social media manipulation I wrote about, they're still working on that. Their primary form of outreach is through email alerts, provided by Constant Contact. Betty likes this form because she can design an email alert and have it sent out on a pre-set schedule. Secondary forms include postcards and a program book (usually published by December), and the conference website. "We do some Facebook," she says after I hassle her a bit about social media. "We're trying to hit it from every angle that we can, but we haven't gotten on Twitter yet."
What Valley Forge might be lacking in the online arena, they make up for in their meeting style. They are quite attentive of the exhibitors and their need to have floor traffic, and have made some bold steps in an effort to provide the necessary traffic. "We give away 100 to 125 door prizes throughout the three days of the meeting. We do different giveaway gifts --- we have a roulette wheel for an extra chance to win Flyers shirts." ("Flyers" is the name of the hockey team in Philadelphia.) "We bring in extra people to capture attention and increase traffic. They sell designer purses, glassware, and jewelry. We also have people who provide massages."
Who doesn't want a massage after a few days roaming an exhibit hall?
"We make it like a family affair. We do special things for attendees. Everyone gets a continental breakfast, we do a coffee break with Tastey Cakes, and wtheir courses include a luncheon." It's important to appeal to the whole staff, Betty advises, and not just the dentists. "We try to make it a fun experience, because that makes the staff want to come. And if the staff wants to come, the doctor wants to come."
Despite having various forms of entertainment (did I mention the balloon man?), Betty says the Conference stays professional. You can have a horse and cowboy created from a few balloons tied together, but you'll have to take it with you to your CE course, with which they've gotten creative, according to Betty. "We've had some challenges on staff courses because of CE courses on practice management no longer being accepted here, so we had to be creative with the scientific courses. We do infection control and medical emergencies --- things the entire staff needs to have a background on." And those, she says, are big draws to the show. "We spent a major part of our budget on the scientific program, so if you want to hear the big names and see the newest products, you know you can come to our meeting and experience that."
Bringing young dentists to the show is important to ensure the maintenance of a committed group of show-goers, but Valley Forge doesn't forget about the exhibitors, who are also a group of loyal customers that come back year after year. So how do they keep exhibitors happy? "The main thing exhibitors want is traffic in the hall – we heard that early on." We already know how they create traffic in the hall, but what about things they haven't heard of yet? The exhibitors, claims Betty, have an opportunity at the end of the show to have a face-to-face conversation with the exhibitor chairperson, during which they can sing praises of the meeting or advise the conference organizers on what to change for next year. "We don't do surveys anymore because [the exhibitors] would rather talk to someone in person. We find out what they liked and didn't like and draw from that."
Jazz Up Your Practice
The 27th annual conference is jazz themed for 2013, and they've even taken a colloquialism that we use every day and applied it to improving your practice while drawing attention to the overall theme of the meeting: Jazz Up Your Practice. The idea for this theme originated in an unusual way. "Every year we look at a different theme. A lot of it comes from the interests of the president. This year the president's son joined a jazz group. He wanted his son to play at his dinner, and so we made a joke about him playing and turning it into a jazz-themed dinner. We liked that idea enough to turn it into the theme of the entire conference."
To find out more about the 2013 conference, visit www.vfdc.org.