Q&A: Bruce Hickman's World
People are not comfortable with change. While we love to talk about innovation, the challenge of budgets, time and technology often scares us. If you plan for a conservative corporation, you might have to make a case for your ideas to skeptical stakeholders. World Congress, a leading global provider of health care conferences, convenes CEOs and senior executives from all segments of the health care industry at specialized conferences and leadership summits. The company’s goal is to provide what it calls a perpetual forum about issues and research for healthcare leaders around the world. A large part of the content it generates on worldhealthtalks.com, including webinars and a vast library of videos, comes from its conferences.
The World Health Care Congress is its flagship event, attracting more than 1,600 health care, government and corporate leaders. With demands from employers and purchasers for affordability and transparency in health care quality, the pressure is on the event planners, as well as the presenters and participants, to make sure this event and every other one delivers solid outcomes. Old-school presentations and trade show supplier booths are out. Thought leader debates, case study and best practice presentations, roundtable discussions, and personal photos and messages at booths are in. Bruce Hickman joined World Congress in 2010 as its international social media director. His background in the marketing communications and events management includes more than 12 years with The Center for Business Intelligence, a leader in conferences and research for the pharmaceutical industry. He talked with Editor-in-Chief Christine Born about his role in meeting World Congress’ initiatives by working with its event team to create more opportunities for participation, networking and engagement through social media and creative formats that encourage disruptive innovation.
How have your conferences evolved in response to changes in the industries you serve and with new technology?
We are primarily using social media a few different ways: to get the word out pre-event, link to any articles about topics, tap into the knowledge base of speakers, and use video and podcasts from previous events. Basically, we want to push out as much content as possible.
On-site, we’ve seen the biggest uptick with Twitter. Last year, at our annual World Health Care Congress in Washington, D.C., we could count on two hands the number of tweets. This year, it doubled or tripled. Our mobile app was really great because it housed all of our agenda items. Attendees could set up their own schedules. Social media was integrated; it pulled the Twitter feed and had a place to upload photos. It was fun for sponsors to have photos of themselves at their booths.
How do you attract executives from a range of industries such as health care, finance, insurance, etc., to attend a new event? What makes the event appealing to them?
We really concentrate on getting the top industry professionals to present. If you get the senior director of marketing at Pfizer to speak, all other companies want to hear what he has to say. You have to get someone people really want to hear. And it has to be someone on the curve or slightly ahead of the curve in the business cycle. Once we have that established, we invite everyone involved, including the speakers, to get the word out to folks within their networks.
Your keynote sessions have had interesting formats. Can you tell us about the strategy behind them?
The sit-downs and the debate format are difficult because they put people on the spot, but they can be very informative and entertaining. You never know where it’s going to go. Also, a lot of companies now have great intro videos about who they are and what they do. They have become fantastic. The audience gets a lot of messaging, because the videos are put together less as commercials and more as information, which plays nicely in our sessions.
Then there are the real traditional, straight keynote addresses. We get that from government folks, who may be more constrained about what they can do. We try to educate them in advance so they get a real sense of the conference themes and where they can add to them. If someone is well briefed, they can address what’s going on. We do this even if they’re in an education session, as opposed to a keynote.
You’re a proponent of participation beyond the use of social media. Can you tell us how you encourage more interaction?
Most of our events are for 50 to 200 people, so we can do a lot of interaction. Roundtables and speed networking seem to be what delegates are craving. It’s almost as important for them to meet the people who are speaking as the people sitting next to them. Rarely do we have any silent rooms. We choose facilitators who are engaging and topic areas that are good for generating conversation.
You and I have talked about disruptive innovation. What does that term mean to you and how would you incorporate the concept into meetings?
Within the business here, it can refer to a process or a personality that can disrupt and create an environment where people can think differently…one that allows more challenge from peer to peer. We even switch people’s seats around. It can be very valuable when you’re programming conferences to hear what people are saying. You can type and read a certain amount of knowledge in text, but you can speak and understand so much more. We try to get people out of their silos and give them different challenges at events. We might have a person doing F&B introduce a speaker. The idea is to disrupt people’s everyday flow, and help them gain skills.
How do you prepare people for more experimental formats and different meeting experiences?
Do both attendees and presenters really understand the conference by the time they get to the event?
We put out very comprehensive agendas. We include a lot of information in our descriptions, though it’s based more on the content than the format. We do tell them, “This is going to be an interactive session,” or a debate or that a CEO is going to give the synopsis.
How do you structure your educational sessions?
They run for 45 minutes for the most part, which works well. We encourage people to email questions during sessions, which has really helped us out. People tend to be pretty concise when they are typing on a mobile phone. Our biggest thing is fast transitions.
We’re really careful in how we frame sessions—the mix of content with who we want to attend. Often times, we’ll section out senior level content that includes mid-level people. We want the director there, but we also want the next director as well—the ones who are coming up through the ranks. If you can get both groups, it works well.
We also do tracked sessions in a lot of different areas. We had a session that was closed door for senior planners from the corporate environment, and then one for hoteliers and vendors with the senior level executives they were looking for. It allowed open discussion and well-designed presentations.
If there are issues like security or compliance, for example, we encourage vendors to come and speak about it and then bring clients. They don’t have to reference what the client is doing, but people are more likely to register if there is a primary market speaker as well. It gives the industry leader a chance to speak about what they are doing to help solve people’s problems.
Are you using different room set-ups?
At our larger events, we really have to break into smaller groups to get more intimacy and hands-on workshops. We prefer Davo-style [see below] with a strong presenter who can offer stronger themes and get down to brass tacks. Comfortable chairs ease conversation and play well on stage. Someone said setting up conferences is a lot like having a dinner party: You want guests who have some common points of interest so they converse comfortably and have some entertainment as well.
Are there extra expenses involved in creating different set-ups?
Well, we always are thinking about things like extra staging and lavalier microphones. Using mics on tables rather than lavaliers is a little less expensive; you don’t need tech the entire time. We always need to make sure the revenue is there to cover all breakouts, or amend the schedule if they’re not full.
How do people’s on-site roles change during these events?
Because we’re really in that for-profit mindset, people have always had to do a lot of different jobs. Things have to go off smoothly, even if you’ve had to cut your budgets. You lean more on staff. The on-site coordination teams are definitely getting more involved upfront, because people have different needs upfront.
What kind of feedback have you had from your briefer, subject-expert presentations that depend on active participation?
That’s definitely the No. 1 thing that people point out or affirm that’s working. They ask for more. They love the networking. It definitely changes the feel of the sessions.
How do you measure the results?
We have to do a lot to attract people in a competitive, for-profit base so we constantly have to prove value to the attendee. The biggest thing we continually sell is our networking. Obviously, content has to get people there and facilitate interaction.
If it’s a sponsorship event, we measure the success of the event by the number of meaningful contacts. We’d rather have 100 people who are the right people, the decision makers. We can still deliver the handshake.
Our measurement at the conference is the general vibe. We get the best information on-site, but we vary conference polls and do some during and after the event. I’m not sure we are getting the best information from them, but we tally them up and the results help us decide who should be speaking next year.
What other follow-up do you do after the events?
We call the speakers to get their take on their sessions: What was successful, what wasn’t, what they might expand on next year. We push out any press coverage so delegates get that. We have a portal for as many presentations as possible. We offer pretty extensive exposure in terms of sponsors
We’ve been doing webcasts at larger events and given people the option to purchase flash drives. We also offer the speakers a copy for their own sites. That’s been very valuable.
Are there any other changes you want to implement?
One of the biggest things we continue to try to facilitate—and it’s a very difficult thing to do and somewhat cliche—is to keep the conversation going after the event and parlay it into next year’s event. We’re still waiting for a solution or tool that really does more of that…keeps them engaged and moving forward. We’ve done it to a certain extent, but that’s always the biggest thing.
We’re trying to perfect the way Twitter can be used as more as of an information exchange during events [and] how Q&A can come into events and get better and better. We want to increase the use of sound bites from events, pre- and post-promotion. We use video interviews to offer insights. They really drive traffic to our website and conference as well. We’ve been thinking of bringing someone in to do it in-house.
What’s on your wish list?
I would love to see Wi-Fi cheaper at hotels. Oh, and I was in the Abu Dhabi Convention Center and I would love to see some of their innovations in more centers here. It’s amazing.
What advice do you have for planners who want to build more participatory events?
The best thing you can do is to find a dynamic and charismatic facilitator who can pull it off. Or do topic tables and find 10 people who can facilitate the easel or white board and keep it moving. The biggest mistake is underestimating people’s passion for what they do and how much they enjoy hearing different people’s perspectives. They typically go surprisingly well even when it looks like it’s creating chaos. Prep work, signage and explanation are important.
What is Davo?
The reference, now used to describe similar conferences, comes from the World Economic Forum held in Davo, Switzerland, an independent international event committed to improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic and other leaders of society to shape global, regional and industry agendas. It’s described as a cornucopia of intellectual fare, with some 260 sessions on everything from the Secrets of the Universe to Fixing Capitalism, and a cast of the world’s intellectual, business, arts, and cultural and social giants. The interactive, discussion-based format uses on-stage panelists to guide discussion and prompt a back and forth dialogue with other leaders in the room. PowerPoint presentations and prepared speeches are not allowed. Smaller, auxiliary workshops with focused topics, also take place.