Medical Tourism Consumer Conferences ~ Good Idea or Failure?

In the medical tourism industry, there has been  tremendous growth in the number of conferences. Last year, there were in excess of 40 such events, or shall we say “almost 40.”  Almost every conference organizer around the world is giving it a “try” at putting together a medical tourism conference.

Many conference organizers have no interest in or knowledge about the medical tourism industry and so they promote lofty historical numbers of attendees /delegates and “buyers” (insurance companies and medical tourism facilitators) who have attended past conferences.  However, how many conferences have really been held regarding medical tourism or medical travel as we see it developing today?  

Are these historical numbers based on reality or a reflection of attendance at other conferences that had nothing to do with medical tourism?  Do these conferences piggyback off of other healthcare related conferences to achieve their high “buyer” status?  

As a matter of practice in the conference industry, most conference organizers hit less than 10% of their goal and receive about 1% or less of the number of buyers they anticipate at their medical tourism conference.  Why?  

Conference organizers who have no vested interest in the industry hold conferences for the sake of holding conferences and making a buck, not to grow the industry.

Further, people without a stake in the industry generally do not have the ability to bring in the right players or create the appropriate content.  For this reason many of these “conferences” are nothing more than business meetings of 40 – 80 people in attendance; many consist of just the speakers themselves.  

Therefore, it is important to realize exactly what you want to gain from attending a conference and to spend your money wisely to achieve your goals at each event you attend.  Are you looking for networking, exhibition opportunity, developed content or a Return On Investment (ROI)?

For those of you who have attended several conferences lately, I think you will find that many of them have “thinned” out, meaning, only the strong and successful ones have survived the test of time.   Can you have a conference company put on an event if they don’t understand the content being discussed?  

Looking for numbers instead of quality is a big mistake because the delegates will walk away without satisfaction.  Recently, you may have heard about a Singapore based company that held a second Asian event that lacked buyers and overall a “failed conference.”  The company filed for bankruptcy and left the venue with a hefty unpaid bill.  Therefore as a sponsor it makes sense to affiliate with reputable events.

One fear for speakers is whether the company will be around tomorrow to reimburse travel expenses.   It would therefore make sense to work with organizers who have a vested interest in the industry and a reputation to protect.  

If a conference organizer puts on dozens of conferences per year, how dedicated can they be to the development of the industry and increasing the quality of the content at each event?  With the economic recession, your selected medical tourism conference cannot be organized by an event planner as an afterthought, with no real dedication or long term planning.

Now some of these conference organizations that were unsuccessful are now trying to market “consumer” shows, which are medical tourism conferences focused on attracting the individual consumer (not business to business).  

Also known as business-to-consumer events, these events have failed miserably.   Several of these organizations have cancelled events, or have failed events, then change their names to try again so industry players don’t realize it’s the same organizer.

The reasons why these conferences fail is that hospitals and healthcare providers spend the same amount of money in exhibit booths, airfare, hotel and marketing costs to travel to a medical tourism consumer expo as they would spend at a business to business medical tourism conference.  

At a business-to-business (B to B) event, a hospital has the chance of networking with an insurance carrier, employer or medical tourism facilitator who can send them hundreds or thousands of patients per year.  

At a medical tourism consumer exposition (B to C), hospitals potentially spend time speaking with patients who may be considering multiple destinations and providers and therefore hospitals do not maximize their time speaking to qualified patients.  In fact, the conversion rate from inquiry to patient significantly decreases when you place the patient in the same room with multiple competitors.

Moreover, patients take up a lot more time.  Would a hospital rather spend 30 minutes to one hour speaking to a potential knee replacement patient, or spend 30 minutes to one hour talking to a medical tourism facilitator or insurance company who can send them thousands of patients?

I don’t think you need to do a calculation to realize which is a better ROI.   More importantly, the people that should be meeting with patients are not the same people who would be meeting with insurance companies or employers. These latter groups want to meet with decision makers, not public relations or international patient department representatives.

Why is there no turn out for medical tourism consumer directed shows?

First, you can only attract local patients.  Medical Tourists who have no health insurance aren’t going to pay the expense to fly on an airplane, and hotel costs (thousands of potential dollars) to walk through an exhibit hall of hospitals.   These patients are trying to save money $$$, and so they are searching on the Internet.

If you can only attract local patients, you need to do your research to find out whether the demographics of those patients fits with your marketing strategy. The cost of advertising on local TV and newspapers is too expensive; therefore these shows are not marketing to a broad local audience.  

So, how do potential patients hear about it?  The answer is uncertain.  One such planner recently just canceled the consumer medical tourism conference because of a lack of interest.

Just a few months ago a foreign government tried their own consumer medical tourism conference directed towards people of their country origin located in the United States.  Held in a large US city with marketing directed towards the 600,000 residents of that origin located in that city, the government spent a significant amount of money marketing and advertising towards this specific ethnic group.  

They recently reported that their Return on Investment (ROI) was very poor and that they realized that a consumer type show is not a viable option and would not do it again.  So, it is important to know how to wisely spend your marketing dollars especially now that many countries and hospitals have reduced their marketing budgets due to the economy.

Also, be very careful.  Word on the street is that these so called “medical tourism consumer conference organizers” have all entered the facilitation business and are now trying to make money facilitating patients and travel logistics.  It is assumed that since they aren’t making money, they are using the event to generate leads and compete with their exhibitors.

One reason why the Medical Tourism Association assisted in the creation of the first entirely dedicated medical tourism convention and exposition was because of demand from our members for there to be a medical tourism conference where the content would continue to advance as the industry advanced.  

They wanted to meet and network with actual “buyers.”  Our Chief Operating Officer created a conference company that would be dedicated to the medical tourism industry and only put on medical tourism congresses with advanced content, and dedicated only to the MTA’s goals of creating a solid foundation for the medical tourism industry.

The MTA’s annual membership meeting and complete congress with educational learning workshops takes place on October 26th -28th, in Los Angeles, with an expectation up to 2,000 attendees, while last year’s was comprised of more than 750 attendees in San Francisco.  

We now have launched smaller regional conferences that have greater attendance than any other conference in the world.  Our first regional conference takes place in Monterrey, Mexico, called Latin America Medical Tourism & Global Health Congress, www.latinamericamedicaltourismcongress.com and is expected to have up to 400 attendees.  

At the time of writing this article, all 20 booths were already sold out, and it is expected that between 50 to 100 corporate buyers of healthcare will be in attendance to learn and to network.

The regional congresses are extremely affordable to put on and therefore allowing us to offer registration fees that are sometimes four to six times less than other conference companies.  The governments we partner with also make available a budget for us to fly in “corporate buyers”, which simply other conference companies do not do, because they are more concerned with maximizing their profit than with creating good networking opportunities.  

Our next regional conference is being planned for the Spring of 2010 in Asia where we are hoping to have approximately 800 to 1,000 attendees, and at least 150 “corporate buyers”.   Besides bringing in the best expert speakers, we really try to focus on growing the industry through facilitating networking and the creation of solid business relationships.

Jonathan  Edelheit

Jonathan  Edelheit  is  President  of  the Medical Tourism Association with a long history in the healthcare industry, providing third  party  administration  services  for fully  insured, self-funded and mini-medical plans to large employers groups.

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