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HomemistoryConference Fatigue: Too much of a good thing?

Conference Fatigue: Too much of a good thing?

Continuing professional development is a crucial and compulsory part of practising as an optometrist, but with attendances at major conferences declining and an increasingly chaotic annual conference calendar, supplemented by a myriad of private seminars and online education, can there be too much of a good thing?

The emphasis on continuing professional development (CPD) as a licensing requirement has led to an explosion of CPD events. It is not just the various professional associations that are getting in on the act – increasingly it is private organisations, buying groups and ophthalmologists that are offering CPD activities to optometrists.

This year even ODMA, traditionally a trade exhibition only, has entered the CPD market, adding a conference to the event that boasts 40.5 CPD points.

Optometrists are required to do just 40 points of continuing education each year or 80 points every two years.

…the Optometry Association of Australia’s online CPD calendar recorded 578 separate CPD events, offering a staggering 3,787 CPD points over the year

Last year, the Optometry Association of Australia’s online CPD calendar recorded 578 separate CPD events, offering a staggering 3,787 CPD points over the year.

In the first four months of this year, 164 events worth 932 CPD points already have been accredited and added to the OAA’s calendar. Of particular interest is that 577 points offered are face-to-face. To put that in context, only 24 of the 80 points – or just 12 a year – must be earned in face-to-face activities. The rest can be accumulated in a variety of ways – online, via DVD and through self-directed learning.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Optometrists Association Australia National Professional Services Manager, Mr. Jared Slater, says the public listing is not representative of all accredited CPD; some CPD providers choose not to have their accredited CPD activity published, and approved providers are not obligated to publish their self-accredited CPD activities via the OAA calendar.

“At the end of the day, we are crowded with education suppliers,” Optometry Association Australia (OAA) NSW/ACT Chief Executive Officer Andrew McKinnon told mivision.

“There’s so much CPD that we don’t know about – the huge bulk of CPD is offered by ophthalmology practices who run evening, half day or full day seminars for their referring optometrists.”

Clearly, choice and flexibility is good for optometrists, ensuring ample opportunity to fill the annual quota, at a time and manner that suits them.

But there are ramifications to the seeming oversupply of CPD opportunities and questions are now being raised about whether it is sustainable and whether there are downsides to an excess of education.

Flexibility and Choice

Asked about the seeming glut of continuing education, the OAA at both state and national levels cannot see a problem.

“Optometrists Association Australia, through the State Division conferences and their smaller tailored professional development activities, is committed to providing practising optometrists with a variety of professional development activities in order to fulfill their registration requirements with the Optometry Board,” Mr. Slater said.

“Further, the Association recognises continuing professional development is essential for optometrists to maintain competence and continue to develop the skills required to deliver the quality of
care the community expects.

“The Association feels that it is a positive thing to have a wide variety of choice for CPD in Australia for practising optometrists. Practising optometrists are busy and Australia is large so flexibility is key. Throughout the year there is a variety of CPD on offer and with the type of technology now available, there is likely to be greater opportunity for diversity in the delivery and content of CPD activities in the future,” he said.

OAA Victoria Chief Executive Officer Terri Smith said having choices of CPD conferences was a positive thing and that it was particularly important for the OAA to be a key player in the CPD market, as members could be assured of independent, relevant content on a variety of topics.

It is hard to argue with these sentiments.

But, on the other hand, major optometry conferences and CPD events held by the professional associations are, to some extent, being cannibalised.

Mr. McKinnon gave the example of a recent regional CPD seminar series hosted by OAA NSW/ACT. He queried the lack of interest by his members, and found it was due to the large number of private CPD accredited seminars held in the area.

And while organisers of the major optometry conferences are putting on a brave face, attendance levels are trending down as optometrists become more selective about which conference(s) they attend each year.

Much lower than expected registrations at AVC, held on the Gold Coast in April, for example – down to less than 500 registrations this year, compared with a steady 600 registrations in most previous years – have been attributed to ODMA being held just down the road in Brisbane this July, which will offer a comprehensive – and significantly cheaper – education program.

Trade Expos

The OAA’s Mr. Slater told mivision that the internal calendar of OAA conferences “was planned with competing events in mind”.

The trade expos attached to the large conferences are a crucial part of keeping conference registration costs down. Suppliers to the eye care professions invest tens of thousands of dollars in supporting conferences when you take into account the expense of space, stand, marketing, transport and staff. As exhibitors at the trade expos they say there’s a knock-on impact on the conference schedule being too crowded.

When asked about the national conference calendar, Designs for Vision National Optometry Manager Will Robertson said: “Something has to change”.

He said the number of buyers attending major conferences is diminishing, but costs are escalating and the conference calendar is becoming more hectic.

“The industry is going through a transition phase, with vertically integrated companies adversely effecting expenditure in both wholesale and retail, and multiple options for gaining CPD points. The flow-on effects see a reduction in earnings for attendees and exhibitors as well as a reduction of attendees at conferences.

“On top of this, attendees at the traditional optometry meetings have less time to spend with the exhibitors due to changes in their CPD point systems, and with therapeutic qualifications and corporate events during the conferences as well.

“I believe that in order to get the most for all parties, the associations and an exhibiting body like ODMA should work closely to plan conferences to make them more viable for the whole sector,” said Mr. Robertson.

When people like Mr. Robertson and Optimed’s Robert Sparkes tell you they’re on the road most weekends of the year, you’d think they’re exaggerating – but they’re not.

Equipment manufacturers like Designs for Vision, Optimed and Device Technologies, attend expos at both optometry and ophthalmology events so their conference schedule is busier than most.

Return on Investment

Gary Wyatt, National Sales Manager with Device Technologies, said some of the major exhibitors, including his own company, are starting to question the return on investment of attending the major optometric conferences.

“Ultimately we need to see return on investment, if we don’t see a return in the long term from a particular meeting we need to question our involvement in the future.

He said significant investments of time and money were required to exhibit with an increase in the number of conferences now being held throughout the country combined with the escalating costs of attendance. Consolidation of these meetings should be considered.

He said technology that allowed CPD point tracking via a lanyard and pin code to ensure attendance for an entire session had also led to a decrease in the number of people taking a session off to visit the exhibition hall.

“We (exhibitors) have got to question why we are underpinning these conferences, if they are only there to get CPD points,” Mr. Wyatt said.

“There are so many opportunities for optometrists to get CPD – there’s CPD through the likes of mivision.” (Ed note: last year, mivision’s online education articles accounted for approximately 10 per cent of the CPD points accumulated by Australia’s 4,400 optometrists.)

A significant Investment

For many equipment companies the cost to exhibit can cost more than AUD$100,000 when space, stand, transport and staff costs are taken into account.

When Optimed set up a three-booth stand at SRC in Melbourne this month, it sent a semi-trailer of equipment from the group’s headquarters in Sydney. Six staff members were scheduled to work a full day setting up. The expo itself ran for three days, and then a fifth day was spent dismantling the equipment. Then, Optimed staff went back to work in the office and on the road for the rest of the week.

This process is repeated for each OAA state conference, as well as educational conferences and supporting industry events for the buying groups.

“We attend all these events, perhaps too many but the reality is that there’s 30-40 per cent less buyers as a result of expanding corporatisation and current economic conditions. Costs are escalating and the time we’re spending is increasing. We’re not the only company feeling the pain,” Optimed’s Managing Director Robert Sparkes said.

He said while conference exhibitions were a “valuable way to expose ourselves to the market”, a more collaborative and constructive approach was needed with the industry and the various organisers to allow continued support of these conferences.

Shifting Priorities

Some major companies are switching away from conference exhibitions to other promotional tools.

Late last year, Transitions announced it would change its strategic focus from trade shows to engage more directly with consumers.

Transitions Marketing and Retail Services Manager Kerry Brock said while Transitions’ decision was not a result of dissatisfaction with trade shows, there was no measurable return on investment from them.

“We don’t have direct results from trade shows. We were purely there as a presence and to maintain relationships with eye care professionals,” Ms. Brock said.

“There’s no direct ROI (return on investment) in trade shows and they are extremely expensive.”

She said Transitions had decided it could better support the industry by educating and promoting directly to consumers, and in doing so, drive them to practices.

NOSA

Several exhibitors contacted by mivision spoke of how NOSA – the National Ophthalmic Suppliers Association – had facilitated to positive changes in the ophthalmology conference calendar both for the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Ophthalmologists (RANZCO) and for exhibitors.

NOSA was established about 20 years ago. The organisation’s secretary is Ted Butler, who says its role is to provide free assistance to the College and any of the related specialist or satellite groups with exhibition planning. NOSA, which was set up in 1991, is not a conference planner and will only deal with the exhibition aspects of meetings.

Mr. Butler said NOSA does not specify terms “in any shape or form”, but will advise an event planner if proposed fees are likely to be seen as too robust, if facilities provide logistical difficulties for exhibitors, or if there are clashes in dates for proposed events.

“NOSA is an intermediary contact, the conference planners give us the proposed meeting rundown and we then take that to our members to gauge and report back on their level of interest,” Mr. Butler said.

Gary Wyatt, at Device Technologies, said NOSA had helped contribute to a shift in attitudes in ophthalmology towards industry exhibitions.

“NOSA gives the ophthalmic industry a ‘voice’ with RANZCO and other relevant ophthalmology organisations. A similar organisation to act as an intermediary for optometry conferences would be a good idea,” Mr. Wyatt said.

Mr. Butler agrees that over the past 20 years, the improved relationship between the College and industry had led to “greater appreciation of what can be done” when conference planners and exhibitors work together.

Despite the improvements, Mr. Butler said there were still occasional scheduling conflicts, citing a “ridiculous” period in February/March this year, when there were six meetings in a five-week period in widely disparate areas of Australia.

RANZCO CEO David Andrews says the College understands the issues surrounding conference schedules and has recently renewed its focus on scheduling to ensure a more even distribution of events.

“All branches, committees and special interest groups have been asked to give RANZCO advanced warning of when they are likely to schedule meetings, to ensure there are no conflicts,” said Dr. Andrews.

“RANZCO’s meetings (with the exception of the Congress) are coordinated off-site by individual committees. While this gives them a unique flavour, it’s in everyone’s interest that we start to coordinate with these committees to ensure meetings aren’t too close together on the calendar,” he added.

What Problem?

Not everyone sees a problem with the number and scheduling of optometry conferences and trade shows. mivision spoke with several exhibitors who confirmed they were strong supporters of conferences in their
current formats and who did not find the scheduling onerous.

Danni Man, Marketing and Communications Manager at Carl Zeiss, conceded that “traffic was a bit slower”
at AVC this year, but “I don’t think there’s a problem”.

Similarly, John Nicola from Optiqueline, said he was a strong supporter of the major conferences and felt, with some exceptions, they were “pretty well scattered”.

OAA Victoria Chief Executive Officer Terri Smith said “it is important that optometrists have access to CPD.

“There are a lot of CPD choices out there. Optometrists can make active choices about education – our members are smart enough to make informed decisions.”

She believes the traditional format of a three-day conference with expo was still working well.

However, OAA NSW/ACT Chief Executive Officer Andrew McKinnon said the concerns of major exhibitors needed to be taken seriously.

“If I had exhibitors coming to me saying I had a problem, then I have a problem,” he said.

Mr. McKinnon said the OAA NSW/ACT had abandoned the traditional conference model because it just wasn’t working.

Last year, after a hiatus of several years, the OAA NSW/ACT re-entered the education conference marketplace with a one-day ‘Super Sunday’ format, which offers back-to-back educational seminars for 10 hours.

It proved an immediate hit, with more than 500 attendees in its first year.

“We know that in our market (NSW and ACT), a traditional conference would not work. We know that from experience. For optometry practices, Saturday and Monday are the busiest days. The one-day in the week when you are guaranteed to get people is a Sunday,” said Mr. McKinnon.

He said the Super Sunday format allowed optometrists to “get in, get their points and get out. From 8am to 6pm non-stop, all day. Done. Finished.”

He said the Super Sunday format was in its infancy but he intended to keep talking to exhibitors, and keep modifying the format to suit them.

“Exhibitors have to get value out of this for it to work,” he said.

Mr. McKinnon said coordinating conference schedules was not a simple matter and was often dependent on matters outside of organisers’ control.

For example, he said the planned closure of the Sydney Convention Centre in December this year has forced conference organisers generally to search for alternate venues – both in Sydney and other capital cities – making it more difficult to secure preferred venues on preferred dates.

ODMA

Many of the people we spoke to for this story indicated this year’s ODMA would be a major barometer for whether exhibitors would continue to support trade shows.

While conceding that ODMA had “introduced CPD to attract people to it”, Mr. Wyatt said there was concern about the move away from an exhibition-only event”.

“From our perspective should CPD points be a driving motivator in attendance at these meetings, I believe it would have made sense to combine ODMA and AVC this year.

“We have committed to ODMA and have had collaborative dialogue with the organisers from the outset in order to make this a successful meeting for all involved, obviously there are some unknowns with the change to Brisbane but we are positive for a great meeting.”

Expertise Events Managing Director

Mr. Gary Fitz-Roy, who is responsible for pulling together the ODMA event for the first time this year, said “I think it’s difficult to put ODMA into the mix of other conferences as its very different event. It’s a well-established major event with a comprehensive exhibition that has no
direct comparison.

“The new conference addition is about providing value not only in the cost of attending compared to the current market but also in time, its efficient to attend whilst seeing such a large showcase of products and services. We listen to exhibitors and visitors to try to work with them and I think the total offering of this year’s ODMA has so many positives connected with it. The winner will be the visitors who we very much value and believe we are delivering on their wants and needs.”

Conference planners will no doubt measure the success of their event on the number of exhibitors and attendees. Those attending the conference will measure its success on the quality of its speakers and the education program. Success for exhibitors will be gauged on the sales generated.

There is much at stake: Healthy exhibitions will ensure conference costs are kept down. For the major optometry conferences to survive when so many choices for CPD exist, they must be cost competitive for both the exhibitors and attendees. If the concerns of major exhibitors are acknowledged, and if, through increased cooperation and communication, they can be addressed, everybody will win.