For years, I've been sponsoring continuing education events for dentists at least once a week and found it to be the best, fastest and easiest way to connect with clients and build my business. More effective than sales calls, direct mail or dental journal advertising, this marketing strategy enables you to meet and network with 10, 20 or 100-plus dentists in a relaxed environment. It's especially useful for labs that want to capture the attention of their local target market.
You don't have to start with full-day events, week-long cruises or destination trips; you can begin simply. Here are some tips for getting started and maximizing the success of your educational programs:
Pick the topic and speaker
You must truly be committed to providing a high level of education so dentist-attendees leave the seminar with more knowledge and/or skills than they walked in with. Provide great value, not commercials; you want attendees coming back and you want to solicit great testimonials!
Focus on topics that will help your dentist-clients take their practice to the next level and sell dentistry to their patients. The latest trends in rotary endo, bonding, implants, overdenture procedures and All on 4 are good topics.
Get to know all--and I mean all--the vendors who sell to the dentists in your target area so you can ask them for speaker recommendations. They are a tremendous resource, especially the implant reps who typically have a great rapport and a lot of interaction with their dentist-customers. You can also get speaker ideas from internet forums and dental journals.
When we began sponsoring big names like Howard Farran, Ross Nash or Paul Homoly, we developed a reputation as a lab on the forefront of dentistry and one that can connect the local community with highly acclaimed dentists. We've had many dentists who never even attended our courses start doing business with us because they want to be associated with a progressive laboratory.
Select a venue
If you have a nice facility, hold your events there. If you opt for a hotel or restaurant, consider a higher-end one that is easy to find and has sufficient parking. Keep in mind that hotels often charge a room rental fee in addition to the food and beverage you order; restaurants with private dining rooms tend not to do this, making them the less expensive option. Always get quotes from two or three different venues.
Some speakers need audio visual equipment so find out their needs as well as what equipment the venue has; some hotels and restaurants have projector screens you can use for free. If they don't have what you need, I recommend renting the equipment rather than bringing your own: you want to have the time to network with the dentists, not be responsible for handling the AV equipment.
It can be hard to estimate the number of attendees in advance. So when talking to the hotel or restaurant about attendance, start with a lower number and make sure the room can accommodate additional people so you can increase the number as the event date gets closer.
Ask about the cancellation policy and make sure you have an acceptable arrangement in the rare instance you need to cancel or postpone the event (it can happen!). I've been able to negotiate a "credit" in the amount of my deposit toward a future meeting.
When I charge tuition for a course, I also have my own cancellation policy for attendees. First, I offer a discount to dentists who register at least two months before the event or to the first 50 dentists who register. If someone cancels, he doesn't get a refund but can apply the tuition to another event within the next 12 months (not transferrable, of course). This allows him to feel safe in registering early knowing he won't lose his money if an emergency comes up.
Remember, everything is negotiable. For example, after I decided on a particular hotel and called the representative to get a contract, I asked him if he could do any better on the room rental; he immediately lowered the price $100.
Getting your courses approved for continuing education credits is a lengthy process but it's very important. Since dentists are required to have a certain number of credits each year, courses that are approved for credits can really draw attendees.
Contact the ADA and AGD (www.ada.org and www.agd.org) to find how to become a national provider of credits. The initial application is very long and requires a fee; there's also a renewal process and a lot of ongoing recordkeeping. Your state dental board must approve the course for credits but it generally accepts ADA- and AGD-approved sponsors of continuing education programs.
Cover your costs
You can charge tuition to help cover your expenses for food, room rental, speaker fees, audio visual equipment and marketing. In addition, you can offset costs by inviting dental product manufacturers and suppliers that sell to dentists in your area to pay for a display table and/or a few minutes to speak to the group. Here's the real power of networking with vendors: If they're coming to your event to speak or sponsor a display table, ask them to distribute your invitations to area dentists and help promote your event!
You can also invite non-dental vendors such as a local bank, payroll company or credit card company to participate. Getting multiple vendors involved--each paying $200 to $300--can make the difference between losing money and coming out ahead. However, avoid having vendors in the same category, such as two different dental product suppliers (they'll appreciate this!).
Get the word out
You can find the best speakers, negotiate the finest venues and provide credits but if the room is not filled, all can be lost. So you must commit to marketing the event in order to make it a success.
For evening or one-day courses, start promoting your show two to three months in advance. If you're planning a longer program such as an educational cruise or destination event, start sooner.
We've used a variety of methods including direct mail, eblasts, print ads and telemarketing. You can get lists of dentists from mailing list companies, dental journals, Google searches and state ADA offices.
Here's a cost-cutting tip for direct mail: invite one or two vendors to participate in and share the cost of your direct mail campaign. You can stuff your invitation with the vendor flyer and split the costs of the mailing with them. If you're too busy to print, fold and insert the pieces, use a local mailing house: it does everything for you and is usually a good value.
Make sure all the people who answer the phone in your laboratory know all about your upcoming events and have a supply of seminar registration forms that include name, address, phone, fax, email, how they heard about the seminar and credit card information for the tuition.
Telemarketing has been an extremely successful marketing strategy for us. We use two outside telemarketing firms and both are very powerful. To maximize our efforts when talking with the receptionist about an upcoming event, we also ask for an appointment to visit the dentist and go over our latest services.
One telemarketing firm helped us bring in over $100,000 worth of business last year through appointments it made for personal office visits.
Take a leadership role
Any program you sponsor is a valuable chance to network with a captive audience. To maximize this opportunity, take a visible leadership role as the meeting facilitator: welcome the audience, explain the agenda and continuing education credits, introduce the speaker, acknowledge the vendors, remind them to silence their cell phones, and take 30 seconds to talk about your laboratory and/or upcoming events (of course, you've already left your laboratory handouts on the seats). If you take a break, you need to get things going again and wrap up the program with closing remarks.
It's very important to stay in the room and pay attention to your speaker. Even if you've heard the speaker 100 times before, act like it's the first time. Dentists will notice you're taking the time to learn with them. If vendors are at the meeting, they shouldn't stay in the room unless they plan on listening to the speaker; they cannot be talking or distracting to the registrants.
To continuously improve your program offerings and solicit testimonials, ask attendees to complete a short feedback survey about the speaker, content, venue and registration process and include space for comments. You may want to include a box for dentists to check if they want more information about your laboratory and/or to set up an appointment with you.
Also, don't hand out the continuing education information documentation until the end of the program. I give them their credit details in exchange for their survey.
Once you get started in this arena, you'll find study clubs and specialists calling you for programs, speakers and ideas. You can be the resource for education in your area, propelling your laboratory to the forefront of your marketplace.
Event Planning Tips
1. If you have a nice facility, hold your event at your laboratory to show it off and save money.
2. Otherwise, find a higher-end place that's easy to find and has sufficient parking.
3. Get several price quotes; remember to ask about audio visual costs.
4. Set the room classroom style; it gives everyone more room and is more comfortable.