The annual NAVC Conference remains the veterinary industry’s most popular gathering, attracting a record 17,328 people earlier this year.
North American Veterinary Community (NAVC) could have repeated the three-hotel setup in 2017. Instead, come February in Orlando, Fla., the conference will open nearby at the Orange County Convention Center.
NAVC’s leader, CEO Tom Bohn, met with Veterinary Practice News to discuss the new venue, a new name for the conference and the organization’s future. If Bohn gets his way, the American Veterinary Medical Association better watch out.
Veterinary Practice News: At what point did you or the board say, “We have to move the conference; it’s not working.”
Bohn: It’s been in conversation for 10 years. Just like anything, you get comfortable in what you’re doing and you don’t want to change. When this leadership team came in—myself, our CFO and others—we looked at it and realized that there were so many inefficiencies and that we could enhance the customer experience if we did some things differently.
We had 150 people on a wait list to exhibit and we had two exhibit halls, and one hall always felt like it was better than the other.q`
When they completed the pedestrian bridges from the convention center to three hotels, it really made sense to take the leap. We had some penalties that we had to pay to make the move.
You broke a contract?
We broke it, yeah. It was a conscious decision, but it was much more effective to do that than to keep letting the revenue go.
You ran out of space at your traditional venues—Gaylord Palms, Orlando World Center Marriott and Caribe Royale.
We had people stacked up outside of CE sessions. We had no more session rooms.
For 2017, in the entire western portion of the convention center, we have completely sold out the exhibit floor and used up all the classroom space. We will have to use three adjacent hotels for additional classroom space.
And the busing—we’ll still do it to outside hotels, but that constant loop was a grind, getting you to the Gaylord versus the Marriott.
The move takes everyone to the convention center, and you’re either entirely there or you’re walking to specialty events. All the entertainment will be in the Hilton or the Hyatt. Darius Rucker, who is performing, and Robin Roberts from “Good Morning America”—they’ll be in those nice hotel ballrooms.
It sounds like NAVC has already outgrown the West Building at the convention center.
This year we’re in the West Building because we had to get that space. We’ll have about 95 percent of the conference there, which is great. The new space is about 50 percent larger than what we had at the three previous hotels.
Then we go to the North/ South Building in 2018.
What other changes will attendees notice?
First, they’re going to see a lot more people in terms of people directing them, people helping them. We’re almost doubling our temporary staff because you have only one chance to make a good first impression.
We have everything mapped out—the process of parking, getting out of cars, getting into the convention center, going to registration. Every point of ingress or egress, we’ve been walking it to make sure we have people ready to assist—golf carts, directional pointers, information desks.
They’ll also notice a lot more attention to flow, where things are located. We’re able to put tracks together so it makes more sense.
We’re also able to space things out more efficiently so you’re not rushing from one segment to the other. We’re doing a couple more general-type sessions to kick things off, using a lot more technology you’ll see more electronic billboards and the like—and we will have a much better app to help folks pinpoint where they are and where they’re going.
We’re working with an architectural group to help us take this gigantic building and make it intimate inasmuch as you can make a convention center intimate.
There also will be minibuses looping between the hotels constantly. If you don’t want to walk across the bridges to get to the Hilton, you just hop on one and it will take you right over.
And we’ll have free pedicabs and a train.
A little train that you can sit in the back of and go. You can call it a kids’ train, but we call it fun transportation.
Will there be more continuing education?
It will be up about 20 percent. In the past we had that pressure; we didn’t have enough classrooms. We’ll have more hands-on labs and more lecture-based classes. But the move also gives us an opportunity to do more things, like meet the professors and networking types of events.
What about food service?
At our show, you go in and pay for your food with your badge, and money is left on it. In the convention center, where all the meals will be, it will not only be the normal type of food, but there will be Burger Kings and Subways, because you’re able to contract. If someone wants to get a latte, well, go get a latte. If you want to go get a burger or a quinoa salad, you’re able to do that as well.
The shuttle bus service in past years was very efficient, taking people from their hotels to the conference and back. Will that continue?
Yeah. It’s a big expense, but we think it’s a part of what distinguishes the experience. Because here is the deal: You have vets who want to stay right on-site and spend the money, and you have those who only want to spend $99 a night, and that’s fine with us. So we want to give those $99 alternatives and make sure it’s easy, so we provide busing to get them in.
How did NAVC plan for this?
We’ve been planning two shows consecutively now for the past two years. So while we just put on the last one, we were well into planning for 2017.
Who did the work?
Staff and consultants. We also have architects, show coordinators, external people like Freeman [convention management] and others who have been working on site maps and aerial designs and how it’s all going to come together.
The conference moved from January in past years to February in 2017 and 2018. Will all future shows be in February?
No. We go back to our traditional dates over Martin Luther King weekend starting in 2019. February was the only date block we were able to get at the convention center.
A new name for the conference? What will it be, and why?
I can’t announce it yet, but we will roll it out in February. The name will change because we have so many partners at our conference—other associations that have tracks there and miniconferences. The 2017 conference will have the old name, and then poof!
Your organization, North American Veterinary Community, has traditionally been headquartered up in Gainesville, but it appears your footprint is growing in Orlando.
Our larger office is now in Orlando in terms of bodies. Programming, warehousing and VetFolio are in Gainesville. Our administrative, executive, marketing, PR functions—those types of things—are in Orlando.
It was a strategic decision because it’s very, very hard to hire in certain roles in Gainesville. Moving all that to Orlando has been very, very good for us.
How big is North American Veterinary Community?
When I came on board almost four years ago we were budgeted at $11.5 million. Our new budget is going to be $22 million, so we’ve practically doubled over essentially 3½ years. I think that’s kind of indicative of what’s happening with NAVC in general because we’re no longer just a conference.
How many employees?
This year it will be 54. By the end of 2018 we’ll probably be somewhere in the 70s and a $28 million budget.
How else is your organization changing?
So many people know us as the conference, but we’re now publications. We’re stand-up, live, deep, hands-on labs. We’re VetFolio. We’re the Veterinary Innovation Council, which is spearheading the telehealth initiative. We are managing other associations in our industry services practice—there’s about 10 of them we manage collectively under our umbrella.
One interesting thing is that we’re looking to be a market-based alternative to AVMA.
You want to compete with AVMA?
Here’s what I mean by that. At AVMA and typical membership organizations, you join, you pay a fee and you get “X” type of things. It’s all connected—whether you want it or not, you’re going to get it.
So what we’ve done is kind of broken that apart and said, “We’re only going to offer things that our customers really want, and if they don’t want them we’ll get rid of them, whether that’s our conference or our publications. If they’re not No. 1 or No. 2 in their category, they’re gone.”
What we’re about to go into is insurance and advocacy.
Which is what AVMA does.
What we’re hearing, really loud and clear, is that people want alternatives. “We want market-based alternatives that we can vote with our dollars”— we’re hearing that from industry, the practitioners and the techs. It has opened up a huge opportunity for us. We’ve got a number of partners lined up to roll out those initiatives.
The first kind of foray into advocacy was the Veterinary Innovation Council and this telehealth thing.
We have all the key players involved in that. We’re about to roll out a pilot with Texas A&M, testing different technologies, making it so user friendly that it’s a kit and you could say to a practice: “Here is what you need to do. You don’t need to buy expensive technology. Here is how you can expand your practice very easily with some tried-and-true systems that we’ve tested in the field with different types of hospitals.”
That’s quite a change.
It’s happening not just in our profession, it’s happening in a lot of professions, where your legacy membership organizations are struggling under the burden of their membership. People say, “It gets me a magazine, it gets me lobbying, but are they lobbying for exactly what I think is important?” You see a lot of dysfunction in terms of what to pull for and fight against—that type of thing.
On the drawing board is a super PAC, where we’re going to really push, proactively push, for things we think are in the best interest of veterinary professionals. And then a number of insurance products in which we’ll be teaming up with some for-profit companies.
AVMA has the Governmental Relations Division in Washington, D.C. Could NAVC one day have a similar arm?
Sure. That’s all part of the longer-term plan.
Do you see these initiatives as being complementary to AVMA or competitive?
In some ways we’ll be complementary, but in other ways—just like we do with everyone else—it’s a direct battle for the eyes, hearts and minds.
Originally published in the October 2016 issue of Veterinary Practice News. Did you enjoy this article? Then subscribe today!