Conferences—from scientific meetings and trade shows to educational training events focused on specific skills like lab management—are at the core of scientific innovation. These venues provide lab managers with key opportunities to showcase their work, build future collaborations, and develop essential skills to enhance research capacity. Yet when organizations are forced to reduce operating budgets, travel and conferences for lab personnel and other support teams are often the first line items to be cut.
However, there are ways to maximize the return on investment to make conferences more cost-effective, including selecting conferences that are in line with business and professional goals and taking a proactive approach to sharing new information and skills learned with team members back at the lab. Additionally, the increasing availability of online conference platforms eliminates conference expenses and the need to even leave the lab, improving accessibility to create a more diverse and connected research community.
Selecting the right conference for your goals
Choosing the conference, tradeshow, or meeting that best suits a particular lab’s business or professional development goals depends on the unique requirements of that organization. Those requirements may include the need to identify and develop new customers, learn about new market trends, or simply to pick up some technical know-how.
David Schlesinger, product manager for Luminex Corporation, a biotechnology company that develops, manufactures, and markets biological testing technologies in the clinical diagnostic and life science industries, is responsible for defining product requirements to make life science products work for his customers in the real-world lab setting. It is essential that he collects feedback directly from customers in order to identify needs for new products, improvements on existing products, and additional markets for his company to reach. Therefore, he selects conferences based on whether the scientific focus fits with his products and markets and also the potential number of new customer leads he may generate.
Caitlyn Scaggs, chief growth officer for Polymer Solutions Incorporated (PSI), an FDA-registered and ISO 17025-accredited independent testing lab that analyzes plastic, rubber, and metallic materials, has similar business objectives. She says the top reasons to attend conferences are to increase her company’s visibility, deepen relationships with existing clients, and develop new partnerships. To analyze whether a conference is a good fit, she considers factors such as the scientific merit and content of the event and evaluates whether the attendee demographics (e.g., industry, role) match their target clients. Additionally, Scaggs advises, “Another great approach is to simply ask key clients which shows they plan to attend. It is so obvious and so effective.”
In addition, Scaggs views conferences as a valuable opportunity for their lab experts to stay on top of industry trends and developments, while allowing employees the chance to explore new cultures and places. It is a core principle of PSI to encourage “curiosity and the pursuit of knowledge” among employees, and conferences are an excellent channel to reinforce these values.
Overall, the decision-making process for selecting a conference should focus on venues that provide mutual benefits for both the employee and the sponsoring employer. As Kirstin Roundy, a freelance science writer and former research scientist, emphasizes, “Without opportunities for growth, people stagnate. Science is all about moving forward; if [lab managers] can’t move forward, the lab can’t move forward.”
Roundy suggests lab personnel take a diverse approach by selecting conferences that align with their own professional development needs and further the capabilities of the lab. This approach includes attending a variety of events to increase technical know-how and complementary skills in areas like project management and science communications, which will benefit both the lab and the individual’s career growth.
Conferences offer additional benefits to lab members in the form of networking and building future research collaborations. Further, Roundy comments, “Getting out of the laboratory can be a great morale booster. It’s easy to lose sight of what brought you to science. Being in an environment where you can learn new things and talk to other scientists can give you the boost you need to go back [to the lab] and do that experiment again.”
Getting your money’s worth from a conference
Schlesinger evaluates the success of a conference based on the number of new customer names collected, any collaborations that result (e.g., customer agreeing to test out a new product), and whether he learned anything new. As far as the benefits of conferences, Schlesinger states, “I can say with certainty that it would be nearly impossible for my company to be successful in our markets if we did not attend conferences. It’s a way to advertise, engage with customers, analyze the competition, and learn [new] things that will help drive future product development.”
Likewise, Scaggs calculates the return on investment by the total number of resulting business opportunities and how many existing clients they reached, which also demonstrate whether the conference was a good match. She tracks this information by using a well-designed customer relationship management database and assigning specific campaigns for conferences they attended.
In addition to reaching specific business objectives, there are a number of easy ways to further maximize the value of attending conferences by taking advantage of all that a conference has to offer and sharing information with team members back in the office or lab.
While Schlesinger spends most of his time interacting with customers in the exhibitor hall, he also takes advantage of attending talks that relate to his products and markets when his schedule allows. For example, he may attend a scientific talk on an emerging topic to evaluate the need for new lab products that will support this area of research. As Schlesinger explains, “Take Zika virus as an example. I might attend a meeting on Zika virus to get a better understanding of detection methods and overall market size. Can my company build a product to help with the Zika problem? If so, what might the total opportunity be in terms of revenue and market share?”
Additionally Schlesinger looks for opportunities to learn more about the competition: “There have also been times [when] a competitor announced a product or their R&D team gave a scientific talk about the product, and I was able to collect some very important competitive data that would otherwise have been unavailable.” Schlesinger gets more value out of conferences by exchanging information and ideas with the R&D team by holding “download meetings” after an event.
At PSI, Scaggs uses technology to her full advantage to further the company’s presence at a conference and online. This approach includes an effective social media strategy to announce the company’s attendance, live-tweeting events, and post-blogging about the experience. Further, she looks for opportunities to piggyback on the conference trip by setting up in-person meetings with clients who are located in the area.
As a research scientist, Roundy always looked for ways to bring as much information as possible back to the lab. At conferences she would participate in vendor demonstrations on topics ranging from the latest DNA prep kit to software for optimizing literature searches, and then share that information with staff in future lab meetings.
Improving the accessibility of conferences
For lab managers and junior staff, the opportunities to attend a conference may be limited. In academia, professional development resources are often focused on graduate students; while in industry, conference support may be preferentially given to senior lab personnel who need to maintain continuing education or other certification requirements.
However, this limitation simply means that lab managers must be creative in their approaches to finding funding for conferences. Roundy suggests that lab employees take a sales approach when asking for conference support, showing how the lab will benefit and compromising on the terms for attendance. “You need to present your proposal in such a way that the manager can’t say no,” Roundy states. “Make it into a winwin situation.” Options may include offering to pay for partial expenses, working remotely while at a conference, or providing support to other team members at the conference (e.g., help with poster setup).
There are also a wide variety of funding opportunities available to individuals, which include travel grants from professional societies, serving as a volunteer (e.g., scientific judge for poster sessions), and even crowdfunding expenses from family and friends. Another option that Roundy offers, especially for those interested in science communications, is reaching out to conference organizers to write summaries of conference proceedings in exchange for some expenses paid.
Another option is to attend a virtual conference or event from the convenience of the office computer or on a mobile device, which eliminates the expense and the need to even leave the lab. For example, LabRoots Inc., a scientific social networking site, offers an array of free online conferences and educational events on a range of life sciences and clinical topics. As Jennifer Ellis, content management director for LabRoots Inc., explains, “People use computers and technology in their daily work environment anyway, so they are already prepared to attend a virtual conference and be able to benefit from all aspects of it.”
These online conferences offer interactive features similar to the traditional setting, including a networking lounge, exhibitor hall, and scientific posters and presentations. Additional enhanced features include a briefcase function to instantaneously download materials (e.g., presentation handouts, technical inserts) and an on-demand option that allows conference goers to view content and presentations within the virtual environment after an event has concluded.
Online conferences are growing in popularity and attract thousands of viewers per event who appreciate the availability of quality webcast presentations by leading scientific experts in the field and the option to earn free continuing education credits. Online education is part of LabRoots Inc.’s larger mission to help develop a global research community and allow researchers everywhere increased opportunities for networking and collaborations, regardless of whether they have the time or money to travel to a conference. As Ellis explains, “It is part of the open-science philosophy: we really want to get that educational content out there and allow people to have an avenue and channel to get their research and data in front of people who might not normally get a chance to see it.” Overall, she concludes, “This [online format] is a nice way to include everyone and have that large global reach to allow people to advance science.”