By Robin Michalon, project associate researcher
International scientific conferences are expensive affairs. Over the decades strategies have been deployed to make them economically viable. The most common item sold by conferences are registration fees, but organizers have long drawn on other sources of income, such as selling advertisement space or leasing exhibition booths.
To highlight the often neglected commercial dimension of scientific conferencing, I draw from my PhD research into one of the most important conference series on Alzheimer’s disease, the “International Conference on Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Disorders” (ICAD). Organized by the USA’s national Alzheimer’s Association (AA), these conferences take place biannually in alternating locations in the USA and in the rest of the world. Their strong research component has made them famous for the biomedical dimension of AD work. they Bring together scientists but also a great diversity of actors whose simultaneous presence is valued and advertised as fostering “new, integrated ways of thinking about the entire spectrum of dementia.”
Since the late 1990s, each conference has been advertised using a dedicated website. The archived websites allow a study of their commercial offerings. The examples discussed here focus on ICADs that took place between 2000 and 2010. They can help us explore the articulation of commercial and scientific dimensions in international conferences.
Who bought advertisement or exhibition “opportunities”?
Commercial partners at ICADs varied greatly in nature. A majority of them sold material or technologies related to research and diagnostics: measuring technologies, biological synthetic products used for experiments, or drugs already on the market. Some scientific media –publishing houses, journals or websites– also leased stands, as well as national or international Alzheimer’s advocacy and self-help associations. They also included professional or disciplinary societies, such as the international psychogeriatric association or university research departments. Some exhibitors sold products for elder customers, e.g. assisted living settings or audio-books including the Bible. State agencies such as the National Institute on Aging or public institutions such as the National Library of Medicine sometimes booked exhibition booths.
Inscribing business practices in the international conference.
In essence, conferences sold space, from conference rooms where ”corporate” or “ancillary” events could be held –part either of the scientific or the social programme–, to three-square meters booths in the “exhibition hall.” “Advertisement spaces” were also proposed, on “Goodies” such as the “distribution bag”, also called the “doctor’s bag,” on which a logo, a message, or an advertisement could be printed. This “plastic tote bag” was left in participants’ hotel rooms before the beginning of the conference, aiming to be the first conference-related objects the participants encountered.
Pricing policies for exhibitions spaces and advertisement opportunities followed a specific hierarchy, the key factor for pricing being “exposure”. An angle booth with two open sides usually cost more than a regular one. Placing a logo on the “doctor’s bag” was four times more expensive than placing an item inside the bag, since it was felt that the logo generated a “captive audience. (p.2)” Organizers promised advertisers would “reach your key market at a time and place where they are most receptive to your message. (p.2)” Accordingly, advertisement appearing both inside and outside the meeting notebook covers was by far the priciest option: “Gets repeat exposure as attendees use the notebook again and again throughout the meeting.” (p.3)
Being visible was only the “first step” of a sequence leading to the purchase of a product. The first moment was visual contact with the exhibitors’ identity through advertisement. This would, ideally, “drive traffic to your booth”, allowing sellers to engage potential buyers in physical interactions. Conference organizers promised that these would:
- “Generate new and untapped leads—broaden your market research;
- Indentify your customer and meet them face-to-face
- Network and exchange ideas with new and current customers
- Establist your brand to a qualified scientific market (…).”
And ultimately, “make hundreds of sales calls in just three days.”
Integrating the commercial and scientific domains: porousness and impermeability.
Conferences sold access to a very specialized group of clients, Alzheimer researchers, made available at given times during the event. At the 2004 conference, this availability was partly materialized through spatial arrangements, since the exhibition space was set up right next to the posters (picture 2). Posters being a key medium for scientific communication during the conference, this spatial cohabitation is telling of the porousness of the commercial and research domains. Wandering from one to the other was intentionally facilitated : in the exhibition space: ”Participants also will enjoy […] open exhibit hall time, during which they may view scientific posters, discuss scientific/clinical issues, and meet with many of the industry’s top exhibitor representatives.”
This porousness reflected researchers’ working life. By introducing publishing companies, funding bodies, and experimental material producers in the event, the conference restituted the heterogeneity of the professional field. The presence of commercial actors at conferences could even constitute an incentive for researchers to participate if they expected collaborations to be initiated or cemented there.
However, conference organizers also took precautions to ensure conferences were perceived as primarily scientific events, most notably through the strict separation implemented between the exhibit spaces and the newsroom, where journalists worked. The newsroom guidelines stated that:
“exhibitor […] staff and representatives are not allowed in the Press Office. As a courtesy to news media representatives ICAD 2006 strongly discourages these individuals from standing outside the Press Office and Press Briefing room in an effort to meet with news media.”
Exhibitors wishing to interact with journalists were asked to formulate a specific request, and were then interviewed in dedicated spaces set aside by the organizers. Given that journalists played an important role in the portrayal of the event for consumption by the broader public, the impermeability between exhibition spaces and the newsroom shows how organizers maintained a scientifically-oriented public identity for their event.
Examples such as the ICAD series in the 1990s and 2000s show that commercial activities were not only present in but contributed to the shape international scientific conferences. They are a window into the complex world in which scientists move in many fields.