If you’re in healthcare, you know HIMSS.

It’s the largest healthcare IT conference in the world, attracting tens of thousands of attendees and exhibitors every year. It’s incredibly well run, offers a variety of educational opportunities and top-notch speakers, and it’s a hot spot for networking and deal making.

It ain’t cheap

HIMSS can also be expensive. The attendee cost this year is $1225 for HIMSS members and $1325 for non-members. That’s for a full conference pass. There are add-ons and discounted prices for specific groups like students and government, but most folks fall into the general pricing camp. Then there’s the cost to exhibit if you’re a vendor and planning to go that route, which is where we’ll focus most of this article.

To exhibit or not to exhibit

Exhibit fees are by the square foot with any number of other fees tacked on. This year, the cost per square foot is $37-$47. So, if you have a 10×10 booth, your base fee is anywhere from $3700-$4700. Then there’s shipping, labor, electricity, internet, travel, extra meeting rooms, etc., not to mention costs to market your participation, giveaways, client dinners, etc. It adds up. Considering some booths are the size of a city block with multi-media presentations, coffee bars, and celebrity guests, it’s easy to imagine how the costs can grow exponentially.

Then there’s the matter of booth location. Ah yes, one of the most hotly contested issues among sales executives and marketing/event teams. “Why are we stuck way in the back near the loading dock?” “This location sucks.” “I can’t believe we wasted our money. No one will ever find us back here.” Sound familiar?

“Why are we stuck in the back by the loading dock?”

Just a little insight for ye who beat up your event teams for less-than-stellar exhibit locations. They didn’t do it on purpose and it’s often not something they can control. HIMSS has a very sophisticated booth selection process and it’s not a first-come first-served approach. No, no. It’s based on a point system (which I will not attempt to explain in this post). Suffice to say, if you’re a current exhibitor, you are assigned a day and time to choose your booth for next year during the current year’s conference. That means if booth selection opens on Monday at 8AM and you get assigned Wednesday at 2PM, you get to choose from what’s left following two and a half days of cherry-picking by other companies. If you happen to miss your appointment (take our advice, don’t miss your appointment), you get lumped in with general booth selection which opens after all of the scheduled booth selections are complete. This is not where you want to be! Even worse, if you skip a year and don’t exhibit, you lose all the points and status you had accrued, going to the bottom of the heap when you do decide to exhibit again.

This is why so many companies – every year – debate whether they should go to HIMSS. Should we go this year? If we go, should we exhibit or just send people?

The key to deciding = having clear goals

Here’s what I tell anyone who asks those questions: the answers depend on your goals for the event, which you should generally have in place the year before. And you’d be surprised (or maybe you wouldn’t be) at the number of puzzled looks that statement generates.

I’ll break it down for you: if you don’t have goals for the event, don’t go – it will be a waste of time and money. It’s that simple. (And that goes for any conference, event, meeting, etc.) HIMSS offers incredible opportunities, but if you don’t have a plan, you’re not going to capitalize on any of them. Also, understand the reality of the exhibit hall. If you’re a new company or new to HIMSS, or you’re registering to exhibit late in the game, you need to understand that your odds of getting choice exhibit space are slim to none. It will also take time to build up your points and status (just like you might with an airline program), which affects your place in line (think Southwest) when it comes to selecting space for next year.

So back to the question – do you go or not? If you go, do you exhibit? Again, that depends on your goals, which typically fall into one or more of these categories: lead generation, networking, client/ prospect interaction, education, brand building, research and intelligence gathering. HIMSS is an investment and should be treated that way, so the better prepared you are, the better the chances for a positive ROI.

If your goal is solely to gather market and competitive intelligence, you probably don’t need to exhibit. Get a full conference pass so you can attend sessions and walk the exhibit hall. If you’re planning a major announcement with a goal of elevating your brand awareness, however, you’re going to want to have a physical presence on the show floor, in the most visible spot possible, to complement all of your other marketing and public relations efforts (i.e. simply having a booth is not a strategy – it’s part of one).

Goals are as varied as the nearly 1300 vendors exhibiting at this year’s event. Your goals should be unique to your company’s needs and growth strategy. It’s not brain surgery and needn’t be overly formal, but it does require effort to define the goals, align them to a tactical plan, and socialize them with your teams. You also need to measure the results so you have clear insight into what worked, what didn’t, and whether you’re getting value. Some companies do this beautifully and automatically. It’s part of their DNA. Others – for any number of reasons – miss this important step. Those are the ones finding themselves in the same Groundhog Day debate every year about whether to exhibit.

The answer

The answer is simple. If you treat HIMSS like the investment it is, you’ll naturally establish goals and key performance measures, along with a tactical plan for achieving those goals. You’ll measure your results post-show, figure out how you fared, what value was achieved, and how you can improve next year.

Treat HIMSS like an investment or don’t go.