SmileCon was awesome. Is it enough to save large shows?

By Theresa Pablos, DrBicuspid.com editor in chief

October 15, 2021 -- LAS VEGAS - The ADA spent the past two years reimagining its annual meeting from the ground up. The result was a lively and invigorating three-day event filled with education, products, and interactive experiences. But only time will tell whether the changes are enough to draw large crowds in the post-COVID-19 era.

In August 2019, the ADA began rethinking its meeting. The team analyzed past survey findings and hired a marketing design firm to make the experience a celebration of dentistry for ADA members. They also looked at dental, nonhealthcare, and corporate events.

The ADA hired a design firm to help reimagine its annual meeting.
The ADA hired a design firm to help reimagine its annual meeting.

"It's really getting at the heart of the member, right?" ADA spokesperson Catherine Mills told DrBicuspid.com. "That's what this needs to be about: strengthening, supporting, and giving a really good time to our members."

Then the pandemic struck. While the ADA had the advantage of already revamping the design of its meeting, the team still had to address important health and safety questions, such as requirements around masking, testing, and vaccination.

"You have to raise the bar as high as you can, for the most amount of people, for as little bit of variance in the process as possible," Mills said. "No. 1 is safety. No. 2 is logistics."

Staff would complete a health and safety check before attendees could enter SmileCon.
Staff would complete a health and safety check before attendees could enter SmileCon.

To help strike the right balance, Mills and her team attended multiple shows in advance of the ADA's own conference. The ADA incorporated some of the measures the team experienced at SmileCon, such as giving attendees the option to use the Clear app for quick and easy health screening each day.

So did the effort to reimagine the ADA meeting pay off? I'd say yes.

The enthusiasm around the meeting was palpable. While some of that was spurred by seeing friends and colleagues in person for the first time in two years, the show design itself also helped facilitate both long-awaited reunions and friendly introductions to new acquaintances.

The exhibit hall floor, dubbed Dental Central, featured interactive experiences, including this paint-by-number poster by mental health organization Hope for The Day.
The exhibit hall floor, dubbed Dental Central, featured interactive experiences, including this paint-by-number poster by mental health organization Hope for The Day.

The reimagined design of SmileCon also made the experience feel cohesive -- from the digital banners overhead to the inviting spaces thoughtfully placed throughout the main floor. Even the bathroom mirrors had joyful branding inviting attendees to smile -- behind their masks, of course.

Catherine Mills
Catherine Mills.

SmileCon drew more than 7,000 attendees -- a number at the high end of the ADA's own expectations, Mills noted. However, it was understandably well below attendance levels from past shows. A 2012 meeting in San Francisco drew 35,074 people, according to an ADA News article.

The question remains whether the reimaging alone will continue to draw dental professionals to the ADA meeting and other large shows. Or in the spirit of the work-from-home boon, will professionals opt to attend virtual lectures or smaller shows closer to home?

It's likely too soon to say. The pandemic is far from over, and many still feel unsafe traveling. But for the ADA and many attendees, the event was a win.

"Ninety-eight percent or 99% of feedback has been super positive," Mills said. "I'm really happy that people are getting it. They're embracing what SmileCon is, and I'm feeling that. I'm seeing that."


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