Embracing the HIMSS Experience to Maximize Your Return

I used to hate going to HIMSS, but now it’s circled on my calendar as a must-attend event. My attitude completely changed when I embraced everything the conference has to offer.

My first HIMSS was completely forgettable. I had convinced our CEO and CFO to take a chance on the event – successfully arguing that with 30,000 expected attendees we were bound to snag at least one or two “hot prospects”. Rather than get our own booth, we were fortunate enough to secure a kiosk in someone else’s booth. To save even more, I was the lone representative that the company sent to the event.

It was a miserable experience being tethered to the kiosk. Over the three days in the exhibit hall, I amassed a total of 5 meaningful conversations and less than 20 visitors. Two of those conversations were with the CIOs of existing clients. I spent most my time talking to salespeople from the booths around me and checking email.

Lesson 1: Don’t just show up at HIMSS and expect people to “stop by” your booth. The attendees in the HIMSS exhibit hall have specific destinations in mind. They have taken the time to look through the exhibitor guide and have made a list of booths they intend to stop at…and no others. The are very few attendees who just wander the hall.

The following year, about two months ahead of the event, I started reaching out to customers and prospects to arrange meetings while at HIMSS. I managed to schedule over 20 meetings. Sadly, only 4 of those meetings actually happened. Eight people couldn’t find the location of the kiosk I was tethered to and the other eight were asked by their organizations to attend specific sessions to gather notes or talk with the speakers to get advice on current IT projects.

Lesson 2: Having a booth makes it easier for people to find you at HIMSS. It’s nearly impossible to find a specific kiosk in a larger booth space and worse, most of those kiosks are not listed in the HIMSS exhibitor guide.

Lesson 3: Give HIMSS attendees a compelling reason to meet with you. “Having a conversation about your implementation” or “Showing you our latest product” are easy meetings to blow off.

After two years of lackluster performance at HIMSS, I made the decision not to return as a vendor. Instead, I went the following year as an attendee…and that’s when my attitude changed.

As an attendee at my third HIMSS, I was free to roam. I sat in several sessions on topics I was interested in. I watched demos of innovative products on the various showcase stages. I listened to panels at the HIMSS booth. At each one, I had fantastic conversations with the people I sat with. We talked about the current healthcare environment – the challenges they were facing, the issues that were crossing their desks – I never once discussed the products my company offered. I spoke to 50+ people and booked over a dozen follow-up conversations for our sales team in the weeks after the event.

Lesson 4: Listen to HIMSS attendees vs pitch. People hate to be pitched, but they love having conversations with people who show interest in listening to their challenges/problems.

In addition to attending sessions, I went to as many networking events and parties that I could. I got amazing advice from the people at the HIMSS first-time attendee mixer. I learned about the latest Health IT trends from the HIMSS regional wine-and-cheese events and I made many new friends at the Canadian government cocktail party. However, there was one event that changed my HIMSS experience forever – the New Media Meetup.

I was completely blown away by the caliber of people at the event. Everyone I met was a well-respected authority in their field of expertise, a veteran writer/editor for a healthcare publication or a passionate individual who was working to make healthcare better for all of us. Their positive attitude was infectious. This alone made the event memorable, but it was the repeated acts of kindness and the willingness to share knowledge that made it extra special.

When I arrived at the event, I was greeted by two smiling faces. I did not know either of them at the time, but they were both social media/healthcare superstars – Wen Dombrowski and Mandi Bishop. They asked me if I had been to the New Media Meetup before and when I told them I had not, they took it upon themselves to walk me around and introduce me to their friends. Those friends introduced me to their friends and by the end of the night I think I spoke to almost everyone at the event.

I say “spoke” but what I really mean is that I listened to everyone talk. I thought I understood healthcare, but that night I realized just how little I truly knew. So I did the only thing I felt I could, I listened intently and asked a lot of dumb questions. Whenever someone used an acronym I wasn’t familiar with or a mentioned a technology that was new to me, I politely asked what that was. Surprisingly no one got annoyed with me and they each took the time to help me understand what they were talking about. Perhaps it was because I said “I’m sorry but…” ahead of each question (I’m Canadian so saying “sorry” is something we just do), but I know it was mostly because people healthcare are extremely helpful and willing to share what they know.

[Disclosure: I was so impressed with the New Media Meetup that I sponsored the event twice in recent years and am now involved in helping to organize it]

Lesson 5: Ask questions. You’ll be amazed at how willing people at HIMSS are willing to share their knowledge. You will not find a better place with more experts to ask questions of, than at HIMSS. Take advantage of the opportunity to learn.

Lesson 6: Embrace the entirety of HIMSS – you never know where you might meet someone. This was the best advice I got from the knowledgeable folks at the New Media Meetup. The key to HIMSS was to embrace every aspect of it, and not focus on just the sessions, exhibit hall or networking events. Everyone at the Meetup shared stories of how they met a future business partner or customer while standing in line for coffee, listening to an in-booth presentation and on the bus back to the hotel.

This doesn’t mean you have to be at EVERY event at HIMSS – a physical impossibility with over two dozen after-parties each night – but it does mean that you should do more than just the sessions and exhibit hall. Go to the networking events. Join meetups. Venture outside of your usual circles.

I suspect that my initial experience with the HIMSS conference mirrors what many vendors go through. If you are heading into HIMSS19 questioning whether being an exhibitor is worth it or not, then I would strongly encourage you to learn from my mistakes and try the following:

  1. Attend at least one session each day and talk to your seat-mates. If you are flying solo then leave your booth unattended in the morning and go to the first session (which usually starts before the exhibit hall is open anyways).
  2. Attend at least one networking event each day. HIMSS has a convenient list of networking events here. Also consider following the #HIMSS19 hashtag on Twitter where many networking events are promoted before/during the conference.
  3. Become friends with your fellow booth denizens. Don’t be a hermit. Get to know the companies around you and down the aisle as well. Not only will you generate new ideas for your product/sales/marketing teams, but you may uncover a potential partnership.
  4. Smile, ask questions and listen. Not just at your booth, but while standing in line for coffee, food or the shuttles. Ask them what they do and what interesting things they have seen so far.
  5. Be vulnerable. This is perhaps the hardest recommendation to follow and one of the toughest barriers to overcome, but you will be amazed at the kindness and help that is offered when you admit you are new or are unfamiliar with a concept. HIMSS is full of people who are willing to share knowledge and help make connections. It all starts with being comfortable with what you don’t know.
  6. Join the conversation on social media. There is no better way to connect with HIMSS19 attendees than on social media. Don’t just post your booth number, join in actual conversations. Engaging will attract far more people to your booth than any cattle call will. As a HIMSS19 Social Media Ambassador I am admittedly biased with this recommendation, but that doesn’t make it any less valid.

See you at HIMSS19!

About the author

Colin Hung

Colin Hung

Colin Hung is the co-founder of the #hcldr (healthcare leadership) tweetchat one of the most popular and active healthcare social media communities on Twitter. Colin speaks, tweets and blogs regularly about healthcare, technology, marketing and leadership. He is currently an independent marketing consultant working with leading healthIT companies. Colin is a member of #TheWalkingGallery. His Twitter handle is: @Colin_Hung.