Convention sponsors: partners in practice

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It's affordable and multipurpose. The AVMA Annual Convention combines quality continuing education, professional networking, and social events that veterinarians can enjoy with family and friends, at a reasonable cost.

But how affordable would the convention be without the annual infusion of financial support from the profession's industry partners?

Corporations subsidize everything from the educational programming and entertainment to the coffee service and notepads. Without such support, said Dr. Mary Beth Leininger of Hill's Pet Nutrition Inc., "veterinary conferences would certainly have much higher registration fees and probably be less exciting for attendees."

Dr. Leininger, who is Hill's director of professional affairs and the 1996-1997 AVMA president, added, "So much of what the AVMA convention and other national veterinary conferences have become is the result of additional financial support—and idea support, as well. Corporate sponsors are a sort of brain trust on how to make the meetings better."

About 40 companies are providing sponsorship for the AVMA convention in Philadelphia, July 24-28. This year, Merial Ltd. has joined Hill's Pet Nutrition Inc. and Bayer Animal Health as a platinum sponsor, denoting the highest level of funding. Each of the three platinum sponsors supports the educational programming at the convention as well as other events or services.

A lack of industry backing would negatively impact the long-term success of all parties, according to Jeff Gaidos, vice president of marketing for Bayer. "We have expertise, we have vision, and we have been a longstanding partner with the profession. Organizations such as the AVMA have expertise and vision. Only by truly working together can you reach your long-term goals."

Dr. Zack Mills is executive director of veterinary services and veterinary affairs for Merial. Dr. Mills noted that, in addition to keeping down the costs of CE for practitioners, corporations invest dollars in research and development to bring new products to veterinarians. "The advertising and promotion that we do is focused not only on the product itself," he said, "but also on the individual who should be caring for your animal—the veterinarian."

As recently as the mid-1990s, the profession was deliberating on the pros and cons of corporate sponsorship in JAVMA and other forums. A 1993 veterinary issues survey by the AVMA showed that even then, a large percentage of veterinarians were strongly supportive or somewhat supportive of corporations sponsoring various activities. Specifically, 87 percent supported sponsorship of convention speakers and sessions.

Gaidos believes that acceptance has increased dramatically over the past several years. All three executives said that most veterinarians appreciate this kind of support and view it as a partnership.

"Veterinarians are very savvy and recognize that corporate sponsorship is a partnership," Dr. Leininger said. "They look upon the companies who help to make meetings better, as their partners in practice."

Dr. Mills said, "I think veterinarians feel sponsorship is OK because they know the company is trying to help their practice grow as a business and help them as veterinarians provide better medicine."

Speaking as a veterinarian, Dr. Mills would even be comfortable with a company highlighting a brand-name product to sponsor a speaker if he were confident in the speaker being independent. Currently, product-specific sponsorship is permitted for the AVMA Personal and Professional Development Program sessions but not for the scientific program sessions.

Clearly, veterinarians stand to benefit from corporate support, but why do the corporations see their dollars as a wise business investment in the current economy?

Corporations such as Hill's, Bayer, and Merial continue to commit generous support to the profession, but their executives each admit that the funding is finite and their companies must be ever more discriminating about what they choose to sponsor.

"The pressure for profits is always increasing, and with the economy, sponsorships are something we have to take a (careful) look at," Gaidos said.

"We have the philosophy that a rising tide lifts all ships. What we're really looking to do is make sure that we (sponsor) something that's going to be beneficial to the profession and that ultimately will help Bayer as well. AVMA is the backbone of the profession, and in order for all of us to succeed, we really need to work in partnership."

That rising-tide philosophy surfaced prominently in 1997, when Bayer and Hills pledged several years of major financial commitments to the AVMA. Like Hill's, Bayer has a history of supporting the Association and helping build a strong profession.

Dr. Mills said, "All companies need to have a return on their investments, because we all have shareholders. We want to make sure the money is being spent in a way that is valuable to the company and brings back a return on the investment. We consider everything that we provide money to as an investment—and to us, the veterinary profession is a very important investment. We're a veterinary-focused company, and we plan for all our companion animal products to be marketed through practitioners."

There are so many opportunities for support, he added, that it's tough to choose where to invest. Every year, Merial evaluates its situation and decides which sponsorships best fit its priorities.

"At Merial, we felt it was important that we support the AVMA, because it truly provides the leadership for (members of) the veterinary profession, whether they are large or small animal, in public or private practice," Dr. Mills said. "Supporting conferences such as the AVMA demonstrates our commitment to the profession. Practitioners can see that the money they invest in purchasing our pharmaceutical products and vaccines, we're reinvesting back into their profession, not only in CE but in support of their major association."

Dr. Leininger said the choice of what to sponsor depends a lot on the company's focus. "When Hill's looks at various meetings and all sponsorship opportunities, we always try to figure out what will have the greatest impact for companion animal practitioners and how we can best demonstrate the relationship between our core business and the organization that we're supporting."

With so many more requests for sponsorship than any company could possibly meet, she said, Hill's tries to identify opportunities that offer the most impact on practitioners' ability to provide good care to their patients. "One of the challenges that a company has," Dr. Leininger noted, "is to make their sponsorship relevant to the veterinarians who experience it."

In 2003, Hill's pledged $1 million in convention support over five years, a major funding commitment. "We're working toward improving health care for patients in a very specific way," Dr. Leininger explained, "by providing educational opportunities for the entire veterinary health care team with the world's premier veterinary association."

Hill's financial commitment to the convention goes back to the 1980s, when its support was focused on increasing educational opportunities for technicians. "The fact that AVMA honored Dr. Jack Mara by naming the entire technician program for him is a great source of pride for us," Dr. Leininger said of the late Hill's nutrition pioneer. Hill's is also the title sponsor of the AVMA convention opening general session.

Veterinarians can do their part, Dr. Mills said, by visiting the booths at convention to see what the sponsors are bringing to them as professionals. "As veterinarians and as members of the AVMA, it's important we realize there are limited funds, and we should provide feedback to corporations when they are doing things to help us grow our businesses or bring better awareness of veterinary medicine. If we don't get that feedback, how can we decide to continue support?"

For the foreseeable future, Dr. Mills said that the changing environment and shareholders' expectations for a return on their investment will make things tighter across the board for all companies. And, he added, as companies such as Merial look at investing more in research and development and consumer-targeted advertising to help build business for veterinarians and themselves, "the pie is going to get a little bit smaller."

Gaidos said, "Partnering with the profession is what Bayer is all about," and he sees that continuing into the future.

Dr. Mills said, "Merial is excited about being a platinum sponsor for the AVMA. If we look back 10 years, the convention used to be seen as a political meeting. It's still a very political meeting, but it's also a very strong CE meeting now. That's why we want to get more involved—not only to make it a stronger meeting to get veterinarians involved in the CE, but to get them more involved with the AVMA.

"The AVMA is a very important organization for the veterinary industry; it's the voice of the practitioner."