Case Study: Eyes on HawaiiBy Bill Chapin

Resort location helps boost attendance for annual optometry conference

The event: The 2014 Island Eyes Conference, a continuing education conference for optometrists organized by the College of Optometry at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore. This is the 31st year that eye doctors have gathered at a Hawaiian resort for educational sessions and some tropical relaxation. Nearly 40 percent of the 350 attendees this year were Pacific University alumni, while the rest came from 17 other schools and colleges in the United States and Canada.

The venue: The 2014 conference was held at Grand Wailea, a Waldorf Astoria Resort on Maui. Jeanne Oliver, the College of Optometry’s director of external relations, booked the event at the 40-acre property on the island’s southwestern shore as a result of attending the Smart Meeting in Honolulu in 2012. “The resort and island definitely affect the attendance at the conference,” Oliver says. “Our delegates want a good mix of activities, shopping, restaurants and other housing options in addition to a quality host hotel.”

Grand Wailea offers almost 50,000 sq. ft. of indoor meeting space, plus another 41,000 sq. ft. of outdoor event space. The Island Eyes conference used a third of the hotel’s 28,000-square-foot Haleakala Ballroom, the largest on Maui. “Unfortunately, a larger group used the remaining two-thirds of the space, and two groups never seem to share space well when events are happening simultaneously,” says Oliver, who also plans about five other, smaller education meetings each year.

The agenda: The meeting consisted of sessions on optometric topics ranging from advances in management of retinal diseases to contact lenses. For Oliver, the highlight of the meeting was the arrival reception that served as the conference’s big kick-off, complete with a roast suckling pig. “We had a beautiful view of the sunset, and the expanse of lawn gave us plenty of room for seating and mingling,” she says. Oliver credits the hotel’s assistant director of catering, Lynn Byard, who stepped in at the last minute to serve as conference-services manager for the event. Byard was able to facilitate a venue change and create a good flow that kept attendees from waiting in long lines for food.

Challenges & successes: For the first time, Oliver turned over F&B planning to the hotel. Having the Byard handle all the food “gave us much better value for our budget,” she says.

Looking forward to the 32nd annual event, financial matters will be one of the conference’s biggest challenges. “Registration fees can no longer cover all the costs of a large event,” Oliver says. “Educational grants have been more difficult to acquire, and corporate sponsorships for exhibits and educational activities have dried up.” Oliver also will be focusing on accountability. “Rather [than] just certifying attendance, we need to determine how to assess actual learning outcomes,” she says. “With large groups it’s already a challenge to document attendance, for which we are investigating electronic alternatives.”