Planner Perspective: Q&A with Elaine Powell

Say hello to Elaine Powell, CMP, Director of Professional Education with America's Health Insurance Plans (AHIP). Here’s her meeting planner’s take on Austin and why it was the ideal city to host the 2017 AHIP Institute & Expo.

What do you consider your greatest accomplishment connected with the 2017 AHIP Institute & Expo in Austin?

Our greatest accomplishment was how we could leverage Austin-area speakers and companies to participate, as well as how we tried to incorporate music and local food specialties into our program. We really tried to infuse the Austin vibe into everything we created for our event.

How did you accomplish that?

We did a pre-site meeting where we met with local area associations that had direct connections to our industry and association. Namely, the Texas Association of Health Plans (TAHP), the Texas Association of Health & Life Insurers (TALHI) and FirstCare Health Plans, headquartered in Austin. Beyond industry partner meetings, we also met with Visit Austin to get their insight and assistance on booking local area musicians, and how to incorporate other ideas to infuse the Austin vibe into our event.

You had John Mackey (Whole Foods) and Roy Spence (GSD&M) on your speaker schedule. How did you choose who the key speakers would be?

Beyond Mr. Mackey and Mr. Spence, we leveraged the Austin-area talent from the Dell Medical School at the University of Texas, as well as BCBS of Texas and others to serve as speakers at our event to drive down speaking expenses. Mr. Mackey is someone that we have sought to be on our program for several years, given his focus on health and well-being. AHIP already had a long-standing relationship with Mr. Spence, so it was a no-brainer to call him and ask him to speak. 

Was it a worthwhile decision for the attendee educational experience?

Our attendee evaluation summaries were quite positive regarding our program content and meeting venue. AHIP has never had an annual meeting in Texas, so this was our first opportunity. We felt Austin, given its high-tech/SXSW vibe, would be a great venue to host this annual event for the health insurance industry.

Did you incorporate live music into your event?

Yes, we did.

  • We added acoustical musical talent in our exhibit hall in our Acoustic Lounge during two lunches and two receptions.
  • We also had an acoustic musician on Wednesday morning as part of our Welcome in our registration area.
  • We also hired a 4-piece rock band to our closing General Session Luncheon.

If yes, how many acts?  Were they well received?

We had six acts and our attendees enjoyed them in all the locations that we provided them:

  • Ben Cina
  • Ali Holder
  • Brennen Leigh
  • Suzanna Choffel
  • Tje Austin
  • South Austin Moonlighters

How did you go about executing/arranging the live music?

I contacted Omar Lozano with Visit Austin and told him the kind of acts we were interested in and our budget, and he sent us links to about 25-30 acts. I listened to all of them and then sent my top picks to my boss, and then we slimmed down the list even further to the final six that we selected.

Were there other ways in which you incorporated aspects of Austin into the 2017 event?

I also selected as much Austin-inspired/styled food & beverage options that the Center’s menus provided into all our functions. 

Any other unique aspects of the meeting in Austin you would like to share?

We had the South Austin Moonlighters perform during our luncheon. They were terrific. Attendees really enjoyed having entertainment prior to our closing speakers - David Gergen and Doris Kearns Goodwin. 

Do you have any advice for planners on executing similar concepts in Austin (or other cities)?

Ask your CVB about every interest that you have for that city and 99.9% of the time they can provide you with a direct connection to what you are looking for, and sometimes for little or no money/costs to the association.

Do you have some tips or favorite ideas from the 2017 Expo?

I love Austin’s tag line, “Keep Austin Weird,” and we tried to embrace that philosophy in our planning process. Through our marketing campaign leading up to the meeting we added some key “Austin weirdness” to keep the vibe alive. Live music is awesome, especially in Austin and other cities where it makes sense (lots of talent to recruit from) or it’s part of the “city vibe.”

We always recruit high-level speakers that are from the destination city for the annual meeting to save on speaker expenses, but also to add a “local” perspective on health-related issues that our industry is facing. I believe that you must try new things to keep your meeting interesting and memorable from year to year, so don’t be afraid to go “outside the lines” to add a fresh perspective to your meeting. I always say, “try it, just once, because you just might like it.”

Following your meeting, what is your perception of Austin as a meetings destination?

I liked Austin; the downtown area is very walkable. It offers a variety of restaurants, hotels, and shopping.  On a lovely night, most establishments had their doors and windows open that you could smell all the great food and hear all the good music. There were several mornings where I had to walk from my hotel to the headquarter hotel to oversee logistics for our Fellows program and I was totally amazed that I could smell lots of barbecue at 6:00 a.m.! Who cooks barbecue that early in the morning? Apparently, every restaurant in downtown Austin. It was great.