Every year I attend “the world’s largest veterinary convention” in Orlando Florida. So known for its typically teeming attendance, this year’s version of the North American Veterinary Conference (NAVC) seemed a tad subdued, population-wise…and I think I know why.

Attending a conference is practically a mandated thing according to our professional requirements for continuing education (CE). It may not seem like much, but twenty to thirty credit hours every year or two (depending on your licensing body) can add up quickly. Unless we attend at least a conference every year or so, these reqs can easily slip us by.

Yet accomplishing the veterinary conference thing isn’t always as easy as you might suspect. That’s because by contrast to others in similar professions, it’s less common for veterinarians to have their time off granted, travel paid and sizable conference fees reimbursed.

For one thing, it takes a significant amount of time to travel to your destination, though local, briefer conference opportunities often exist for veterinarians dedicated to amassing their CE hours piecemeal—especially if we live near major metropolitan areas. Alternatively, conferences can be avoided by scoring CE credits online, an alternative that has worked OK for me in the past.

However, my personal preference has always sided towards having my colleagues experience the community of veterinary medicine in a conference setting. Artificial though it may be to commune in a hall seemingly dedicated to the great gods Pfizer and Hills, the entertainment value of watching and hobnobbing with one’s colleagues should not be underestimated. Somehow, it has its charms.

Any route you choose, whether it be the pomp and circus of the major, resort city conference or the more subtle display of veterinary collegiality in a local Marriott’s less auspicious ambiance, the price of veterinary CE is unmistakably high. Indeed, even the online CE credit “classes” seem inflatedly priced to account for the convenience they provide the less social, more frugal veterinary professionals among us.

The fancy price of conference communion. That’s my guess as to why this year’s Orlando extravaganza attendance was off to the tune of probably twenty percent.

In years past, I’d always had to jockey for a table at the host resort’s restaurants, arriving early enough to beat the rush. Not so at this event. Last year, I’d been unable to find an accommodating nearby hotel in the weeks leading up. Yet just last week, this year’s host hotel offered me two nights of premium lodging without batting an eye (not that I could afford it, anyway).

It’s the economy, stupid. I know that’s what you’re thinking—and you’re not wrong. Nonetheless, the drug reps seemed happy to hand out the same number of high-priced freebies to the less sardine-packed trade show hall of veterinary medical delights. The classroom sessions may have been less crowded but the lecturers crowed on obliviously, as intent on their good work as they’ll undoubtedly always be.

Overall, it’s still a great show. But what does it really matter if so many of us veterinarians are increasingly unable to travel, lodge, dine and part with the premiums for parking, taxis, hotel breakfasts and more?

Here’s a breakdown of the cost of my 36 hours of conferencing:

hotel room for one night: $237(!)
parking fee (for the place I paid $237 a night to stay): $21
breakfast: $25
lunch (if I hadn’t scored a pressroom freebie): $25
taxi to dinner and back: $30
dinners (if one hadn’t been comped): $125
conference fee (if it hadn’t been waived for my “press credentials”): $650
mileage on a car: 600 (you do the math)
gas: $50
tolls: $35
loss of income for one day: $300-$500

total: $1,598

All for just one day of lectures, a whirlwind trip to the trade show hall, a great dinner meeting and a healthy dose of networking.

OK, so I caught a lot of breaks on my expenses. But let’s just say it’s a wash if you consider the citation I received for my 88 MPH driving dalliance. As I told Mr. Florida Highway Patrol (possibly still expecting some leniency at that point), “I have no excuse, officer. I'm so sorry.” But then, I’ll bet this guy would’ve handed his mother a speeding ticket, too.

As I counted the roadkill on my way home (a way to curb my highway speeding habit), I couldn’t help but wonder at the financial toll a conference takes…not to mention the stress of traveling alone and sleeping in a strange bed. But as the drug reps kept telling me…we just can’t afford NOT to be here. Sad but true for some vets, too.