Two Midwest employers - one in Minnesota, the other in Illinois - learned over the course of several years how to develop successful health fairs by growing the events slowly each year and implementing suggestions from attendees. Their successes offer five sound strategies for other companies to emulate.

1. Make health universal. In Minnesota, the Twin City Pipe Trades Service Association appointed a special committee to develop its health fairs in collaboration with the association's CEO. The event grew steadily, and last year, 5,300 people attend the association's health fair - on a Saturday.

One of TCPTSA's strategies was its marketing message that good health was a universal goal. "It didn't matter if you're a pipe fitter, a mason or a painter - health is health," James Hynes, TCPTSA executive administrator, told attendees at the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans conference in November.

The 2011 event was held at Minneapolis' Target Field (home to MLB's Minnesota Twins) "to keep it fresh," Hynes said, and accommodate the large number of attendees. As prizes, the association gave away 20 tours of the ballpark and dugout every hour. Attendees also could stay in town for the baseball game that night, a big draw for families.

2. Make health information actionable. TCPTSA employees registered for biometric screenings ahead of time and checked off health metrics on personal cards after they received a health test at each booth. Once they completed all their tests, they received "I know my numbers" stickers.

Screenings are extremely important for two reasons, Hynes said. First, they're exciting for the health fair attendees, and second, "it becomes a yearly actionable item for participants."

Participants receive results that show red flags next to problematic numbers. They can easily bring the sheet with them to discuss with their doctor. Hynes advised sponsors to think about how to create such "teachable moments" ahead of time.

3. Make the fair interactive. Hynes told providers setting up booths at the fair that they couldn't just hand out brochures; they needed to do something interactive at their booths, like give participants a test or have them spin a wheel.

One vendor brought a huge inflatable colon that participants could walk and climb through to build awareness about colonoscopy screenings.

Hynes reminded plan sponsors to engage everyone at the fair with healthy food areas and climbing walls or coloring stations for the kids.

4. Start small but market big. The Midwest Employee Benefit Funds Coalition in Chicago has hosted health fairs for participants for seven years, expanding a bit further each year.

"We started with our expectations small, so we could build this up right," said Kristina Gaughan, executive director, Midwest Employee Benefit Funds Coalition Inc., explaining that the coalition held its first fair with a few health screenings and free flu shots. In subsequent years, the group added a kids station, booths to address sleep disorders and dental health, a contest to win a Wii Fit and a $300 incentive applied to attendees' medical savings accounts.

5. Connect the fair to the community. The Twin City Pipe Traders have organized food drives with EAP vendors, having participants bring canned goods to the fair. This helped energize attendees that they were making a difference, said Hynes. While most health fairs are for plan participants and their families, the plan can easily involve the community, especially if the fair is located in a public place.

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