The R-word. No one wants to say it, and most of all, no one wants to be in it. Recession, that is.

The topic was tackled head-on at the Second Annual West Coast Medical Device and Bio/Pharmaceutical Meeting Management Forum, where speakers and attendees shared strategies for how to survive the economic downturn. Co-organized by Medical Meetings and the Center for Business Intelligence, the forum was held December 8-9 in San Diego and attracted about 100 participants.

“We will get through this,” said Terri Breining, CMP, CMM, president of Concepts Worldwide Inc., Carlsbad, Calif., who served as facilitator of the forum. She began the conference by urging attendees to stay positive during these tough times. “We need to get back to basics and make sure the meetings we plan have clear objectives and quantifiable metrics so that they are not first on the cutting block. Meetings that get measured get funded.”

“The single most important thing you can do in a tough economy is partner with procurement and have a strong strategic meetings management program in place,” added Marybeth Roberts, CMP, director, global meeting management, Amgen Inc., Thousand Oaks, Calif.

Breaking up Big Meetings

Speaking during a panel discussion about the economy, Roberts detailed one example of how Amgen's SMMP resulted in big savings when her team broke up the company's annual national sales meeting into smaller district sales meetings in 2008. Her department, which controlled the costs corporatewide, hoped to save the company 30 percent over its 2007 program costs. They ended up saving 50 percent.

The savings were primarily because the regional programs required less air travel and fewer hotel stays. “District managers could go to a local hotel, but we wanted to consolidate spend and ensure consistency in the type of hotels they used,” said Roberts.

Roberts' team also saved money by eliminating a large general session and an expensive teambuilding activity, and by consolidating production of all meetings materials across all events. “The biggest thing,” said Roberts, “was that senior management supported this approach and our decisions.”

Running multiple sales meetings required the company to move away from tradition and take some risks, she said. Typically at the national sales meeting, senior management would get out in front of the sales force, said Roberts, but with multiple meetings held around the country, this was no longer possible.

To ensure that all district managers presented a consistent message to their teams, Roberts and her team gave them some flexibility to design their own programs but limited how much they could customize the meetings.

The individual meetings had the added benefit of allowing DMs to focus on issues that were of importance to their own divisions, since there were fewer sales and marketing staff from the headquarters office in attendance.

A potential drawback of dividing up a national sales meeting, said moderator Annette Gregg, CMP, CMM, vice president of sales and marketing for Concepts Worldwide, is that the individual meeting may lack some of the energy and morale that comes from getting the entire group together.

“That was something we were definitely concerned about,” said Roberts, “but we didn't get any negative feedback at all. At the national sales meeting all the districts tend to group together anyway, so it wasn't a huge change.”

There is another potential downside to breaking up a large meeting into multiple smaller meetings, said Allyson Fielder, corporate meeting specialist, Medtronic CardioVascular, Santa Rosa, Calif.: an increased workload. “One year we broke out our June sales meeting into seven smaller meetings and were able to save about 20 percent with this approach,” she said. “But as meeting professionals, we were exhausted after all the planning!”

Fewer Meetings for '09?

In addition to changing how meetings are structured, panelists said they were anticipating cutbacks in some types of meetings. “We have seen a reduction in the number of off-site meetings for internal staff being held at Amgen,” said Roberts.

While reducing internal meetings seems to be a viable cost-cutting measure at some companies, sales incentives aren't getting canceled, said the panelists. “We still have one sales incentive at Medtronic,” said Fielder. “We have a per diem, and that goes down if we decide to use a more expensive property. The only thing that has changed is that now we are more low-key while on-site.” Banners and signs that welcome the group to the property or draw attention to the company are not used.

“We are seeing fewer pharma incentives going to Europe than in the past and an increase in programs going to the Caribbean,” said Julie Hills, senior director of pharmaceutical sales at Hilton Sales Worldwide, Crest Hill, Ill. “The qualifications for the incentive are getting tougher too.”

Clinical meetings, however, are remaining stable, said Roberts. “In-person meetings with investigators are critical in order to implement clinical studies,” she said.

Companies are exploring virtual meetings as a cost-cutting measure, but one participant said that her clinical team felt strongly that face-to-face meetings were more effective.

Amgen is conducting an investigator meeting that is part virtual and part face-to-face, said Roberts. “We try to make the [online portion of the] meeting interactive so that [physicians] have to stay logged on and stay engaged,” she added.

Buyers' Market

The economy is also affecting site selection and hotel negotiations, panelists said. “Because airlift has been reduced to so many [second-tier] cities, we are seeing groups picking first-tier cities but moving away from downtown properties and instead going to a suburb or airport property,” said Hilton's Julie Hills. “They are going to first-tier cities and paying second-tier rates.”

In addition, Hills noted that she has seen more and more companies electing to use their own meeting space on campus as opposed to going to an off-site venue.

Cancellations are also playing a big role in the way hotels are managing their own accounts. On the hotelier side, “we are in closer communication with groups that have already booked,” Hills added. “We realize these groups [because of financial challenges] may need to make reductions to their programs. It's an awkward conversation to have, but we are communicating with them and trying to make sure the business will actualize once the contract has been signed.”

Said one planner in the audience, “We have had programs that we do not want to cancel, but we just don't have the money to move forward. In these cases, we have been able to renegotiate with the hotel after the contract was signed. Are others seeing this as a trend?”

“We have seen some creative negotiations from groups that have already booked,” said Hills. “But if the size and scope of the meeting isn't changing, then [renegotiation] isn't well-received at most chains.” However, she added, “If you are bringing something different to the table, then by all means, tell us sooner rather than later.”

Booking meetings in the short term may also have some benefits to planners looking to capitalize on the buyer's market. “The market is now positioned [for hotels] to offer more flexible terms for short-term business,” said Hills. “But if you are booking two to three years out, chains may get stricter.”

As the economy continues to put pressure on planners to do more with less, and on hotels to fill holes caused by last-minute cancellations, the opportunity for both parties to work together becomes even more critical.

The bottom line, said Hills: “Share your budget with us on the front end and tell us what it is you are looking for, and we will be better able to meet your needs in less time.” n

Sidebar: Forum 2009

For more strategies for surviving a tough economy, join the Fifth Annual Pharmaceutical Meeting Management Forum, March 29-31, at the Baltimore Convention Center. Topics include career planning, cost savings in a tight marketplace, protecting your internal meeting team, virtual meetings solutions, and meeting consolidation for small to midsize companies.

For more information, visit www.pharmameetingplanners.com.

Exclusive Report from the Second Annual West Coast Medical Device and Bio/Pharmaceutical Meeting Management Forum

SMMP Saves Jobs

The tough economy can actually offer an opportunity for meeting professionals to elevate their positions, said Cindy D'Aoust, senior vice president, SMM practice, Maritz Travel Co., Philadelphia. Facilitating a closed-door summit for senior-level meeting professionals during the Second Annual West Coast Medical Device and Bio/Pharmaceutical Meeting Management Forum, D'Aoust and participants expressed the value of strategic meetings management programs, especially in volatile economic times. “Show your company how you save money. Show them the big picture with your strategic meetings management program,” said one attendee.

Meetings professionals need to gain an understanding of technology, business processes, outsourcing management, and virtual meetings, D'Aoust said. While you can outsource the logistical aspects of meetings management, you can't outsource the “thinking part,” she said.

With an SMMP, the internal meeting planning team becomes the “brain trust,” added one participant. Meeting planners can avoid layoffs by demonstrating their value as strategic partners, rather than logistics experts, agreed another attendee. “Anyone can do logistics with training, but not everyone can be strategic. SMMP saves jobs,” she said.

And saving jobs is exactly what her company's SMMP accomplished, said one participant. While marketing and communications staff were laid off, with those functions now being outsourced, the executive vice presidents said they were “not touching the meeting planning team,” she explained.

SMMP programs leave meeting planning to the experts while allowing others, such as regional managers, to focus on their expertise, said another participant. “Regional managers shouldn't be worrying about ordering chicken — they should be out selling.”

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