How often are corporate planners warned that someone is going to “scare the bejesus out of them”? Pharmaceutical meeting professionals attending the 2nd Annual Pharmaceutical Meeting Planners Forum in Philadelphia March 20-21, co-sponsored by CMI's sister magazine Medical Meetings, heard just that from the chief counsel of a major pharmaceutical company in his keynote address. And he was right. For pharmaceutical meeting planners, the regulations around how they work reach far beyond the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which has helped to spur consolidation of meeting departments in the corporate world.

The big bad wolf at this meeting of 800-plus attendees was James Sheehan, Associate U.S. Attorney with the Department of Justice, who outlined all the ways a pharmaceutical meeting could run afoul of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act; the federal anti-kickback statute; and the False Claims Act, not to mention various state statutes. The consequences, he explained, can be hefty fines, settlements, and corporate integrity agreements.

This highly regulated environment drives many of the trends that pharmaceutical planners are facing, and it is making them work hard to contain costs, document their spend, prove their value — and keep the big bad wolf at bay.

Cost Control Is Everything

For pharma planners, proving one's value often comes down to managing costs. One panelist at the forum outlined how she gathered financial data before going to her procurement department, and how important it is to track cost savings and cost avoidance that come, for example, from consolidating similar meetings into one larger event.

“Data is power,” said one panelist. “Managers love it. Hotels hate it because we can tell what we spent on a similar meeting six months ago.”

Attendees who spoke about meetings and spend consolidation all mentioned the importance of technology in helping to track costs. And they agreed that you don't have to go it alone when it comes to selling the value of consolidation to senior management. They suggested finding allies in the procurement, legal, and finance departments, all of which are interested in saving money. “Have a business plan, find some allies, implement the plan, then continually look for ways to improve on it,” said one pharma planner. And when changes are implemented that affect the way you work, such as SOX initiatives, she said: “Embrace them, because they're a way for you to show the value of what you do.”

Looking to the Future

At a thought leaders panel at the forum, planners discussed trends they expected to see in the next few years. The need to show their value through strategic meeting management was a trend all the panelists felt would continue. They also agreed that the shifts toward cost-containment and procurement indicate a commoditization of meetings, but they did not think it would go as far as it has with travel purchasing. “We have to embrace the technologies and the tools, but not lose the relationships,” said one pharma planner.

Short lead times, the No. 1 challenge these pharma planners had, according to an audience response system poll, also are likely to continue. “I've come to understand that stakeholders don't understand how much time is needed,” said one attendee. “Put it in writing, talk it through. Management doesn't understand that there's more involved than making a phone call.”