PLANNING THE FIRST annual anything involves a little optimism and a lot of work, as any medical meeting planner knows. Given the overwhelming response to the First Annual Pharmaceutical Meeting Planners Forum, held March 31 to April 1 at the Hilton Philadelphia City Avenue in Philadelphia, and co-produced byand the Center for Business Intelligence, however, that optimism appears to have been justified, and a second annual Forum has already been scheduled for 2006.
Nearly 500 people attended the Forum, and more than half the delegates were meeting planners from pharmaceutical companies and third parties. In fact, the event was so popular that it outgrew its original hotel in downtown Philadelphia and moved to the Hilton Philadelphia City Avenue, just six miles from downtown. The presenting sponsor was American Express; and there were more than 50 exhibiting companies and sponsors.
Part of the draw was, of course, the content. Pharmaceutical meeting planners are living in interesting times these days, with increasing regulatory controls and public scrutiny causing companies to clamp down on policies and procedures, and even completely change the way they handle their meetings. Many are consolidating their meeting spend by rolling their planning departments into procurement and corporate travel; others are increasingly looking to outsource their business to third parties — all with Uncle Sam breathing down their necks. And the change process has only begun, as became clear during a thought-leaders panel on preparing for the future of pharmaceutical meeting planning.
Back to the Future
From what the panelists said, it appears that the future will likely hold a lot more of what's already been happening. For example, Joann Kerns, associate director, global meeting management with Plainsboro, N.J.-based Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., believes planners will be working much more closely with legal and compliance staff in the future. And for good reason.
In an earlier session, Geoffrey Levitt, vice president and chief counsel, regulatory and research, with Collegeville, Pa.-based Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, outlined all the different regulations driving legal to do what it does, and explained why it's important for planners to work closely with their legal departments in today's tough climate. “Legal needs to be involved to keep the company out of trouble. The reason meeting planners need to work with legal is because meetings are a form of communication with the buyers of the company's products.” Kerns said that Bristol-Myers Squibb has an electronic review and approval tool that is mandated for all medical strategy and meeting logistics business. Each proposal must route to the product department, finance, meeting management, legal, and regulatory compliance for approvals to move forward with the business. This standardized process ensures approval by all appropriate parties, and provides real-time documentation and history of the program if there is ever a question about adherence to corporate policies.
The PhRMA Code on Interactions with Healthcare Professionals, which requires that the lavish shindigs of former days be toned down considerably, also has some planners wondering how they can compete for physician attendance at their external meetings — including investigator, advisory board, and consultant meetings — against other companies that don't adhere as stringently to the code as they do. An interactive panel discussion explored how much is too much, and what planners can do to get the docs to come to their meetings in these pared-down times.
Of course, content is king and queen. As an audience member said, “If you have the right speaker and content, they will come. But it's also location: It has to be held somewhere the doctors wouldn't necessarily go on their own.” Another, referring to the distinct lack of glitz today's regs engender, said, “When you take something away on one side of the seesaw, you have to add something on the other side. If you take away golf, you have to add content — and have a reputation for putting on excellent programs.”
Elaine Weise, operations manager, corporate meeting solutions, American Express Business Travel, Newark, Del., stressed that, when you take away the tchotchkes and a trip to a glamorous resort, what you have left is your reputation for providing excellent service: And you do that by creating a “legacy.” She said, “You can't buy the ‘wow’ factor anymore! It all comes down to service, service, service. Partner with your suppliers, CVBs, and your clients. That's what will bring them back every time.”
And while most companies represented at the Forum had food and beverage guidelines that must be adhered to, it still can be more about perception than reality, even when the meeting is for internal participants. “Sometimes [pharma planners will] tell us to take off the seafood bar, for example if a company just had a big layoff, even if it falls within their guidelines,” said James Dale, senior director of catering, Eastern division, Grand Hyatt New York. “They're afraid that people will look at the shrimp and think, ‘There's one job that could have been saved.’”
“The people in this room have dealt with more than just losing surf-and-turf,” stressed one audience member. It still comes back to service. Now that everyone lives on their cell phones and Blackberries, one recommended service is a communications room where doctors can have a space to get in touch with people back at home and in the office, offered one person in the audience. Dale said, “Go further and do a cybercafe. Include newspapers from attendees' home towns — you could go wild for a very small cost.”
Another idea was to give attendees some content to take back home with them. “We spend a lot of time on the research and developing a case study they can take home,” said an audience member. Weise would go one further, “Ship it back home for them. That's the level of service that makes the difference between excellence and mediocrity.”
But planners also are finding that physician attendees are beginning to adjust their expectations to the changing environment, much as the planners have had to do. When asked what feedback she's been getting from physicians, said Linda L. Leiby, purchasing manager, meeting services, AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals, Wilmington, Del., “What we're hearing is, ‘Don't waste my time.’ We don't hear a lot about the ‘wow’ factor. I think they're starting to get it.”
For more on the conference, see page 20.
Choosing a Third-Party Vendor
Judy Benaroche Johnson, CMP, president and CEO, Rx Worldwide Meetings, Plano, Texas, suggested these tips at the Pharmaceutical Meeting Planners Forum for choosing a third-party planner:
- Get recommendations from internal departments.
- Get recommendations from the third party's clients.
- Make sure they've been in business for at least five years, that they're fiscally sound, and that they're well-insured.
- Determine the size of their staff, and if it's an individual planner, what his or her backup plan is.
- Are there CMPs and CMMs on staff?
- What technological tools do they have?
- Do they have experience in your geographic area and niche markets?
- Is the company a preferred vendor for other pharma companies?
For medical education companies, also ask:
- Is their expertise in meetings, publications, or both?
- What's their specialty? Is it in your product area?
- What's their cost, and can they turn the project around on your timetable?
- Will they use a speakers bureau?
- What's their ethical stance on honoraria and consulting fees?
- Will they sign confidentiality and noncompete forms?
- Do they separate advertising from medical education?
- Are their ways of communicating compatible with your systems?