At the closing session of the 9th annual Pharma Forum at the Marriott World Center in Orlando, March 19–22, panelists championed the idea of coming up with a job title that accurately reflects the expanding responsibilities of meetings industry professionals.

“Meeting planner” doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what most professionals in the meetings industry actually do.

“Why aren’t we seen as business professionals?” asked panelist Sharon Marsh, CMP, CMM, meetings group manager, Medtronic Inc., Santa Rosa, Calif. The job of the meeting professional today, particularly in the pharmaceutical industry, is as much about finance, compliance, information technology, accounting, and marketing as it is about logistics. “We don’t just order coffee and tell people how many tables and chairs to put in a room,” she said. “We are doing so much more.”

She compared meeting planning to other positions that have grown in stature as business professions—including human resources, which was initially called personnel, and supply chain management, which has evolved from purchasing and procurement.

“We wear multiple hats,” said Helen Kalorides, meeting management consultant, Roche Diagnostics, Indianapolis. “We are subject matter experts in so many categories and now we are asked to do even more.”

The role of the meeting professional is truly valuable within the organization, but too often meeting professionals themselves minimize their own value, Marsh said. To that point, session moderator James Vachon, CMM, associate director, Millennium: The Takeda Oncology Company, Cambridge, Mass., asked, “How many people in this room have said, ‘I’m just the meeting planner?’” A bunch of hands went up both in the audience and on the panel.

“If we minimize our own value, our organizations will do the same thing,” added Marsh.

Panelist Angie Duncan, CMP, CMM, an independent meeting manager from Indianapolis, agreed, and then some.  “I’m very passionate about this,” said Duncan. If there’s one segment of the meetings industry that can lead the charge and change the way meetings professionals are seen, it’s the medical meetings sector, she added. Medical meeting professionals have been on the leading edge of compliance and strategic meetings management and now they are being tasked with data collection and reporting in accordance with the Sunshine Act. And she was not referring to just the “planners” in this segment, but the hoteliers and others suppliers pharma meeting managers work with as well.  “I think we can be change makers. Let’s take what we know and change the world.”

The industry associations really need to carry the message forward more boldly, to help elevate the status of meeting planner to that of a project manager. Said Marsh, “We don’t need to tout how wonderful we are to each other,” she said. “It’s not us we need to sell it to.” The federal government and corporations need to know that meetings professionals are business professionals. The small percentage of boondoggles and bad apples get all the attention, said Marsh, “so why are we standing by as an industry allowing that message to be out there?”

The closing panel served as a recap for the conference. Panelists and attendees shared their highlights and takeaways from the event, which was co-organized by Medical Meetings and the Center for Business Intelligence.

Hot Topic: Auditing

While medical meeting professionals have been preparing for the Sunshine Act for years, the audit requirements reviewed by keynote speaker Daniel Garen, senior vice president and chief compliance officer at Wright Medical Technology, Arlington, Tenn., took some attendees by surprise.

Physicians can challenge the expenses that companies are reporting about them and companies have just 10 to 15 days to produce the documentation and resolve the dispute. “How many physicians will have discrepancies or want to dispute the charges?” asked Duncan. “We have to prepare for that but we don’t know the cost of preparation.”

It brings forth a lot of questions: Who will store the data—Compliance? Finance?  Meetings? What if the company uses a third-party meeting planning company—will the third party have to collect the data on site, store it, and produce the documentation if audited? With such a short timeframe to produce the documentation, will companies have enough time to follow the proper paper trail, and will third parties and corporations need to hire more people to comply with audits?

Hot Topic: Virtual Meetings

At one Pharma Forum session, a planner said her division had just turned 75 percent of its live meetings into virtual meetings to reduce costs. This is certainly not the norm as others in the session—audience members and panelists alike—said their companies were not replacing face-to-face meetings with virtual meetings, but the conversation did highlight the need for meeting professionals to embrace virtual technology.

“We have to be aware of this issue,” said Marsh. “It’s still a meeting, it’s a value we provide,” said Marsh. “I think we need to start carving out our niche in this area.” One place to start, she said, is to learn which meetings can, and likely should, go online. “You have to look at the meeting’s purpose. Is it to train, or is it to exchange ideas? Is the matter to be discussed confidential? If so, online isn’t a good idea now that people can do a screen grab any time they want.”

Meeting professionals are going to have to add effectively managing virtual (one to many) or hybrid (a virtual offering or extension of a live event) meetings to their skill sets. In addition to everything else, now planners also have to become “quasi-IT experts,” said Kalorides. In another session at the conference, third-party planners talked about the need to get in front of this trend because if they don’t gain this knowledge they will be at a competitive disadvantage.

“The method of presenting is very different,” said panelist Scott Gray, president and chief operating officer, Gray Consulting, Philadelphia, who hosted a roundtable during the conference on the virtual and hybrid meetings. “Not enough attention is paid upfront to training presenters in this different realm so they understand the perspective of the remote participant and how to keep them engaged.”

Another challenge medical meeting professionals are facing is getting buy-in from top stakeholders to move forward with virtual or hybrid meetings. “These technologies and kinds of meetings can provide significant cost savings,” said Gray, but many agreed that senior management still doesn’t embrace the concept.

Hot Topic: Going Global

Globalization was another key theme of the conference, said independent meeting manager Duncan. “We may have mature strategic meetings management policies in the U.S., but we need to reach out to the global market, because it will be coming to them soon. What we’ll need is global consistency with the flexibility to take local variations into account.” Kalorides added, “The end result of globalizing an SMMP can be positive, even though getting there can be a little rough.”

Contest: What Do You Think Meeting Managers Should Be Called?

What title do you think those who manage meetings for their organizations should hold? E-mail your ideas to spelletier@meetingsnet.com by May 1; readers will vote on which title they think most accurately reflects today’s meetings professional responsibilities. The winner will be recognized on MeetingsNet and in our print magazines, and will receive a token of appreciation from the MeetingsNet editors.

Send in your ideas today!