“It is ironic, but the pharmaceutical industry, despite having created many successful and life-saving therapies, has one of the worst public images,” said David F. Townson, PhD, PMP, vice president, program management, MannKind Corp., Valencia, Calif. He was speaking at the first annual West Coast Medical Device and Bio/Pharmaceutical Meeting Planners Forum, co-organized by Medical Meetings magazine and the Center for Business Intelligence. During his keynote address, Townson outlined the challenges facing the industry, particularly the issue of perception, which, he said, is a big driver for the rising regulatory environment.

It was a message that hit home for the nearly 200 meeting professionals in attendance at the Hilton Orange County in Costa Mesa, Calif., December 10 to 11, who have been feeling the effects of the industry's tattered public image for some time now. After all, it is the planners who must maintain a balance between the needs of their companies and the physicians in attendance at their meetings, all while complying with increasing federal, state, and industry regulations on everything from venue selection to educational content.

Making matters worse, the pharmaceutical industry is under increased internal and external pressures. Many companies are eliminating jobs, closing sites, and cutting costs across the board, while also facing lawsuits and falling stock prices, said Townson.

But planners can influence the future by taking ownership and helping to rebuild the industry's image, Townson said. “The pharmaceutical industry needs a conscience and meeting planners can help us by being an objective resource in terms of balancing meeting function and perception,” he said. “Understand the pressures that executives at your companies are under and help them balance their needs and expectations with the long-term goal of improving our image.”

Ensuring Compliance

The call for planners to take on the role of industry conscience was a prevailing theme throughout the forum and took center stage during a thought leaders panel. “How do you handle your internal customers when you feel they are heading down the wrong path in terms of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America's Code on Interactions with Healthcare Professionals, Sarbanes-Oxley, and other industry regulations?” asked moderator Dana Marshall, CMP, CMM, director of sales and marketing, Sharp Events, San Francisco. “Are we doing the right thing?”

“The most effective tool we have is education,” remarked panelist Chamia Glasper, CMP, manager, meetings and events, Onyx Pharmaceuticals Inc., Emeryville, Calif. “I don't assume people are aware of the PhRMA Code regulations and SOX. The first thing I do is help them understand the rules we are governed by. As planners, it is an opportunity for us to increase our value within the company by making sure we are compliant in our negotiations with suppliers and in our request for proposal process.”

But this is often easier said than done. Something independent meeting planner Maureen Concklin, president and CEO of CMM Global, San Antonio, knows firsthand. “I had a client who held a clinical drug development meeting in Las Vegas and gave every attendee $100 worth of chips as a giveaway. That is cash!” (Under various regulations, including the PhRMA Code, cash gifts to healthcare professionals are verboten.)

The reason: The clinical development area has not been hit as hard with regulations, said Concklin. These clients “are still learning, so as independent planners, we tell them what their corporate policy is, as well as advise them on PhRMA guidelines and other current issues that should impact their decisions. Basically we try to be their advocate and stay abreast of all the regulations in the industry.”

Planners also need to educate the company's sales force, especially new hires, panelists said. “[Ensuring compliance] requires constantly educating the sales force and gently reminding them,” said Allyson Fielder, corporate meeting specialist at Medtronic CardioVascular, Santa Rosa, Calif. “I make sure they know that I am not going to take the hit for them. If I see you doing something that is not compliant, I will tell you not to do it, and I will tell someone else at the company.”

Getting to Green

Meeting professionals also need to assume a leadership role in elevating the importance of environmentally responsible events, panelists said. This issue lags behind compliance as a corporate priority: None of the companies represented on the panel currently has a green meetings policy or statement of corporate social responsibility.

“Medtronic does not have a specific policy on doing green meetings, but we do encourage environmental responsibility as much as possible,” said panelist Kim Kerns, meetings program supervisor, medical education at Medtronic Inc., Minneapolis. The main reason for not having a specific policy: The company is limited in the venues it can select when booking education lab sites, because groups must meet at locations in close proximity to its labs. Medtronic, however, “encourages all lab facilities to pursue environmentally responsible activities such as recycling when we meet at their facilities,” said Kerns.

One possible reason for the lack of green policies at many companies is the prevalence of procurement, said Concklin. “Our clients have shifted to procurement systems and the outsourcing decisions are more focused on dollars and cents. They are not currently expressing an interest in green meetings to us.”

Although green initiatives have been slow to gain traction among pharma and med device companies, this is an area where planners have a chance to really impact the industry, added Glasper. Although Onyx does not have a green policy or a CSR statement in place, “we have adopted a set of core values that are embraced from the CEO level on down,” said Glasper. “It is doubtful that our meeting sponsors will come to us and request a green hotel — their focus is on the success of the program. So it is really up to planners to push that initiative forward.”

Red and Blue

As the discussion neared its end, Marshall directed the panel's attention to the effect a shift in administration in 2008 would have on the pharma industry.

“Historically, we have seen when there is a Democratic administration, regulations are stricter on the pharma industry, but it remains to be seen whether that will or will not happen again,” said Glasper. “From my standpoint, it is in our best interest to keep top of mind that the main issue is really about the patients and about patient advocacy. If that is the agreed upon goal, then what do we need to do to achieve that goal? It is an opportunity for us — Democrats, Republicans, and pharma companies — to get together and dialogue about what we need to do to accomplish this.”

Next Stop: Baltimore

The Fourth Annual Pharmaceutical Meeting Planners Forum will be held March 17 to 19, 2008, at the Baltimore Convention Center. For more information, visit www.pharmameetingplanners.com.

For coverage of the 2007 event, visit meetingsnet.com and search for “Tough Times for the Pharmaceutical Industry.”

Holding the Line

On the first afternoon of the inaugural West Coast Medical Device and Bio/Pharmaceutical Meeting Planners Forum, about 40 attendees gathered for a roundtable discussion on developing compliant and effective meetings, facilitated by Nancy Clow, CMP, meeting manager, Elan Pharmaceuticals, San Diego. Here are some highlights.

F&B Limits One planner said one of her biggest challenges was meeting specific budgetary limits for meal functions. A hotelier advised planners to be very upfront about their budgets from the beginning to avoid wasted time and effort. “It helps us if you share your menu parameters with us early on,” she said.

Pushy Doctors Another challenge planners face is complying with regulations while also managing the (sometimes exorbitant) needs of physicians.

“We have had problems with a particular doctor who was always emptying out the minibar,” said one participant. “We decided to have the hotel take his credit card at check-in to cover incidentals.”

Another planner said her biggest challenge was letting doctors know that their spouses and children were not allowed at meal functions — without offending them.

“I once had a doctor show up to the dinner with his wife and children, even after I had told him that we were unable to accommodate them because we had to be in compliance with guidelines,” said one meeting planner. “He got really angry and stormed away. Then, the next thing I know, I see him and his family getting into the elevator with five Styrofoam containers full of food. He had gone in the back and asked the chef to give him and his family their meals to go!”

Other planners in the group echoed this sentiment. “No matter how many times you tell them they can't bring their spouses, they will still try to sneak them in,” said another.

Another planner took a completely different approach. “We allow doctors to bring their spouses and kids to meal functions, but we tell them we are going to charge them a fee for the dinner upfront,” she said. “We specify this in the written materials before the meeting and collect the money from them during registration via cash or check. Then we issue the guest a special badge that says ‘guest’ on it so we can keep track of everyone.”