Dinner meetings used to have a reputation, at least in the media, for being more about extravagance than education. But now, as in other aspects of pharmaceutical meeting planning, regulatory and legal issues have taken center stage.

“Compliance has become a major part of the logistical process for planning dinner meetings. The venue must be conducive to education, the meals have to be more moderate, and it's not appropriate to include spouses or guests,” says James Montague, owner/chairman of Professional Meeting Planners Network, Durham, N.C.

Montague is in an unusual vantage point to observe dinner meeting trends — PMPN is a nationwide network of more than 1,000 meeting managers who specialize in physician events; in 2005, they planned more than 10,000 dinner meetings ranging in size from 5 attendees to 50. About 80 percent of PMPN meetings are certified CME activities and 20 percent are promotional or informational.

We asked Montague about the effect of government, media, and public scrutiny on dinner meetings, as well as about other challenges planners face.

Hold the Wine

“A lot of pharmaceutical companies have hired compliance managers to make sure that all aspects of a meeting are compliant. In many cases, a company's internal guidelines are even more stringent than those of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, Food & Drug Administration, and Office of Inspector General,” Montague notes.

That means meal budgets are based on the pharmaceutical company's interpretation of the regulatory guidelines. “When the guidelines say ‘moderate by local standards,’ you know that's different from Billings, Montana, to New York City, so the companies do find room for interpretation,” says Montague. “The menus haven't changed a great deal. It's just that wine and other alcoholic beverages aren't served, and the hors d'oeuvres are not as lavish. But these days that has as much to do with budgetary constraints as compliance issues.”

Most physicians have come to accept the fact that under the new guidelines, they cannot bring spouses to dinner meetings. Occasionally, however, a physician will show up with a spouse. “In such cases, it's preferable for someone other than the pharma rep to explain that the spouse can't attend. It could be the meeting manager or someone from a med-com,” says Montague. “That way the next time the physician sees that pharma rep, they won't be seeing the person who embarrassed their spouse.”

Venues' New View

Another challenge of planning successful dinner meetings is negotiating contracts with hotels, which tend to devalue catering-only bookings, or with restaurants, for which hosting meetings is not their primary business.

Now, however, hotels are beginning to see dinner meetings as a valuable source of business, despite the fact that they're not tied to a larger event or to sleeping rooms. Marriott has been the leader in developing services targeted to dinner meetings. “With the advent of programs such as EventCom, Marriott's version of multiple venue booking, we can book a series of dinner meetings in one fell swoop,” says Montague. “The more efficiencies in booking the better, especially for a series of meetings. If I can tell one [hotel] company exactly what it is I'm looking for in terms of location, room size, setup, and registration area, then they can query their database of properties and let me know which ones fit my specifications. Marriott also offers LaunchStar, which is great for a major product launch or any meeting that requires a satellite broadcast.” LaunchStar allows planners to organize a live dinner presentation at one venue with a simulcast to numerous other dinner meetings nationwide.

Standard hotel contracts are far too complicated for a meeting that lasts only a few hours, especially one with a short lead time, which in the case of some pharma meetings may even be as short as one week, says Montague. So the new hotel booking services for dinner meetings, such as those offered by Marriott, have also greatly simplified contract negotiations and billing, as well as site selection. (See sidebar below.)

In terms of which venues work best for dinner meetings, PMPN managers choose hotel restaurants and stand-alone restaurants more often than hotel meeting rooms. “Doctors are used to high standards and they expect nice venues,” he says. “Ease of use is also important. Is the location convenient? Is there valet parking or adjacent parking? Is the room quiet and private?”

Driving Discussion

“As important as the venue and the menu are, they're secondary to the content,” says Montague. And content drives format.

Simulcasts, while they are becoming more popular, do have limitations. A simulcast can be especially effective for introducing a blockbuster drug, for example, and can then be followed by detailing in the office, as well as by smaller dinner meetings. “But simulcasts are often in a lecture format that doesn't lend itself to discussion. So they're not as effective when attendees want to engage the speaker in discussion,” says Montague. “Discussion is the most popular and effective format for dinner meetings. The more time you can allow for discussion and interaction among the attendees and among the attendees and the speaker, the better perceived the meeting will be.”

Tech Tools

Larger meetings usually do require the services available at a meeting hotel with an in-house audiovisual team or at a restaurant that contracts with a local provider. But for smaller meetings a simpler setup is often adequate, especially in cases in which planners have short lead times.

“If all you need is an LCD projector, a laptop, a screen, a wireless mouse and a pointer, it's not complicated. With the plug-and-play technology available these days, meeting managers can be trained to handle the audiovisual themselves,” says Montague.

“We're also starting to see more usage of sound kits, which include a wireless lavaliere microphone, a handheld microphone, a speaker, and speaker stand. We can consistently send out this exact same package every time and it's easy to set up and easy to use. It works well for smaller meetings — and even if the venue has a sound system, it may be overkill for a meeting of only 15 people, so the sound kit is more than adequate.”

Another portable technology that's increasingly common at dinner meetings is an audience-response system that's about the size of a lunchbox and includes 30 credit-card — sized keypads. “In addition to being used as part of the meeting presentation, the ARS can also gather data to be combined with audience responses from numerous other dinner meetings to provide valuable feedback on a new product launch, for example,” says Montague. “And the data from many small meetings can be analyzed in ways that might not be possible with data from one large meeting, such as by region.”

Technology can also help planners handle the scariest of logistical problems — a speaker no-show. PMPN managers are beginning to use conference phones, which can be plugged directly into a cellphone in the meeting room. “Then, a speaker who's stuck at the airport or stuck in traffic can actually call and begin talking to the group before arriving at the venue,” he explains.

Drawing the Docs

Given physicians' busy and unpredictable schedules, attrition is often a stumbling block for dinner meetings. If you've invited eight physicians, and five are all called upon to perform the same surgery, you're in trouble. While restaurants and hotels are beginning to understand the attrition issues related to physician dinner meetings, there are limits to how flexible they can be with guarantees. So paying for dinners for no-shows usually represents the biggest budget loss for dinner meetings.

“For a series of meetings, if you can reduce the no-show factor by even 1 percent, that can make a significant difference. If you're running a series of 100 dinner meetings and you can get even one more doctor to each one of them, then you've touched 100 more physicians. That has a lot of impact,” says Montague. “Even a minimal decrease in the no-show factor can pay volumes in dividends for years to come — if, for example, those 100 doctors were to change their prescribing habits based on what they learned.”

Beyond attrition, a larger challenge is attracting physicians to meetings in the first place. “We know that great content, great speakers, and a venue that's a draw for physicians are all important factors for dinner meetings,” says Montague. “But very little is known about how physicians decide which dinner meetings to attend. We need more specific demographic data to help us figure out what it is the doctors want in a dinner meeting and how to give it to them in the most efficient manner.”

Montague would like to see audience-response systems used to gather that data. “In addition to the medical questions asked during a presentation, we can ask doctors about their preferences regarding the venue, the preferred day of the week, the format, the speakers … to help us determine what draws attendance,” he explains. “If we can gather that kind of data from thousands of meetings, we'll have a better idea of exactly what physicians prefer when it comes to dinner meetings. And we can be even more efficient in providing them with the kinds of educational meetings they want and need.”

Martha Collins is a freelance writer/editor, based in Austin, Texas, who specializes in the medical meetings industry.

Renaissance Offers Dinner Meeting Concierge Service

The Renaissance Hotel group, a Marriott International brand, offers a Web-based dinner meeting concierge service by which planners can book a single meeting at one property or a series of meetings across the country, all through a single point of contact and with a single invoice.

The service, which was launched in December 2005, was designed based on focus-group research Renaissance did with its dinner meeting clients. “We learned that they want to streamline the process for venue selection, menu planning, audiovisual, and billing, so they can focus their efforts on content,” says David Monroe, director, corporate segment sales and marketing for pharmaceutical, medical, insurance, financial segment sales and marketing, Marriott International, Mableton, Ga.

At the Web site (www.dinnermeetings.com), a meeting planner clicks on “Single Meeting” or “Multiple Meetings,” provides the requested information, and within 24 hours is contacted by a Renaissance dinner meeting concierge, who then coordinates meeting arrangements at all properties and consolidates the billing. Two all-inclusive dinner prices are offered — one for tier-one cities and another for tier-two cities. Package pricing is also available for AV services.

“We asked our pharmaceutical customers what they'd determined to be the cost of a meal that meets the PhRMA (Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America) code in their markets. Then we developed the tier pricing based on that and created menu options within each tier,” says Monroe.

“The meetings are usually held at Renaissance street-side restaurants, which offer the ambience medical professionals prefer, while also providing the benefit of using the hotel's in-house audiovisual staff.”