If many people have lost their jobs, it would not be appropriate to make a splash at a lavish locale.

Bonnie Weiss says she is the only Hyatt Hotels and Resorts employee who operates on a national level and carries a pager.

Meetings planned on short notice have always been a fact of the pharmaceutical business, and with the abundance of mergers, they have become even more prevalent — meaning hoteliers like Weiss, Hyatt's director of pharmaceutical sales, want to be in contact at all times.

“An hour or two can make a difference in us getting business,” says Weiss, noting short-term business has increased dramatically over the past five years. She typically gets calls from planners trying to book sometimes only two weeks out for meetings of 200 to 300 people — not that Weiss is complaining.

“Everyone wants to grow in this market,” she says.

And that market is extremely healthy. The economy may be hurting other industries' conference business, but in the merger-happy pharmaceutical sector, meetings are multiplying.

One Plus One Equals Three

For meeting planners, two companies becoming one can mean twice as many events, often planned on the fly to sort out the new internal processes and cultures. And meetings such as product launches still go on, even if the employees in charge of those events are anxious about their own professional lives.

“The programs the company is committed to need to continue, because the products are still viable,” says Chris Pentz, CMP, president of meeting planning firm Pentz Group Communications, based in Levittown, Pa.

Sue Potton, marketing director, conference services, with MediTech, an international medical communications firm with a U.S. office in Princeton, N.J., gave a presentation on the effect of pharmaceutical mergers on the meeting industry at the International Congress and Convention Association annual conference in Hong Kong in November. She agrees with Pentz, noting that while there may be anxiety in the early stages, a merger doesn't mean the company no longer exists. The companies still have the same product lines, which still need promoting. And, she says, bigger companies mean bigger budgets to play with; combined research and development departments mean more financing and more new products.

With all the time and money spent developing medications, companies aren't going to sit back and do nothing when they're ready for release. “They're going to have a substantial communications agenda, and meetings are a large part of that,” says Potton.

The number of meetings held in the pharmaceutical industry increased overall by 11 percent in 2000, says Lori Sterbakov, associate manager with Newtown, Pa. — based research firm Scott-Levin. The company's Physician Meeting & Event Audit showed that for the fourth year in a row, Pfizer ranked number one in event expenditures, spending $212 million in 2000, compared to $144 million in 1999, a jump due to the company's merger with Warner-Lambert.

“People trying to blend two different cultures together need to hold more meetings,” reasons Roger Dow, senior vice president, general sales, Marriott International. “It's one plus one equals three from our standpoint.”

Merger Minuses

But there are some minuses in that equation. “One plus one does not equal two,” says Christine Duffy, president and COO of McGettigan Partners, a medical meeting planning firm headquartered in Philadelphia. Combined sales forces may mean one bigger incentive for the sales force, rather than two smaller ones. “Internal meetings are likely to be larger, but there may be fewer of them.”

And there are other minuses in the merger equation. Mergers can mean cancellations, for a variety of reasons. The timing might not be right for the new CEO's schedule, or the company might want to push back an agenda until all the players are in their new roles.

Both Hyatt's Weiss, and David Narwich, associate director in Starwood's Chicago-based global sales office, say they've run into merger-related cancellations.“The goals of the meeting may no longer be relevant, so its wise to cancel in these instances,” Narwich says.

But cancellations put planners in an awkward position. “The most important thing is communication,” says Weiss, suggesting that planners should let hotels know as early as possible if an event might fall through.

“We encourage customers to be as communicative as possible with hoteliers and other suppliers about cancellations,” agrees Duffy.

Combined Clout

And those cancellations don't have to diminish a planner's value to hotels — a merger can result in a planner throwing more business a hotel's way. “There are also a flurry of merger-related meetings, with all these people coming together on a variety of issues,” says Duffy. “While those meetings tend to be small, they're numerous.”

Anne Kezer, program development leader of pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca, planned a proliferation of meetings when her company, Sweden-based Astra AD (a spin-off of the U.S. company AstraMerck) merged with Zeneca, headquartered in the United Kingdom.

At the time of the merger, Astra-Zeneca held a meeting at the Philadelphia Convention Center to try and bridge the two companies together. Employees from the United States offices were there in person, while the Swedish and English offices were connected to the meeting by satellite.

While there were a few meetings canceled because of the merger, Kezer, who is based in the company's Wayne, Pa., office, says there have also been many additional events planned, especially for training needs. “Town hall” meetings are also being planned, to facilitate better communication within the company.

And a planner may wield more clout after a merger. When companies merge, says Duffy, they analyze how meeting dollars are managed. Information that was previously proprietary, such as room rates and vendor names, is shared. The company that was bigger may find out the smaller company was getting better deals. The new merged organization then develops best practices for planning meetings.

Forget Resorts

Mergers can also have a tremendous impact on the type of venue chosen for meetings.

As most pharmaceutical companies have offices around the world, Dow says he's seeing the popularity of international gateway cities like Boston, New York, Chicago, and Atlanta on the rise, especially for meetings planned on short notice, when people need to get in and out quickly. Airport hotels are doing well for pharmaceutical meetings in these areas, chosen for convenience rather than razzle-dazzle, unlike more traditional resort locales.

In location selection, size matters as well. Weiss says she's seen some meetings grow so large that they're expanding from one hotel to several, and perhaps a convention center, to accommodate the merger-related growth.

Pentz observes that a number of variables can come into play when choosing a venue for a post-merger event. Factors to consider include whether the deal was truly a merger, or was it an acquisition, and whether there was downsizing. If a number of people have lost their jobs, it would obviously not be appropriate to make a fancy splash at a lavish locale. Planners need to take employee feelings into account, and remember that during a merger people are very insecure about the future of the company — and their own job status.

“You have to be sensitive to what people are going through,” she says.

Am I Losing My Job?

As everyone knows, mergers often bring layoffs, but for meeting planners a merger isn't always bad news. When Sweden-based Astra AD (a spin-off of the U.S. company AstraMerck) merged with Zeneca, headquartered in the United Kingdom, an in-house meeting department was created, growing out of the clinical group, says Anne Kezer, who became the program development leader. About 50 people in the department plan approximately 100 events annually. AstraZeneca is now looking to hire additional staff.

For independent planners, mergers can bring bad news. Each company has its own preferred suppliers, but when the new merged entity reviews its combined roster of suppliers, there's always a chance a third party — even if it enjoyed a long-term relationship with one of the companies prior to the merger — won't be selected, says Christine Duffy, president and COO of McGettigan Partners, a medical meeting planning firm based in Philadelphia.

On the positive side, even if a large pharma firm has on-staff planners, they may not be able to handle all the meetings generated after a merger. Sue Potton, marketing director, conference services, with MediTech, an international communications firm with a U.S. office in Princeton, N.J., points out that even if a company is creating an in-house department, as AstraZeneca did, those departments may not spring up instantly, meaning independent planners have time to prove themselves to new executives.