In the 1980s, people were impressed by having the best," says Chris Dullea, senior director of catering and convention services, Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress, Orlando. "These days, extravagance is not as well-perceived as it used to be."

Today, Dullea shows corporate medical meeting planners how to save money by being creative with food and beverage presentations at the Pharmaceutical Business Exchange, a seminar the Hyatt chain instituted two years ago to help its corporate medical customers cope with change.

And change there has been, as managed care organizations have replaced individual physicians as the focus of pharmaceutical and medical device marketing. "Pharmaceutical firms are feeling very sensitive about positioning themselves in this new environment. When they are entertaining [managed care organizations], they are low-key," says Kim Dracon, director of sales at TCI, a meeting and event management company based in Washington, DC.

But all work and no play hasn't worked out either, according to Colette Fairchild, president of Meetings Rx, a Chicago-based planning firm. "Companies are spending more on employee rewards these days, as opposed to having them meet in a really nice place and then keep them in meetings all day," she says. "That just makes people angry."

Here are some new key themes for corporate medical meeting planners:

* Image counts. Pharmaceutical firms will spend more if it makes them look like they are spending less on meetings.

* Rah-rah is out. Selling to the managed care market requires in-depth product knowledge, not motivational song-and-dance. Not that motivational efforts have disappeared, because-

* Incentive meetings are back at the highest levels. National account reps who sell to managed care organizations are the new elite of pharmaceutical sales, and at some firms they are receiving travel and monetary rewards reflecting their higher status in the organization.

Perception Matters Medical meeting planners are quickly learning that image and perception are often more important than actual cost.

"It is now a common practice to choose a hotel chain as opposed to a resort or deluxe property-even if the room rates are comparable to one another-in order to eliminate the perception that too much money is being spent," says Alison Wiley, sales director of Medical Meetings Management, a New York City-p;based firm.

"If some reporter picks up that company XYZ has 1,000 people in Palm Springs, versus Chicago, in February, well, it truly is a matter of perception," says Christine Duffy, vice president of marketing and sales, McGettigan Corporate Planning Services based in Philadelphia, PA. "Whether they meet in Chicago or Palm Springs, they are accomplishing the same thing."

No Dance When firms do select upscale properties, they often try to downplay their presence, says Bonnie Weiss, director of pharmaceutical industry sales, Hyatt Hotels and Resorts, Greenwich, CT. Sometimes the perceptual concerns are more concrete, as with the increased emphasis on product information over sales motivation. Sales meeting attendees are more likely to encounter panel discussions with those who developed the drug, or patients who participated in the clinical trials. "They [the pharmaceutical companies] are getting more down to earth, versus bringing out a chorus line of singers and dancers singing 'Yay, we are going to be number one,' with fireworks coming down from the ceiling," says Duffy.

Elite Incentives One of the original goals of national healthcare reform was to create large buying organizations with strong purchasing power. While reform never got off the ground, the concept of concentrating buying clout did. As a consequence, there has emerged a new category of pharmaceutical company sales representative: a very senior individual who sells large volumes to national accounts.

"One of my clients takes its top salespeople to an incentive travel program in Hawaii," says Fairchild. "A group of seven sales people within the larger group-responsible for very large accounts-received cash awards and their own side trip to another island." Will the days of caviar shaped like company logos return? Probably not, says Fairchild. "Some companies have become tight with every penny," she says. "A few spend more freely, but they don't want it to look that way."

Protect Your Visibility Independent planners working with managed care organizations (MCOs) are realizing that their real customers are the physicians-and that name recognition with that audience is important, according to Earlene Hill, CMP, president, Hill Management Concepts Inc., St. Louis, MO. Hill planned a meeting for an MCO this year. On the registration forms, she discovered that the MCO had covered over her name on the brochure, replacing it with that of someone from the organization. "It took me out of the loop," Hill says. To counteract this, she attended the meeting, greeted physicians, and included information about her organization on course materials. "If I didn't, the physicians wouldn't know I had organized the meeting, " Hill says. "I'm trying to develop recognition among physicians."

In a world where change is still the only constant, the big firms demand-and get-zero-to-100 mph-in-five-seconds service from meeting planners.

Today, the average lead time for a product launch is six weeks, say pharmaceutical company planners. Five years ago, it was six months. "Part of that is that the Food and Drug Administration is approving certain drugs much more quickly," says Colette Fairchild, president of Meetings Rx, a Chicago-based planning firm.

Another is the seemingly obsessive restructuring of sales forces. "A couple companies have totally restructured their sales forces, territories-everything," says Fairchild. "And when they restructure, they need a meeting for 3,000 people to talk about it, and they'll let you know three weeks ahead what they want. They're big and they can demand the service."