What a difference a year makes.

When the Pharmaceutical Meeting Management Forum convened in March 2009, the economy was diving headlong toward rock bottom. For meetings, it was the one of the worst periods anyone had seen in terms of meeting cancellations and attrition.

Now, according to an expert panel of planners and hoteliers at the 2010 Pharmaceutical Meeting Management Forum, the worst is behind us. “We’re cautiously optimistic,” said Dorie Deebold, global account director at Starwood Hotels and Resorts Wordlwide. No, it’s not a full recovery—that won’t come until 2011 at least. But revenue per available room, or RevPAR, rates are expected to either remain flat or grow to low single-digit percentage increases. “We’ve seen some signs that things are stabilizing,” she said.

One of those signs is that meetings are returning, especially pharmaceutical meetings. Short-term bookings are up 100 percent in the first half of this year compared to 2009, said Deebold. That’s more a reflection of how bad things were last year than how good they are this year, but still, the trend is promising. Also, lead volumes are up 15 percent, she added, and occupancy rates in key markets, like New York City, are returning.

Meetings are coming back with very short lead times—which creates challenges for vendors, but they are good challenges to have. “Everything is moving short-term,” said Deebold. “Forecasting has become difficult.” Where hoteliers used to forecast a year out, now they forecast one month out. Short-term meetings also create the need for a lot more communication and dialogue both internally and externally. Hotels also have to ramp up their service and capabilities to handle these meetings on short notice.

Third-party meeting planners at the 2010 PMMF echoed those thoughts in a separate session. They are getting requests for meetings from pharmaceutical clients 30 days out. That’s great, the planners said, but companies don’t always change their internal policies to reflect this new schedule, which means they don’t always make their deposit payments on time. If they don’t, planners have to foot the upfront costs until they are paid after the meeting.

Meetings 2010: Smaller, Closer, Shorter

The economy is also affecting the size and location of meetings, according to the panel, moderated by Annette Gregg, CMP, CMM, regional director, Unbridled Solutions, a Denver-based event management and communications company. Budgets are decreasing and companies are downsizing, so pharmaceutical meetings are generally smaller, shorter, and more regional than they have been in the past, said planners on the panel.

“I don’t know anyone who is not shaving costs or shortening meetings,” said Gregg Talley, president and chief executive officer, Talley Management Group, a Mount Royal, N.J.–based association and meeting management company. Spending on production, food and beverage, lodging, and amenities are way down, said the planners. In addition to being more austere, meetings are also shorter, often down to just one overnight in the hotel, and more are being held regionally, as opposed to nationally.

Destinations are also changing. Planners said that they look for meetings in destinations that are not only affordable, but are easily accessible by air. Panelists mentioned Las Vegas, Atlanta, and Orlando as good options, since they have a lot of flights. Consequently, companies are holding more meetings at airport hotels, since they are generally less expensive, easy to get to, and cut down on ground transportation costs.

Conversely, there are fewer meetings at resorts, given the tightening in 2009 of guidelines from Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America that prohibit those types of properties. One planner panelist’s company won’t go to a meeting with resort in its name. However, another panelist was with a medical device company that doesn’t have a policy restricting meetings at resorts. Gregg reminded the audience that, in addition to having different policies about resorts, companies also can have different definitions of what constitutes a resort.

There was also a discussion about the rise of virtual meetings. While saying that live meetings will never be replaced, one of the panelists did say that virtual meetings are being used more frequently in place of some smaller live meetings at companies. For the cost of Web cams, headsets, virtual meeting software, and laptops (in some cases), companies can connect people virtually for a fraction of the cost of live meetings. One of the participants in the session added that the task of planning virtual meetings will be a skill set that meeting professionals will need to learn in the near future.

The good news is that medical meetings are faring better than other sectors, said the panelists. Attendance rates did not drop as low for medical conventions and exhibitions. Some medical association meetings enjoyed increases in both attendance and exhibitions, while others tanked, said Talley. It really depended on the field. A meeting in a hot subspecialty, for example, might have done quite well, while a convention in a broader medical area might not have fared as well.

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2010: Looking Ahead

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