Tightening budgets and increasing regulatory and corporate scrutiny over meetings spend means the pressure is on for pharmaceutical and other life sciences meeting planners to budget their internal and healthcare professional meetings to the dime. tapped two pros—James Vachon, CMM, associate director of events, meetings and conventions, Millennium: The Takeda Oncology Co.; and Gavin Houston, executive vice president, Universal WorldEvents—to walk us through some of the things that make planning pharma meeting budgets tricky, and provide some tips and techniques to make your next budgeting process go more smoothly.
The first thing to acknowledge is that life sciences meetings are different from those in other market segments, said Vachon in a webinar that debuted on MeetingsNet.com in March. The types of meetings they hold are different; and other segments don’t have to plan in compliance with the rules, regulations, and corporate guidelines medical meeting managers must adhere to. For international programs, medical meeting planners have to contend not only with the rules of the country in which the program in held, but also with those of the countries their attendees hail from.
Six Types of Meetings
Different types of meetings have different budgeting nuances. The first distinction to make is between internal corporate meetings and meetings that involve HCPs. While internal meetings are subject to internal corporate budgeting guidelines, they do not have to comply with all the regulations involved in HCP meetings, which include the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America Code on Interactions with Healthcare Professionals, state laws around physician/industry relationships, pending federal legislation in the form of the Sunshine Act, and international rules. There are six common types of life sciences meetings, five of which involve HCPs.
Advisory board meetings: Pharmaceutical companies hold these meetings to learn the perspectives of leading key opinion leaders, or KOLs, on a specific topic. The companies use those insights to formulate strategy. These meetings, which usually don’t exceed 25 people and last from a couple of hours to a full day, typically are attended by KOLs, internal staff, and often staff from a medical communications agency to facilitate the on-site proceedings, according to Houston.
Even though compliance guidelines still apply, advisory board meetings tend to have higher service requirements because the KOLs in attendance are very high-level and because the purpose of the advisory boards is to help drive strategy. This means you may have to budget for more staffing to ensure the needed level of service. Each adviser in attendance typically will receive an honorarium and reimbursement for incidental expenses incurred during the meeting. Houston emphasized the importance of defining and budgeting upfront for these higher service levels, honoraria, and reimbursements, along with any fees associated with administering them.
Because the company will want to capture all the nuances of the discussion, it’s common to record the meeting and have that recording transcribed for later use. The audiovisual setup can be fairly elaborate for a relatively small meeting, including a mixing board and tabletop microphones. “The cost for the AV equipment can take people by surprise,” said Vachon. “It’s critical that you work with your meeting sponsor to ensure you have what they need for the audiovisual.”
Investigator meetings. Clinical investigator meetings are HCP-attended meetings that aim to train various investigational sites in clinical trial protocols for the patients they’re about to recruit. The sites typically are clinics or hospitals that are paid to participate in conducting a clinical trial for a new product or for an existing product that is being approved for a new therapeutic indication or a new dosage. A field monitor—either an internal employee if the trial is run in-house, or a research associate from a third-party contract research organization—assigned to oversee the trial typically manages several sites, which could be split geographically by region.
Investigator meetings typically are partial or full-day meetings, and are usually preceded the evening before by a welcome dinner. However, when building your budget, remember that there’s also usually a training meeting for contract research associates the day prior, and some investigator meetings also require that the study coordinator stay for an additional amount of time afterward. So be sure to account for CRA training, the investigator meeting, and the study coordinator-only segments, in your room blocks.
In addition to the trial management team from the pharma sponsors, the contract research associate, and internal site staff, usually each site sends two attendees: the principle investigator and the study coordinator, Houston said. If the PI is unable to attend, she may ask a sub-investigator to attend in her place. To further complicate matters, some trials may also need additional site support staff, though this is relatively uncommon. Pickup rate usually is around 80 percent, because sites may not always have enough lead time to send two people. Houston’s advice: Use your best judgment, try for flexible clauses, and try to balance your lead times.
Because the content is basically information download, investigator meetings can be pretty dry, so it’s common to bring in an audience-response system. While these can enhance attendee engagement and be used to test what they’ve learned, the technology can be quite pricey, said Houston.
Because it’s often more efficient for companies to conduct trials overseas due to the lower costs involved with working with patients outside of the U.S., simultaneous interpreters also are commonly used. Houston emphasized that interpretation staff, audio-recording equipment, and interpretation booths can be expensive. The latter also can take up a lot of room, so larger meeting space may be required as well, bringing with it a higher room rental cost.
As is the case with advisory boards, be sure to budget for site staff expense reimbursement, Houston said. Also remember to budget for bank wire fees for international meetings, where they can be quite common. Note, however, that investigators and study coordinators often do not receive honoraria because their participation in the meeting is required as part of the clinical trial.
Travel visas are another cost you need to take into account, and one that can be expensive. You also need to remember that, if you have a U.S. dollar budget and your meeting is outside of the U.S., the exchange rate fluctuation could create a significant variance in your budget. You may want to consider building a cushion accordingly.
Speaker training meetings. These are events that prepare HCPs to become speakers for HCP events with their peers. Whether to make the meeting regional or national depends on your meeting sponsor’s goals and objectives, said Vachon. For example, if you want a more intimate setting where your meeting sponsor can engage easily with your attendees, you may want to consider regional events. Compared to national events, regional events allow you to consider smaller venues, and you can use less AV and production equipment. “On the flip side,” he added, “national programs allow you to do it all at once, providing savings on flights and accommodations for your core team.” And, while virtual or hybrid training can help reduce travel costs, they do incur higher technical costs. You also must find a way to authenticate that attendees have completed the training.
Honoraria and expense reimbursement are typical for these types of programs, said Vachon. “Your meeting sponsor will have to guide you on what the honoraria budget will be, and use your corporate guidelines to establish benchmarks for expense budgeting. Additionally, be sure to confirm with your meeting sponsor the length of time you will allow people to submit expenses for reimbursement so you will know when you can close out your program.”
As with all types of medical meetings, the types of attendees can affect your fiscal planning. Speaker training includes HCPs, corporate attendees, and vendors, which will likely include a medical communications company that you will need to budget for. Healthcare professionals who are presenters also likely will be involved in the slide review, which will affect their travel requirements and the honoraria they receive, said Vachon.
Promotional speaker programs/dinner meetings. These are the peer-to-peer programs the speaker training programs prepare the program facilitators for. “These are very simple programs with basic requirements, kind of ‘a meeting in a box,’” said Vachon. They tend to be straightforward and repetitive, and budgeting is relatively simple: basic audiovisual, possible room rental, menu planning, and travel expenses for your speaker.
“One thing you may want to consider is working with a national restaurant chain to negotiate package pricing. You can then apply it across your broad base of programs,” said Vachon. Houston added that chains also tend to have pharma-friendly menus, which can simplify things. A local sales rep usually manages these programs, so you typically don’t need to budget for on-site logistical support.
Convention ancillary meetings. Many companies plan ad hoc events in conjunction with major medical association conventions and congresses in order to take advantage of the fact that so many of their teams and customers already will be attending. But from a budget-planning perspective, said Vachon, “while you may save money on travel costs and accommodations, you do have expenses that don’t apply to a stand-alone meeting, and other costs that you wouldn’t anticipate spending normally.”
For example, many medical associations require that you register ancillary meetings with them, so they can ensure that your events don’t conflict with their primary agenda. However, some charge fees to hold these events. Vachon remembered one that charged $15,000 for his company to hold an ancillary event at its annual meeting. Also, because there’s so much competition for space, venues may take advantage of the reduced availability by increasing items such as room rental fees and food-and-beverage minimums.
Because staff may already be in town for the congress, companies may not provide any travel and accommodation support, he said, unless it requires staff to come in early or extend their stay. In that case, he said, the meeting sponsor may offer to cover the cost of half of a flight, a change fee of a flight that’s already been booked, or simply meet the cost variance of the new schedule the meeting requires.
And, added Vachon, “When these medical conventions are in town, you might as well throw your noncompete clause out the window.” However, he added, “since every competitor of yours is likely to be present, you may need to increase the amount and visibility of your signage. Lollipop signs, for example, seem to be everywhere at these meetings, while they may not be as prevalent at other programs.”
Internal meetings. When planning internal meetings for life sciences companies, be sure to clarify the guidelines and spend allowances for your company, said Vachon. Some have policies that are more aligned with HCP meetings, others may not have any policies, and others are somewhere in between.
There usually aren’t as many restrictions around meal spend, room rate caps, entertainment, and amenities as there are with HCP meetings, but when in doubt, check with your HR or compliance team.
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