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Learning from the Regulated

by 1185308 Elaine Pofeldt | May 29, 2012
Due to the challenges of managing increasing optics, medical and pharma meeting pros are at the forefront of industry regulation.

On the hunt for exciting new growth opportunities, the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau (ACVB) started an initiative two years ago to focus on booking events for industries that were thriving—from renewable energy to education. Noticing growth in the medical industry, the CVB also targeted gatherings in this field.

They’ve turned out to be a sweet spot. 

As of March, the ACVB counted 215,000 room nights booked for medical meetings in 2012—more than twice the figure from 2011. This year, such gatherings will bring more than 70,000 convention attendees, such as the 23,000-attendee, 100-year-anniversary Thomas P. Hinman Dental Meeting (in March) and the 17,000-person American Urological Association annual meeting (in May). Coming up are Medtrade—a 10,000-attendee gathering for those in the home medical equipment field in October—followed by the American Society of Hematology annual meeting in December. Such meetings will have a combined economic impact of $110 million this year, by the ACVB’s estimates.

“This is a very good year for us,” said Mark Sussman, director of trade show sales for the ACVB.

As the bureau’s experience is evident, opportunity is brewing in the medical and pharmaceutical meeting field—but capitalizing on those opportunities means staying on top of the fast-changing needs of organizers and attendees.

Many key players are doing business against a backdrop of relatively new and often confusing regulatory requirements that are constantly evolving. In January 2009, for instance, members of Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) ushered in voluntary guidelines to avoid ethical problems and conflicts of interest. In the so-called PhRMA guidelines, research-oriented pharmaceutical and biotech firms set standards governing entertainment, resulting in more modest meals and experiences and phasing out old-school practices such as treating doctors to pricey or high-profile entertainment options (professional sports events, concerts, etc.).

On top of this, the U.S. Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2009—“Obamacare”—ushered in the Physician Payment Sunshine Act. The goal was to bring more transparency to the relationships that pharmaceutical companies, biotech firms and medical device suppliers have with doctors. It mandates that pharmaceutical manufacturers and medical device makers must report gifts and meals for physicians that cumulatively total at least $10 in a year.

Originally, the law was to take effect in January, with many companies and meeting professionals scrambling to keep pace. But this spring, after receiving a mountain of comments, the federal Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced that it was postponing this requirement. The agency reportedly began assembling a work group to assist in coming up with a final rule by the end of 2012. Manufacturers are expected to have to start collecting this data in January 2013.

Realizing that the ramp-up time will be significant, many companies are already setting up companywide systems for keeping track of spending covered under the Sunshine Act and grappling with the implications of the heightened disclosure. Virtual meeting provider MedPoint Digital is one such company. According to MedPoint President and Founder Bill Cooney, the federal government must, under the law, publish the physician payments on an easy-to-use website in 2013, making the data searchable and downloadable—which will have potentially huge implications for meetings.

“Everyone is going to see things like, ‘Dr. Smith got a meal, valued at $80 from Ruth’s Chris, by going to a meeting,’” he said.

Such expenses might look more lavish to politicians or to the general public than to meeting planners who know the going rate for catered meals, he notes, so that will undoubtedly be a factor considered in meeting planning.

While many companies and organizations have resumed holding meetings that were canceled in the recession, they’re still being more frugal in planning them—guarding their budgets and attendees’ time. That means more virtual meetings, as well as events that are being condensed into shorter time periods and held in locations such as airport hotels, not resorts.

“Pharmaceutical and medical companies are taking their teams out into the field for less time,” said Scott Cullather, founder and managing partner at inVNT, a New York-based events agency. “[Yet], the expectations for learning are pretty much the same, if not more.”

Attracting meetings to a city or venue in this climate takes creative thinking. For instance, with many large organizations due to rotate their meetings this year into the southeastern U.S., the ACVB knew there would be increased regional competition from other cities. So the group promoted its strong infrastructure to help Atlanta stand out.

“We’re able to secure up to 10,000 guest rooms within walking distance of the convention center,” Sussman said.

Sussman and his team have also emphasized a planned expansion of the Maynard H. Jackson International Terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport—which will bring 12 additional international gates to the facility—when recruiting international groups like the American Urological Association, which will be one of the first to have access when the new gates open.

Meeting planners also need to find economical ways to keep meetings engaging—and useful. When inVNT works with client Genentech to plan sales meetings these days, time is tighter than ever. To help his client make the most out of shorter educational gatherings, Cullather provides certain materials ahead of time. For instance, if a product launch targets patients with a particular disease, Cullather says, “Maybe we would introduce the patient through a video campaign or email blast prior to the meeting.” Such advance prep work frees time for participants to decompress between sessions.

“If you take up the entire time cramming [participants] full of knowledge, how effective is that?” he asked. “There’s a learning curve that starts to diminish over a period of time.”

Cullather and his team also constantly look for high-impact, cost-effective ways to enhance what is learned at a meeting. For one client’s sales meeting this past spring, inVNT created a visual device that helped attendees understand the suffering of people with glaucoma. The glasses he brought to the meeting reduced participants’ ability to see—the same way glaucoma impairs vision. The salespeople were asked to try the specs on and to then type a text message.

“We took the glasses off and let them read it,” he recalled. “The emotional response we elicited was really incredible. They were able to, in a visceral way, experience what it was like to be a patient suffering from glaucoma.”

Not everyone in the medical sphere is feeling the pinch of regulation, so some CVBs, meeting planners and organizers are staying alert to opportunities to serve those who still have healthy budgets.

“The Sunshine Act is more geared toward the pharmaceutical companies and their spending money,” Sussman said.

Many top doctors travel to medical conventions from around the world for continuing education, and they expect a high-quality event.

“The doctors are allowed to spend money on themselves,” Sussman said.

Many doctors bring their families with them to conferences, so the ACVB promotes local tourist attractions near the convention center, such as the Georgia Aquarium and other options within walking distance.

Dental groups, though sensitive to budgetary concerns, also fall outside the reach of laws such as the Sunshine Act, offering meeting planners some room for creativity. The 750-member Hinman Dental Society of Atlanta hosts 55 meetings a year—including the massive annual convention it just held. Known for keeping members up to date on professional topics such as bleaching teeth, the organization also brings in high-profile speakers who share the nonprofit’s focus on education, such as recent keynote former First Lady Laura Bush.

To attract foot traffic to its exhibit hall, which housed approximately 850 booths, the society planned attention grabbers such as the daily giveaway of a diamond pendant. The group also hired models to dress in attire reflective of the time person in which the organization was founded. Those who submitted tickets to the couple—who walked the show floor—were entered into a contest to win $100. Recognizing that the group’s Southern hospitality has been a powerful draw since Dr. Thomas Hinman, a dentist, founded the group, the association taps volunteer members to make the event welcoming to all.

“We assign hosts to every speaker to go out to the airport, greet them on arrival, escort them to their hotel room, take them to their lectures,” said Sylvia Ratchford, the group’s executive director.

While gestures like this add to the ambiance, Ratchford knows that they, alone, aren’t enough to keep participants coming back. The society, which runs a trade show at its annual meeting, has rolled out a spate of new opportunities for members to increase their presence, such as ads on its social networking pages. Ratchford says the days of coming up with a marketing plan at the beginning of the year and sticking with it are over.

“It’s constantly evolving,” she said.

And, like others in this space, she’s hoping to keep pace. One+

Pharma 101 at WEC

Don’t miss our “Pharmaceutical Meeting Planning 101” session at the World Education Congress, July 28-31 in St. Louis. Visit www.mpiweb.org/events/wec2012 to learn more about the event.

Pharmaceutical meetings are highly regulated, so whether you are new to the planning side or the supplier side of this complex industry, this introductory session is a must for you. Planners will learn the importance of compliance with company and government regulations and the ramifications of non-compliance. Suppliers will recognize that pharmaceutical planners are not being difficult to work with “just because”—in fact, they are under strict guidelines regarding how meetings are planned, hotels are utilized and funds are spent on healthcare providers. And, in the U.S., these regulations will likely become even more restrictive under pending implementation of the federal Sunshine Act.

This session will connect planners and suppliers and give insights into how to successfully navigate the unique world of pharmaceutical meeting planning.

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