• How Pharma Meeting Planners Adapt to Changing Demands

    FROM THE Summer 2016 ISSUE

The latest data from the Mayo Clinic and Olmsted Medical Center reveals that nearly 70 percent of Americans take at least one prescription drug, and more than half take two or more. Expenditures on prescription drugs reached more than $300 billion last year, so it’s no surprise that pharmaceutical companies continue to bolster operations and look to get in front of as many in the health care industry as they can.

For meeting planners in Pennsylvania, this means that business is booming when it comes to pharma meetings, but these meetings have unique elements making them different from planning other types of events.

Shaun Pierce, president of Pierce Events in Pittsburgh, notes the purpose and content of meetings have drastically changed. “Many planners no longer do external pharma meetings. The amount of time and money spent on education, compliance and reporting is the biggest challenge,” he says. “Event professionals now need to pretty much be well-versed legal pros in these areas. It had a great impact on the event industry with the loss of these past events. There is hope some of these restrictions will be relaxed and a balance struck between ethics and marketing goals.”

The problem, Pierce notes, is that there is a huge amount of reporting required when undertaking a pharma meeting.

“There are codes of conduct that dictate how pharmaceutical companies and planners can interact with health care professionals. These rules come from four different authorities— Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturing of America (PhRMA), Advanced Medical Technology Association Code of Ethics, The Sunshine Act that requires payments of things of value to doctors and hospitals to be publicly reported, and individual state laws where the meeting takes place,” he says. “Any of these can be amended at any time, and planners must be constantly aware of any and all regulations.”

The best way to keep up with all new regulations, Pierce says, is to subscribe to publications, attend seminars and always do research on the web before any event. “If we are not confident we can meet all planning and reporting regulations, we will not accept a project,” he says.

Denise R. Mackey, director of meetings and exhibits for the GOG Foundation, Inc., says all meeting planners have postmeeting information that they need to compile for internal use, but the difference in planning any pharmarelated meeting is the amount of specific data that has to be collected and the reporting that has to be done.

“After our meetings are held, our offices prepare reports to each of the pharmaceutical companies who sponsored the advisory boards. The information that is sent to them includes the name of the HCP, credentials, demographic information and the type and amount of the expenditure,” she says. “The staff in our development office collects this data and reports it to the companies so that they can meet their deadlines in making their reports. This makes it easier for the meeting planners to not have to deal with all of the paperwork involved in reporting to the pharmaceuticals, and it gets the reporting done faster.”

Although not a meeting planner, Bonnie Grant, executive director for PHL Life Sciences, a component of the Philadelphia Convention of Visitors Bureau, certainly invests in the segment. “Close to half of the meetings that come to the Pennsylvania Convention Center, large and small, and to the center city hotels, are somehow related to life sciences, so that’s why it’s important to us,” she says. “It is a big piece of business for Philadelphia, and, of course, all of the work that we do as the sales agency for conventions and sales in Philadelphia feeds more than 68,000 jobs in hospitality. So it’s a very important market for us.”

Grant calls medical meetings a “different breed of cat” because of Open Payments requirements, which requires meeting planners to be more vigilant in reporting.

“There are more codes and regulations for what can be given away and what can be sponsored,” she says. “For pharma, everything has to be done in the name of education. So you might see fewer giveaways on the exhibit floor but maybe more sponsoring of speakers, education sessions or theater sessions with workshop-type formats.”

Understanding the Differences

Kate Crowe, senior events manager for Revitas, Inc. in Philadelphia, has worked as a professional events manager for more than 15 years, serving multiple industries including telecom, education, consumer electronics and software development. She notes that as with all direct marketing techniques, effective events take into consideration the issues that affect the specific audience and the factors that will guide a purchasing decision.

“For instance, Revitas’ life sciences customers represent the commercial operations or government pricing and regulatory compliance sectors of pharma’s biggest companies,” she says. “These individuals are tasked with ensuring compliance with federal and state regulations and managing rebates for participation in the Medicaid Drug Rebate Program and related state and supplemental programs. The consequences for misreporting these complex transactions are steep.”

In addition to the immediate revenue loss associated with miscalculating rebate validations on drug/device sales and overpaying distribution incentives, the government penalties for incorrectly reporting lowest price mandates and other regulatory noncompliance can cost millions.

“When the stakes are this high, event attendees are highly motivated by access to timely information and tools that help them guarantee accuracy in government reporting and compliance,” Crowe says. “As such, Revitas remains laser-focused in our messaging and product development to ensure our events provide current regulatory insight guided by up-to-the-minute legal analysis, and software solutions that meet the unique needs of the life sciences industry.”

This is vastly different from event marketing to the consumer electronics audience, where access to the latest gadgets and showy technology displays can make or break an exhibit. Booking speakers for pharma events is also different than other events. “Speakers must meet certain standards and often must be approved through a compliance check before,” Pierce says. “Companies often have a select group of approved speakers, as presentation material must comply with FDA product labeling. The choice is generally made by the client.”

Regulatory Concerns

The regulatory landscape that affects life sciences is constantly changing, and keeping up with industry consolidation, emerging technologies and pharma’s expansion into developing markets with a reduced reliance on “white pill/western market” sales is a huge challenge.

“Often rules and regulations are imposed by those that have little to no understanding of the true impact,” Pierce says. “The changes in the law have deeply impacted planners, hotels, caterers, entertainers, travel professionals … the list goes on. It has driven event professionals out of these types of meetings, as most don’t have the resources for reporting and compliance oversight. Pharma companies face a potential risk with every meeting.”

Distilling this chaos into a meaningful and digestible event agenda must be an event manager’s top priority.

“Staying abreast of industry issues that affect life sciences customers doesn’t seem like it belongs on the job description for an events manager. After all, it doesn’t speak to the core skill set required by an events professional: organization, communication, attention to detail and time management,” Crowe says. “But appreciating the obstacles that pharmaceutical organizations face to protect revenue and remain competitive in a rapidly changing marketplace is paramount to justify attendees’ time and investment.”

And let’s face it, the regulatory and financial issues that impact pharmaceutical manufacturers can be dry, so engaging attendees is a challenge.

For example, at Revitas’ annual life sciences industry event, the company uses mobile technology, gamification and social media to intensify engagement and participation.

“It’s imperative to take advantage of new tools in events planning while maintaining the core values of education and collaboration,” Crowe says. “Keeping attendees engaged is what keeps them coming back, but providing them with information to improve their job is what makes the event valuable to the employer.”

Grant notes that a special one-day course in conjunction with St. Louis University and Meetings Professional International (MPI) can get planners the Healthcare Meeting Compliance Certificate (HMCC) designation, which gives them a broader understanding of a full range of healthcare meetings regulatory topics.

“It gives them the language and it gives them resources to keep up, and not only are planners taking it, suppliers are taking this course, too, and hoteliers, because they want to be aware and on top of what their customers require as planners,” she says. “It makes it a little more complicated as a meeting planner.” There’s also an app that’s available that is part of the HMCC program called My Compliance Wizard, which tracks regulations state-to-state.

Money Matters

According to Pierce, at most meetings you generally track category expenses in relation to a client budget. You can inform, entertain and engage guests on many levels.

“With a pharma meeting involving doctors, every dollar must be tracked, broken down to what is spent on each individual attendee and properly reported,” he says. “There usually isn’t any entertainment or elaborate meals or décor. Cab rides, meals and expenses over $10 paid for or provided must be tracked and reported. It is a massive set of rules and regulations and much more pressure for planners who do pharma meetings.”

In addition to the content concerns, organizations planning pharma events must be vigilant of the cost constraints placed on life sciences companies, particularly as they relate to travel bans. As with many industries in the current economy, pharma companies are under pressure to lower operating costs and preserve bottom line revenue. An immediate way to reduce cost is to restrict all nonessential business travel.

“With this in mind, pharmaceutical event planners should choose a venue that is centrally located/nearby to as many of their invitees as possible,” Crowe says. “In addition, they should consider delivering as much missioncritical data on day one as possible so that attendees can walk away after a single day.”

Mackey notes that one of the major challenges is the spending caps, as the pharmaceuticals have a set amount which can be spent per physician, which also includes taxes and gratuities.

“We now have most of our advisory board meetings at restaurants instead of the hotel that we are meeting at,” she says. “Even though the hotels are familiar with the regulations, we find it easier to work with the restaurants in regards to food and beverage because some of the restaurants are now providing us with a special pharmaceutical menu in which we can make choices from the menu. The hotel has higher services charges, which makes it harder to meet the cap restraints on meals.”

Another difference in planning a pharma meeting is factoring in industrial competition. You have to have a strong understanding of how to get these organizations and attendees to collaborate, share best practices for operations and network.

“That’s where the true value exists in a life sciences event, and it’s more challenging for this industry due to constraints on public information,” Crowe says.

The Final Word

Throughout Pennsylvania, there are a limited amount of event pros that are qualified to plan pharma meetings.

“Even your venue must understand how food and beverage must be billed and broken down,” Pierce says. “Anyone who attempts to do these meetings without being fully educated endangers their client and their company. You need to seek out certified health care meeting compliance planners. Make sure you are fully aware of all rules and regulations and have adequate compliance oversight.”

The best way to have a successful meeting and keep everyone happy is simply keeping accurate records, following the rules, keeping up with the regulations and submitting the information to the pharma companies on time.

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This past year has been a whirlwind to say the least. As a global pandemic sent the world reeling, planners were left grasping for footholds as the event industry was brought to a standstill, and many of the most fundamental elements of live meetings and events were cast in a new light.


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