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Building Out a Complete Plan for Pharma Meetings

Tom Tolvé of BeiGene is using his two decades of life-science event experience to help a growing firm become a major player in cancer therapies.

About 18 months ago, Tom Tolvé, CMP, HMCC, brought his 22 years of experience from Bristol-Myers Squibb, Novo Nordisk, and MJH Life Sciences to BeiGene, a cancer-therapeutics firm started in 2010 that now has more than 1,000 employees around the world. And these days, he says he is more invigorated than he’s ever been.

Tolvé defines his job this way: “I’m helping BeiGene become a known entity; one that companies will want to partner with and learn from.” As the company’s director of event planning & business operations, he is “establishing protocols and procedures, creating a preferred vendor network, developing cost-savings strategies, and growing a team of event professionals, all while ensuring that our mission of focusing on the patient is at the forefront of everything we do.”

With the Pharma Forum conference that brings together life-science event planners—and for which Tolve is a co-chair—taking place March 19 to 22 in New York, MeetingsNet caught up to him in February to ask his thoughts on the present meetings landscape within his firm and across the life-sciences industry as a whole.

MeetingsNet: What got you into this industry back in the late 1990s?
Tom Tolvé: The 18-year-old me wanted to be a restaurateur. My first real job was managing a restaurant in a hotel, and that opened a whole new world of interests and opportunities. After working through a few different operational departments and eventually as a convention services manager, I was intrigued by what meeting planners do; I always thought being on the other side would be more fun. Eventually, a former client, Lori Short, gave me an opportunity to move to the planning side, and after 25 years I haven’t looked back. I can’t imagine myself doing anything but being part of this amazing industry.

MeetingsNet: From the information on your firm’s website, it’s clear that patients’ mental health and support is a central focus in your approach to fighting cancer – a function of treating the whole patient, not simply the disease. Does this issue get covered a lot in the content of your employee-facing meetings and your HCP-facing events?
Tom Tolvé: Yes. We recently introduced “Talk About It,” BeiGene’s comprehensive program designed in partnership with psycho-oncology experts and members of the cancer advocacy community, to elevate the important intersection of cancer and mental health. I had the honor of seeing it brought to life at an event for our advocacy partners and HCPs during the American Society of Hematology Congress this past December.

When our team considered how to engage fully on the topic of mental health, it led us to partner with our human resources people to ensure that our BeiGene colleagues also have access to mental-health services supporting their needs and our commitment to work/life balance. As a result, these topics will be explored in more detail during our upcoming national meeting.

MeetingsNet: What advice would you have for other planners about how to broach the issue of mental health in sales-rep or HCP-focused meeting sessions?
Tom Tolvé: Sometimes, the people driving meeting content can overlook ancillary topics that would enhance the overall message to be delivered. A planner’s job isn’t just to execute on the wants and desires of others, but to look for causes to champion and to provide holistic input for the meetings they manage. So, it’s about partnership and collaboration [with executive stakeholders]. Providing strategic input is important in helping to elevate the perception of planners and demonstrate the value we provide.

MeetingsNet: What are the biggest issues for you as you coordinate employee-facing and HCP-facing events for 2023 and 2024?
Tom Tolvé: Rising costs and doing more in less time seem to be our two major issues right now. Although I’m not finding hotel rates to be totally out of control, the overall concessions have diminished somewhat, which impacts budget. Also, the increased prices on F&B and service charges—I just got my first contract that had a 28-percent service charge! Service charges for AV and room rental have also become the standard, even though they did not exist not so long ago. Getting attendees or executives to understand that a bottle of water can easily cost nine dollars is a challenge; to walk into a meeting room after attendees leave for the day and see a ton of mostly full bottles sitting on tables is soul crushing.

Costs aside, lead times have become incredibly compressed, which I think comes from an underlying reluctance to think ahead because of the possibility of finding ourselves [in a cutback situation] like we faced a couple years ago.

MeetingsNet: What are the big challenges that the wider life-science event industry must contend with over the next 12 to 18 months?
Tom Tolvé: It might sound redundant, but doing more with less and in shorter time frames will be significant issues. For HCP meetings, I think audience generation is going to be a challenge as well. Virtual meetings became commonplace; although people are enjoying face-to-face again, the pandemic showed how CME can be done in other ways. For attendees, that means less of a time commitment and less out-of-pocket costs for the same number of CME units. As more pharma products come to market and with the declining numbers of HCPs and pharmacists, there’s more competition for a smaller group of people.

MeetingsNet: What are you most looking forward to when you attend Pharma Forum in March with other life-science planners and industry-focused suppliers?
Tom Tolvé: It’s been a few years since I was last at Pharma Forum, so it will be great to see so many industry friends again while making new ones. Even more exciting is the opportunity to co-chair the conference with one of my dearest friends, Amy Quigley, whom I met in the industry more than 20 years ago.

MeetingsNet: If you had not become a life-science event planner, what other type of work would you have done?
Tom Tolvé: I’ve always wanted to be the person who comes up with the names for paint colors. But if not that, then something in the design world. I have a crazy passion for my Christmas trees and holiday décor, and designing new looks and themes each year always invigorates me. I’d happily supplement that over the rest of the year with other interior-design projects.

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