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Heard It at Pharma Forum

Planner insights on hiring, annual supplier reviews, attendee engagement, and the cost of hybrid meetings, all from September's Pharma Forum event in Boston.

Attendees at business events basically all want the same thing: Ideas and connections that help them to do their jobs better. Pharma Forum, which concluded two days of in-person education for life-sciences meeting professionals on September 22, delivered in spades.

While the content was largely customized to the unique challenges for planners in the highly regulated medical field, lessons for organizers of every stripe came through from the stage at the Renaissance Boston Waterfront Hotel. Here’s a taste of what was discussed:

On Virtual-Event Engagement
The root of the engagement problem for virtual events comes down to the idea of attendees being “unseen,” said Meredith Shottes, CMP, chief experience officer, North America, Miller Tanner Associates. During a panel discussion on hybrid meetings, she noted that “the voice of the audience must impact the agenda being presented. Polling can be effective but only if the polling shifts what you are presenting.” And when comments and questions come in, presenters can drive engagement by highlighting their impact on the conversation, letting attendees know: “This was our plan, but your contribution is so important that we are now shifting our focus on that, and we'll get back on track later.”

While not possible in every virtual platform, Shottes is a strong proponent of finding ways to have the actual voice or face of attendees be heard or seen when they ask questions.

On Estimating the Cost of Hybrids
One of the challenges of the hybrid-event format is that it typically costs more than delivering a meeting just in-person or just virtually. How much more? Marriott International, which has been running virtual conferences since last November, had some estimates to share with the Pharma Forum audience.

Michael Clarke, Marriott’s director, B2B marketing and events, U.S. & Canada, Global Sales Organization, told the group that hybrid events are likely to cost 25 percent to 30 percent more for audiovisual and digital technology, 15 percent to 20 percent more for food and beverage because of increased service and packaging, and 10 percent to 15 percent more for well-being protocols, such as signage and on-site testing.

On Annual Business Reviews with Suppliers
Given the cancellations and postponements of the past year, what should planners do about the business reviews they typically hold annually with their preferred supplier partners?  A panel of veteran planners at Pharma Forum were unanimous in their advice: Conduct them anyway. “Even if you’re using data from 2019, don’t shy away from conversations right now,” said Tori Mercun, associate director, Infinix Global Meetings & Events, noting that the meeting should be a safe space to understand ways that both sides can improve.

Panelist Lillian Schaff, HMCC, PCA, DES, associate director, global congress lead, EMD Serono, added that her department has not only retained its bigger annual business reviews, which involve procurement and other departments, but have also added smaller monthly check-in meetings with supplier partners. And the findings from those check-ins are being rolled up into quarterly reviews. “As we adapt to the new normal, we wanted to give them a chance to react a little quicker. These have been received very well because suppliers feel they have a chance to connect and correct.

Check-ins, it was noted, are helpful on the supplier side because hiring is often based on forecasting. With the uncertainty of events right now, any information suppliers can get on their partner’s plans is a benefit. 

On Today’s Hiring Priorities
Common wisdom says that those joining the meeting profession today must have a strong grounding in technology. While those virtual-meeting and data skills are highly sought after, two veteran planners shared their priorities when asked if what they look for in a new hire is different now than before the pandemic.

For Wendy Ashmen, HMCC, executive director, MJH Events, MJH Life Sciences, the watch word is resiliency. “When we bring candidates in, I want to find somebody who is going to be able to mentally shift with the unexpected and is open to learning new things,” she said. “My goodness, a year ago how many of us thought we’d know as much about platforms, and building virtual environments, as we do now.” The goal is to find people who are “mentally willing” to make that kind of shift “and to embrace it.”

Shottes of Miller Tanner Associates added that the qualities of an empathetic coach are also important today. “More than meeting professionals, event professionals, or design professionals, our key skills have been as therapists and educators like never before.” Shottes also said that the conversations about dropping a favorite face-to-face event are something akin to “grief counseling” followed by a lot of education about the alternative virtual experience. “How do you help a client, and your own internal team, navigate the ups and downs of this time? In terms of our skill set, never has the humanity of our industry been more important. Being willing to take the time to walk someone through that process as an educator and sometimes as a counselor.”

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