A perfect storm of meeting challenges—rising costs, low staffing levels, and lack of hotel availability—dominated the conversation at the 18th annual Pharma Forum, held this week at the Bethesda North Marriott in Bethesda, Md. However, at one of the conference’s marquee sessions—a healthcare-professional panel discussion—none of those topics was on the agenda.
Rather than behind-the-scenes planning issues, pharmaceutical and life-sciences meeting professionals and their supplier partners heard about meeting likes and dislikes directly from HCPs.
Led by Pat Schaumann, CMP, CSEP, DMCP, HMCC, director of life sciences development for McVeigh Global Meetings and Events, and president of Schaumann Consulting Group, the panel included three HCPs: Sarah Sagorsky, MPAS, PA-C, a physician’s assistant in the medical oncology department of Johns Hopkins Hospital; Aimee Chappell, CRNP, a nurse practitioner in the hematology department at MedStar Health; and Maya Babu, MD, MBA, a neurosurgeon for Health First, and a board member for the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Also joining the panel was Michael Varlotta, CCEP, HMCC, president of MLVII Associates, a pharmaceutical consultancy, and a former senior director of commercial operations at J&J.
Virtual vs. In-Person Events
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the two biggest drivers of meeting attendance for the HCP panelists are content and convenience. However, unlike in the pre-pandemic landscape, the virtual-meeting option has had a major impact on decision-making for meeting attendance this year.
For example, Sagorsky has attended eight meetings in 2022, a combination of in-person and virtual. Her goals for attending have been to earn CMEs, learn about new treatment recommendations, and networking. Even with that third goal, though, she currently prefers virtual events because she has small children. “If [attending events] is something I'm going to do, it’s easier right now to do it virtually in the evenings while not being taken away from my clinical care or my family.”
For Chappell, who’s also attended eight events this year, virtual is simply the only option available to her right now. Currently, her organization is not paying for nurse practitioners to travel to meetings, so virtual is “a great option, though I very much miss the in-person networking that I used to have [at face-to-face meetings].”
Both Sagorsky and Chappell said they had more meeting options in 2022, with a greater number of those meetings being virtual.
Babu, who much prefers an in-person meeting experience, also said that virtual has been the best choice for her private practice this year. “With the pandemic, we saw that virtual meetings can happen, and they are certainly less burdensome on our clinics and hospital operations. … The first in-person meeting I’m going to this year is coming up, and most of the reason [for her not meeting in person this year] has been travel-related Covid concerns,” as an outbreak among office staff would be extremely challenging, she said.
How Event Destinations Impact HCP Decisions
While content and convenience may be king, a meeting’s destination factors into attendance decisions in one of two ways, said the panelists. Either attendees are looking for a location that is extremely convenient—a short, direct flight or a reasonable drive—or they have a special desire to visit because of destination’s appeal or a personal connection. For example, when Sagorsky committed to an Indianapolis conference this year, it was a win-win because she was able to piggyback a visit to see family. As one panelist commented about meeting destinations: “It’s either go big or go home.”
When comparing a smaller meeting two hours away versus flying across the country for a major meeting, Babu said, “there’s a real battle [around] content. We talk in terms of what would be the highest-yield opportunity.” And while the quality of the speakers and the relevance of the presentations might not be fully in a planner’s control, there’s a critical element that planners can affect: “A reason we go to meetings is so that we can see our colleagues or people that we haven’t seen in many years,” she said. “Having the opportunity to talk is a vital part of in-person meetings. I think opportunities for those interactions can be a lot more valuable—and might offset a lack of content.”
That desire for robust in-person networking highlights a problem with hybrid meetings for Babu. “I prefer in-person meetings, but I think a meeting should be completely virtual or completely in-person. Hybrid is always a challenge,” she said, noting that when some attendees are virtual and others attend in person, the face-to-face attendees miss out on networking benefits because fewer colleagues are there.
Lead Times: Long Is Better but Shorter Can Work
All the panelists weighed in on the lead times they expect for the medical meetings they attend. For in-person events, neurosurgeon Babu needs the longest runway possible to get a face-to-face meeting on her calendar—"at least six months if not a year, I think, is pretty important,” she said. Sagorsky and Chappell see a three-month window as adequate, although Varlotta noted that the reality on the ground is that pharma and life-sciences planners typically have eight to 12 weeks to organize in-person events.
Most panelists agreed that short notice for virtual events can be acceptable. “Thirty days is completely reasonable, especially if you're hosting it in the evening, after work,” said Sagorsky. On the other hand, Chappell prefers several months lead time, even for an online event.
HCPs’ Pet Peeves at Meetings
When the panel was asked which aspects of events annoy them, Varlotta was quick to chime in: a loose agenda. “I want the meeting to be full. I want there to be opportunity to learn, to engage throughout the entire meeting. I don't need a rest break for an hour in the afternoon,” he said. “I really want to start early and go long,” and if that means a meeting can be accomplished in one day rather than two, that’s ideal.
As a meeting consumer focused on return on investment, Babu had a similar pet peeve. “The thing that I hate the most is dead time that seems to be wasted.” She also noted that in-person meetings that don’t build in good opportunities to socialize and network are wasting a prime opportunity.
Do Changing Alcohol Regulations Matter to HCPs?
Commenting on the new PhRMA Code guidelines for speaker programs that prohibit companies from providing alcohol at speaker programs, Sagorsky said, “Some people are disappointed because often [speaker meetings are held] after a hard day of work and attendees want to have a glass of wine.” But for her, “it hasn't changed my attendance.” While she has heard complaints, she believes that the dissatisfaction “will blow over.”
For Varlotta, the issue already has blown over—but that’s at least in part because many companies still allow HCPs to purchase alcohol directly from the server or from the bar outside the meeting room. “There were definitely grumblings,” he said. “We keep taking little bits and pieces away from healthcare professionals and treating them more like infants. It’s upsetting.”