Life can be challenging for corporate planners in a seller’s market, and especially so for many of those in the medical meetings sector. Hotels in high-demand cities often have a choice of group business they can take, and pharmaceutical groups can be at a negotiating disadvantage relative to other clients. Part of the reason is the need to comply with PhRMA and internal guidelines, which translates to spend limitations and less F&B revenue for the hotel.
“Not only are we competing for very limited availability between all industries, but the HCP (Health Care Provider) meetings that require quite limited spend don’t appear to be as attractive when sellers can pick and choose business that brings the most revenue,” explains Amber Heintz, CMP-HC, HMCC, account director at Kansas City, Missouri-based Bishop-McCann, a meeting, incentive and event company. In addition, medical groups are known for being very meeting-space intensive, which can create a guest room-to-meeting space usage ratio that hoteliers may not find desirable.
How can planners try to offset these factors and make their business more attractive to hoteliers? The promise of bulk business to a hotel or hotel chain is one avenue. “We have found that multiyear deals and multiple city contracts for a series of programs has helped in leveraging options,” Heintz reports. And while spending caps on F&B can’t be circumvented for certain medical meetings, it bears emphasizing that the well-to-do attendees of these events can bring significant revenue to the hotel due to their personal spending. “Even if the company has to keep their meals at a certain amount, there is still a lot of extra spending in the outlets, the spa, etc. They spend a lot as individuals. “
“They’re sophisticated travelers,” notes Valerie Richard, CMP, manager of Superior, Colorado-based Conference Services LLC and a former in-house planner for pharma companies.
Prior to implementing any negotiating strategies, there are hurdles to clear in finding the right hotel partners. In addition to the multiple breakout capacity that many medical meetings require, it is often the case that hotels can’t be categorized as luxury or recreational properties, or exceed certain room rate caps, in order to be viable sites. This again adds to the challenge of sourcing in a seller’s market. So, five-star or five-diamond properties are typically avoided even if they meet room rate needs, and the mere appearance of “resort” or “spa” in the property name also can be a disqualifier. “That’s just optics, what they want their investors and the rest of the world to see” as far as where they choose to meet, says Richard.
On top of these limitations, planners in the life sciences space routinely contend with short lead times. “This is familiar territory,” says Heintz. “With the ever-changing nature of the life sciences industry, it is to be expected.” A common scenario is the product launch meeting that is pending FDA drug approval, and must take place within a few weeks once the approval comes through. “You may have an 800-person meeting and have three weeks to plan it. And while you know the timeline, you can’t really act until you have that approval,” says Sarah Best Port, HMCC, senior director of operations and account management, BCD Meetings & Events in Raleigh, North Carolina. “So it’s about getting everything geared up and then hitting the ground running.”
In those situations, it’s particularly valuable to have established relationships with national hotel reps who understand and value pharma meetings business, and will readily search for holes in the booking schedules throughout the portfolio. Heintz adds, “We have close relationships with our hoteliers, which helps when we are sometimes asking for the impossible.”
Planners have found that hotel sales reps with a specialization in the medical meetings sector are a great resource in this difficult market. These reps, some of whom have health care meetings certifications, “know that we don’t necessarily have control over lead times, and that is helpful,” says Port. They’re also accustomed to the space needs of these groups, and helping planners make flexible use of the function space at their properties. “We’ve had meetings where we’ve had to convert suites into breakout rooms, take out the bed and put in a conference table,” says Richard. “Oftentimes you have to be creative and use restaurant space or outdoor function space,” Port adds. “We may even have working meals in order not to have separate meeting space.”
One example of a property attuned to these needs is the Omni Dallas Hotel, where medical/pharma groups comprise 20 percent of the corporate meetings clientele. “We routinely get creative with meeting space in order to accommodate some of the medical/pharma meeting breakout requirements,” notes Chad Enloe, director, sales. “This would include the use of suites and guest rooms as small breakouts as appropriate. In addition, we may take larger spaces and create modular rooms within that space to accomplish a greater volume of breakout rooms. Lastly, we routinely use the adjoining Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center, which provides a large amount of additional function rooms in a wide variety of sizes.”
Hoteliers who are educated in the pharma space also can be partners in compliance with PhRMA guidelines, as well as spend tracking and reporting. “Providing us with flexibility on the front end to meet our client’s spending caps is the first step,” Heintz says. “Additionally, while planning it assists us when hoteliers provide clear estimated costs and menu creativity.”
When it comes to F&B, there can be a bit of a balancing act in preserving quality while curtailing costs. According to Enloe, “We tailor menus and offerings to best match the customer’s tastes and expectations. This often requires substituting various items from our regular printed menus, but in doing so we strive to reach the customer’s budgeted allocation for meals while still delivering a memorable banquet food and beverage experience.”
The last element Heintz looks for hoteliers to provide is detailed final billing, which is critical to reporting. “We report on transfers of value per person; therefore, (clarity) on numbers attended/planned is helpful and, of course, clear room and tax, parking per person is appreciated.”
In January 2016, pharma companies completed the first round of open reporting of transfers of value to their physician attendees, in accordance with the Sunshine Act. While some companies even conducted mock reporting to ensure the live process went smoothly, there were naturally some inefficiencies when it came to uploading a massive amount of data to the federal government’s system. “Probably the hardest part was that the open payment act was very vague, so all the companies interpreted it differently in trying to understand how they were going to report,” Port says. Neither did the health care providers (HCPs) fully understand the new practice, she adds. “But it seems that’s kind of evolved, and they now understand what’s being reported, how it’s being reported and how to dispute anything.”
While the PhRMA guidelines essentially call for restricting transfers of value to $100 at HCP-facing meetings, companies have a variety of other spending caps that are part of their internal policies, often incorporated into their SMMP.
BCD’s Global Life Science Center of Excellence, which specializes in this sector of the meetings industry, has a bird’s-eye view of trends in these policies across their clientele. “Each client obviously has their own guidelines and policies and interpretations of the Sunshine Act or open payments, and they provide us that information,” says Port. “We then work with the internal stakeholders to ensure that they know their own internal processes, help them follow those guidelines and, if there is any deviation, point them to the right direction for approval.
“In working with such a large number of clients, we’re able to advise as to what we’re seeing across the industry as well. So the F&B caps, for example, vary from company to company. Some companies have breakfast, lunch and snack caps that they put in place (in addition to the dinner cap). And we’re able to say, ‘This is the range of what we’re seeing, and you are an outlier in that you have a much lower breakfast cap than (the norm). You might want to look at increasing that.’ ”
The caps also vary depending on the type of meeting. For example, at board of directors meetings where the company is trying to impress its board members, “they’re probably going to spend more,” Richard observes.
While compliance has become a fairly mature process, one frontier in this area is complying with the rules for European physician attendees. “There is a new policy that was rolled out at the beginning of last year by the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations, and so there are countries that have agreed to be part of this guiding policy,” says Port. “It’s an overarching policy for the European pharmaceutical industry. And then within that there are individual country guidelines. So the new challenge is managing the policy as a whole in Europe, but then also the nuances from country to country. One may have a cap of $50 for dinner while another has a cap of $30.”
Given the spend limitations of pharma groups, together with their hotel type limitations and meeting space needs, navigating the seller’s market will continue to be a bit more challenging for planners in this field. But face-to-face meetings are not likely to be reduced despite that challenge. “While there are, from time to time, discussions about possibly hosting virtual meetings, everything keeps coming back to the fact that face-to-face meetings cannot be replaced,” Heintz observes.
“They are powerful and great relationship builders. Distractions are minimized and often more can be accomplished.” Instead, a hybrid approach may be adopted in some cases due to the time constraints of certain attendees and presenters, who can participate virtually.
Port’s team is in fact seeing more hybrid meetings in the life sciences industry. “The time that the doctor is out of the office is critical, so it might be a virtual meeting for the physician but then their support staff would attend live where we have the live training,” she describes.
The face-to-face medical meeting with its multiple breakouts will remain unaffected by this trend; indeed, it will be supported by the virtual component. C&IT