Health care professional (HCP) attendance at life sciences company meetings has been healthy over the past several years. According to a recent white paper by compliance management solutions company AHM, “Promotional Speaker Programs Are Going the Distance,” FDA approvals were fewer in 2016 and public reporting of Open Payments data was in effect, yet HCP participation in face-to-face programs remained relatively robust. The study spanned five years, up to and including 2016, and revealed that “2016 had the highest average number of attendees per program, and over the past five years, venue-based programs have seen the highest increase in average attendance.”
If reporting under the Sunshine Act was ever detrimental to HCP participation, today it is simply par for the course and not likely to affect attendance. As Dan Tarpey, HMCC, vice president, sales and marketing, Meetings & Incentives Worldwide, observes: “Now that Open Payments and spend reporting have been in effect for close to five years, many HCPs have become accustomed to the changes and treat the changes as part of the norm for attending a meeting. When in the past we may have seen effects on HCP meeting attendance, HCPs continue to realize the value of attending meetings as it relates to their practice and continued medical education.”
To ensure the draw remains robust, life sciences companies need to adopt a multipronged approach to maximizing HCP participation. That includes more than offering targeted educational content: strategic site selection, well-designed networking opportunities, program duration and date, and technological enhancements such as apps and virtual extensions all factor into how attractive the event will be to potential HCP attendees. Combined with proper marketing, a program that checks all those boxes stands the best chance of delivering stellar attendance numbers. Like all busy professionals, HCPs are looking for ease of travel whenever possible. Indeed, that is among the primary site criteria, according to Tarpey.
“HCPs’ time is extremely valuable, so when sourcing destinations for meetings with HCPs, we tend to look for major airport hub locations that have many direct flight options.”
— Dan Tarpey
Katie Koziol, CMP, HMCC, director, client services with Ashfield Meetings & Events, a specialist in health care event management, observes, “Some clients are particularly interested in airport properties to reduce the transfer time from the airport to the city center.” The “abundance of business hotels” in first-tier cities is also key, Koziol says. The variety is especially important given that many medical meetings utilize an amount of function space that is disproportionately large relative to the number of rooms in the block: More hotels means more of an opportunity to place such a program. “To find availability for our meeting with the sleeping rooms and meeting space needs, it’s essential we consider the amount of four-star properties in these cities,” Koziol adds.
Four stars may be the cutoff for many programs, however. “There is sensitivity around hosting a meeting with HCPs at five-diamond/star or resort-like properties, so first-tier urban properties with excellent airlift tend to be more popular,” Tarpey explains.
In terms of popular cities for these programs, Mandy Archer, HMCC, senior director, operations and strategic accounts with Infinix Global, provides insight into which ones are proven draws: “Last year, Dallas was the one that we (most) used. Other primary destinations that we look at are Orlando and Miami because of weather. San Diego is a fairly popular one, and Chicago is a very high ranker for us.”
Some cities have strong medical communities, and the resources can be a value-add for certain life sciences meetings. Orlando International Airport, for example, is near Lake Nona Medical City, a 650-acre health and life sciences park.
Phoenix, Arizona, has invested more than $5 billion into its urban core, which includes the 30-acre Phoenix Biomedical Campus. Located just blocks from the Phoenix Convention Center and accessible via the Valley Metro Rail system, the campus includes the 33,000-sf Center for Simulation & Innovation at the University of Arizona, one of the largest simulation facilities housed within a U.S. university. The appeal of having such facilities on hand depends on the nature of the meeting, however.
“The strength of the local health care industry is not usually a factor, unless the program is specifically designed to draw those attendees,” says Tarpey. “For example, a dinner program would rely more on the availability of local attendees than a multiday investigator meeting.”
Key opinion leaders (KOLs) often reside in these communities, and that also may be a reason for choosing the city. According to Archer, “Some of our meetings could be driven where some of (the client’s) KOLs are located, if they do want to get a KOL to speak at the meeting.”
No matter how logistically convenient the destination is, the draw will be compromised if the program duration and/or dates are inconvenient. “The duration of an event is an important factor to consider,” says Tarpey. “Too short of an event and it may not be worth the HCP to travel; too long of an event and the HCP may be out of the practice too long. Events that provide the perfect balance between these two factors see the most HCP attendance. The duration of these events is typically two to three days, but certain types of meetings, such as advisory boards or investigator meetings, may be shorter.” As to the time of the meeting, “most HCPs prefer to travel closer to weekends in order to minimize the impact on their practice,” Tarpey observes.
Archer adds, “You have to be considerate of time with family, that’s always very important. Major holidays, school starting back, spring break — those are all times that we try to avoid. Some programs are driven by a very firm date (for example, to coincide with a drug going to market), so you don’t have much flexibility. What we try to do is focus it toward a weekend. I’ve even seen meetings over Easter weekend.”
Once site and dates are determined, the marketing plan can begin to take shape. The main principle to observe is to clearly communicate the event’s value proposition to the potential attendee. “It all comes down to a unique and personalized message to each potential attendee type, and then communicating those messages across various channels,” says Tarpey. “When helping our clients with conference marketing, we find it is key to leverage meeting stakeholders, educational speakers and sponsors to help market the meeting, as well as use more traditional channels such as print and email marketing.”
HCPs should be informed on all the details of the agenda and topics. “This is a key motivator for most HCPs, as they like to know what will be discussed and also have the opportunity to submit questions and topics they want to hear about,” says Koziol.
In general, they are less interested in popular keynote speakers not specifically tied to their industry, unless that speaker has very relevant insights to share. “While it makes sense to increase the attendee’s experience with ‘big name’ speakers, when consulting our clients on meeting design, we always look back at the objective and purpose of the meeting,” Tarpey explains.
“A big name speaker may fit the objectives as long as the topic is related closely to the content, industry or challenges at hand. We would lean toward recommending a top name speaker from the industry who can share relevant and useful information as opposed to a top name motivational speaker who would simply add to the value of the event. We also feel that real-life patient stories have more of an impact on the ROI for the HCPs. This type of storytelling allows for HCPs to connect their work more with the educational value of the event, since it is what drives many of them into the profession.”
The marketing communications also should emphasize the networking opportunities at the upcoming event, which is the second most important reason (after education) that HCPs attend. Of course, the meeting then has to deliver on the promised opportunities, and it takes more than just designating a “networking hour” in the agenda.
“The best approach to connecting HCPs is to have a focus and understanding on what types of connections are most valuable to the HCP and other attendees at the meeting,” Tarpey advises. “Depending on the meeting objectives, networking can focus on HCPs connecting with other HCPs to help build relationships that ultimately enhance the services they are providing to patients. On the other hand, networking opportunities could focus on HCPs connecting with services providers that can enhance their practice and help them better serve their patients.”
Facilitating networking within specialties is also key to connecting participants most effectively. “Specialty is very important,” says Archer. “They want to sit down and speak with a KOL that is an expert in their specialty. So usually we have separate groups or breakouts that are specialty driven. Oncology is a bit harder because there are so many subsets to oncology, but when you’re looking at neurology or cardiology, those are usually very specific already.”
Similar to most fields, the medical profession is seeing more and more young practitioners, and that changing attendee demographic can inform certain aspects of meeting design, such as the inclusion of apps and gamification. The shift is a slow one, however.
“If you’re looking at a large conference like ASCO (American Society of Clinical Oncology Annual Meeting) or the (American College of Rheumatology Annual Meeting), then you’re going to see a lot more millennials, especially from the pharma companies themselves,” Archer notes. “But as far as the physicians, we’re still looking at people with 15-plus years of experience. We’ve seen people in their 80s at meetings, so we do have a wide array of (ages), but mostly baby boomer and up.”
Tarpey confirms this age distribution among participants. “The age demographics in medical meetings still tends to lean toward the baby boomers and (Generation) X as opposed to the millennial generation,” he says. “However, this shift will continue to occur as time goes by and more baby boomers retire and more millennials start to practice.”
So at this point, the inclusion of meeting apps, polling, audience response systems and gamification is not primarily driven by an influx of millennials, but rather by the intrinsic advantages of these tools. “Mobile apps, in particular, continue to be a mainstay at most events, when it makes sense for the program to utilize a mobile app,” says Tarpey. “When engagement and enhanced networking or learning is part of the objective, gamification, polling and audience response systems may also be utilized. When recommending technology for meetings, we first look at the meeting objectives to determine if the technology will provide a better ROI, and then we will consider adoption as it relates to attendee demographics.”
Archer observes that audience response systems have been especially advantageous where the attendee base is international. “You’ve got language barriers and someone may not be comfortable asking a question in front of an audience. (An audience response system) really makes the session more interactive because they’re finally putting questions out there anonymously, which they were afraid to ask before,” she explains. Participants who had a more rewarding experience at the sessions thanks to such a tool will likely be more motivated to attend future meetings.
The next best thing to in-person attendance is virtual participation, and the medical meetings sector is realizing the advantage of including virtual content. Busy HCPs sometimes simply can’t travel, but still want to engage with the event. Or, they may only be able to attend part of the event in person, and want to supplement that learning with on-demand content from days they missed.
“We work with our clients to review and alter the meeting agenda to keep the critical presentations at the face-to-face meeting, and identify which presentations could be presented virtually or pre-recorded prior to the meeting,” says Koziol. That strategy, says Tarpey, “is also likely to increase in-person attendance for upcoming meetings, since attendees who view online recognize what they are missing by not being there in person.”
In addition, virtual viewing patterns can be tracked, and those analytics can support future content choices. The downside may be the quality of engagement with the content. “My honest opinion is that physicians are probably paying attention to 40 percent to 50 percent of the content in a virtual meeting; they’ve got so many distractions,” Archer says.
“We have found that we are not able to engage (physician’s) attention in a virtual meeting like we can face-to-face. Companies are starting to realize you can’t replace a face-to-face visit. Those that tried to do virtual two years ago are coming back to the face-to-face.”
— Mandy Archer
Life sciences meeting planners can do much to ensure that the upward trend in HCP attendance identified by AHM continues in 2018 and beyond. Strategies include picking highly accessible cities and properties, avoiding dates when attendance may be weaker, condensing the schedule just enough to make participation practical, marketing key content to specific HCP segments, structuring effective networking sessions and incorporating tech tools that streamline and enhance the experience.
Content is certainly king when it comes to drawing HCPs, as it is what delivers the most ROI. However, a holistic approach that includes engagement through content along with other best practices is more likely to result in record-breaking attendance. C&IT