Medical & Pharma Planners Seek Balance Between Virtual, Hybrid and In-Person MeetingsApril 1, 2021

April 1, 2021

Medical & Pharma Planners Seek Balance Between Virtual, Hybrid and In-Person Meetings

The long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on medical and pharma meetings remains to be seen. Some experts say there were too many meetings and COVID-19 has whittled them down to a more reasonable number. Others say medical education is so well suited to virtual learning that a virtual format will likely continue at conferences. Also likely is that strict health and safety protocols, especially critical at medical meetings, will continue for some time.

Almost everyone agrees that clear, consistent, up-to-the-minute communication is crucial if live med/pharma events are to come back. “The industry needs to drive optimal communications so that all attendees have the information they need related to safety and security,” says Ariana Reed, senior manager, business strategy meetings and events, American Express Global Business Travel. “There’s increased need for meeting planners to thoughtfully communicate around all details, including information around safety protocols and supplier standards, and assurances at all touch points along the journey. It’s important to make sure participants can easily access all the relevant information to facilitate an experience they feel comfortable and secure with.”

Set Clear Expectations

Andrea Goes, CIS, HMCC, supervisor, pharma team, with ITA Group Inc. and part of MPI’s extensive health care meetings community, says there must be “strong and clear expectations from requesting pharma companies about program safety protocols to all attendees, strong and clear communication to all attendees on event details, and expectations within registration sites, and strong and clear communication to all attendees on event details and expectations five days prior to travel to capture any significant changes.” Additionally, Goes says, pharma companies may need to request attendees’ travel guidelines and expectations prior to invitation and before contractual agreements begin in order to assure the meeting meets their individual or practice’s safety needs, including where they can travel and how many people they can be around.

Current challenges to executing live meetings are many, but there’s no denying how important these meetings are. In 2019, the American Express Global Business Travel team assisted clients with nearly 47,000 medical and pharma meetings. “The medical/pharma sector recognizes the value of live events to all participants,” Reed says. “For companies, in-person gatherings are by far the most effective way to connect with health care professionals (HCPs). And for HCPs, attending certified educational events is essential for earning those all-important continuing medical education (CME) credits. In addition to engaging with speakers and educational content, HCPs find great value in networking with fellow professionals to discuss cases and share experiences.”

That said, Reed thinks planners should expect to work on different types of combination events this year. “Where staging a full-scale event isn’t practical, there’s a range of options with which we can fully support clients. These include virtual, hybrid and multi-hybrid events. Hybrid solutions are appropriate when conditions restrict numbers at physical events or planners simply want to reach a wider group of people, including those unable or unwilling to travel. It’s important to make sure the experience is as consistent as possible for both physical and virtual attendees.”

Reed expects demand for smaller, more manageable meetings to return quickly. “In this environment, multi-hybrid technology can play a valuable role, helping to create a larger-scale event by joining up geographically dispersed regional gatherings. While the impetus for pharma clients is to get back to live events where feasible and safe, hybrid solutions will continue to play a role to widen access to audiences. Whatever the format,” she adds, “events in this sector are strictly regulated, so it’s always important that all stakeholders are aligned on policies and compliance processes.”

One positive: The pandemic has created new opportunities. “Our meeting planners are now ‘super-charged’ with more finely honed digital skills,” Reed says. “This allows them to become more creative with how we support medical and pharma meetings. With the pent-up demand for live events, their creativity will be fueled by the ability to utilize everything in their toolkit to enhance the attendee and HCP experience whether virtual/hybrid or live.”

Virtual events certainly have positives, such as potential cost savings. However, Reed notes, appropriate investment is still needed. “The same principles apply to successful events whether live, virtual or hybrid: End-to-end attendee experience is core to maximizing ROI. Provide the best possible content and map the attendee’s journey across all touch points: registration, attendee management tools, audience participation/engagement, feedback reporting and analysis.”

Looking ahead, Reed says duty of care is an enhanced priority. “There’s greater reliance on agencies to be the M&E subject-matter expert on customers’ internal approvals, compliance and duty-of-care requirements for meetings. Policies remain in the spotlight and are being made more robust. This can include more rigorous approval processes, centralizing contracts with preferred vendors, and explicit language around safety and security.”

One example, she notes, is ground transportation, an increasingly key part of the attendee journey with challenges around vetting suppliers for duty-of-care and biosafety standards. “We also expect to continue investing in digital technology to create sustainable, efficient solutions as part of our strategy to help get the world moving and meeting again.”

In addition to ramped-up deployment of technology, including virtual and augmented reality, Reed thinks there will be increased focus on mindfulness due to the turbulence and trauma of the past year, resulting in time in agendas for physical and mental breaks, and content focused on well-being. She says education will include content on diversity, equity and inclusion, and sustainability will remain a priority. “The majority of our clients want more sustainable meeting programs, including measures such as recycling, avoiding disposable items, and sourcing local, ethical, low-impact food providers.”

Changes Ahead

The big takeaways from last year for Reed may be multiple new challenges for planners. “Medical education events are subject to strict policies and protocols, which were in place before the current situation. There are now additional layers of complexity, with new health and safety standards that, at times, are stricter than legal requirements. Supplier negotiations may need to focus on facilitating these exacting client requirements.”

Walter Ejnes, CHCP, president, Continuing Education Company Inc., thinks COVID’s impact on medical meetings will be lasting. “During the past year, many organizations have switched to virtual conferences,” he says. “This has made target audiences more comfortable with the format. As organizers return to live meetings, many will offer hybrid formats now that they’ve gained experience with streaming events. Audiences who have had a good experience streaming may continue to participate virtually.”

He also thinks many COVID-era safety protocols and polices will continue, making the meeting space a safer and more comfortable place, and that in-person events will return to previous levels as more clinicians receive the vaccine. “However,” he notes, “many employers continue to have travel restrictions, or reduced or eliminated CME travel budgets, which creates a challenge for health care professionals who want to travel for CME. Hopefully, these restrictions will be dropped as more get vaccinated and COVID cases continue to decrease.”

Hybrid events aren’t new to Ejnes. His company has offered a hybrid-meeting format for six years — though virtual attendance definitely increased during the past year. He thinks even as in-person events return, hybrid meetings will continue because they work well for CME conferences “when done properly.” For Ejnes, that means creating an experience as close to live events as possible. “We’ve seen many organizations grow dependent on Zoom-type approaches, which can never mimic the in-person experience. In many cases, video and audio quality is poor due to bandwidth and equipment issues. Planners’ lack of technological skill is another challenge. Streaming is new to most, and they’ve had to learn fast, often relaying on service providers who themselves only recently entered the virtual-meeting arena. Moving forward,” he says, “audiences will expect better quality and an experience similar to an in-person conference. We developed a proprietary approach to virtual meetings similar to what national broadcasting networks used at the start of the pandemic. As a result, our meeting participants have stated that our events make them feel as if they’re at the in-person meeting.”

As for benefits, Ejnes says offering a hybrid or virtual-only approach helps increase event audiences, allowing planners and CME organizations to reach a higher number of clinicians. He thinks planners should acquire solid knowledge of the technology required for virtual and hybrid meetings. “They need to understand the options and take the lead when working with streaming-technology vendors.” Yet even as technology is more important than ever, Ejnes cautions, “We need to remember that medical-meeting attendees still want the interaction they receive at live events. Organizers should not give up on planning in-person meetings.”

All 19 of his scheduled meetings ran last year, with just three shifting to virtual-only. Twelve hybrid events have run since June, with 100-150 in-person attendees, and three times that for virtual attendees. “We even added an additional conference at the end of 2020, a risky move as other organizations were cancelling their events. It was our most successful conference during the pandemic. And 2021 conference registration is already much stronger than 2020,” he adds.

ITA Group’s Goes says a requirement that may help live events bounce back is proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test. Like others, she’s sure live events will come back — but that doesn’t mean virtual events will disappear. “Virtual meetings allow HCPs easier access and reduce the stress of being away from work and home. They open up attendance to those who may not have wanted to travel or whose employers wouldn’t allow them time away, and attendees benefit from fresh perspectives offered by those new HCPs.”

But there are challenges, including home distractions and connection issues. Some reports, Goes says, showed hybrid attendance is not as good, which may mean reduced engagement as well. Moreover, she adds, sending links to meetings is a new risk. “When meetings were live, we could close doors; control hotel flow past meeting rooms and do a sweep of items in a room.”

That said, Goes sees opportunities for planners: “There are new opportunities to provide expertise in safe and healthy events, to provide engaging virtual experiences that are compliance friendly, and to connect our clients to partners, vendors and suppliers that have flexible and friendly contracting and planning,” she says.

Most importantly, perhaps, Goes sees an increased sharing of insights. “We see and hear it all. We have the responsibility of sharing that information with our clients. We hear attendee feedback, vendor feedback, technology feedback and even feedback from other clients we serve. We’re sharing more insights with each other than we ever have and it’s making everyone stronger.”

The Stakes Are High

Phil Talamo, CHCP, president, Physicians Education Resource (PER), points out that stakes for safety at medical meetings are extremely high. “Most of PER’s meetings are designed for doctors who treat patients with cancer, so after they leave our meeting, they’re treating patients in the higher risk category for COVID. This means that not only do we as planners need to be careful, we have to be extra careful because our doctors and attendees need to be extra confident in the safety.” He says precautions should include limiting the distribution of materials — in some cases, hard-copy materials should be put together many days in advance — restricting the use of shared microphones and opting for more outdoor venues.

Like Goes, he sees opportunities ahead. “I don’t think medical meetings will ever be the same, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. The biggest opportunity is to modernize meetings by incorporating new technologies such as video-based virtual formats — not just for attendees but also for bringing faculty together. It’s easier than ever to dial-in remote faculty from increased distances, such as a different coast or even overseas. The opportunity to provide a more diverse perspective for treating diverse patients will be easier and create a more comprehensive educational meeting. Similarly, we now have a better opportunity to integrate technologies such as smartphones, tablets and computers into the live setting. We can create new ways to interact with speakers through texting, more elaborate polling and more using our own devices.”

Talamo says virtual meetings give physicians new opportunities to consume more and broader content than ever before because the travel aspect is out. “This is especially true for physicians treating a variety of diseases. A community oncologist may only treat lung cancers 10% of the time, so [he or she] may not often attend lung cancer meetings. Now, if they wanted to dial-in to a virtual meeting on lung cancer, it’s more convenient, even if they only stay for a small period.”

For planners, Talamo notes, a big positive is the ability to do more meetings more quickly. “Without the complex barriers of renting a hotel, contracting venues, ordering food and orchestrating sleeping-room nights, meeting planners have more time to focus on front-of-house items. And more of them.”

PER switched fully to virtual last year, and like Ejnes, even added new events. PER launched a weekly “COVID in Cancer Care” webinar series to share best practices from inside hot spots. “Because of the shift to virtual and our vast resources, we were able to produce more content than ever before to support clinicians in the field,” Talamo says.

But successful virtual events demand expanded planner skills. One of the most important is the ability to produce content. “Not create,” Talamo emphasizes. “But produce in the sense of a TV show or movie.” Given the shift of nearly everything to virtual, attendees are likely in virtual meetings with work, friends, family, children’s school, etc. “To hold their attention in a virtual medical meeting and ensure the education makes an impact, planners need to make sure their content is the most unique and engaging it can be.”

The Case For Face-To-Face

Not surprisingly, one critical downside to virtual events relates to networking. “Some of the most powerful educational moments at live meetings happen in the exhibit hall or buffet line when an attendee can privately ask a speaker a question about their practice,” Talamo says. “These questions are often related to the most challenging cases a clinician is facing, and live meetings provide the opportunity to get a second opinion on a case. Sure, there are ways we try and mirror that in the virtual setting, but nothing is as powerful as face-to-face interaction.”

For Talamo, the critical takeaway from last year is that the industry did an incredible job shifting to the virtual environment and continuing to provide the education physicians need. “I’m a believer in customer service. Physician attendees are our customers. They have a very difficult job working on the frontlines during the pandemic. Our job as meeting planners is to ensure they have a safe, effective educational experience that helps them fight this fight. Meeting and events will continue to evolve, and we as an industry need to do all we can to ensure that frontline workers get the support they need from us.”

Many factors affecting medical and pharma meetings are far outside the control of planners. As Jacqueline Beaulieu, HMCC, director, strategic marketing & client engagement with Poretta & Orr, points out, a return to live medical meetings will happen gradually, tied to “the mass distribution of the vaccine, the lifting of travel bans, what medical specialty the medical meeting serves and, the big factor in my opinion, people’s comfort level regarding traveling.” However, she continues, safety has already been figured out and meetings are taking place — right now. “Conventions, trade shows and meetings are not concerts or sporting events. We’re able to control the numbers, and safety protocols, so we can attend them safely and plan them successfully. We just held a webinar and one speaker mentioned they’ve held a number of safe events over the course of the last few months. Collectively, over 10,000 people have attended — safely. I think that’s powerful.”

An Uncertain Future

Beaulieu says she doesn’t know what the ongoing impact of COVID will be on medical meetings, but thinks hybrid meetings are likely here to stay — although primarily as a way to further educational components of conferences and trade shows. “Virtual is a much better fit for educational subject matter than for selling a product/service, drug or medical device. Buyers/HCPs like to touch and feel multimillion-dollar medical devices.”

Like others, she encourages planners to become proficient in new technologies. “Understanding when you need a robust platform with all the bells and whistles, and how that platform serves the end-user is critical. I’ve learned the importance of understanding platform stability, latency and bandwidth, and the impact these can have on the quality of virtual meeting. Even if you don’t understand a virtual platform as fully as those in the IT department do, understanding the questions to ask and working with a trusted partner will serve you well.”

Initially, she says, “I believe we’ll see fewer large, in-person meetings and perhaps an increase in local/regional meetings. This will gradually ramp up and increase as HCP’s comfort levels increase, and their duties as first responders to the needs associated with COVID decrease. The unknown to me is — will the virtual component demonstrate sustainable ROI long term? We have short memories . . . remember the changes implemented after 9/11? Many of those changes are no longer implemented. As we settle into life, will some of this go away? I’m not sure, but it’s something to monitor and assess as we move forward.”

Among the many positives Beaulieu sees is job security. “We all need health care. Medical meetings are the largest sector of the meetings industry. I think it’s safe to say there’s some job security there. Because of the unique skill set that medical meeting planners require, they’ll be sought after if they’re good.”

Medical meetings may look different going forward, she adds, “But our industry is resilient, strong and moving forward successfully. The HCPs are heroes and medical meeting planners are strong, creative, flexible and have demonstrated a resiliency that’s absolutely amazing. I’ve never been prouder to work in this industry, and I look forward to continuing to work for many years . . . meeting face-to-face once again.”  C&IT

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