In the midst on the ongoing pandemic, medical and pharmaceutical companies are emerging as leaders as it pertains to the modification of today’s meetings and events. The world has been watching them over the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic to see how they handle the changing environment.
Sue Gill, founder/CEO of Your Event Solutions (YES), says the manual on meetings and events — for medical/pharma meetings, as well as other industry segments — has been completely rewritten in the last two years. “To survive, we have to keep moving forward and pivot, change [and] adapt. We have to be consultative, employ brand new thinking, and look for innovative ways to keep an audience engaged,” Gill says. “The pandemic hasn’t stopped people from wanting to attend events. We’ve seen just the opposite, with medical professionals wanting to attend events and reconnect with others more than ever.”
According to Melissa Park, global event producer at Melissa Park Events, no matter the industry, very few in-person corporate events were delivered in 2020-2021. Many companies canceled their entire portfolios, while others opted for virtual program delivery. And while some remain cautious, the vast majority of corporations, including those within the medical and pharmaceutical segment, are moving forward with hybrid programs in 2022. “This format offers the flexibility to revert to a completely virtual program relatively easily should a last-minute change be required,” Park says.
The design and implementation of COVID-19-safe event plans have added a layer of complexity and cost to medical/pharma events. “In addition, due to concern and hesitation to pull the pin and make an ‘in-person’ decision, most clients are approaching planners with a lot less lead time and looking for increased flexibility and fully refundable cancellation clauses,” Park says.
As we have recently seen with the effect new variants of COVID-19 continue to have, mandates are constantly changing, and this is likely to continue for some time. “That’s why basing location selection on any state or city based on how they are ‘currently’ managing COVID is not recommended,” Park says. “Instead, look for venues that offer outdoor options and ample meeting space. This way, you’ve got the room to get creative if new restrictions come into play.”
Within the pharmaceutical and medical industries, Emma Guo, co-founder & CEO of Offsyte Inc., has seen firsthand how organizations such as Kaiser Permanente and Molina Healthcare are really investing in virtual team-building events for company morale and engagement during virtual events. “These meeting planners are looking for events that are inclusive and fun, that employees can enjoy from the comfort of their homes, and also have a great time bonding with their co-workers,” Guo says.
Given the current state of the world, the biggest area of interest Guo sees is definitely virtual events that are inclusive, meaning anyone on the team can participate and have a good time. That also means if it’s an event that ships a kit to participants before the meeting, it needs to be shipped to all the participants in different states and sometimes even different countries. “Within the medical/pharma industries, we see companies looking for virtual events like a virtual tie-dye workshop, chocolate making, wine tasting, magic shows and murder mysteries,” Guo says. “The trend is to try different events regularly instead of doing the same activity.”
As mentioned, additional focus areas for meetings and events is making sure the activities included are inclusive. Also, the event duration needs to be taken into consideration. “Most people will have Zoom fatigue after a few hours, so if you are planning a full-day event, definitely factor in break times and fun events like ice-breaker questions, coffee breaks or any fun virtual events facilitated by professionals,” Guo says. “Also, always try different events instead of doing similar activities all the time. This is also a good way to be inclusive, since everyone on the team will have different preferences for what they want to do for team building.”
According Georgie-Ann Getton, co-founder and CEO of GSD Solutions Events, a NYC-based virtual event production company, she is also seeing a surge in interest in moving medical/pharma events online as Omicron-variant infections spread. Getton helps organizations think through the rationale of moving events online, and helps them plan, promote and produce high-quality virtual events and meetings. She also hosts regular webcasts to educate her network on best practices and ideas called “Events Reimagined.” “The medical/pharma industries, in particular, have turned their events and reporting showcases virtual. These are critical, and in some cases, life-saving showcases, where they share information and data related to their medical research, studies and trials,” Getton says. “As you can imagine, professionals in the medical/pharma industries closely follow the COVID protection guidance from the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] CDC and take these precautions very seriously.”
The traditional large-scale medical/pharma events previously took place in conference rooms and banquet halls. Now, clients are using advanced platforms, such as Remo, Hopin and Zoom, to create elaborate conference experiences to learn and network with each other. “We have put on hundreds of virtual events using these state-of-the-art platforms, and the feedback is always very positive,” Getton says. “They give participants the ability to interact and engage online as if they were in person. While we all miss in-person meetings, being able to keep people safe is the top priority.”
Walter Ejnes, CHCP, president of the Continuing Education Company Inc., an accredited provider of continuing medical education (CME) for physicians, nurse practitioners and physicians assistants, says that at the start of the pandemic, his company switched to a virtual format for three of their conferences. But, in June 2020, they bucked the trend and went back to an in-person format and are sticking with it. “Although 2020 was a challenging year for medical conferences, we began holding in-person CME conferences as early as June of 2020. We have since held over 28 in-person CME conferences,” Ejnes says. “At first, attendance was considerably down, but we have seen our attendance numbers in 2021 bounce back to pre-COVID levels.”
For the most part, Ejnes says medical professionals are eager and excited to get back to in-person meetings. He has seen attendance at the Primary Care conferences bounce back to pre-pandemic levels, and in some cases, surpass those registration levels. As for location, Hawaii-based conferences are showing the greatest amount of interest, followed by Florida. “Despite the perceived hurdles required to travel to Hawaii during the pandemic, we have held five conferences on Maui and the Big Island [Hawaii] during the pandemic, and they have been our best-attended events,” Ejnes says. “Our Florida CME conferences have also done extremely well, with attendees excited to spend time outdoors in excellent weather.”
As for certain modifications being made by meeting planners, Ejnes and his team continue to be aware of the need for great flexibility when planning a medical conference due to the unpredictability of the health-care audience. As he explains, with COVID rates constantly fluctuating nationally, attendee cancellations have continued to occur due to employer-imposed travel restrictions, cutbacks in CME allowances and overall pandemic concerns. To overcome these challenges, the Continuing Education Company implemented its CME Reassurance policy, which eliminated cancellation fees and provided flexibility to registrants. “From a meeting planning perspective, we have become more conservative than before with our guarantees, and have worked closely with our hotel partners to monitor room block pickup and F&B requirements,” Ejnes says.
Now that they are back to normal attendance at their CME conferences, one of the greatest modifications has been configuring the conference seating to allow for comfortable physical distancing. In some cases, it has required the Continuing Education Company to expand to additional space within a conference ballroom. In other cases, it has caused the company to close registration early. “These are good problems to have since people are eager to return to in-person medical events,” Ejnes says. “It requires close partnership with our venue partners.”
As stated earlier, most medical meetings and events are offering virtual-only events or a hybrid model with a streaming option a result of the pandemic. However, Continuing Education Company has been livestreaming its CME conferences for the past seven years, so the company already was using a hybrid model. “There are many aspects that need to be considered by meeting planners when it comes to streaming a live event that impact internet bandwidth, equipment and space requirements, and increased costs,” Ejnes says. “This all needs to be taken into consideration when negotiating contracts.”
Debi Tracy, CMP, CH, E-RYT, senior event designer at Think Wellness NY, says where meetings and events were at one time all about the dates, the rates and the venue, now the emphasis is on if we are practicing SET (safety, efficiency, and transparency). “Thus, innovation has been in high gear in search of finding possibilities to pandemic-specific problems. The need to be more efficient in a broader way may make way for new opportunities,” Tracy says. “Safety isn’t suggested; it’s required more than ever before.”
Tracy was at a hotel last summer in upstate New York where she found empty beverage bottles in the cabinet underneath the sink. “True, they may have been out of sight, so they were missed [during cleaning]. But that made me think: What else could [the cleaning people] have missed? More disturbing was when I brought it to the attention of the front desk manager and later in emails to the hotel company, they all just brushed it off,” Tracy says. “Yet, the apples at the front desk were individually wrapped! Consistency is key.”
Tracy suggests that for in-room meetings, venues must have a strategy to promote their SET message. Otherwise, there’s no way a planner has knowledge of it, which makes it difficult to sell their client. “Once the venue commits to SET, they also have to commit to promoting, implementing and enforcing it,” Tracy says. “Protocol, as an element, is important, but communicating that plan to event professionals is vital.”
The pandemic has forced every organization to get out of its comfort zone and reimagine what meetings and events can look like. Going virtual can provide a great user experience and keep everyone safe. “With COVID changing so quickly, the industry has to be nimble and able to go virtual in a day’s notice,” Getton says. “Having that capability at your fingertips is paramount. It used to be ‘a nice to have’ but now it’s a ‘must have’ capability that drives results, and high levels of participation and satisfaction.”
The three areas where Park is seeing the most impact on medical/pharma events, as well as those across other segments of the meetings and events industry, include supply, cost and staffing. “Just like the shelves in every retail and grocery store, supply of just about every material needed to produce events is either non-existent or in high demand, driving costs to levels the industry has never seen,” Park says. “In addition to this, we’re now tasked with accounting for the purchase and delivery of our COVID-safe event plans, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Generally speaking, budgets have not increased, so knowing where and how to make every dollar work for you is more important than ever.”
Similarly, many event professionals were laid off and a large number of those have chosen not to return. “Because of this, companies are being forced to pay above-average rates to attract any interest. Teams are lean,” Park says.
Getton advises that meetings and events planners need to continue thinking about what hybrid events look like, and how to embed a high-quality virtual experience into all potential in-person events. “Virtual isn’t an afterthought, but an entire segment or track that needs to be curated and thought through the same way we think through the elements of a live event,” Getton says. “Catering, entertainment, interaction breaks and so on are all happening online now, and good planners are able to organize those hybrid gatherings successfully.”
Gill recognizes that planners need to provide a variety of solution offerings for medical/pharma meetings. “Correct protocol, testing and lowered attendance numbers are good starting points, but beyond that, we need to be working as a trilogy of partners,” Gill says. “Destinations [hotels and conference venues], event planning agencies and clients need to help each other to ensure they are actively involved in the health and safety of everyone involved.”
Getton adds that at the rate at which companies are evolving and new technologies are introduced, the only way to keep up is having staff on-site or working with trusted partners that are always thinking of how to bring more innovations to the virtual environment for medical/pharma meetings, as well as those within other industry segments. “We spend a lot of time focusing on discovery and learning about what’s now and what’s next,” Getton says. “Virtual events aren’t going anywhere; it’s our job to evolve with our world to bring an amazing user experience to every event — online, in person or a combination of both.” C&IT