Fit to fight for pharma?

The pharma and medical sector comprises of three main types of meetings:

a) Pharmaceutical In-house Meetings – These take the form of sales conferences or in-house strategy meetings and are used to update, educate and motivate the sales teams or in-house teams. There are no particular restrictions in terms of meeting content and design, and budgets allocated are normally substantial.Meetings may take any format but will probably include a plenary session and then breakout sessions for specific business units and regional sales teams. There can additionally be some form of team building activity. The size of these meetings is usually 500 maximum. A very high level of accommodation close by is usually a pre-requisite.

b) Pharma-sponsored stand-alone meetings – These are conferences sponsored by pharmaceutical companies but the participants are invited doctors. The rationale behind holding these events is that the pharma company is seen to be facilitating discussion around a particular topic of strategic interest. The meeting is not an overt sales pitch but subliminal sales messages and techniques may be used to create brand awareness. The sponsoring company will invite the delegates and cover costs of travel, registration and related expenses. The meeting will be subject to the ABPI (Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry) guidelines, which restrict the level of entertainment and amount that can be spent on any aspect of the meeting (for a copy of the ABPI Code of Practice, visit: The format is again usually plenary, but there may also be breakout sessions.

If the meeting is organised by a medical equipment company, breakout hands-on workshops are very common. Delegates will be housed in four-star accommodation and entertainment will be modest. The sponsoring company may have a small exhibition stand to promote its drug/equipment. The size of these meetings ranges from 100-1,500 but, on average, is between 250-500.

There are also research and development meetings, either small advisory board meetings, typically between 10 and 20 attendees, or investigator meetings that involve the sharing of clinical data and standardisation training, and these range from 30 to 200 attendees with an average size of 100. Both these meeting types would be in plenary format with no breakouts.

c) Association meetings sponsored by pharma – These are conferences organised by medical associations and societies. They include international, pan-European and national societies and associations. The income for these conferences comes from registration fees, a concurrent trade exhibition, and sponsorship from pharma.

The programme is produced by a scientific committee and pharma has no influence over it. Conferences typically last from two to five days and usually have a related trade exhibition running alongside. Facilities required, therefore,include an auditorium (raked seating preferable) for plenary sessions, breakout rooms and space for exhibition and catering.

Ideally the venue should have a range of hotel accommodation nearby. These meetings range from 250 to 3,500 delegates and are usually annual. UK medical conferences range from 150 to 800 delegates and average around 400 delegates.

There is a trend for national associations to sign long-term deals where they select two or three venues and rotate around these over a longer period.

The larger association conferences of 2,000-plus delegates normally feature a major exhibition of 2,000sqm and a poster area. Organisers will expect the exhibition, posters and catering to be housed in the same area. An average number of breakout rooms is 10 with capacities for at least 200 delegates theatre-style. Organisers also require about 10 smaller rooms for committee meetings, a speakers’ room, an organiser’s office, an association office and a press office.

Additional destination requirements

Accessibility is a key requirement for all three types of meeting, but most importantly for pan-European and international conferences. Delegate transfers from UK airport or port of entry to the conference destination should take no more than one hour.

Typically the attendees are leading experts in a particular therapeutic area and so the location and timing of the meeting need to be conducive to time-saving efficiencies – airport hotels with good European hub access are very useful. 

Confidentiality and privacy are important features of pharma and medical events. There should be no competitors running events at the venue at the same time.

Security is a key concern, due to the sensitive nature of the meetings content. Product and brand names also need to be shielded from the general public, otherwise sponsors will not book.

Wi-Fi needs to be available free of charge to delegates. Lack of such provision is viewed as an irritant at the least, and more seriously as a disincentive to book.

Events involving the attendance of HCPs (healthcare professionals) are regulated. In the UK this is done by the ABPI but venues should be familiar with various European codes to ensure they are compliant.

The healthcare and pharma market has been relatively resilient. The number of meetings organised may have been reduced but the requirement still exists for both internal and external corporate meetings. Brand managers are certainly required to justify their spend. 

Medical association meetings have been the most resilient to the downturn. Associations continuing to run their national and European meetings have seen a positive spin-off due to participants not travelling as much to long-haul destinations.

Pharma continues to sponsor medical association meetings as it is often one of the only forums where they get a direct audience with their target market. The forms of such sponsorship have been affected both by the recession and by the strict ABPI guidelines. Michael Foreman, MD UK of Kenes, says: “There is a shift to sponsorship of educational opportunities. Gone are the days of pharma sponsoring entertainment or social events. Sponsorship of delegate bags, pens and other items may, too, soon be a thing of the past.”

John Walker, MD of Oxford International, assesses the current market as “healthy, but not as vibrant as it was a few years ago”. He comments: “Pharma has also had cutbacks in marketing and commercial spend which have affected the big sales conferences – no more South Africa or USA – and fewer ‘hosted delegates’ to national and international congresses. Reduced event budgets have also affected sponsorship and exhibition expenditure.”

Indi Patel, Account Team Manager, Banks Sadler, describes the sector as “stable compared to other industry sectors”. She detects greater use of internal meetings space by pharma companies and identifies other key trends:

Developing preferred supplier relationships with agencies and venues

Discontinued use of five-star venues

More focus on reducing budgets

Consolidating spend into preferred properties and through third party agencies via one appointed agency

Greater adherence to ABPI guidelines

Lynn Samson, MD of MCI Glasgow, says: “In 2010, all our pharma conferences attracted higher than expected delegate numbers and exhibition and sponsorship was also higher than in previous years.”

Luke Flett, Group Sales and Marketing Manager, WorldEvents, believes the economic downturn haz not really had an impact on the industry and its requirements to manage events. “Having said this, the pharma companies are very dependent on their pipelines (bringing new drugs to the marketplace) and, if they do not have a strong pipeline, the need for events will decrease,” Flett noted. “This can bring about additional merger and acquisition activity for certain companies in an attempt to boost their pipeline and this, in turn, will necessitate face-to-face meetings to engage employees and manage change.”

Gerry McCarthy, MD of Hampton Medical Conferences, said that, for medical association conferences, “although delegate numbers are holding up well, accompanying exhibitions in some pharma sectors are getting smaller, and exhibitors are signing up later”.

PCOs needed to be more creative in their organisation of such events while, at the same time, expecting “more flexibility from venues over T&Cs and venue contracts”, according to McCarthy.

Peter Main price, MD of Index Communications Meeting Services, believes that more ABPI regulation and an avoidance of five-star accommodation have reduced the potential for the sector to be criticised for staging “lavish events”. He stressed the need for venues and event organisers to create “professional, educational and quality environments” as pharma companies “still need to educate their target clinicians, either during a medical association event or an event wholly hosted by themselves”.

The healthcare, pharmaceutical and medical sectors look set fair to remain key target markets for venues, destinations, event agencies and suppliers for many years to come, but achieving success will increasingly demand an in-depth knowledge of client requirements coupled with a dynamic approach to developing and fine-tuning products and services.

Tony Rogers can be contacted via

Any comments? Email

Paul Colston


Paul Colston

Managing Editor, Conference News & Conference & Meetings World.

Up Next

Related Posts