Sector review: Fighting for pharma

Pharmaceutical events take up 95 per cent of event managent agency Universal WorldEvents’ (UWE) time, according to its Sales and Marketing Director, Mark Saxby.

Why do you consider yourself a pharma professional conference organiser?

UWE was created from the merger of two pharmaceutical event management agencies in March 2011, creating what we believe to be the largest pharmaceutical specialist event management agency in the world.

Since then, we have expanded out client base and now work with 30 global pharmaceutical companies, some of which we have worked with for 20 years. We understand the life cycle of a drug; what differentiates an internal event from a Health Care Professionals (HCPs) attended one, and the compliance restrictions we need to abide by.

How is the pharma conference sector faring in this economy compared to others?

The industry was affected by the economic situation and budget pressures like every other. It is also significantly affected by the pipeline of drugs in research and development and recently coming to market, as well as the expiration of patents and the competition to their brands from generic products.

A number of large pharmaceuticals have patents coming to an end soon and do not have the requirement for sales conference/training meetings for those products.

Other companies, who do not have a strong pipeline, are reducing the number of clinical trial meetings they are organising as there are fewer products in development.

However, some companies have a strong pipeline with a need for meetings and events, which offsets the reduction from other companies.
Have your pharma events seen a rise, or fall, in conference delegates?

Delegate numbers have stayed much the same; pharma events are affected by the pipeline of drugs which would affect the number of events or delegates.

Common pharma sector events can be split into two areas – internal (such as sales conferences, incentives, training workshops) and external (those with healthcare professionals in attendance) such as investigator and, monitor meetings, congress attendance, KOL and advisory board meetings.

Do pharma events from non-UK associations have different requirements to the UK?  

Yes, different countries throughout the world have different requirements, however, it is worth drawing the distinction between internal and external meetings.

As far as internal meetings are concerned, regulatory codes only apply when an external medical professional or patient organisations are present, otherwise it is up to companies to operate within their own corporate guidelines. For example, the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA) sets out the regulatory framework for meetings and events in Europe. Each country within Europe sets out its own guidelines which must be within the EFPIA guidelines as a minimum.

In the UK, Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) has adopted the EFPIA guidelines to work towards a consistent framework across Europe.

The code covers all aspects of the promotion of medicines to HCPs and patient organisations involved in the prescription of medicines. It is important that the ABPI code is used as a reference point in the planning of events to ensure compliance at every stage.

A number of pharmaceutical companies have internal medical affairs teams who are responsible for compliance; some larger companies have a dedicated ABPI code of practice officer. This varies from business to business and is sometimes linked to their travel and accommodation policies.

For external meetings, the guidelines state: “Companies must not provide hospitality to members of the health professions and appropriate administrative staff except in association with scientific meetings, promotional meetings, scientific congresses and other such meetings”.
Do you have to run your events differently overseas?

The way we organise our events, with regards to processes and standard operating procedures, does not change with regard to the destination. However, we have to comply with various country regulations which does affect the organisation of the events. HCP attendance does become more complicated when you have to comply with the code of practice, particularly if you are inviting an HCP from outside the UK.

The issue you might face is that the code of practice in the country that the HCP is invited from may have different guidelines to the ABPI code, therefore we need to take that into consideration when planning the event.

There are concerns that the US Sunshine Provision may start to influence other markets as well as the US meetings market.
What factors do you take into account when choosing the right venue for these events?

The venue selection is an area where companies often come under the most scrutiny, it is vital that we select the venue carefully and it does not compromise the professional integrity of the event or, more importantly, the company. We always take the following into consideration:

  • Lavish venues must not be used
  • Avoid using venues that are renowned for their entertainment facilities
  • What is the perceived value of the venue?
  • Avoid resort or spa venues
  • Is the venue in keeping with the objectives/style of the meeting?
  • How practical is the venue in terms of facilities, location etc?

The type of event you require will sometimes be fairly obvious such as an advisory board for specialists in the therapeutic area or educational grants for opinion leaders to attend a medical congress. The length of the programme is important as you will have to make sure the balance between the science and free time is correct; it is not acceptable to have a two-hour meeting and then invite HCP to a dinner with overnight accommodation.
How do you win pharma business?

Typically, we undergo an RFI process, followed by an RFP and a face-to-face presentation to become a preferred supplier; this means a certain amount of their event business is guaranteed to us.

Alternatively, we pitch on an event by event basis, this happens more so with the smaller- to mid-sized companies who don’t have a preferred suppliers roster in place. 

A venue perspective:

Wellcome Conference Centres, which comprises a London conference centre and a residential Cambridgeshire outpost, have long benefited from a strong commercial base within the medical sciences sector.

Wellcome Trust’s charitable status as a ‘foundation dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health’ has led both venues to have a strong resonance within the pharmaceutical and science sectors.  

Being associated with, and focused on, the medical science market means the centres sit within Clause 19 of the Association of British Pharmaceutical Industry Code of Practice 2008.

Overseen by GM Rachel Cordier, business at both venues has remained robust despite global financial uncertainties. “Our clients just don’t buy the outdated notion of day delegate rates,” she says. “An analysis of the centres’ business underlines a change in the buying practices of professional conference organisers and corporate planners, as different cost centres now take ownership for an events’s varying elements.

“In the case of the Cambridge site, bedrooms are by and large now paid for by individual delegates, not the central organisers. Lunches and dinners may be hosted by an ancillary sponsor. Therefore, the organiser is only paying for room hire and the cost of mid-morning refreshments.”

Not only are the buying patterns changing, but so too are the types of clients using Wellcome, affirms Cordier:

“We are seeing a real shift in the dynamics of the events, with content providers such as journal publishers and specialist research companies now making up a large proportion of the business mix.”

A growing reliance on PDAs and online content for conferences means that AV and Internet requirements command a greater percentage of clients’ budgets, too. Among other notable trends that Wellcome is seeing is the ability to close off the sites for complete security and anonymity.

  • Delegate numbers using Wellcome Conference Centres are projected to be up by 18 per cent (financial year August 2011 -September 2012)
  • Just 5.5 per cent of business was booked as traditional day delegate business this year in London (from 30 per cent in year 2007-08)
  • Medical-related events are drawn to the use of Wellcome’s London gallery spaces due to the synergy they have with client events and their association with Henry Wellcome and Silas Burroughs, both of whom pioneered medication in tablet form.

This was first published in the October 2012 edition of Conference News. Any comments? Email

Paul Colston


Paul Colston

Managing Editor, Conference News & Conference & Meetings World.

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