Five Takeaways from Pharma Forum


The latest incarnation of Pharma Forum drew a couple of hundred life sciences event professionals to Boston’s booming Seaport last month. I was one of those people, and the meeting was my first since Euroshop in Dusseldörf, 20 long months ago.

Just as the Seaport is no longer a maze of fish piers and empty parking lots, this wasn’t yesterday’s Pharma Forum. No lavish parties. No extravagant catering. The big hotel chains and enthusiastic CVBs were still on hand, but the tone was more subdued, the catering scaled back, thoughtful COVID protocols in place, and the sessions contained a couple of primary spaces.

But it wasn’t sad or depressing. Not at all.

Meeting planners are by nature optimistic, resilient problem-solvers. They don’t point fingers. They find solutions. And the best of them nail both the “show” and “business” ends of show business, balancing their attendees’ thirst for information and fun with the sponsor’s tolerance for budget and risk.

Many flock to meetings like Pharma Forum, HCEA, and ExhibitorLive to share ideas and experiences and take on the latest big issue. PhRMA and AdvaMed codes, gift bans, sustainability, and GDPR have all been in their sights. This year, it was all about overcoming fear and getting back to work. I went to Boston to see what was on the minds of our clients and fellow suppliers, and I left encouraged but not surprised with a few new things to think about.

#1: Event professionals are an optimistic, resilient bunch.

But that makes sense. Producing congresses, meetings, and events is about solving problems, overcoming obstacles, and getting your hands dirty in the process. While their colleagues in marketing, sales, and compliance can manage by status reports, even the most senior event planners are usually in the hotel or on the convention floor, ready to overcome anything that might derail the plan.

COVID-19 is just the latest Goliath for a legion of event professional Davids, and their determination was on display, speaker after speaker, rallied by Steve McClatchy’s opening session battle cry: “Burnout creates energy and can make your life better.” I bet 99 of the 100 people in that room eventually came around to agreeing with him, just as I did.

My friend James Vachon, principal at Michael Gerard and Associates, put it simply: “If we are diligent and thoughtful, and there is good and open communication with supplier partners, we’ll be able to figure it out.”

#2: It takes a village more than ever.

Whether we serve a client or we are the client, we event professionals learn early on to cultivate a robust network of trusted suppliers/partners, and we are notoriously protective of those relationships precisely for times like this when we need them most.

Those relationships need a different level of care right now.

In their excellent session, Jill Rankin of Boehringer Ingelheim and Jennifer Capurso of Conformis reminded us that the pandemic is a perfect opportunity for both parties to reinvest in a client/supplier relationship purposefully. Paraphrasing their message: “Don’t sit and wait for us to tell you what we need. We don’t always know.”

But business reviews? Seriously? Now? While it’s easy to write off the past two years as a giant anomaly, several speakers said we do them anyway. “Even if you’re using data from 2019, don’t shy away from conversations right now,” said Tori Mercun of Infinix Global Meetings & Events. She reminded us that supplier reviews are a too-infrequent opportunity to put pencils down, look inwardly, and tackle whatever creates friction or prevents great work.

#3: It’s time to invest in our biggest assets – our teams.

As we often say in presentations, our biggest assets wear shoes to work every day. I’ve long believed that a client’s experience with any supplier will depend largely on the resourcefulness, attitude, and expertise of the team supporting them. (Likewise, my five years on the periphery of our family business has taught me that it’s true for restaurants, as well. Customers come because of who we are as much as what we serve them.)

It starts with identifying candidates who are determined and resourceful. Youthful energy and good communication skills are still must-haves, but with many meetings now happening on computer screens, proficiency and curiosity around new technology become real assets. And with our industry’s supply chain so discombobulated, the best candidates will be hardwired to be organized and assertive.

Several speakers reminded us that as leaders, we owe our teams deeper, more frequent engagement. We heard it repeatedly: managing isn’t enough. Bosses must learn to shift seamlessly from manager to coach to educator to counselor. And when I think back to my best bosses, that’s exactly what they did with me.

#4: Hybrid will be expensive, but nobody knows how expensive.

Michael Clarke of Marriott Corporation told us that hybrid events are likely to cost 25 percent to 30 percent more for audiovisual and digital technology, 15 percent to 20 percent more for food and beverage because of increased service and packaging, and 10 percent to 15 percent more for well-being protocols, such as signage and on-site testing. He didn’t show the numbers behind the numbers, but it seemed about right.

From my perspective, the issue isn’t just how much more a hybrid event will cost, but what that event will be and which aspects will be in-person, as opposed to virtual. Compared to three days in a resort or within the rectangular confines of an exhibit space, hybrid events are amorphous, and there aren’t many best practices or industry averages to help guide planning. Add in two years of reduced budgets and renewed skepticism about the future of the medium, and event professionals have their hands full.

#5: The core problem with virtual engagement isn’t low engagement rates.

In her thought-provoking session, Meredith Shottes of Miller Tanner Associates stated bluntly that there are two underlying problems in virtual engagement: uninspiring content and “unseen” attendees.

Building compelling content is hard. Time, budget, and human resources seem more limited than ever. Building compelling content in life sciences is even harder. Each week, legions of aspiring young Don Drapers dial into PRC meetings to see their best ideas shredded by the heavy hand of compliance. It’s not for the faint of heart. But great ideas do emerge, even in pharma (anyone remember Gleevec’s launch exhibit at ASCO?), and to Meredith’s point, we need to advocate for those ideas, even when it’s hard.

Meredith also talked about those attendees who stay hidden, on mute, cameras off, multitasking instead of paying attention. How do we draw them out? She suggested showing how attendees’ input affected the presentation. When comments and questions filter in, let the attendees know that you’re changing gears to make sure the content really speaks to them. “Polling can be effective but only if the polling shifts what you are presenting.”

The message of Pharma Forum? That the future of our industry is up to us. That COVID 19 is just another obstacle (albeit a big one) to overcome. That we succeed by being better partners to our clients, and by producing meetings that create more authentic, meaningful engagement for our attendees. And that in a world of disarray, resilience is key.

My opinions are my own and not that of my employer. Agree? Disagree? I would love to hear your feedback.