A Meeting Planner's Point of View

Sep 03, 2008




For those of us who plan clinical trial meetings, it's a whole new world out there. We're reminded every time we get an angry note from a doctor who didn't get to fly business class. And again, every time we stop and worry whether we'll get in regulatory trouble if we hand out box lunches for the trip home from a session. Now comes the revised, more restrictive PhRMA Code for 2009. It may have been written to address the relationship between pharmaceutical sales representatives and doctors, but make no mistake about it, the code also will have a major impact on the ability of pharmaceutical companies to hold meetings that attract the best physicians for clinical trials.

The new, revised code restricts planners from booking hotels that have the word "resort" in the name. At a time when the trend is for any hotel with robes in the bathroom to call themselves a resort hotel, that could rule out a lot of Hiltons, Marriotts, and Hyatts—hotels that, by most standards, would be considered excellent venues for professional meetings.

Under the new guidelines, no guests may attend, even if paying their own way, no logoed gifts may be distributed, and meals must be "modest." What does that mean—K rations? The intense scrutiny of pharmaceutical companies has led to an overreaction that could inhibit physicians from holding important discussions in face-to-face forums.

The code revision coincides with an enormous surge in travel costs. Few, however, can appreciate how these new fees add up. For a recent meeting, we had a $20,000 bill for individual checked- bag charges. When planners work with a fixed meeting budget, rising airfares mean less to spend on hotels and meals. At another recent meeting for 32 physicians, three-fifths of our $50,000 budget went to airfare—meaning little left over for resort-level accommodations in any case.

What are the ramifications of these dual challenges? We see a real potential to degrade the quality of research trials. Pharmaceutical companies are seeking to enlist the support of the best specialists. As travel quality declines and meetings become more austere (and as physicians increasingly feel subjected to the intrusive oversight of bureaucrats and politicians) enthusiasm for traveling to investigator meetings will decline.

Indeed, the travel and meeting experience seems to directly influence the level of enthusiasm doctors have for study efforts. Based on follow-up comments we've received, meeting location alone can color the entire perception of a drug trial.

It's at times like this that the call goes up for more use of teleconferencing, particularly when smaller groups are involved. But this technology is too unwieldy when more than a few people are involved, or when discussions of drug protocols are involved, or when confidential information must be exchanged.

So for the foreseeable future, we need to ask doctors to run the airport gauntlet, and we'll have to provide them as pleasant a meeting environment as possible. From the meeting planners' standpoint, it's not all bad news. But it's definitely a challenge to our resourcefulness.

Judy Benaroche Johnson is CEO of Rx Worldwide Meetings, Inc. She can be reached at
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