Perception is Reality

When it comes to pharma meetings in this new era of austerity and regulatory changes, it doesn't matter if the hotel is upscale as long as it's not perceived that way. Being called the Ritz doesn't help
Sep 03, 2009
By Pharmaceutical Executive Editors

Call it the AIG effect—anything that smacks of extravagance, elitism, or excess has become fair game for politicians and the media. Even the president made it a point to dis Las Vegas as a meeting locale—no matter that the city is essentially designed as a convenient and inexpensive meeting destination.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Las Vegas and Orlando have been practically blackballed as venues for government-sponsored meetings.

When it comes to booking hotels for pharmaceutical and biotech meetings, it's not getting easier. At a time when everyone is looking for savings, the industry must forego great deals on accommodations simply because of the names of certain properties.

High-Tech Meeting Solutions Move Beyond C-Suites To Select Hotels
The changes to PhRMA's voluntary code clearly states that resorts and venues with recreational facilities such as golf courses and spas are not acceptable for meetings. Major pharma companies stick with hotels and avoid any property with "resort" or "spa" in the name. Others avoid premium hotel brands simply for the appearance of excess. Top-tier hotel brands offering extraordinary deals often are passed up in favor ofthe less controversial brands.

European hotels are voluntarily handing in their fifth stars, demoting themselves to four-star accommodations in order to appear less luxurious. One meeting planner joked that the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas would soon rename itself the Mandalay Airport Inn in an effort to appear downscale. The Mandalay is practically at the end of the runway at McCarran Airport.

In July, The Ritz Carlton announced its "Meetings within Reach" program, intended to attract meetings from pharma and elsewhere with extraordinary bargains. The package featured free continental breakfast, free high-speed Internet in meeting rooms, 20 percent off audio-visual equipment, and suite upgrades. These are significant economies. Continental breakfast for 100 participants for three days can easily run $9,000. High-speed Internet can cost $500 to $1,200 per meeting room. And room rates at some Ritz properties are quite competitive.

But for some the Ritz is perceived as too Ritzy. While at the same time, pharma companies designate pre-approved chains, including, for example, the equally upscale W Hotels for their meetings. Planners can confidently book at the W, known for high service and relatively high room rates, but not at the Four Seasons (if not pre-approved), regardless of the deal they can get there.

Under PhRMA guidelines, it is permissible for non-resort, non-upscale properties to offer a number of extra benefits to VIP pharma guests: a dedicated town car; a private meeting room, stocked and staffed; a suite upgrade; and other perks. That's great treatment. But why not extend the perks to include all venues.

Another, and serious, problem: our clients generally have anti-competitive clauses in their contracts, meaning we can't book them into a hotel in which another pharma meeting is taking place. As the universe of acceptable properties narrows, it gets harder to place clients in quality hotels where they won't be bumping into the competition.

Finally, all of this obsessive scrutiny ignores a basic fact of clinical trial investigation meetings. These are jam-packed, information-exchange opportunities lasting only a day or two.

Physcians taking their valuable time to attend aren't likely to find much time to indulge in luxuries or leisure activities anyway.

Meetings move business forward. The sooner we can focus on business results instead of business appearances, the better for the whole economy.

Judith Benaroche Johnson is CEO of RX Worldwide Meetings, Inc., and a preferred vendor for six major pharmaceutical companies. She can be reached at

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