Meeting Planning: We're Not in Kansas Anymore - Pharmaceutical Executive


Meeting Planning: We're Not in Kansas Anymore
Meetings expert James Montague explains why the industry needed an independent program to certify medical meeting managers—and what he did about it

Pharmaceutical Executive

Mr. Montague is owner and chairman of PMPN. For more information contact
When it comes to pharma, arguably the most scrutinized industry in the world, meeting planning takes on a whole new importance. With so much at stake, it is imperative for the planners of medical meetings to know the ropes, especially in terms of understanding government-and industry-imposed regulations. How then do you make sure the third-party planners you hire know what they're doing?

Enter James Montague, president and CEO of PMPN, an innovative company of more than 1,500 meetings planners. Montague took it upon himself to initiate a pilot program called Certified Medical Meeting Manager (CMMP). The program will expand for another term this fall, and Montague hopes to find a nonprofit, independent accrediting body to take over it.

To find out more about the program and the latest trends in meeting planning, Pharmaceutical Executive's medical education meetings talked to Montague.

Could you explain why you started the Certified Medical Meeting Manager pilot program?

The whole area of planning that surrounds pharmaceutical CME programs is so fraught with danger. There are so many loopholes and pitfalls to watch out for. And the worst part is that so much is left open to interpretation. Meeting planners as a whole need to understand they are not the ones ultimately making that final call. The accrediting body for the event or program needs to make the judgment call on how the rules and regulations are to be interpreted.

The planners have to be smart enough to know what areas can have potential pitfalls. They need to be able to go back to their client or to the accrediting body and say, "Here's an area that might be of concern." Let's say it's serving alcohol. How do you want to interpret it for this series of programs? Planners need to know which conversations to have. And they need to have those conversations at the right time—prior to the programs happening, prior to the planning, prior to the invitations even going out.

It seemed almost ludicrous to me that in the pharmaceutical industry—where meeting planners have to be so on their toes and so detail-oriented, more than in any other industry—there was no certification for these people. There was nowhere they could go for specific knowledge on how to handle a medical meeting. There is for government programs. There is for association meetings. There is for all these other types of programs. But nothing specifically related to medical meetings. And given it's an industry where there's no room for error, it floored me that nobody was doing anything about it.

So you and your company decided to take it on and start the training program?

Through no benevolence of ours, really! Understand, we have 1,500 meeting planners all over the country. We need to make sure they are well versed in these specifics and details. We want to make sure the company and our people know the pitfalls to look for. Even if it's just being on-site. For instance, is it acceptable for sales reps to be handing out pens? Is it acceptable for them to have their name badges on? Is it acceptable for them to buy wine for a doctor in the bar outside the meeting room? All of those things need to be watched out for, and no one out there was speaking specifically to that.

Do medical-communications and med ed companies face the same problems?

Yes, they hire dozens, and even hundreds, of meeting planners to put together series of programs all the time. Still, there's very limited training they go through. It's kind of trial by fire—throw them in the deep end and see if they sink or swim. In this type of environment, that's a very dangerous way to go about getting training. So we wanted to formalize a body of knowledge that didn't interpret anything but that spoke to the needs of meeting planners, to help them understand the environment they're working in.

Does CMMP have a curriculum?

The program teaches principles that cover CME-meeting and medical-meeting specifics. Again, it addresses such things as: What are the pitfalls? What are the things to look out for? When do you have certain conversations? What is acceptable at a CME program? And then there's a third module that includes basic meeting-management materials to round out the curriculum.

What is the status of the program now?

A year ago, we finished our first pilot program. We drew on some of PMPN's internal meeting planners. Of the 23 participants, 18 passed the first time. Then we sat everyone down and got feedback. We asked such questions as: Was all the material needed, or was some unnecessary? Did you get anything out of these certain modules? We've spent the last eight months tweaking the program and refining the body of knowledge. It's now at a point where we are ready to have kind of a Phase II pilot, a little bit bigger, probably about 30 people this time. And later this fall, we'll be ready to open it up to any of those external people who would like to take it.

You mentioned you were looking for someone to take over the program. Why is that?

As a profit company, we can't give it the accreditation that it truly needs to become an industry standard. Our intention was just to start the pea at the top of the hill, push it off, and let it gain some momentum. Hopefully, at some point, a nonprofit or independent accrediting body will take this to the next level and make it what it should be—a true certification for medical meeting managers. If we do it, it's going to look biased.

Why does your company need 1,500 meeting planners?

We're not the typical meeting-planning company, where you bring us a drug to launch or some series of programs and dinner meetings you want us to plan and put together. We're more like an outsourcing model for that. So if you need to bring people in-house to work on a big bid you've won, we can place people with you. If you can't or shouldn't be sending people around the country to go to dinner meetings, we have those 1,500 people scattered all over that can staff local events for you. They just drive in, do it, and then head back home. We handle small audiovisual setups for dinner programs and things like that. We can be a local resource for site selection, because our people are, in fact, local. They know the best places and best haunts to have meetings, as well as the staffs and the sales people. They know what to do with physicians. And they can handle the program for you, so you can keep your staff in the office. It's so much more cost-efficient. A majority of our business is handled directly with medical-communication companies and medical-education companies, but we also have direct relationships with some of the big pharma companies.

Each state has its own set of compliance issues to watch out for, too, right?

They closely mirror the federal mandates, but, yes, every state does have its nuances. And, since our people are already locally based, they know what's a little different about the procedures in their state and what they might be in a state next-door. These are veterans too. They've been doing these other programs for 15 to 20 years.

What changes have you seen in medical meeting planning over the last few years?

In the past, we dealt with product managers and brand managers, who pretty much had sole control of a drug, its launch, and how it was received into the physician world. But then Pfizer and Abbott and AstraZeneca and all these big pharmaceutical companies in kind of a flat-hand-to-the-forehead moment said, "Hey, we're these huge companies, but we're not getting any buying power for who we are. We're putting it out to all these different companies, and there's no rhyme or reason to it." I mean, it dawned on them that there was no consolidation. It was like, "Wow, we have a group over here that is using this company, and this group is using somebody different" and on and on. And so they weren't getting any bang for their spend.

So, recently, the procurement department has said, "We're going to push a high volume of meetings. And by doing so, we're going to expect better service and a better price. You have a history with us, we understand your service level, but what can you do for us on price?" It's a different paradigm from before, where the brand managers and product managers wanted to make sure quality was first and foremost. They wanted to make sure the physicians got there and they got the information they needed to make a decision about their drugs. That was job number one. And to a certain extent, it almost didn't matter how much they spent to get that done.

Now procurement has come in and said, "Wait a second. You know, we can shave 25 percent off of this spend here and use that for something else." It's about looking at the dollars first. What we do with that is almost secondary. Then again, the reality is that if education meetings are going to continue—and I believe they are; last year, over $9 billion was spent on them—then there has to be real effectiveness in terms of education, but they also have to be profitable.

How have the increased regulations affected the meeting-planning landscape?

With all the changes comes a cloud of fear. Any time the federal government gets involved, it makes things very scary. At the same time, there were things that were being conducted in a manner that they shouldn't have been. So now we have the opportunity to do these programs right, to make them what everybody really wanted them to be all along, which is educational programs. Physicians can come in and know they are getting the unbiased education they need to make good, sound decisions. It's really not that hard to do.

The rules and regulations are there. We just need to follow them, abide by them, and constantly be tweaking them. We went through such a long period of time where it was a kind of dark, murky area. Now meetings are open for all kinds of scrutiny, which can be scary, but it also gives us that opportunity to make the industry what it needs to be.

Why are pharmaceutical companies relying more on third-party meeting planners?

By relying on third-party companies to handle these things for them, they can go to the Senate Finance Committee and say, "You know, we're doing everything humanly possible. We're giving these grants. We're using third-party providers. We're making sure we're staying at arm's length the way we should."

Do you think with the recent scrutiny of CME providers, the pharmaceutical companies might just throw up their hands, decide this is too difficult, and stop funding CME altogether?

There's really no way CME as an industry can go away. It does too much good, and there's too great a need for it. The industry itself can drive the compliance issues. They are in control of the grant dollars. They can say, "You know, we're not going to offer grants to these programs unless we can be assured as a company that they're accredited for the right reasons and that whoever is going to be executing these programs does whatever is necessary to ensure there is no bias downstream from when they get involved. Yes, there's a lot of scrutiny, and there's a lot of light being shined on the providers, right now. But it's really not that hard to do it right. And anyway, this notion that you can unduly influence physicians and make them offer a drug that has iffy indications or might not be better for the patients is just ludicrous. They're not going to do that. They wouldn't be in business that long if they did.

Do you think it's still possible to have a fun meeting and be compliant?

Oh, certainly. The bottom line is, at the end of the day, physicians just love getting together with their peers. They want to sit around the table. They want to listen to a speaker who is renowned in the field, someone who is speaking to a need they have. And they want to talk with their peers about what they're doing. That's really where a lot of learning comes from—not a didactic lecture. And if you do nothing else but deliver those items along with a decent meal, they're going to be satisfied.


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