by By Jennifer Nicole Dienst | July 01, 2009

HSchanhaut mainPlanners struggling to adapt to new levels of scrutiny and shifting regulations can take heart knowing that a niche group of peers has been coping with such challenges all along and has valuable lessons to share. M&C asked two meeting professionals with extensive experience in the medical/pharmaceutical realm for some advice on what meeting planners for any type of organization can do to cope and excel in these tumultuous times.

Forge bonds with procurement and legal
Accountability is key when all eyes are on you, says Harris Schanhaut, CME (, a New York City-based independent pharmaceutical planner with more than 25 years of experience. "Pretend you're always under the electron microscope of the regulators," he advises. "If you don't have a close relationship with your procurement and legal departments, now is the time to start one. They have a much better pipeline when it comes to tracking and keeping up with regulations."
And if your gut says something might be off, don't take a step without first checking with either department.

Be prepared to plan on the fly
With lead times shrinking, planners are finding themselves doing more at the last minute, something medical meeting organizers are well versed in. Stacey Kent, CMP, director of congresses and conventions for New York City-based Carlson Marketing Worldwide, has worked in medical education for nine of her 24 years as a planner. "It's a very moment-by-moment audience," she says of the attendees in that specialized niche. "There are a lot more variables. You're planning by the seat of your pants."

Having three weeks to plan a meeting isn't considered uncommon in the pharmaceutical industry, Kent says, and the most important weapon you can have is an on-their-toes staff.

"As long as you have a solid group of smart, rational planners, it can be done," she notes. "It's hard to do it with people who are scattered or working for other departments at the same time. If you're lucky enough to work with dedicated people and a solid software database, you'll hit it out of the park."

Kent also advises meeting planners to stay focused and try to keep their emotions at bay in times of stress. "Don't get flustered," she says. "Go with the flow and don't analyze everything. Just make it happen."

Establish watertight rules; keep airtight records
Under rules such as the PhRMA (for Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America) and AdvaMed (for Advanced Medical Technology Association) codes that medical meeting planners must follow, dinners and entertainment at continuing medical education conferences are strictly regulated and often forbidden, depending on the precise circumstances.

Schanhaut believes it is a good idea for any firm to institute its own similar code of restrictions to ward off any unwelcome scrutiny. "When companies adopt such guidelines early, it will serve to their benefit," he notes. "Back when I was working for American Express, the rules were you couldn't give a customer a gift worth more than $100 more than once a year. Most companies don't specify that. American Express took the bigger stance."

Meetings departments also should keep up-to-date databases, and planners should, in effect, act as their own auditors, says Schanhaut. "Keep as many detailed records as possible," he emphasizes, "especially financials, from every source." And, he adds, don't expect a reward for your efforts. "Let's face it, you don't hear about ethical companies getting gold stars -- you only hear about unethical companies getting into a lot of trouble."