by Martha Cooke & Jonathan Vatner | January 01, 2004

It’s not quite brain surgery, but meeting planning for brain surgeons and other medical professionals likewise can benefit from steady hands and a cool demeanor.
   Medical meeting planning presents myriad strategic and logistical hurdles, often daunting even to seasoned professionals. From an ever-changing matrix of regulations to complex site-selection criteria, the field demands a high level of specialized knowledge.
   M&C talked to a number of medical planners and the vendors that serve them to explore the problems they face and the solutions they have found.

Lead times
One morning this fall, a stream of international attendees from pharmaceutical/health-care giant Novartis arrived at the Westminster Hotel in Livingston, N.J. Planner Uwe Tittman asked to speak with the general manager. He wanted to schedule a meeting - starting at that very moment.
   "They just drove up to the door and said, ‘Look, we’d like to have a meeting for 30 people,’" says the surprised GM, Richard Verruni. Fortunately, a meeting room was available, and the Westminster banquet staff went into high gear, setting up in 15 minutes while the attendees waited in the lobby.
   "It’s the first time I’ve seen that in all the years I’ve been in the hotel business," Verruni says.
   For his (and Novartis’) part, Tittman claims it was a unique situation "based on a misunderstanding of the administrators planning the event" that is "unlikely to happen again." Typically, Tittman says, such meetings are planned at least two weeks in advance.
   It’s better than 15 minutes, but two weeks seems brutally short for organizing even a brief event. Yet, Verruni continually sees meetings for pharmaceutical company employees planned just days in advance. These meetings are generally for 30 to 50 attendees and last for two or three days. They usually consist of a general session with breakouts and require a sizable amount of A/V, as well as wireless Internet.
   "Yes, lead times are getting shorter," attests Laura J. Smith, operations manager for Novartis Centralized Sourcing and Meetings Express, based in East Hanover, N.J. Smith is an employee of Philadelphia-based Maritz McGettigan, which was enlisted by Novartis to leverage buying power and save money across advertising, promotion and meetings. Six other pharmaceutical companies are working with Maritz McGettigan on similar initiatives.
   With budgets tight, Smith notes, money for meetings often is freed up at the last minute. And, in her case, because meeting space at Novartis’ headquarters is quickly being converted into offices, meetings must go off site. "Competition for internal conference rooms is fierce," says Smith.
   Fortunately for Novartis, the six-month-old Meetings Express program, part of a broader consolidation effort, was designed specifically to streamline events of fewer than 60 attendees. Since many internal meetings of that size have similar needs, they are run similarly, using the same contract addenda and a standard agenda, depending on whether the focus is a tactical discussion, team building, a special event, or a sales or marketing program.
   "Meetings Express isn’t necessarily here to address short-term meetings," says Smith. However, she points out, most of them are planned only about a month in advance. Meetings devoted to marketing a recently approved drug aren’t handled by Meetings Express and are planned with even less lead time, because Novartis - or any pharmaceutical company - wants to get the medicine on the market as quickly as possible.
   Lead time for educational meetings also is shrinking, says Mila Kostic, director of continuing medical education for the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. "There is so much new medical information coming out. For any medical meeting that historically took a year or two to plan, we don’t have that luxury anymore," she says.