by Jonathan Vatner | January 01, 2006

mike aylmer

Mike Aylmer, senior director of sales for KSL Resorts, launched a program to educate staff on the requirements of pharmaceutical meetings.

During the most recent economic downturn, when meetings business slowed to a crawl, the multibillion-dollar pharmaceutical meetings market remained a steady source of income for many hotels. Even as the economy has recovered, savvy hoteliers have realized the wisdom in attracting a share of that lucrative and robust sector.
    In an effort to draw the pharmaceutical market, Mike Aylmer, the Downingtown, Pa.-based senior director of pharmaceutical sales at La Quinta, Calif.-based KSL Resorts, spearheaded a series of roundtables with meeting planners from pharmaceutical companies. He questioned them about their gripes and wish lists regarding their experiences with hotels, and boy, did they have a lot to say.
    Some of their complaints were easily resolved. For example, they hated to arrive at the hotel and have to search for an implement for opening boxes. In response, Aylmer made it a policy to put box cutters, scissors and tape into the meetings office, a simple gesture many properties fail to do.
    Assuaging the planners’ real concerns, however, would require measures far more involved than stocking up on packing supplies. Meeting planners for pharmaceutical companies are subject to a number of forces that most other of their peers don’t face: appallingly short lead times, a need for airtight security and compliance with the PhRMA Code, a set of rules on spending developed in 2002 by the Washington, D.C.-based Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.
    Aylmer understood that KSL would need to train nearly everyone at the resorts, from the salespeople to the directors of operations, in working with pharmaceutical meetings.
    “We felt if we showed we’re cognizant of their needs and we’ve trained our properties about what’s going on in the industry, then we’d be able to retain and perhaps grow our business,” Aylmer says.
    To develop a curriculum, Aylmer approached KSL’s training company, Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.-based Master Connection Associates, which also works with a number of major chains and independent hotels. MCA created a two-day program one day for hotel operations and one for sales, catering and conference services. Even the executive staff would attend for a half day.  
    From April through October of last year, almost all the employees at KSL’s five resorts participated in the Pharmaceutical Expertise Program. Staff were told, for example, to charge individuals for spa services instead of putting the bills on the master account. They also learned which companies are competitors, a simple matter that would give them some important knowledge about this distinct segment of customers.
    Preliminary buzz suggests the program is working: The percentage of KSL’s group business coming from the pharmaceutical market jumped in 2005 from 20 to 25 percent.
    From a planner’s perspective, the resort chain has done a great job, claims Susan Morey, meeting planning and travel associate manager for Altana Pharma U.S., based in Florham Park, N.J. She brought a group of incentive winners to KSL’s Hotel del Coronado in San Diego last spring and was so pleased that she brought a sales meeting there in the fall, and she hopes to return next fall, as well.