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Passing through customs

Europe's rich cultural heritage makes it the perfect place for a pharma conference but the destination and content have to be right

When it comes to options, Europe has never been a bad place to hold a conference. With around 40 capital cities on the land mass to choose from, and each one of these boasting a rich and distinctive cultural experience, one could be forgiven for thinking that firms are spoilt for choice when it comes to earmarking the right European venue for their events.

Believe it or not, organising a conference is a more complex process than flicking through a holiday brochure and heading off towards the sun. Meetings have much more serious objectives. Perhaps your goal is to reinvigorate your salesforce and motivate it to climb to new highs with a training conference in the Swiss Alps.

Or maybe it is to rubberstamp the arrival of monumental, groundbreaking new products that will (hopefully) be remembered for time immemorial within the marble halls of the Viennese History of Medicine Museum.

Whatever your objectives, European venues are becoming popular destinations in which to pursue them. Andrew Winterburn, operations director at events company World Event Management, explains that Europe has always been a popular destination for global meetings: The US pharmaceutical market tends to keep the organisation of its events within the North American arena due to domestic regulatory issues that shape the way companies can work with physicians. Therefore, the next market that drives the initiative is Europe.

Traditionally, it has been the main transport hubs that have proved to be the mostdesirable event destinations. Cities such as London, Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam and Frankfurt are easily accessible by air from all continents and have a wealth of quality hotels well equipped to deal with business meetings. However, other European cities are catching up and becoming increasingly fashionable.

Eastern European cities such as Warsaw, Krakow, Prague and Budapest, despite not being quite as accessible as the major Western European cities, are establishing themselves as popular cost-effective choices with excellent hotel facilities and eye-catching cultural heritages. Even the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) are becoming more conducive to holding events as they become more accessible.

However, sometimes the accessibility issue can limit the scope of a planned event. As Winterburn explains, accessibility always remains one of the key prerequisites for many events: What tends to happen now is that meeting programmes are cut shorter by a day or a night, and so that restricts your choice of venues to the main European transport hubs.

While many would say that London remains the conference capital of the continent, an opinion is growing that it perhaps doesn't deserve the accolade.

The trouble with London is it's so big, says Clare Morrow, managing director of Small Planet Meetings. While it clearly has more incoming flights than any other European city and is cheap and easy to reach, the transport problems begin when you get there. Even if you manage to get people into the centre quickly by using high-speed train links, it can still take a bit of time and effort to get them from Paddington Station to their hotel.

She believes that Barcelona could convincingly stake its claim to be Europe's best conference destination. I would say that Barcelona is one of the best, she continues. It has a great mix of interest, charm and vibrancy coupled with a fine choice of high quality business hotels and the airport is only 20 minutes away from the city centre.


Finding the right destination for a pharmaceutical event is not a problem. There are a whole host of events companies only too happy to advise firms on which places will fulfil their list of requirements. It is usually enough to compile a comprehensive brief so that potential locations can be more easily pinpointed. It is important not to overlook additional activities that are taking place - a visit to a plant or an R&D facility is a popular way of supporting your key messages. One thing companies should be

aware of is that each European Member State has its own set of rules governing what can and can't be done at a conference held within its borders. While in some countries, such as the UK, the domestic pharma industry will have its own Code of Practice which organisers will have to comply with; in others, regulation can come from government level.

There's a real mixed bag of regulatory issues to deal with from each different European country and we have to adhere to those depending on the types of events we're organising, says Winterburn. It may be that events are run in terms of hotel prices; in some countries, it is forbidden to use four or five star hotels for medical conferences. One of the driving factors these days is that as medical education rules are coming into play, more and more `closed' one-sponsor meetings are occurring as they overcome some of the regulatory issues that a sponsoring company would have.

It may be that the intrinsically bureaucratic natures of some countries make life difficult for organisers, irrespective of whether it's a medical conference or not. Morrow, who organises compulsory clinical trails training meetings around Europe for pharma firms, says that the French authorities can be very demanding.

If you're working in France, you often have to supply the local regulatory authority with lots of detailed cost information for the attendees before they are allowed to go, she notes. Regulatory issues can also be an issue in Italy, explains Winterburn and as a result his clients don't tend to place Italy high on their list.

In Italy, any pharma event must be signed off by the regulatory authorities and there's often a mountain of bureaucracy to get through before you can run it, he adds. I'm not saying companies shouldn't bother going to Italy, just that they should be aware of the added complications that have to be managed.

Wherever you decide to hold your meeting on the European continent, it is simply vital that you brocure the services of on-site experts with sufficient local knowledge to help guide the project through often strange and uncharted waters. Some companies will use the medical affairs departments of both the local European affiliate and the global headquarters to ensure that the programme does not impact on local legislation.

It may also be a good idea to hire a destination management company (DMC) in the host country to deal with practical issues, such as airport transfers, simultaneous translation, meals, entertainment and excursions. But beware - some of these may have a different definition of the word `efficiency' to your own.

Morrow recounts how one DMC based in Rome when faced with the relatively simple job of meeting incoming people at the local airport and directing them to their hotel transport, came up with a novel approach to tackle the task.


Standard practice is to have a host or hostess standing at the arrivals gate with a sign, waiting for people to clear customs, she says. But this company decided to go airside, looking individually

for people who were busy reclaiming their luggage. It was chaotic and there was no need for them to have done that.

Cultural Nuances

Holding a European conference is not just about the destination, it is also very much about the delegates who attend. Pharma conferences are becoming increasingly global in nature and it is not uncommon for companies to find themselves at the helm of a meeting with attendees from over 30 different nationalities. While language is becoming less of a problem, the cultural nuances that such a diverse mix of people will bring with them can often clash in the conference scenario.

Delegates from some countries may sit and talk in a huddle during a presentation, either to discuss the subject matter or any other private issues they have, without any embarrassment, says Morrow. This may be a perfectly normal thing to do within their own culture but it can be very irritating for those people around them who prefer to pay attention to the speaker. We've also found that since the rise of wireless technology, it's not unusual for some doctors to open up their laptops and respond to emails during meetings - again, they don't feel as if they're doing anything wrong but it can be very frustrating for speakers who naturally want their audience to pay attention to them.

It is important that people flying in from all corners of the globe are made to feel as comfortable as possible if events are to run smoothly. For delegates are from China, Korea, South America or the Asia Pacific region, organisers in Europe have to be aware of the way they prefer to conduct business, how they like to communicate and even seemingly mundane things such as what they like on their plate and what time they like to go to bed. Depending on the size of the group or the event, we will assign

people to attendees who are either from their country of origin or speak their native language proficiently, says Winterburn.

Blowing the budget

While the European industry continues to come under the cosh of tighter profit margins and more stringent pricing, it will come as no surprise to hear that companies are keen to know whether they are making a solid return on investment through their events.

Gone are the days of splashing the marketing budget on speakers' business travel airfares, five star accommodation and vacuous programmes interspersed with champagne and canapÈ receptions, and returning from a two-day jolly safe in the knowledge that the boss won't bat an eyelid.

Firms have become more sophisticated in how they spend their marketing budget. Programmes have to be well thought out, and the age-old model of four speakers before lunch and three after is looking rather jaded.

Pharma firms are far more focused now on quality rather than quantity, says Winterburn. We're finding that when they are looking at getting their key opinion leaders together in a certain specialist area, while there will be a certain amount of plenary sessions, the events are becoming much more interactive and giving specialists more time to talk through the issues and share their experiences. That's having a big impact on the length of the programme and the way the content is developed.

Morrow agrees that meetings should have an interactive element in order to keep delegates' interest levels high: We advise clients to get away from just doing presentations all day - workshops and breakout sessions and even quizzes where people can discuss things together are a good way of engaging the audience.

Motivating the crowd is a high priority for pharma firms these days and one method to drum up interest is to link the location of the meeting with its objectives. Winterburn admits that a certain amount of lateral thinking is required here but says, basing an event with a strong scientific slant in Stockholm with its Nobel Prize connotations would be deemed more appropriate than holding it in a beach-side hotel in Cyprus.

But of course, some clients have much more direct requests. Southern Europe is getting a growing share of our requests, says Winterburn. To be honest with you, along with pricing and accessibility, it's mainly to do with the weather. Sometimes it's the simple quest for the sun that will win out.

Don't overlook the sunglasses and tanning lotion just yet.

The Author
Gareth Carpenter is assistant editor of Pharmaceutical Marketing Europe

2nd September 2008


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