The report of the death of the international congress

Chris Stevenson

Haymarket

In 1897 Mark Twain read his own, obviously premature, obituary in a newspaper and was driven to respond that “the report of my death was an exaggeration”. I was reminded of this dialogue during some recent discussions about the future of international congresses. The international congress industry is facing some significant challenges these days, and, along with those challenges there are those people who claim this is the “Beginning of the end” for the international medical congress. They point to a number of reasons for their argument and I will describe them in this article.

However, it seems to me that the report of the death of the international congress is an exaggeration, as it was for Mark Twain.

In this article I will review the issues facing the industry and propose some important opportunities and give examples of how some congresses are rethinking who they are and what they do and are successfully evolving.

The reasons why

There is no doubt that the international congress industry is changing. Specifically, the financial model that once provided significant revenues, margins and consistent growth is under a strong challenge. The pharmaceutical companies that once spent massive amounts of money on congresses and congress related activities are beginning to restrain and sometimes reduce their spending. Some of the more obvious reasons for the reduction in spending are outlined below,

• An increase in regulation, most evident in the USA that restricts the interaction between the pharmaceutical personnel and the congress attendees. This leads to a perceived reduction in need for large exhibits, hospitality and other forms of interaction. • Similarly, in many countries an increase in regulation has significantly reduced the ability of pharmaceutical companies to provide financial sponsorship for healthcare professionals to attend congresses. Faced with having to pay for their travel, registration and accommodation costs some healthcare workers are deciding to stay at home.

• Recognition that the expense of a congress only impacts a small fraction of the target audience – those who attend the congress. Many pharmaceutical companies now spend more on post-congress dissemination of data to a large audience than on the small audience actually attending the congress. The congress organisers often do not know or have no control, financial or otherwise, over post congress activities.

• Increasing regulation and time pressures upon healthcare professionals make attending congresses a laborious task requiring a lot of preparation. Often, paperwork requiring review and approval must be prepared well ahead of a congress. With this added administrative burden some healthcare workers are deciding not to bother attending. Many congresses offer CME credit as an added incentive to add to the value of attending.

• Other issues are sometimes mentioned, although evidence for their effect is poor such as, concerns over travel because of the threat of terrorism, the increasing number of women entering healthcare in some countries who do not want to spend time away from young families and other forms of access to new data that do not require travel.

 

“…pharmaceutical sponsorship has allowed many congresses to grow, provide revenues and margin to their society organisers and generally do well.”

 

Pause for a moment

It is actually rather easy to nod at these reasons and agree that, surely, they must have an impact on the international congress industry. I’m sure they do, or will do. However, before we immediately agree that the reports of the death of the industry are correct let’s take a step back and consider congresses in a broader sense.

The reasons given above for the potential demise of congresses are based upon an assumption, that direct funding from the pharmaceutical industry and the future of congresses are directly linked. Let’s consider this. No doubt it is true that over the last 30–40 years pharmaceutical sponsorship has allowed many congresses to grow, provide revenues and margin to their society organisers and generally do well. Sponsorship has taken many forms including fees for satellite symposia, sponsoring individual travel and accommodation, overall sponsorship, and specific sponsorship such as of the congress bags. It all adds up to a lot of money.

However, a congress is not there to support the marketing aims of the pharmaceutical industry, however well aligned they may have been in the past. A congress at its best is a place for experts to discuss new data, propose new treatment paradigms and to progress the science in their given fields through discussion with their peers. Some of this goes on at the official sessions at the congress and some of it goes on in the coffee bars and restaurants around the venue.

We must not forget the valuable role the pharmaceutical industry plays in many of these discussions, sometimes in facilitating them, sometimes in participating and I don’t believe this important interaction is being threatened. These types of mutually beneficial interactions point the way to the future. So, let’s not read the obituary of the congress industry too soon, the old view of direct funding of sales and marketing activities being the only route to generating revenue is out of date and there are many reasons for optimism.

Think for a minute

So, whilst some of the obvious marketing and sales activities of the pharmaceutical companies are being reduced, if we consider what a congress was originally created to do we can see some very positive opportunities for the future.

• Congresses are the flagship meetings of medical societies that have objectives that go well beyond holding financially successful congresses. They often have objectives related to public health and education that can be supported by new activities

• Congresses are an important opportunity for experts from around the world to meet and discuss their work

• Congresses are an important place for new data to be unveiled and discussed because the experts are there

• Congresses provide an important opportunity for many stakeholders, pharmaceutical companies, experts, patients, payors to come together

• Congresses provide education and training for healthcare professionals

A new business model?

Paradigm is a word often used in business, I notice it sneaked into this article a few paragraphs ago, and many of us have become immune to its meaning. However, in relation to congresses it seems appropriate to talk about a new paradigm. The most commonly used definition of the word is a “Pattern or model” and the future of congresses may depend on a new model for the business of congresses. The focus needs to be on the efficient dissemination of cutting edge information, and facilitating discussion about the information and its use. There are a number of ways in which congresses can change their model, and we are already seeing some congresses evolve in these ways. A fascinating and exciting development is that the changes we are beginning to see are often providing solutions to the issues faced by both the congresses and the pharmaceutical industry, a refreshing change from the all too often heard view that the only good involvement with the pharmaceutical industry is no involvement. The table below gives some examples of how some societies and their congress strategies are developing for the future.

 

“There are a number of ways in which congresses can change their model, and we are already seeing some congresses evolve in these ways.”

 

The beauty of these solutions is that they are mutually beneficial. So, the societies will be able to secure funding from pharmaceutical companies (if they need it) and maintain the income they need for education and outreach while the pharmaceutical companies can spend less on a small number of congress attendees and help new, often practice- changing and improving, data reach more healthcare professionals more quickly. A welcome win – win for all concerned.

Proof

The work of societies such as ESMO with their sophisticated electronic work and their obvious desire to reach out to their membership through interactive electronic services and ASCO with their desire to ensure that information revealed at their annual congress reaches a large audience by providing well run “ASCO Highlights” meetings around the world are leading the way in developing the role of the society beyond the paradigm of an annual congress. Whether or not they accept pharmaceutical sponsorship for these activities now (some do, some don’t), they may need to in the future. Some people in societies may say they never lost focus on their role in providing information to their membership and beyond. Perhaps these are the people who are leading the change.

An exaggeration

In conclusion, the report of the death of the congress seems exaggerated. There are many medical societies that are evolving the way they do things, reviewing their objectives and implementing new models that are likely to improve the reach and speed of delivery of important information. The promise of an improvement in patient care is clearly aligned with this work.

 

“It may take a change of thinking patterns, paradigms if you like, but the future of the medical congress looks bright…”

 

For those people who lament the demise of large give-aways, massive hospitality and exhibit booths larger than a football field there is no doubt that their disappointment is likely to increase over the next few years. However, for those agile minds in medical communication and pharmaceutical companies there are some fantastic opportunities and a bright future in collaboration with societies and a recognition that mutual objectives are often to be celebrated and can lead to great results. It may take a change of thinking patterns, paradigms if you like, but the future of the medical congress looks bright and the opportunities to improve the dissemination of new information are evident and being implemented as we speak. Congresses may change significantly, they may look very different in the future, and it looks like they will be essential and vibrant for a long time to come. Don’t write that obituary just yet.

About the author:

Chris Stevenson is a Senior Director in the Global Medical Education Business at Haymarket. He has spent over 20 years in pharmaceutical marketing, marketing services and medical education in the UK, mainland Europe and the USA. He welcomes correspondence and can be contacted at chris.stevenson@haymarket.com.

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