Hilton and Starwood: On Board with Pharma Meetings

Short Lead Times

Product launch meetings that are contingent on the FDA approving a drug may result in a short lead time for booking. Unless the company is very confident in the approval, booking the event will usually wait until shortly after the FDA indication date, and then the company will naturally want the product launch to happen sooner rather than later. Starwood’s Fast Track Contract (FTC) template can be an advantage in those scenarios. “We actually specialize in confirming groups in the year for the year,” says Taylor, “originally because of markets like China and India, which can have very short lead times to book business. In China groups confirm only three to five weeks out. So for some time now we have been quite agile in handling last-minute large conferences because you have to move swiftly and change contracts to reflect that.” Given that short-term meetings pick up at a much higher rate than longer-term meetings, and the cancellation rates are also much lower, there is less risk of cancellation or attrition; thus, the FTC includes short-form cancellation and attrition clauses that expedite the negotiation process. “Our Sales, Finance and Revenue Management leaders are highly supportive of our sellers in the use of the FTC template,” Taylor says.

Meeting Logistical Needs

Pharma meetings are known for utilizing a significant amount of function space relative to guestroom usage, and hoteliers keen on this market must be prepared with sufficient breakout rooms, not to mention resourcefulness. “To ensure attendees receive the benefit of these important face-to-face interactions, often our hotel teams need to look creatively at the meeting space and convert guestrooms/suites to breakout rooms,” Hills says. Even nearby offsite venues can be part of the solution in case the property comes up a bit short on breakouts. “As the economy has stabilized, we’ve seen increased demand, but not supply, so it’s definitely become a challenge,” she adds. “Fortunately, for the past 12 years, Hilton has made a long-term investment with an exclusively dedicated Hilton Worldwide Sales vertical market team aligned to the pharma market. Given the booking patterns and formats of pharma meetings, we educate our hotels on the value of the pharma market so that, to the best of our ability, space is available when they need it.”

Apart from breakouts, Taylor highlights numerous other logistical features that are important for a hotel to accommodate these complex meetings. “Having the right product for the market you’re pitching is very important, so good prefunction space, banquet rooms, ceiling height, adequate AV, ease of [traffic flow] for groups — all of these things we spend significant amount of time on when we’re producing new hotels,” she explains, adding that Starwood’s Sheraton and Westin brands are especially popular with this segment due to the large and flexible function spaces they offer.

Meal Caps

According to the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America Code (PhRMA), meal caps for healthcare professionals in attendance must be “modest as judged by local standards,” and compliance officers at pharma companies accordingly keep them conservative. On occasion this restriction makes the pharma group a less compelling piece of business than another group vying for the space that promises more F&B revenue. But overall, major hoteliers certainly show a willingness to work within these caps to deliver quality meals.

“As pharmaceutical company compliance departments primarily set meal caps, unless there’s a regulatory guideline based on a specific attendee’s origin or meeting location, we encourage meeting professionals to share the meal cap guidelines from the onset,” says Hills. “To accommodate common meal caps, many of our hotels have developed customized Healthcare Professional menus, often with an emphasis on seasonal and healthy items, which helps meeting professionals focus on perfecting other details of the meeting, rather than having to spend time planning compliant menus. We’ve also had success in coordinating menu choices to mirror those of other groups in-house to help us meet with the pharma meal cap budget.”

Taylor adds that “There are quite a few industries now that have per diem caps and then meal caps as well, such as government business. You have to adjust accordingly if you want that piece of business or want the volume for that industry.”

The volume of pharma meetings business, and medical groups in general, is increasing globally for Starwood, Taylor observes. “One of the biggest trends that we’re seeing is a lot more global pharma and medical association events. Understanding what’s happening in North American markets is extremely important for us, but it’s also key to understand what’s happening in the burgeoning Indian pharmaceutical market, for example. So we also educate on working with different cultures at the hotel level and senior sales level.”

Ultimately, what pharma meeting planners want in a hotelier is what all planners want: A partner who is educated on and practiced in accommodating their specific needs. The specialization of major chains such as Starwood and Hilton on the pharma segment is good news in that regard. The “trickle down” effect will be that client planners continue to have rewarding experiences with individual properties.

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