In-Person is Back with a Vengeance, but Different

August 10, 2023 Array Team

Brooke Davis, COO Global Access Meetings, has more than a decade of meeting experience, having operated hundreds of programs globally. Due to the volume of meetings, her company strategically transitioned their business to focus more on commercial meetings such as sales, product launches, incentives, and team meetings and less on HCP engagements.

We recently spoke with Brooke to get her insights into the state of the industry, as well as similarities and differences in the types of meetings she has served. 

Array: What is one of the significant trends you’ve seen in the meetings industry in the past year?

Brooke: We’ve been seeing meetings come back with a vengeance. We went through a time when no one could be in person, but we knew in-person meetings would eventually prevail. People want the connection and the experience of in-person meetings, and it doesn't matter how good the virtual platform is, what bells and whistles it has. It’s never the same sitting at a computer.

Array: Why do you think people don’t prefer to meet virtually?

Brooke: Because everyone operated at the same work speed when they were virtual, there was fatigue. They were always working on the computer before, but not on camera. When the world went remote, there was an unspoken rule that they always had to be on camera to see and connect with each other. This turned people off, even though they were technically on the computer for the same number of hours a day as before. There was added stress and pressure. Now it’s optional to be on camera but there’s still sort of the expectation that was never there before.

Array: Have you seen a shift in the way virtual meetings are utilized now versus during Covid?

Brooke: During Covid, people wanted virtual meetings with the best bells and whistles to enhance the attendee experience. Now, it’s about functionality and less is more: ‘Can you execute, meet our objective, present and enable comments for everyone?’ The connection is there without throwing all these engagement tools at them. 

Array provided us with a steadfast virtual platform that is tried and true because they were doing it before the pandemic, then modified and enhanced it to meet the demands for bells and whistles that came out of the pandemic. Their stability and support really met my needs for HCP engagement. We’ve gotten a lot of really good feedback with Array virtual – that it’s different from what everyone else was on. 

Array: Has virtual filled a new role or niche, then?

Brooke: Yes. I thought we’d go into the return to in-person remembering we were all burnt out in 2019. We were really pushing it, traveling constantly, then Covid hit, and we had to take stock that maybe in person was not necessary. We began to consider, ‘Where’s the balance?’ Things have stayed that way for HCP engagements. We’ve found we need to give ourselves at least three months’ advance notice to block the time on their calendar. They’re of the mindset that, if they’re going to take the time, they want to be there in person. 

Doing virtual is a huge change for that sector of the industry in a very positive way. At the end of last year, we were still doing a mix. If recruitment was not where we needed or wanted it to be for an in-person meeting, virtual was where we were likely to bring in more HCPs. This is the outcome of the virtual landscape that has been very successful for HCPs. It is a convenience factor for them. 

Array: How has this enthusiastic return to in-person meetings impacted your business?

Brooke: We’re a boutique agency by design, with our current focus being more internal/commercial, sales launch, regional, incentives and the like. It feels like we’re being brought back to 2019. Meetings are back busier than ever, but we’re finally in a position where we can evaluate new leads and ask, ‘What is our capacity to execute this? Does it align with our business model ultimately?’

We’ve also found that end users and clients value quality a little more. What we see when referrals come to us now is that clients are using someone they’re not happy with. They want us to create great experiences for their attendees on site.

Array: How have clients dealt with inflation and higher costs across the board?

Brooke: They want to take meetings up a notch and the budgets are adjusting because of the reality of inflation. We used to try to do meetings as inexpensively as possible because they couldn’t understand the sticker shock. Now, inflation has impacted everybody’s life and it’s ‘This is what it is.’ The costs are higher, the meetings cost more, so they raise the budget. What they really want is quality; they really want positive experiences for attendees.

For example, there are many interesting activations now. One meeting recently featured smoothie bikes, where attendees peddled and operated a blender making them a smoothie. After the pandemic, new businesses started with interesting ideas like this to enhance attendee experience. Attendees have to go to a meeting on a Monday through Thursday, but they’re going to have these experiences within it. If we can add a corporate social responsibility component, that’s even better. At one event, we had groups build prosthetic hands for disabled veterans. 

Ultimately, we want attendees to fill out surveys saying this was such a fun and unforgettable meeting. 

There is a lot of optimism because in-person meetings are back to stay, but we have to keep focusing on, ‘How are we continuously transforming our attendee experience?’ Even more so, companies have to spend and do more to set themselves apart to keep their attendees happy. 

Array: Are there places where you do see potential to cut budgets?

Brooke: We have clients who have traditionally done a lot of printing and there are high costs and difficulties executing this. What we suggest to clients is that we need to have iPads at every seat and make it a completely electronic meeting. No one needs to use their own device or notepads and they can have a virtual experience on site. It’s not cheap, but it’s a different experience. It looks super cool in a session when everyone has an iPad at their seat all set up for them. 

Array: What does an enhanced experience look like for the types of HCP meetings you used to focus on (investigator meetings, speaker bureaus, advisory board and the like)?

Brooke: For HCPs, there’s a fine line because there’s so much compliance. Having the Pharma Code means you have to be careful because costs are tracked. The add-ons or fun things aren’t as feasible as they are with sales and other meeting types. Where the investment goes, then, is making sure HCPs get what they want – to come in and out of the meeting feeling like it was a productive event. They want it to be logistically seamless. The service level is really important, particularly when it comes to advisory boards. 

Ultimately, we build experiences for two audiences. For HCPS, it has to be educational, easy for them to access and a good use of their time. For internal meetings, we need to elevate the attendee experience to include fun enhancements while ensuring the logistics operate seamlessly. 

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