Virtual, Hybrid Meetings are the Present. Is the Healthcare Industry Ready For It?

To say that Covid-19 has permanently transformed the meetings and events landscape would be stating the obvious, authors share in this opinion piece.

To say that Covid-19 has permanently transformed the meetings and events landscape would be stating the obvious.

The shift to virtual and hybrid meeting formats always made sense from cost, convenience, reach, and sustainability perspectives; Covid-19 accelerated this shift by 5-7 years. Healthcare companies spend anywhere between 1 and 3 percent of revenues for meetings and events and have opportunity to be efficient with this spending.

Healthcare professionals (HCPs) who were used to in-person conferences suddenly found themselves being more effective and efficient in front of their computer screens. This is the single biggest change impacting the healthcare meetings landscape, as HCPs expect engagement models with virtual components along with in-person events even after the pandemic subsides. Leading organizations are cognizant of this trend and have started planning for increased virtualization and hybridization of 30% - 50% in their meetings portfolio by 2025, clearly knowing that in-person meetings will important and relevant for various reasons such as networking, hands-on activities and demos, etc., that can’t be replicated in a virtual setting.

As the “What” about the future of meetings becomes clearer, the “How” remains unanswered. One thing is certain: the current operating model will not work. There are too many siloes in existing organizations and complex processes that don’t lend themselves well to virtual formats. Add to that a rapidly evolving supplier landscape and a constant push for innovation to differentiate oneself in the virtual era, and you need a more structured meetings management approach. This approach entails four key pillars:

Design meetings strategy and reset decision flows

Throughout 2020, meetings had to be conducted virtually, but as economies start opening up, it is important for companies to build a strategic framework and reset decision flows which help users arrive at the right format disposition (e.g., virtual with basic functionalities, hybrid multi-hub) for key meetings. Our recent experience in designing meetings decision strategy has confirmed our conviction that while business believes in the long-term shift toward virtual and hybrid formats, there is a lot of confusion around what is the right extent, under what circumstances, and for which audience. Structuring and visualizing decision flows helps bring a method to the madness and guides business teams to shape a future-ready meeting format mix.

A simple three-step approach can be followed to design a comprehensive meetings decision flow. First is to identify key external and internal meetings and develop a deep understanding of the profile for each – objective, participation mix, size, geographic scale, duration, etc. The second step is to prioritize and develop guidelines or thresholds for critical meeting parameters which have a strong bearing on the propensity of virtual/ hybrid formats (e.g., meetings for information dissemination are more amenable to virtual formats as compared to meetings with networking/hands-on training).

Once the groundwork is laid, logical decision flows can be developed that culminate in the right format disposition for that particular meeting type. The third and final step is to codify these decision flows into a digitized, user-friendly decision engine that allows users to input meeting requirements and receive recommendations on format.

Given the strategic importance of this exercise, it is imperative to have a cross-functional team, with representation from Business (Marketing, Medical, R&D), Procurement, and IT, each bringing their own unique perspectives.

Refine processes across the meetings value chain

Most organizations have well-established processes and policies for in-person meetings, but increasing virtualization warrants a refresh across the meetings value chain. In our experience of working with large Pharmaceutical and healthcare companies, the biggest missing link is a clear and codified process flow which is applicable across meeting formats. For instance, hybrid meetings are complex to organize with multiple open questions, such as: Which agency/supplier is coordinating with virtual HCPs vs. in-person HCPs? Who is sending the invitations and managing on-the-ground/on-video logistics? Which stakeholder is in charge? Are separate purchase orders needed or are they combined?

Organizations need help answering these questions and clearly communicating to the meeting organizer in a simple, user-friendly way. Leveraging technology – such as automated flows, chatbots, video tutorials, etc., can be powerful. Other key factors that truly enhance the meeting organizer’s experience are presenting a comprehensive cost-capability matrix of all vendor and tool alternatives and building a robust performance management process with KPIs and metrics tracked centrally.

Build a cohesive supplier strategy and refresh the tools blueprint

The meetings supplier landscape has been rapidly evolving as the need for virtual/hybrid functionalities rises. Our research has revealed a blurring of boundaries in the meetings supplier base, evidenced by growth in the number of end-to-end multi-service providers and an increase in the complexity of services and tool functionalities they offer. Suppliers have been organically and inorganically expanding portfolios (e.g., logistics agencies are increasing virtual meeting offerings; medical communication and planning agencies are providing end-to-end solutions). Virtual tool providers are also rapidly enhancing capabilities – from basic (e.g., breakout rooms) to intermediate (e.g., gamification) to advanced (e.g., hyper-personalization), including fit-for-purpose tools to maximize engagement and experience for specific meeting types.

Most companies we work with frantically onboarded new virtual meeting tools in 2020, either in pursuit of high-end functionalities they didn’t truly need or due to piecemeal efforts by regional teams. Going forward, they must take a more structured approach of scanning the existing tool base, identifying functionality gaps, and developing a decision matrix for selecting right tools to plug gaps. This should fit into the company’s overall supplier strategy aimed at consolidating the supply base and unlocking significant efficiencies. Market leaders are adopting a portfolio approach of using preferred global suppliers for the majority of their meeting needs and using niche suppliers only for specific reasons, such as regulatory/cultural or barriers to entry (e.g., HCP relationships monopolized by an agency in a given geography/therapy area).

Realign organization for future needs

The backbone of any successful transformation is a strong organization structure. As organizations undergo the transition from stable, in-person meetings to a more dynamic meetings landscape and the evolved supplier base that comes with it, there are direct implications on the organization structure. First, organizations should re-evaluate the need for siloed operations within meetings areas to mirror the consolidating supply landscape. Second, the focus needs to shift from pure "efficiency" to "agility," with provision for cross-functional agile squads/scrums working on specific projects, e.g., virtual meeting tool selection. Lastly, a common leadership accountable for end-to-end meetings solutions may be better aligned to deliver an integrated customer experience.

Organizations resting on their existing meetings operating model will soon be surpassed by those that have begun investing and adapting for a future with virtual and hybrid meetings. While this shift creates its own set of challenges, implementing a successful meetings and events structure within an organization can be a critical differentiator in a post-COVID world.

Taking a customer-centric lens to elevate experience, engagement and adopting a structured meetings management approach which rests on the four aforementioned pillars provides a holistic framework that an organization can use to leapfrog their less nimble competitors. We are currently just scratching the surface of what is possible with virtual events, and healthcare organizations have a unique window of opportunity to push the boundaries on their meeting strategy and evolve along with this major shift in the meetings and event landscape.

Based in Chicago, Vishal Bhandari is a partner in the Health practice of Kearney, a global strategy and management consulting firm. Out of Gurugram, India, Saumya Krishna is a partner in the firm’s Consumer practice. Based in New York, Anshuman Jaiswal is a principal in Kearney’s Digital practice, and based in Washington, D.C., Drew Burrows is a manager in Kearney’s Strategic Operations practice.