In-person, hybrid, or digital? State of Pharma meetings and events in 2024

A version of this article was previously published on PharmaPhorum.

Whether we’re talking offices, medical congresses, or advisory board meetings, the term “hybrid” is often used to signal the ideal state. The place where everyone’s needs are being met. The best of both worlds. In the era of digital transformation, it is predicted that 2024 will be the year that finally cements hybrid meetings as the norm (1), with all-virtual meetings continuing to be a popular option. Yet, some people are holding onto the idea of in-person meetings being superior. In this article, we’re diving into the state of pharmaceutical meetings and events in 2024 and–once and for all–put this idea to rest. 

Why in-person-only should be a thing of the past

I’ve written and talked about the blindspots of in-person meetings for over 16 years now, but it’s only been in the past few years that the benefits of virtual engagements have gained mainstream acceptance. There are multiple reasons why in-person-only meetings should be laid to rest, including, but not limited to, the facts that they are:

  • Expensive
  • Associated with a large environmental footprint
  • Inflexible and not accommodating to everyone’s schedules, work or personal commitments, and preferences
  • Susceptible to last-minute no-shows due to flight delays or poor driving conditions

Specifically for advisory boards and other insight-gathering initiatives, the in-person-only approach comes with additional pain points such as:

  • Valuable time wasted on didactic data presentations
  • Very limited “air time” per participant
  • Uneven share of voice, with more extroverted or senior advisors tending to take up more speaking time
  • A tendency for answers to be “knee-jerk reactions” rather than thought-through responses and for people to simply ‘agree’ with others
  • Limited ability to dive deeper into interesting or controversial ideas
  • Suboptimal diversity of advisors due to potential geographic or language barriers

Most important, though, is the fact that participants don’t want only in-person meetings. Based on our survey of hundreds of healthcare provider advisors in 2022–2023, over three-quarters stated that they prefer virtual/hybrid meetings, with the convenience and flexibility of digital meetings rated as the top benefits (unpublished data).

Virtual vs. hybrid

So now that we’ve established that in-person-only is out, it begs the question of whether the virtual-only or hybrid approach is better. Here, there is no clear-cut answer as it depends on numerous factors, including budget, participant geography, meeting objectives, and more.

For teams adamant about meeting in person in 2024, the hybrid approach is ideal. Not only should the live meeting itself include the option for participants to dial in virtually, but the meeting should be preceded and/or followed by virtual touchpoints to optimize the meeting agenda, prepare advisors for discussions and workshops, and allow deeper dives into key topics of interest. 

Especially, many of the pitfalls of in-person meetings discussed above can be overcome by adding asynchronous elements before and after the meeting. By removing concerns related to having to reply in real time, asynchronous communication helps foster thoughtful team collaboration and insight-gathering through multiple mechanisms. It curbs interruptions and optimizes productivity, emphasizes strategic thinking, promotes knowledge- and best practice-sharing, ensures an equal share of voice, and enhances diversity and inclusion (2). Just to name a few things.

In other cases, teams might be working with tighter budgets or advisors from multiple countries, or have realized how effective virtual meetings can truly be. In these cases, a digital-only approach can be just as successful as hybrid meetings, often resulting in even better engagement rates, as well as superior quality and quantity of insights. If there is no in-person component, a mix of synchronous (real-time) web meetings and asynchronous activities every few months offers a suitable alternative.

(A few) benefits of going virtual in 2024

In addition to overcoming the pain points discussed above, some of the key benefits of foregoing in-person events and going virtual include the impact on cost, sustainability, and diversity.

Cost-savings

Image of a piggy bank to illustrate the cost-savings with virtual vs. in-person meetingsWith rising prices due to inflation, virtual meetings offer a huge benefit in terms of costs. That’s not to say you should be going with the cheapest option. It’s a matter of working closely with your vendor to streamline operations and find a fully customizable solution that will help you achieve your goals in a cost-effective manner. This may require moving away from enterprise-wide solutions (or conversely, away from free software) that appear to offer cost-savings, towards a pay-as-you-go model that ensures you only pay for what you use.

Sustainability

Airplanes flying around the globe; virtual meetings and events are superior from a sustainability perspectiveTransitioning from in-person to web meetings reportedly reduces the carbon footprint and energy use by >90% (3), and this decrease is even more pronounced for asynchronous meetings. While traveling accounts for the highest proportion of emissions, things like the meeting venue, AV/tech rentals, food, materials, and waste also produce non-negligible emissions. The only scenario where in-person meetings are almost as sustainable as virtual ones would be for hyper-local meetings where the organizers are deliberately putting sustainability first (4). For international and national meetings, there is no comparison.

 

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)

Virtual pharma meetings can help optimize diversity

Some of the many benefits of virtual meetings on DEI include:

  • Superior meeting equity (5)
  • The ability to engage more diverse participants (6,7), including women, people of color, and culturally diverse groups (8), by overcoming geography, time zone, and language barriers
  • Facilitation of multidisciplinary engagements, including not only physicians but also nurses, pharmacists, allied healthcare providers, and other key stakeholders
  • The ease of engaging patients and caregivers (6), including people with disabilities, visual or hearing impairments, and medical conditions or treatment regimens prohibiting travel

Together, this results in holistic and more representative feedback.

Trends in virtual engagement

We’ve talked a lot about advisory board meetings so far, but 2024 will also see life science teams embrace a range of other innovative virtual and hybrid programs. From conference engagement and digital content councils to asynchronous patient journey mapping and Delphi reviews, these programs will continue to gain momentum in the coming months (9). I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: virtual is here to stay. Now, it’s time to reap the benefits.

References:

  1. https://atonce.com/blog/meeting-trends 
  2. https://www.nextiva.com/blog/asynchronous-communication.html
  3. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-021-27251-2
  4. https://ocs.umich.edu/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/Virtual-Event-Footprint.pdf 
  5. https://www.forbes.com/sites/glebtsipursky/2023/06/20/the-power-of-meeting-equity-for-successful-hybrid-meetings/
  6. https://thejournalofmhealth.com/virtual-tools-for-promoting-diversity-in-pharma-and-clinical-trials/
  7. https://pharmaphorum.com/r-d/importance-diversity-pharma-and-clinical-trials-impetus 
  8. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/12/211209201706.htm
  9. https://thejournalofmhealth.com/trends-in-virtual-collaboration/ 

About the author: Natalie Yeadon

Impetus Digital Co-Owner/Managing Director

Natalie worked in the pharmaceutical industry for over 18 years in a variety of sales, marketing, and early brand commercialization management roles. Currently, she is the Co-owner and Managing Director of Impetus Digital where she dedicates her time to helping life science companies create sustained and authentic relationships with their key customers through Impetus’ cutting-edge online collaboration platform, the Impetus InSite Platform®.

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