Life in a Pharmaceutical exhibit booth after the Pharma Code.

The days of giving away pallets of tchotchkes are over at Pharma trade shows. It’s been almost a year since the Pharma code has been in effect and to surprise of many, doctors still visit Pharma companies’ trade show booths. (The part of Pharma Code that details this new give-away policy is at the end of this article.)
And it’s been sort of strange during this transition year. Attendees and exhibitors alike are not sure if current conference behaviors are new habits or if everyone just in the middle of figuring out how to interact under the new Pharma code. It’s like the attendees don’t exactly know what to do. They can no longer take back a bunch of pens and squeeze balls to their kids so I bet there were some reflective moments when they had to ask themselves, “Do I really need to go into the exhibit hall?” After all, their required CME (Continuing Medical Education) obligations are always the priority at these conferences. The exhibit hall, for some, was always just an obligatory visit for trick-or-treating the booths.
Show management has been making an effort to lure attendees into the hall. The Poster section is usually in the hall and more and more shows are offering free coffee breaks and lunch in the exhibit hall. It’s like the grocery store strategy of putting the milk at the very rear of the store; you have to walk down at least one aisle to get there and you might see something you like or need and an additional purchase just might happen.
But the booths I have worked in this year in seemed to be well attended. Maybe the attendees have just been well conditioned over the years. After all, that has been a successful strategy for a lot of Pharma companies: Send three reps per day from the same company to call on the same doctor and through brute conditioning and repetition, when the doctor sees a specific condition the prescription goes to the conditioned response. Does that really happen? Automatically prescribing a particular drug is probably not a totally reflexive move, but that drug that the doctor gets beat over the head with every day or every week probably gets considered just for that reason. So if you have always gone into the exhibit hall, maybe out of habit, you just keep going. After all, it is a part of the conference.
So why should doctors and other attendees continue to visit a Pharma exhibit hall? New drugs (pretty rare these days, FDA approvals are few and far between), new studies, new indications, new information on efficacy, interactions, trials, dosage, are some of the motivators. But I think force of habit, seeing the Pharma reps they have solid relationships with, the free food, and posters are the reasons. Not necessarily in that order for all doctors. I’ve seen some attendees cut through booth to get the free lunch and turn right around and leave the exhibit hall to eat it. But some are realizing that this “den of vipers” isn’t so bad after all, and they have made trial visits into some of the booths. Maybe they miss the face-the-face interaction. From my experience, across all trade shows, not just Pharma, attendees want to hear answers to their questions and to learn about new stuff face-to-face in an exhibit booth even though virtually everything that can be publically talked about is already available on each exhibitor’s website.
And I think it used to be sort of an unspoken trade or barter between a doctor and a Pharma sales rep: you can have a bunch of our give-aways but then you have to at least give me 60 seconds to talk about our drugs. But doctors even found ways around this. They’d send their spouses to do the foraging in the booths and these folks could legitimately claim that they knew nothing about any of the drugs but if you didn’t let them fill their bags with free stuff they’d tell on you to their spouse and you’d never get another prescription from them again.
But this year, I always see a number of productive conversations that began because of a personal relationship; the doctor came in to visit their rep. I’d like to think that the Pharma industry is still a people oriented business. There is a certain humanity and respect that is nice to see between doctors and Pharma salespeople.
I’ve been asked to provide my staff training at a number of Pharma shows this year because the companies weren’t sure what was going to happen and wanted their staffs to be ready for anything. And since there would not be any more doctors booth begging at each counter and therefore, at least for a few seconds, available for the exhibit staff to at least talk to, these companies wanted to make sure that their staffs greeted and engaged every doctor who came into their booths – a basic staffing skills that eludes most exhibits staffs.
And I don’t know what percentage of the attendees actually visited Pharma exhibit halls this year. Do you count those who are just there for a free coffee or lunch or to get to the Posters without visiting any booths? You shouldn’t. From asking at the shows I’ve been to this year and from what I’ve read, attendance is down, in general, at all trade shows probably 25% to 30%. For those who didn’t visit the exhibit hall, I hope they end up wishing they had. And I hope they realize that most of the conference is made possible by the exhibitors paying for exhibit space and throwing money at sponsorships. Without the exhibitors, the attendee registration cost would probably double or triple.
It will be interesting to see how this all plays out next year when everyone has had a year to figure out what they should do, what they actually did, and what they’d do different at the same conference the next time.
I still believe there is tremendous value in the face-to-face interactions in a trade show booth. Professionals discussing areas of mutual interest will never go away. But some hospitals and HMOs forbid any appointments from Pharma reps. Doctors and pharmacists are not allowed to meet with them and the reps can’t even get in the door. These organizations are making their formulary decisions (A drug formulary is a list of prescription medications that a drug plan will pay for) by committee without seeing Pharma reps.
What the attendees at these Pharma conferences value most are the sessions, posters, mingling and networking with colleagues, and the exhibit hall, probably in that order. I’d like to think the Pharma industry isn’t so cold and impersonal that face-to-face interaction is seen as unnecessary. And I would guess that on surveys and questions from their own hospitals, universities, and clinics, that doctors would not admit that they value visiting the exhibit hall as much as they really do. But the value is there. The Pharma companies and doctors need each other and the relationships they have with each other yield both tangible and intangible benefits. It’s the people thing and I don’t think it will ever go away.

11 Educational Items
It is appropriate for companies, where permitted by law, to offer items designed primarily for the education of patients or healthcare professionals if the items are not of substantial value ($100 or less) and do not have value to healthcare professionals outside of his or her professional responsibilities. For example, an anatomical model for use in an examination room is intended for the education of the patients and is therefore appropriate, whereas a DVD or CD player may have independent value to a healthcare professional outside of his or her professional responsibilities, even if it could also be used to provide education to patients, and therefore is not appropriate.
Items designed primarily for the education of patients or healthcare professionals should not be offered on more than an occasional basis, even if each individual item is appropriate.

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