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What will become of drug and chemical trade shows?

With event slates wiped clean by the pandemic, attendees and organizers scramble to virtualize key industry gatherings

by Rick Mullin
May 30, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 21


Photo of an expansive hotel banquet hall with many tables filled with diners; this is the DCAT Dinner at the Hilton Hotel.
Credit: DCAT
Speakers at DCAT Week’s annual dinner have included former US presidents and UK prime ministers. This year’s speaker would have been the actor Matthew McConaughey.

First came the March 6 email from the Drug, Chemical & Associated Technologies Association (DCAT) regarding its annual meeting in New York City later that month: “Out of an abundance of caution, and with a rapidly growing number of our participants not being able to travel, we’ve made the difficult decision to cancel DCAT Week 2020.”

The following week, Informa, owner of the CPhI pharmaceutical ingredients exhibition franchise, notified registered attendees that CPhI North America, originally planned for Philadelphia in May, would be postponed until September. The Biotechnology Innovation Organization followed with the news that its annual BIO International Convention, scheduled for June 8–12 in San Diego, would go “digital.”

By the end of the month, events across all sectors went the way of academic meetings, opera performances, sports events, and all other formal public gatherings. They didn’t happen. Executives with meetings scheduled during now-canceled conferences and exhibitions scrambled for a plan B, turning to Zoom and other videoconferencing platforms to connect with clients, suppliers, and partners.

Event organizers scrambled as well, creating alternative, virtual versions of their planned gatherings. At the same time, they grapple with the questions of when, where, and how their bread and butter events will take place next.

Most agree, however, on a vision of the future characterized heavily by online elements that have made inroads in event planning over the last decade. Organizers say they are responding to COVID-19 cancellations with a fuller deployment of online tools that will transform the conference landscape in the years ahead.

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Executives from the pharmaceutical industry are no different from those in other sectors. They say their inability to attend physical gatherings will accelerate their use of digital tools and help them assess the cost savings and business impact of not going to meetings. For them, the pandemic is raising the question: how important are face-to-face meetings for business in the digital age?

Plan B

During DCAT’s annual gathering, lavish hotel suites are rented by top pharmaceutical service company executives to host meetings with customers, and a black-tie dinner ends the week. The conference is a highlight of the pharmaceutical chemical events schedule, and its disappearance this year jarred the sector.

A photo of people sitting in a trade show booth at tables. People are dramatically shadowed in front of a lit display of researchers in close-up.
Credit: Rick Mullin/C&EN
Trade show attendees are wondering what the mix of human and digital interaction will be after the pandemic fades.

“It was more stressful as a virtual week,” says James Bruno, president of the consulting firm Chemical and Pharmaceutical Solutions, of his effort to convert his DCAT Week calendar to virtual meetings. “You had this nice, firm schedule, and all of a sudden you had to change it.” Some people he planned to meet with were unwilling “to get on the bandwagon” of virtual conferences. And time zones became an obstacle. “You could no longer meet with Chinese companies at 10:00 a.m.”

Roger LaForce, a consultant based in Switzerland, predicts that this year’s cancellations will have a reverberating effect on events to come. “The wave of meetings going online this year will change the way companies are likely to do business after the pandemic,” he says. Firms will increasingly weigh travel costs against the business impact of handling interactions online instead of at large gatherings.

The consultants are confident that events like DCAT Week, designed for top management, will reemerge once travel is safe, but both question the future of large exhibitions such as CPhI North America that emphasize the trade show floor and target managers in business development and marketing. The perennial question of the value of assembling heavily staffed booths in exhibit halls is likely to increase in urgency after a year spent online.

Companies that were scheduled to attend events this year agree that there’s a cloud over large exhibitions. Meanwhile, executives are assessing their virtualized DCAT Week experiences.

“DCAT Week is quite important for Evonik,” says Yann d’Herve, vice president for sales and services in Evonik Industries’ health-care business. “We always rent several meeting rooms there and also tables at the dinner to entertain our clients.” This year’s cancellation was “quite a disappointment.”

Not coming to New York City also meant big cost savings, “which at the time of COVID-19 is not a bad thing,” d’Herve says. “But it has obliged us to look at communications with clients in a different way.” He estimates that half the meetings planned for DCAT Week eventually occurred online.

Lonza was able to reschedule many of its meetings in the wake of the DCAT Week cancellation, according to Christian Dowdeswell, the company’s head of commercial development for small molecules. “We had probably an even mix between meetings being essentially canceled and taking place and some going ahead virtually,” Dowdeswell says. “You clearly have different organizations with different levels of comfort with virtual tools.”

“What didn’t happen is the networking. The opportunistic meetings at the clock,” Dowdeswell adds, referring to the iconic centerpiece in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel lobby, where the meeting was long held.

Denis Geffroy, vice president of business development for active pharmaceutical ingredients at Almac Group, says the company virtualized most DCAT meetings planned for the New York City event. “Even before DCAT was officially canceled, we were keeping in touch with our clients, and most of them already told us they were not planning to come.”

The major downside of not meeting with people in New York as planned was just that, Geffroy says: not meeting people. Serendipitous encounters, he says, are a key facet of industry events and good for business. “We missed that opportunity.”

DCAT executive director Margaret Timony says the organization has scheduled several virtual presentations of popular DCAT Week events, including the Pharma Industry Outlook, recognized as the keynote address, on June 30. The association’s annual benchmarking report was presented online on May 20.

“We feel there is a place for our model going forward,” Timony says, noting that virtual conferencing has taken place for years without cutting into DCAT Week attendance. The week, she notes, “gives our members an opportunity to go to a lot of meetings in one place with some privacy, with other things to do along the way, including educational programs and our dinner.”

Show time

The pharmaceutical chemical sector is looking ahead to upcoming events, primarily CPhI North America in Philadelphia and CPhI Worldwide, a much larger conference scheduled for Milan, Italy, in October. There is no telling what kind of social distancing limitations will be in place—Philadelphia and Milan have been hard hit by the pandemic—and how they will affect activity in the typically jammed halls of the CPhI exhibitions.

Companies planning to attend are concerned that the events may be canceled, given the predictions of a resurgence of infections in the fall. Flamma Group, a pharmaceutical chemical firm based near Milan, has already canceled a 70th anniversary celebration it planned to hold in conjunction with CPhI Worldwide, citing concerns regarding to COVID-19.

Photo of a marching band entering a trade show exhibit hall. This is the opening ceremony of CPhI North America.
Credit: UBM
The opening of CPhI North America in 2018 featured a marching band. If it goes on as planned, the event in September will likely involve social distancing.

Regular attendees of CPhI events have insisted for years that the decades-old format of big hall exhibitions needs to change and that a virtualized CPhI experience this fall could finally be the catalyst. “Trade shows have not changed much since business was taken over by the internet,” Bruno says. “I would be surprised if you continue to see those large booths. I think a lot of people are going to start cutting them in half.”

Geffroy sees both sides. “I agree that traveling to the other side of the world, putting up a booth, and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for a two- or three-day event may not seem to be the most cost effective use of people’s time,” he says. “However, the reason we keep attending events like CPhI North America and CPhI Worldwide, which is the biggest show and most costly, is that we still get a good return on our investment. We do meet new people, and we get a contract on the back of it two or three months down the line.”

Dowdeswell describes a similar experience at Lonza. “Every year we come to the end of the show and we say we had too many people here, it was too big,” he says. “And every year it ends up being the same size or even slightly bigger than the year before. This is because there is that demand based on the number of attendees, and we believe we are getting a return on it.”

Still, Geffroy says he doubts that anything like an ordinary CPhI Worldwide is in store for Milan. “If it happens it will have to be in a different format,” he says. “We are waiting for guidance from the organizer.”

The COVID-19 pandemic presents a huge challenge to the organizer, Informa, which manages 450 trade shows and exhibitions in a variety of markets including health care, fashion, and aviation. The company announced in its first-quarter financial report that it has rescheduled 60 large events and 350 smaller meetings with budgeted revenue of over $560 million total. It has canceled 60 events with budgeted revenue of over $180 million total.

Regarding CPhI North America in September, “there is nothing we can announce right now, but we are working very hard to make sure we adapt to a new standard in the post-COVID-19 world,” says Adam Andersen, group director for pharmaceuticals and health-care events at Informa. “We’ll monitor it closely and run it in the fall.”

Informa is accommodating this year’s CPhI attendees with several online features, including Live Pharma Connect, a venue for scheduling virtual meetings.

“We’ve been trying to figure out what trade show 2.0 looks like for the 14 years I’ve been in the business,” Andersen says. “Three to five years from now, you will potentially have a more vibrant approach where you are preparing for an event virtually with online matchmaking and networking tools.”

But Andersen sees the events themselves happening in person. “While virtual certainly is growing in demand—and by necessity at the moment—face-to-face engagement will continue to be a powerful marketing tool for lead generation, solidifying deals, and community engagement within the pharma market and all industries worldwide.”

Digital conversion

BIO International Convention, which focuses on biotech research and business development in biopharmaceuticals, features a sizable exhibit hall, though it is best known for presentations and panel discussions with top-level researchers in drug discovery. BIO also provides banks of cubicles for scheduling private meetings.

In March, BIO began to recast its June conference in San Diego as BIO Digital, an event featuring 300 online educational sessions available on demand, 50 of which will be interactive sessions. An enhanced version of the association’s digital partnering system, which already hosts 70,000 virtual meetings annually, will be offered, according to Erin Lee, vice president of marketing for the event.

Virtual meeting requests doubled during the first week of May, Lee says, and registrations for training webinars have spiked.

“Just like companies looking at going-back-to-work strategies, we are looking at how to go back to conference settings in the new world,” Lee says. “It will be a slow, forward progression. But fundamentally, I think it does change the landscape of how people do business.”


Stuart W. Peltz, CEO of the biotech firm PTC Therapeutics, says the BIO convention is important for business development and “looking at what other companies are doing and whether there are things to collaborate on.” BIO is also a source of information on policy issues.

“The big thing for me is partnering,” says Eric Pauwels, PTC’s chief business officer. “It’s important to have meetings and foster relationships where people will know that we are the right partner.”

By the time BIO was canceled, however, neither Peltz nor Pauwels were planning to attend, though members of PTC’s business development team were scheduled to go. Peltz says he is not overly concerned about missing out on spontaneous interaction at the conference, given the number of planned engagements at industry events such as BIO or the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference. “Our day starts at 7:00 a.m. and finishes at 7:00 p.m.,” he says. “And then we’re booked for dinner.”

Executives are both optimistic that events will return to some semblance of normal and interested in the impact of virtualization on traditional meetings. Yet some are skeptical that technology will overcome the need for human interaction in business engagement.

“I remember going back 20 years, people were telling me I’d be traveling less because of videoconferencing,” Lonza’s Dowdeswell says. “But I’ve been traveling more and more. You can’t replace human interaction with a video screen.”


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