Optimize Your Congress Planning

by Marianne Doherty and Liz Tufo, June 2022

Regardless of your company or drug development stage, congress events are critical undertakings; they represent both a substantial opportunity and a significant investment of time and resources. These events provide an occasion to engage with a wide range of HCPs (including KOLs) to introduce new products, present data, gather insights, and more. Depending on your role in the company, the objectives that get you excited about attending one of these meetings will vary — you may not even be aware of some of the happenings outside your functional area.

Managed well, a congress event can move an asset (or company) forward quickly. Managed poorly, it can lead to confusion in the marketplace, internal frustration, wasted resources, and missed opportunities.

With the spring congress season in the rearview mirror, perhaps it is time to pause and evaluate your approach to congress planning and begin thinking about the fall schedule. We often work closely with clients in this regard and find that introducing structure and process helps the team align on high-level objectives and improves coordination among the many internal functions involved.

The good news is that since your company’s most important congress events repeat annually, there is no need to start from scratch each year. By establishing a framework that can be modified and updated over time, the process will become more manageable and, hopefully, more impactful with each subsequent event.

Three ideas to help optimize your planning…

1. Right-Size Your Level of Effort and Investment

There are dozens of large-scale congresses each year in which your company could potentially participate — held all over the world, in multiple diseases, and with numerous sub-specialties. But attending without a clear plan of action that ties back to your company objectives, milestones, stage of development, and priorities, can result in much activity with little to show for it.

Right-sizing your effort and investment allows you to do more with limited resources.

For example, if your trials are running at steady-state and you won’t have new data to share for an extended period, you probably don’t need to have a substantial presence or secure a large booth. You may send some key folks to represent the company and the science, but make sure you are matching your time and resources to what each meeting has to offer.

As meetings return to in-person venues with virtual components, defining the best hybrid approach to a physical booth (or human) presence and virtual is a new element to consider. Recent feedback from ASCO attendees tells us that in-person congresses have returned to pre-COVID norms.

2. Establish a Clear Owner

Depending on a company’s stage of development, many internal functions may be involved in congress planning and participation. That’s important and to be expected.

However, there needs to be a leader — one person — who plays the role of “owner.” This individual is accountable for mobilizing a team of functional leads to work together in a coordinated manner, ensuring that the company speaks with a consistent voice and that efforts are not duplicated or working at cross purposes.

For example, and as discussed in our previous e-conversation (“Communicating Without a Communications Leader”), “…people occupying different roles in the organization will find different ways to speak about the products in development and/or the organization overall.” This is generally problematic, especially in a high-intensity congress event where time is condensed, and opportunities to engage with stakeholders are precious.

Likewise, the owner is responsible for providing consistent internal communication — pre- and post-event — so that the company as a whole remains informed and that insights gained are shared broadly across the organization.

In our experience, using a RACI to define roles and responsibilities is extremely helpful in coordinating efforts and demonstrating how each team contributes to the congress overall, based on its specific objectives.

Overall, the owner needs to be able to work cross-functionally, speak up as needed, ensure objectives are met, and adapt for the next time based on learnings.

3. Develop an Integrated Plan and Framework

Congress planning requires much more cross-functional collaboration than might typically occur in an organization, as there are multiple, simultaneous stakeholder objectives. For example…

… the executive team and business development may be focused on partnering and investor meetings;

… scientists may be focused on abstract and poster presentations;

… clinical and medical may be focused on meetings with investigators and KOLs;

… commercial may be focused on increasing brand awareness and the latest developments from competitors.

Each function views the event through its own lens, goals, and priorities.

Absent an integrated approach, planning will be fragmented, with functions working in silos towards their own objectives. We saw this recently with a client where the commercial team led the congress planning without the involvement of the medical team, which responded by developing its own program for the congress independently. As a result, external meetings with KOLs and advocacy groups were uncoordinated, leading to frustration as each function competed for valued time with its most important stakeholders and customers.

An important element in crafting an integrated plan is establishing a clear and regular cadence to pre-congress meetings. While there will be peaks and valleys of activity over the months, a steady rhythm ensures that tactical plans remain aligned and progress occurs steadily. As to when to begin these meetings… it is never too early!

As a reminder, don’t be afraid to leverage whatever collaboration tools you already have in place, such as Smartsheet to develop, manage, and communicate tactical plans, and/or SharePoint and MS Teams to centralize communications and resources across the organization.

Final Thoughts

Introducing a collaborative congress planning process and framework to support cross-functional initiatives leads to stronger coordination and communication and better results for the organization overall.


Posted in All Categories, Decision-Making and Process, Strategy and Planning