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What I’m Thinking About: SPBT

Last week, I attended the annual SPBT (Society of Pharmaceutical and Biotech Trainers) conference in Orlando. This event is always a great opportunity to network, and I did a LOT of that! It was wonderful seeing many long-standing professional colleagues again. But I left the conference with ambivalent feelings, like I was seeing a good friend suffering from a progressive illness or something.

Why? Well, attendance was way down compared to prior years, for one thing. Yes, I know that there are tough times in the industry right now, but some major pharma companies were basically no-shows. Others had only a token presence among the attendees. And I had to wonder: is it just circumstances? Or are some beginning to question the value of the conference as it is currently “configured”?

Also, traffic in the exhibit area was very light, continuing a trend that has been increasingly manifest in recent years. Some vendors are becoming disenchanted with the ROI of the conference, and I can’t blame them – I remember years when the exhibit hall really buzzed with activity. Part of the problem this year, I’m convinced, was the very inconvenient room setup of the conference – the exhibit area was almost in a separate time zone, and I didn’t once visit the hotel gym, since there was plenty of exercise hoofing it between rooms. This isn’t the first time there has been a less-than-convenient placement of the exhibit area, and I believe that’s a big drawback.

In the exhibit area, there was a lot of “same-old same-old” in the vendor offerings – this is symptomatic of a larger problem in pharma training, which I’ll have to tackle in a subsequent rant. I have to wonder if the relative stagnation in the vendor/partner offerings makes it less of a draw for the attendees. I’m just sayin’…

The keynote by Chip Heath was quite good – I’ve been a big fan of his book (Made to Stick) and have unabashedly recommended it here and elsewhere. Chip isn’t the most dynamic speaker ever, but the content of the talk (and the book) is highly valuable and practical.

The Mike Pucci keynote was full of interesting statistics and perspectives, regarding the value of medicines. In fact, there is a download of the presentation here. I decided to immediately apply his exhortation to educate those around us by live-blogging some of the stats out to my extended network (via iPhone and the Twitter platform), which was an interesting experience. Live-blogging, by the way, is a growing trend in more progressive/tech conferences, and I think there’s a lot of room for some of these new approaches at an event like the SPBT annual meeting.

Workshops – sigh. As usual, it was a real mix. Some were quite good. I drank my own Kool-Aid and had back-up choices lined up for the sessions I’d chosen, and it was a good thing – I left 3 sessions early to attend others because they just didn’t keep me engaged. Best one by far – Dance Like Nobody’s Watching, by Jim Smith. Very high energy. The workshop I co-facilitated with Angela Nicoletta (Vendor Selection: Right-Sourcing 101) was well-received, though we ran short on time – too much content/discussion! Not a bad problem, all in all.

On the plus side…some of the best networking interactions were during the breakfast hour, as is usually the case. Jennifer Zinn takes over as President of the organization – great choice. Bob Holliday finally has a goatee. Lynn Bartholomew gets my “Most Fun Table-mate in Crazy Workshops” Award. David Neal won an awesome camera that can tell when a picture is blurry. Matt Siegel and a handful of others got Impactiviti hats. MJM is dabbling in Second Life. Plexus Learning Designs once again handed out the earphones that I use almost daily in the gym. And the nearby Hyatt Grande Cypress resort was a nice place for a couple days of downtime with my better half after the event.

In 12 years, the general format of the event hasn’t changed a whole lot, and that concerns me. On the one hand, there are certain topics/themes that bear repetition year by year, since sales training is often a rotational position, and many new faces show up each year. But is the conference, as currently structured, providing maximum value? Are companies not able to justify sending folks because the professional development experience isn’t as evident as it needs to be in a belt-tightening environment? Are the emphases truly what is needed nowadays, or does it need a thorough, high-level re-assessment as far as focus and structure? I don’t have the answers, but I think we need to ask the question and begin the discussion. I’d hate to see this unique event lose momentum and relevance because we failed to take a hard strategic look, and evolve with the times.

For those in the community – feel free to add your comments and thoughts!

(oh – and congrats to the booth prize drawing winners!)

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