In the world of meeting planning, the only constant is change, and that’s particularly evident when it comes to food and beverage meal caps when working with healthcare providers (HCPs).
Below, we’re going to examine some highlights about HCP meal caps, including how you can navigate them to get the best bang for your buck yet meet the needs of your audience of HCPs.
What are food and beverage meal caps?
Food and beverage caps ensure that food provided at life sciences events is both “modest” and “reasonable,” and in line with local costs. These caps differ from country to country, with countries such as the United States offering a much higher meal cap than countries such as France.
In theory, these meal caps should be updated in line with the economic situation, such as inflation and food and beverage costs but in many cases, the meal cap stays the same for many years, putting increased pressure on event planners who need to find food offerings below the cap.
Why do they exist?
The life sciences industry, unsurprisingly, is very highly regulated. Many of the decisions HCPs make are literally life-changing for patients, so everyone needs to be sure that every decision they make is made without bias and isn’t a result of bribery.
In 2013, the Sunshine/Open Payments Act came into effect, promising more transparency and visibility of the financial relationships between HCPs and pharmaceutical manufacturers, with spending on food and beverage at life sciences events an important piece of the puzzle. Caps on food and beverage offerings at these events help ensure that HCPs get the most out of the event without running the risk of swaying opinions or decisions with extra fancy gourmet dining options or free-flowing champagne.
These meal caps ensure that reasonable limits apply to the food and drinks offered to HCPs at events and meetings, so no one vendor can go above and beyond with their hospitality offering – the “transfer of value” remains consistent. It helps keep the focus on the purpose of the event and any presentations or discussions taking place, not on a mountain of delicious food.
The latest developments in meal caps
Post-pandemic, much of the world has faced a cost-of-living crisis – especially where food and drink is concerned. Skyrocketing energy costs and gas costs have pushed up the price of everything from farming to food transportation. The rise in food prices has impacted event professionals – especially those working within strict budgets, such as those organizing events for HCPs. This adds extra pressure to already tight food and beverage budgets, with both event organizers and venues getting creative in order to adhere to the caps.
Our experience shows that several pharmaceutical companies have recently increased their HCP meal caps in the US to account for higher food prices. This eases the pressure on event organizers a little, as it gives them more wiggle room when it comes to planning the food and beverage offering for an HCP event. Realistically, you won’t be switching from a buffet to a banquet, but these increases at least mean you’re getting as much for your money as you would pre-pandemic.
Meal caps for patients
Meal caps also apply to patients, who often attend HCP events as patient advocates or to offer feedback. This meal cap will be the same as for HCPs – that way, the heavily regulated life sciences industry can ensure that there is no patient bribery taking place at these events.
Patients may attend for the entire event or for a specific section – for instance as part of a patient committee, on a panel, or to offer valuable feedback on everything from drug side effects to the marketing of a new treatment. In terms of the food and beverage budget, patients must be treated the same as HCPs, making it easier for event organizers to standardize the menu across all attendees.
Meal caps for internal employees
You guessed it – the meal cap also applies to internal employees. The only difference is that some companies may have a slightly lower cap for internal employees to keep costs down, but broadly, it will be the same as for HCPs and patients. Employees may attend these events to listen in on patient feedback or to get involved in the discussions live in the room.
One thing to consider is that some countries require a ratio for employees vs HCPs vs patient attendees at these events to reduce potential bias. For example, in the UK, there must be at least three HCPs in attendance for every one internal employee, whereas in the US there is a 1:1 ratio. As the meal cap is similar for all groups, this shouldn’t impact the food and beverage budget, but it’s an important consideration for HCP events.
How to manage HCP meal caps for international groups?
If all of your attendees come from a single country, such as the US, it’s relatively simple to understand the per-head cost of your catering provision. The meeting organizer can simply refer to the meal cap for the US and apply this across the board.
However, what if your attendees comprise US and non-US attendees? When this is the case, 52% of meeting organizers choose to apply the most restrictive meal cap to all attendees, ensuring everyone is treated the same and making it easier to provide the same food and beverage to all participants.
An alternative option could be to apply the meal cap of each attendee’s home country to individuals. As an example, US attendees would receive a higher meal cap than French attendees, who may only have a €15 meal cap for breakfast and lunch. However, while HCPs will be very familiar with the concept of meal caps, most organizers prefer to avoid providing two tiers of catering for different attendees – after all, nobody wants to make a portion of their audience feel left out of the best hospitality.
Meal caps: plated or buffet?
A straightforward way to deliver the same catering experience to all attendees is to opt for buffet dining instead of a plated meal. The discrepancy between meal caps will be much more evident between plated meals, whereas buffets allow meeting organizers to provide the same standard of food and beverages to everyone (and is almost always a more economical option). The aim of food and beverage at pharmaceutical events is to “satisfy” attendees, not “surprise or delight” them, so a buffet will tick the boxes in virtually every situation.
All HCPs will be very aware of the meal cap, so nobody will be expecting a five-course banquet. Buffets can be used for any meal, though most countries offer a higher meal cap for dinner, so if you want to offer a plated meal, this may be the time to do it. A set menu can also help the venue (and event organizer) keep costs down, rather than a full à la carte offering.
Many hotel groups will be used to hosting events for HCPs, so they can work with you to create a menu that fits within your meal cap budget. However, as the cost of living increases, be aware that you may get less for your money than you’re used to, as meal caps aren’t increasing in line with inflation, food, energy, and labor costs.
How to avoid fines
Pharmaceutical companies found to be exceeding the meal caps set for their attendees can be subject to fines, which can inflict reputational damage on highly regulated life science companies.
Each pharmaceutical company has its own meal caps, which may be even stricter than those imposed at the country level, so anyone organizing an event for HCPs must check and re-check the documentation given to them by the attending companies. They must ensure that they comply with all the relevant meal caps. Sometimes, it may work out in your favor – for instance, Belgium increased its meal caps on January 1, 2023, giving event organizers more budget to play with.
In particular, be sure to check the attendees every time a new batch of invitations is sent, and cross-reference them against your documentation to stay on top of the various meal caps. If they change halfway through the planning phase and there’s still time for you to adapt to the new cap, you will be expected to do so, so it pays to stay up to date with the latest documentation.
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