Skift Take

The vaccine maker’s decision to axe client-facing sales roles, and increase the number of virtual meetings it has with customers, shouldn’t ring alarm bells among the travel industry just yet.

Pfizer’s long-term virtual meetings push has not come as a shock to the corporate travel sector — experts have said it could be unique to the pharmaceutical sector, rather signaling a major shift in the way organizations conduct business.

The vaccine maker said it was “evolving the way we engage with healthcare professionals in an increasingly digital world,” with a report on January 11 stating the company would eliminate a “few hundred positions” that would impact sales representatives.

Skift reached out to Pfizer for comment, but did not hear back.

The organizational shakeup appears to be emblematic of ongoing changes in this particular sector, however, and those changes were overdue, according to one business travel expert.

“The pharmaceutical sector has a reputation for being ‘sales heavy’ so it’s probably no surprise that a company whose business has shifted from selling to individual doctors and practices to selling to governments needs fewer staff to achieve this objective,” said independent consultant Chris Pouney.

Many of Pfizer’s prospects had also likely become “comfortable” engaging with the company virtually over the past two years, he added.

“A pharmaceutical company’s interactions with health care professionals has long been moving to a mix of virtual, in-person and events. The pandemic expedited the inevitable,” said Caroline Strachan, managing partner at consultancy Festive Road.

She added Festive Road was encouraging all businesses to think about the purpose of their business travel and meetings, to focus less on the “what and how” and more on the “why.”

“What type of trips and what volume does an organization need, versus what their employees want, there’s a big difference,” she said. “Travel teams should now be working back from customer demand.”

Customer requirements are evolving, and Pfizer said doctors and other healthcare professionals will want around half of their interactions with drug companies to be remote in the future.

Another pharmaceutical company, Amarin, said it was making a number of field rep roles redundant in September last year. “We are seeing a dramatic shift in how physicians prefer to engage and are applying key learnings from our European launch initiatives as we work to maximize our impact with both healthcare professionals and patients,” said Karim Mikhail, Amarin President and CEO at the time.

Room for Growth

However, one meetings expert believes large-scale events, such as pharmaceutical congresses, will be less affected.

“Our clients and their members are all wanting to continue to meet face to face where safe to do so,” said Samme Allen, founder of, which counts the European Society of Anaesthesiology and Intensive Care as a client. “The value of a congress in bringing these experts together is invaluable. When it comes to those corridor conversations in pharma and healthcare, it can literally be life changing.”

Startup, which launched on Monday, is a global network of professional conference emcees, moderators and facilitators working across virtual, hybrid and in person events. However, Allen believes that justification for travel will become greater as companies look to reduce their carbon footprints and increase accessibility to education, alternative customer segments and networking.

Meanwhile, pharmaceutical companies are likely to continue to report record revenues amid ongoing research into coronavirus and related treatments. On Monday, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla told French media that the company was investing $593.7 million in France over five years to help tackle the virus, and planned to set up a partnership with French company Novasep to develop an anti-Covid pill. Industry expansion, as well as new global partnerships, may offset any decline in sales-related travel.

The travel manager of a data analytics company that works closely with drugmakers said he was struggling to “staff out” new offices due to his firm’s rapid growth in tangent with companies like Pfizer, with rising numbers of  complex repatriations as employees relocated with their families to new countries.

“Because of our growth, we’ve got these new super-hubs. And we’re trying to get people into those super-hubs,” he said.

As the global economy recovers from the pandemic, Pfizer’s virtual strategy shift won’t be the only example of new workforce patterns. “Data is going to be crucial in the building out of meeting and event strategies across the pharmaceutical and healthcare sectors,” Allen added.


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Tags: business travel, coronavirus, covid-19, vaccine, virtual meetings

Photo credit: A vaccination station at Los Angeles County Fairgrounds in Pomona. Russ Allison Loar / Flickr

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