Attendees fed up with venue, high prices call to move JPM out of San Francisco

While the high cost of living in San Francisco has famously grabbed headlines, the costs of simply meeting there, even for a few days, are becoming untenable for some.

As 9,000 official badge holders—alongside what could feel like three times as many unofficial attendees—swarmed downtown San Francisco for the annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference, much of the opening small talk in the hastily bedless hotel suites-turned-meeting rooms began with, “Can you believe some of these prices?”

Against a backdrop of $2,000 hotel rooms, $300 lobby tables, and $21 cups of coffee, the irony has gone far from unnoticed. Sticker shock, pricing and value for money are all troubles that have increasingly weighed upon patients as well as the healthcare and biopharma industries and the people within them.

Inside the meeting itself, Johnson & Johnson CEO Alex Gorsky told conferencegoers—their own JPM badges adorned with a solid-gold pill—that if the industry doesn’t begin policing itself, it risks potentially more onerous alternatives. However, dozens of pharma companies, including J&J, still hiked their drug prices at the top of the year.

RELATED: First its CEO tells pharma to watch it on pricing—and then Johnson & Johnson raises them

And outside, on a billboard staring down the Westin from across Union Square, a droll advertisement from Color Genomics says “Making health decisions should be easier than booking a hotel for JPM.”

Now, whether or not 2019’s conference will be remembered as a meeting too far remains to be seen, but consider the following factors: this year’s confab came after a rough, disheartening year for the public markets, and ahead of uncertain outlooks for VC cash flow and political winds in the months ahead. That may urge many, at companies large and small, to conserve that incredibly expensive money.

RELATED: M&A, IPOs and VC raises: Biotech and medtech executives look to their crystal balls for 2019

In addition, the city of San Francisco has seen a significant increase in its number of people without homes over the past few years, among a housing shortage and rising rents.

Homeless individuals line up outside Tenderloin Housing Clinic in San Francisco.
(David Tran/Getty)

The disparity of walking out of a hotel where beds have been replaced by folding tables and catering carts to see people sleeping in the street has left many feeling uneasy with JPM’s somewhat conspicuous consumption, especially those who got in the business to help people in pain.

To give back, a team of reporters at STAT launched a GoFundMe page that raised over $12,000 for Lava Mae, a local nonprofit that provides mobile showers, bathrooms and supplies to the homeless in San Francisco and Oakland.

Those factors are all in tension with how JPM attendees are, essentially, a captive audience. The meeting is billed as one of the most productive weeks of the year—and the place to be if you want to make big deals face-to-face. The risk of being left behind is a powerful motivator.

Some are calling for a complete change in venue—tweeting under the hashtag #MoveJPM—to a city that can better handle the growing crowds and provide more meeting space at a more reasonable price, with many floating the biotech hub of San Diego as a possibility.

Others are appealing to pull back from the whole enterprise. Atlas Ventures Partner Bruce Booth said he would not return with a “significant firm-wide presence” in 2020, citing excessive costs and the weak returns from speed dating-style meetings.

“At its best, the JPM week in San Fran is a hyper-networking event: connecting executives, entrepreneurs, and investors with the rest of the investment community; connecting service providers with current and prospective clients; and reconnecting old friends and acquaintances,” Booth wrote in a blog post and a piece for Forbes. “These are the good things about JPM. But this year several more negative themes, all in place for years, reached a tipping point for me.”

Booth described how he felt the meeting has lost its focus on the end game—helping to develop therapies with real impacts—with financial news and big numbers, while important, nevertheless supplanting the patient voice.

In addition, the rapid-fire meeting format—the byproduct of having so many people fighting for the same space for a week—can preclude any in-depth discussion or true networking and partnership building, he said.

“I’m looking forward to getting my week back next year,” Booth wrote.