JPM: Can we take J.P. Morgan out of San Francisco? We're virtually there

San Francisco
“The infrastructure to do this in San Francisco has been crippled,” said Jeremy Levin, CEO of Ovid Therapeutics.(Carly Helfand)

This year’s virtual J.P. Morgan healthcare conference was a departure. For some, it was a regular week of now-normal working from home, just with more meetings. For others, their J.P. Morgan and J.P. Morgan-adjacent activities spread out into the weeks before and after the conference. No one missed running up and down the hills of San Francisco during the annual monsoon.

But what other changes could this virtual version spark beyond 2021?

One change on which the industry has long speculated is a new location: getting J.P. Morgan out of San Francisco.

“We were all wondering what was going to get this meeting out of the Westin … Who knew it was going to be COVID-19 that might actually take this down?” said Dan Budwick, founder of 1AB.

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The Westin St. Francis may have made sense years ago, when the meeting took over just one hotel.

“It used to be primarily focused on public companies … In the early days, there was not as much business development and there certainly wasn’t as much private financing. The meeting was considerably smaller and actually took place pretty much in the Westin St. Francis,” said Abbie Celniker, a partner at Third Rock Ventures. “Probably in the early 2000s, we started to see it really expanding: private companies going there to pitch to private investors, who were going there because their companies were going public,” Celniker said.

And it snowballed from there.

“Even when we say J.P. Morgan, it’s a misnomer because J.P. Morgan might be the anchor tenant in Union Square, but we’ve got Biotech Showcase and other meetings,” said David Schull, president of Russo Partners. “We went from a single conference with networking events, most of which were in the evening, to now multiple conferences taking place in order to provide maximum connectivity.”

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All of that has led to the circus we know today (or I guess, last year), of thousand-dollar hotel rooms, fees for using Wi-Fi or sitting in a lobby, and stacks of mattresses spirited out of hotel rooms so the biopharma industry can have meetings, meetings and more meetings.

“The J.P. Morgan conference had outgrown the physical confines of the hotel, yet nothing was being done to change it. So, what’s happened is all these other events have sprung up around it to create the $300 dining chair, the $1,000-a-night hotel suite,” Schull said.

“The infrastructure to do this in San Francisco has been crippled,” said Jeremy Levin, CEO of Ovid Therapeutics and chair of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization.

Despite these issues, many executives don’t see J.P. Morgan leaving its longtime home. Some companies are based in San Francisco, so the meeting is in their backyard. Others pointed to the location as part of the meeting's branding.

“It’s the lore of San Francisco. It’s just like the Oscars in LA … I hope there is an opportunity to have it potentially be someplace else, but I don’t know. It’s like a brand at this point,” Celniker said.

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“If they decided to move it, they’d have a very different kind of conference,” Levin said. “These types of conferences have not been successful in New York, for example. There isn’t the same cultural heritage there … If J.P. Morgan were to move their banking conference to Boston, I’m not sure what the draw would be. The Cowen conference is there. There are multiple others not branded for San Francisco.”

History plays a role, too.

“I don’t think the venue will ever change. The Westin is what it is,” said Steve Cooper, executive vice president of the national health media team at Edelman. “Why don’t the Red Sox get out of Fenway Park? Mystique and history is what it is. I think J.P. Morgan thrives on having that element of mystique behind it.”

One idea is to keep the meeting in San Francisco—sometimes. The rest of the time, it could rotate between other cities, like other biopharma conferences, medical meetings, or major sporting events.

“I love San Francisco, but perhaps we could switch sites every year, just like the Super Bowl,” said Drew Levinson, executive vice president and director of media relations at LifeSci Communications. “I think if we could move it to a site that is more prepared for the greater number of people that are now attending J.P. Morgan, it would make it perhaps a better experience for many people.”

Las Vegas is one potential new site that has gotten some attention.

“When you actually step back from Union Square and look at the totality of what is going on and how the industry uses it as a pillar for all these other conversations, it makes much more sense to lift that up and place it say, in Las Vegas, or somewhere that’s got more hotel room and restaurant options and more space,” said Karen Sharma, managing partner at MacDougall.

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Another idea is to stop pushing the fire code in the Westin and just use a bigger, purpose-built venue.

“There is a wonderful conference center in San Francisco, but J.P. Morgan is not at that conference center,” Levinson said.

Syed Kazmi, CEO of Jubilant Therapeutics, doesn’t think a bigger venue or moving to a new city will fix anything.

“I do not think that moving the meeting out of SF is the solution to stop the madness of $1,000/night hotel and $15 for coffee,” Kazmi said in an email. “Frankly any other US city with a large enough convention center and hotel infrastructure would do the same unless both the organizers and the city step up to keep the situation under control.”

This year’s virtual format offers J.P. Morgan and industry players a chance to make a dent in those sky-high hotel prices. The bank itself could renegotiate rates, Kazmi said, while BIO could negotiate on behalf of its member companies.

Of course, all of these discussions come with the caveat that the showrunner itself is the only entity that can make this call. For more about what this year’s virtual meeting could mean for the future of the J.P. Morgan healthcare conference, click here.