Biotech’s big JPM Healthcare Conference will go virtual in January

Kiss the $1,000-a-night hotel rooms and $100-an-hour lobby tables goodbye this January: The J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference is going virtual for 2021.

The conference is one of the biggest biotech dealmaking events — often setting the tone for funding rounds, partnerships and mergers and acquisitions for the first part of the year — but has faced increased criticism over the past few years because of rising costs, spotty returns, diversity concerns and San Francisco’s homelessness issues.

The news, tweeted Thursday by Stat’s Adam Feuerstein, was confirmed by a J.P. Morgan spokeswoman. No other details were available, including the virtual conference’s format.

The move to a virtual “JPM” conference isn’t a big surprise, given the state of conventions and tourism nationally with travel restrictions and social-distancing requirements put in place due to the Covid-19 pandemic that has killed nearly 906,000 people globally — more than one in five of those deaths in the United States. At least 40 conventions scheduled through next April have cancelled or transitioned to virtual, smothering $697 million in revenue.

SF Travel said last month that visitors this year overall will spend a third of 2019’s $9.6 billion, and traveler revenue won’t hit that 2019 level again until 2024.

Attracting upwards of 20,000 drug-development executives and entrepreneurs as well as venture capitalists, investment bankers and media, the invitation-only conference is only part of the story. The 37-year-old event at the Westin St. Francis hotel in Union Square traditionally is a who’s-who of biotech players.

It also has ignited smaller conferences open to anyone who can pay multiple-hundred-dollar registration fees, find and afford a hotel room and nail down a place to meet with potential investments or investors. The quest for elbow room has touched off a market of its own, with companies scanning Airbnb and Peerspace for multiple-day meeting space rentals or plunking down as much as $300 for three-hour slots at hotel lobby tables.

The fight to see and be seen has led some investors to stay away from the conference or even whip up support for an East Coast conference. But by now, most attendees typically have hotel rooms booked and meeting space reserved in hopes of landing key meetings with investors or corporate partners that can grow into material deals as much as a year later.

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