boston.com Business your connection to The Boston Globe

The biotechs are coming, the biotechs are coming

20,000 will jam city for gathering

Looking for a table at No. 9 Park on the first Monday in May?

You're out of luck. The stylish Beacon Hill restaurant is booked with a private party that night. Ditto the Top of the Hub skywalk, the Wang Theatre , the new Institute of Contemporary Art , even the New England Aquarium .

When the world's biggest biotechnology convention hits Boston May 6-9 , city planners are bracing for a whirlwind of social events that will tie up Boston's museums, restaurants, and tour boats -- a scale of entertaining that has city leaders drawing comparisons to the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

"It's pretty huge by any standard," said Patrick Moscaritolo , president of the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau , who expects attendees and deep-pocketed corporate sponsors to spend $17 million in Boston during the event.

With more than 20,000 people expected, the BIO International Convention at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center isn't the city's biggest conference of the year -- that honor goes to an information-management meeting next month that should draw more than 30,000. But as a cash-rich industry surrounded by a halo of growth and high-paying jobs, the biotech meeting, being held here for the first time in seven years, has become a frenzy of parties, receptions, and other entertainment, sponsored by companies and governments looking for a slice of the rich biotechnology pie.

"You talk to economic people, this is where people are investing, this is where the job growth is going to be the next 20 to 30 years," said Michael O'Hara of accounting firm Deloitte & Touche LLP , which has rented the right-field pavilion of Fenway Park for a party that week.

Lush corporate entertaining is relatively new for biotech, a research-intensive business that has long seen itself as the quiet, white-coated cousin to the free-spending pharmaceutical industry. But as biotechnology becomes a growing part of the United States healthcare system, it has attracted more of the money, buzz, and Wall Street attention that follows successful industries.

"You think of it as all these nerdy scientists who don't have social skills, but the industry is all about networking," said Eustacia Reidy of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council , which is throwing its own reception at the convention center on May 8.

In some ways, the entertainment spending comes at a sensitive time for the industry. A new Democratic Congress has begun to focus attention on drug costs and marketing. And the price of biotechnology drugs -- they can cost tens of thousands of dollars a year per patient -- makes their manufacturers easy targets for critics attacking the high cost of healthcare.

And biotech's impact on healthcare spending is increasing. The cost of so-called "specialty drugs," the type produced by biotechnology companies, reached $40 billion in 2005, according to one estimate, accounting for one-fifth of all US drug spending.

"Every dollar spent on marketing and entertaining is a dollar not spent on developing new drugs, and that's a lesson that biotech should look at very carefully," said Dr. Jerry Avorn of Harvard University, a critic of drug-company marketing.

In 2000, when Boston last played host to the Biotechnology Industry Organization conference, the meeting was half the size, and held at the Hynes Convention Center . At the time, the most visible impact on the city was a protest march that included genetic-engineering opponents dressed as deformed vegetables.

But the industry has grown since then, fueled by money from the global pharmaceutical industry, which increasingly relies on small biotechnology firms to provide its pipeline of new products. Eager to gain more biotech business, accounting companies and law firms are boosting their life-science practices as well. And come May, other states and world regions -- from Kansas to Dubai -- will fly sizable trade delegations in Boston to court biotech companies.

"The amount this meeting has grown over the years, and the pace it's grown -- it's affectionately known as a runaway train," said Karin Duncker , a New York-based business-development officer for the law firm Mintz Levin , which is throwing an invitation-only reception for chief executives and venture capitalists at the Boston Harbor Hotel .

The festivities begin even before the convention kicks off on the evening of Sunday, May 6 . Earlier that day, an accounting firm plans to rent Duck Boats to take clients on a customized tour of the Boston-Cambridge biotech alley. At night, the BIO conference takes over Quincy Market to throw a party for 3,000 or more. The next evening, with the Red Sox out of town, a dinner hosted by Ernst & Young at Fenway's swanky EMC Club will face competition from the right-field pavilion, where Deloitte & Touche plans a beer tasting.

"There's always more than you could possibly go to," said Carin Canale , a biotechnology publicist planning a late-night party at the Back Bay's 33 Restaurant & Lounge underwritten by the drug company AstraZeneca.

Last year, when the conference was held in Chicago, it opened with a massive party at the city's Navy Pier , featuring live bands and dancers suspended on platforms. The next night, one party took over the multistory Excalibur Nightclub , while a biotech finance company rented out the massive Shedd Aquarium.

Over the four days of the Boston conference, biotech-related parties are booked for the city's major museums, the Roxy nightclub, the Opera House, the Harvard Club, and many other high-profile venues. The Boston Harbor Hotel and the State Room on the top floor of the 60 State Street tower have booked a dozen events each during the conference, some taking place simultaneously.

The party planning is competitive, especially for anyone seeking the attention of the handful of chief executives who help drive the industry. At the Institute of Contemporary Art , Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino and Governor Deval Patrick plan to host 100 top biotech executives. The same night, Mintz Levin will invite them to the Boston Harbor Hotel, and the Canadian government is renting the Wang Theatre for a 600-person "Soiree Canada."

And although the governor's office will be entertaining executives at the ICA, the State House won't be empty -- Australia has booked a cocktail reception there.

For some, the conference social scene has already become unwieldy. The British consulate in Boston, site of numerous life-science social events during the year, is scaling back to a simple dinner.

"One of the problems is, everybody has a party -- and people just turn up, drink your drink, and leave," said Mike Fisher , the consulate's life-science adviser.

Stephen Heuser can be reached at sheuser@globe.com.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES