It happens all the time: A senior exec wants to hold a small meeting and asks an administrative assistant to book it at a local hotel. The admin calls the hotel to enquire about available space, chooses the menus, arranges for audiovisual equipment, maybe even books a few sleeping rooms for out-of-towners. He or she then signs the contract, and they're good to go.

Except that no one outside that group even knows the meeting is happening. The expense is never included as part of the organization's overall meeting spend, and inevitably the cost gets buried somewhere in the operating budget. The hotel rate may be far more than what people in other parts of the organization are paying with the same chain. And if the meeting gets canceled, there's nothing in the contract to protect the organization from liability and no one advocating to waive the penalty in lieu of future business.

All Too Familiar

It's a common scenario, says Kevin Iwamoto, GLP, vice president of enterprise strategy at StarCite, who is based in San Jose, Calif. He uses the example of one admin who organized a couple of small meetings a month for her boss and paid for them on her personal credit card so she could build up the airline miles on her account. Meanwhile, the company was missing out on an opportunity to track that meeting spend, leverage buying power, and mitigate risk.

Chances are, there are meetings being planned by admins or ad hoc planners that you don't know about. But getting a handle on small meetings does not necessarily mean bringing them under the meetings department's jurisdiction. In fact, many organizations are finding that it is more effective to allow ad hoc meeting planners to plan them — as long as they are armed with the right tools.

The concept — often referred to as “meetings in a box” — involves developing prenegotiated packages with preferred suppliers that typically include set menus, meeting space, basic audiovisual, and standardized contracts for events that fall into the organization's definition of a “small meeting.” Admins can then choose a package that meets their needs and book the program without having to negotiate costs or review contract terms and conditions.

It's the right approach at the right time, as organizations look for new efficiencies and ways to do more with less in the current economy, says Susan Fenner, manager of education and professional development for the International Association of Administrative Professionals, Kansas City, Mo. Fewer internal resources often leave admins picking up the slack, she says. “Any job that needs to be done goes to the admin. Many times, they are being asked to pull together a meeting almost overnight. They don't usually have any [professional] meeting planning skills and don't get any training in things like hotel negotiations. If they are not doing this on a regular basis they may not know what to ask for or what savings can be had.”

Evaluate the Potential

The first thing you need to understand before embarking on a meetings-in-a-box approach is the opportunity at stake, says Debi Scholar, GLP, CMM, CMP, CTE, CTT, assurance director for PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, Florham Park, N.J. Scholar, who spearheaded the development of a small-meetings solution for her company back in 2007, now consults with PwC's clients on their strategic meetings management programs.

The small-meetings solution Scholar rolled out at PwC applies to “firm,” or internal, meetings, events, and learning programs with budgets of up to $25,000. The Meeting and Event Services (MES) team has prenegotiated pricing and discounts with area hotels for sleeping rooms, meeting space, AV, and food and beverage. Packages are also available for day meetings and include preset menus. The annual contracts are negotiated by MES with the company's preferred hotels, so the spend is also included as part of the company's overall volume.

The process at PwC involves registering meetings through the company's meetings technology platform. Once the planner has selected a venue from the approved small-meeting properties, he or she contacts the sales representative at the selected property to enquire about availability and book the meeting package. A contract that is less than $5,000 can be signed by the planner and returned to the hotel sales representative to book the meeting. Contracts that exceed $5,000 require additional approval.

With preselected hotels and optional preset menus, the planner spends less time searching for properties and deciding on food and beverage. But Scholar notes that admins and planners still retain a significant role in the process. “The small-meetings solution just takes the contract negotiations and pricing off the table.”

The Supplier Side

From the supplier standpoint, entering into a preferred small-meetings relationship with a corporation is usually a win-win, says Julie Hills, the Crest Hill, Ill.-based senior director of pharmaceutical industry sales for Hilton Worldwide. “The hotel gets preferred access and visibility as well as the potential to build a relationship with the corporation that may eventually extend into larger meetings and transient business.”

An approach Hills often sees is for suppliers and clients to develop standardized meeting packages for either full-day or half-day meetings. The contracts typically involve pre-established concessions, such as catering discounts, and the pricing will often include a general session room, a breakout room, some basic AV, plus breakfast, lunch, and a break. “We also see [organizations] ask for either the transient business travel rate to be used for sleeping rooms or for a flat rate to be quoted for the year.”

Hills advises that organizations partner with only a few properties to make it worthwhile for the hotels. “The client does need to have a certain amount of volume in order for this approach to make sense. It goes along with the saying, ‘If you partner with everyone, you are partnering with no one.’” Also, she suggests that organizations promote the preferred hotels on their Web sites or through e-mails to ensure adequate adoption.

It's the right approach, says Kari Kesler, president and chief strategist, KK Strategic Solutions, Minneapolis. “If you provide [admins] with the right infrastructure and tool set, I think you can leave the small meetings where they are and still achieve your objectives.”

6 Steps to Start

While each meetings-in-a-box program will differ based on an organization's priorities and strategic meetings management program, here are six steps you can take to get started:

  1. Define “Small” Clearly define what constitutes a “small” meeting at your organization. This definition may be based on a combination of factors, such as number of attendees, total spend for the event, maximum number of room-nights, and purpose of the meeting. Be aware that there will always be exceptions.

  2. Get Execs On Board As with your SMMP, you will need to get internal stakeholder buy-in for the meetings-in-a-box approach. Align your case with your organization's goals. If risk mitigation is mission-critical, lead with that (e.g., “Last month a meeting that was planned by an admin did not include the indemnity clause in the contract.”). If cost avoidance is a key priority, be sure you have data to identify the lost opportunity for savings. Getting senior management to sign off on this new process will help you when it comes time to roll out the program.

  3. Find Your Company's Favorite Locales Determine where the majority of your organization's small meetings are taking place. “Draw up a map of where these meetings are being held and then partner with your transient hotel program to identify preferred hotels in this space that are capable of hosting small meetings,” says Kari Kesler, president and chief strategist, KK Strategic Solutions, Minneapolis, formerly of Honeywell. “At Honeywell [the majority of small meetings were] around our corporate offices in Minneapolis, Phoenix, and Morristown, N.J.”

  4. Create the Rates and Packages Reach out to your preferred hotel partners in these locales to negotiate discounted rates in exchange for premier partner status. The advantage for the hotel is that they will get the leads from your organization first and have the opportunity to say, “Yes, we have the space for your small meeting,” or “No, we don't,” says Kesler.

    The level of concessions and discounts you can negotiate will depend on your organization's volume and buying power. A good jumping-off point for negotiations is your organization's transient hotel program, says Debi Scholar, assurance director for PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, Florham Park, N.J. Organizations “might use their transient rate or obtain better discounts by moving transient and group market share to fewer properties.”

    You will also need to determine what these packages will and will not include. For example, will Internet access and audiovisual be included? Will sleeping-room rates be prenegotiated for the calendar year?

  5. Decide on the Process Determine how meetings will be registered and booked.

    Some points to consider: How will technology play a role in this process? Will small meetings get sourced and booked through the same technology platform as other meetings at the company? Or will admins just register their meetings with the SMM team and then call each hotel to book?

  6. Pick a Payment Plan Determine the payment process for these meetings. Will ad hoc planners need to apply for a meeting card to pay for each event?

    Another thing to keep in mind, says Scholar, is cancellation credits. Organizations are canceling meetings and incurring cancellation credits now more than ever, so it's important to consider whether the small meeting can use an available credit before settling on a prenegotiated package so that you are not leaving money on the table.