A decade ago, it was only trailblazers who were even thinking about global meetings consolidation. Today, it's right up there with return on investment and compliance as a hot-button issue for pharmaceutical meeting planners. As with U.S. meetings consolidation programs, the payoffs can be big: data aggregation and cost savings across multiple countries, consolidation of suppliers as well as meeting planning staff, and multiple platforms for sharing best practices. But it's no easy task and no surprise that pharmaceutical companies are still feeling their way.
As former leader of global travel and meeting services for the Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly and Co., George Odom spearheaded the pharmaceutical company's move toward global meetings consolidation beginning in late 1999. “Back in 1999, there were not many companies trying to consolidate meetings globally. It was uncharted territory and we were feeling our way through it early on,” he says.
Even today, the Indianapolis-based Odom, who is newly appointed senior director of business development for Advito, the independent global consulting division of BCD Travel headquartered in Dallas, says he's not aware of “anyone who has this whole thing under control. But some are definitely farther along than others.”
Odom had a leg up on some meeting planners because he had already been involved in the consolidation of travel at Lilly prior to the meetings consolidation. “I was probably not the norm,” he admits, “since I had a meeting planning background first and then I moved into travel at the time that we were just starting travel consolidation. Then we looked at strategic sourcing in other areas — where were those dollars going? We had close to a $40 million spend in meetings in 1999, so that was an obvious area to look at. We were confident consolidation could work because we'd already done it in travel.”
Still, it's a long process. When Odom left Lilly earlier this year, he says, global meetings were still not entirely consolidated. “But we were moving in that direction,” he says. To date, the globalization includes a range of internal meetings, as well as external meetings for healthcare professionals in the United States, Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Spain, along with other European, Middle Eastern, and African countries. “And they're still on the path,” he says.
Odom has learned a few things along the way, not only about what works, but also what doesn't. “Most of those who fail do so because they try to apply a U.S. model to other countries,” he says, “and that just doesn't work. There are different cultural nuances as well as different regulations and laws.” Instead, he advises taking an almost Zen-like approach to the process: “Sometimes you move faster by moving slower,” he laughs. In other words: Take your time, do your research, find out management's expectations, poll your stakeholders. “You have to get all your information together before you can even begin to move,” says Odom. “Global meetings consolidation is the ultimate in change management. You need to know what the need is, what the barriers are, what your spin is on the whole process — in a nutshell, why are you doing this?”
But if the thought of going through all that is scary, here's an even scarier proposition: If you, as the meeting planner, don't jump in and take control of the process, someone else will, whether it's the travel department, procurement, or upper management. Consolidation is here. It's been a focus of international travel departments for nearly two decades now and global meetings are a natural extension of that consolidation. It's time to jump on board or the ship might just take off without you.
So where do you start? Rather than tackling everything at once, Odom recommends a steppingstone approach, one that many companies have instinctively already started. “Start with consolidation in each country,” he says, “then move onto regional consolidation and finally global. We did an initial analysis in each country of its spend and procedures and then moved to central meeting planning in each individual country, created standardized practices, captured data, sourced vendors, and so on. From there, you can start sharing best practices.”
One way that Odom did that was with conference calls among all the groups to talk about best practices and make sure all the groups were in alignment. That's also a good way to address potential resistance among different groups. “Sometimes resistance is legitimate,” he notes. “If a country already has processes that are working well, they might reasonably not want to change. Some countries already have wonderful suppliers and don't want to change just for consistency. But it could also be that they don't realize the benefits of change, and then it's an educational process. We have to remind them that we're trying to get the best and most appropriate service at the best price, but that it's not all just about cost-cutting. Meetings are a service and sometimes we get so deep into cost-cutting that we forget that — so we have to pull back and remember we're not just looking for the cheapest price, but for the best service that meets the organization's business objectives at the best possible price.”
From there, Odom phased in different requirements as part of the globalization process. “First you might say all meetings have to be registered,” he says, “and then move on to logistical things like who can sign a, who can determine if there's the budget for the meeting, and who has the authority to commit funds. Farther down the line, we added in preferred suppliers. It's a progression. Early on, we had no mandate and were just trying to get people to understand the value and how to work better in each country; then we were able to formalize more processes as we moved along.”
Even with global consolidation, though, it's important to remember that one size doesn't always fit all. For example, Odom says that in the United States, most of the Lilly planning functions were outsourced, but while some affiliates in Europe outsourced, others had internal planners, and others were a hybrid, although each had an internal meeting manager.“It's all a very fluid process,” he says. “You have to have a plan, but you also have to be able to improvise and modify that plan if something doesn't work out as anticipated.”
For pharmaceutical companies, another large issue is the various regulations in the countries in which a company does business. “Any company has to be aware of international regulations and laws,” says Odom, “but it's especially important for pharmaceutical companies because there are subtle nuances that differ from country to country. You can't just assume that the U.S. Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America's Code on Interactions with Healthcare Professionals or CME requirements are applicable in other countries. It's different in Germany vs. the UK vs. Canada and so on, so you might need a different infrastructure.”
Differences can range from the simple — are there limits on meal expenses? — to more complex, such as constraints on the kinds of information that can be discussed at a meeting. Logistics, too, come into play, such as whether or not a government has to approve the list of meeting attendees. “Each country affiliate is responsible for supplying information about their own regulations and sharing that with everyone else so we can make the most appropriate choices,” says Odom.
Aside from the very specific regulations governing the pharmaceutical industry, the global meetings consolidation process is similar across the corporate spectrum. Here's what planners in other sectors have learned about exporting their meetings programs.
For Michele Snock, CMM, manager of global meeting services for San Jose-based Cisco Systems, “We had the dream of global meetings consolidation for a long time. We had a concept of it and a vision of what we wanted, but we weren't sure how to get there. Now with technology and best practices, we can finally do it.”
Still, the process has been a long one. “Our global meetings services department was started nine years ago,” she says, “and we started to branch out into Europe in 2000. Today, we've done a great job in the U.S., we still have more opportunities in Europe, a small team is in place in Asia-Pacific, and we're approaching a whole new frontier, what we call ‘emerging markets’ in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Latin America.”
Snock says her department currently influences about 40 percent of her company's meeting spend. “We have policies and guidelines, but we're not mandated,” she says. “Our systems are in place and now it's a matter of greater adoption. But we're going to shoot for the stars and we hope to eventually have 80 percent adoption. I can't say we're hoping to reach that in the next year, but in the next three years, I think it's doable.”
Technology is critical to achieving that goal, especially given the program's scope. In Snock's case, there are 61,000-plus employees at Cisco, any of whom might be requesting a meeting at any given time.
“We have to make sure the technology is in place and create the infrastructure for them,” she says. “One of our biggest jobs is to go out and sell this process to them, influence them to use what we've put in place. We have to demonstrate the value of what we're doing so that they want to adopt it.”
Part of the move toward adoption comes from executive management championing what Snock is doing. “Our executive team advocates for and supports our initiatives,” she says. “That makes the messaging much more powerful.” The very structure of her department helps as well. “Several years ago we restructured and created the role of a global manager for meetings, rather than having one manager in Europe and another in the U.S. rolling up to two different theater directors.” Some 10 employees who focus on processes and compliance are augmented by another 45 vendor-contractors who plan and execute the meeting in their respective theaters. “We want someone there, in each country, who understands the customs and knows what we can and can't do,” she says.
Cisco works with StarCite, a global meeting management company, and “anyone who is having a meeting anywhere in the world goes to a request form that is part of the StarCite RFP, though they don't necessarily know that,” she says. “We use that information to get the meeting sourced, track the budget, and really understand the spend to make better buying decisions and help us negotiate — we can run reports by vendor, by department, by part of the world, and so on.”
The data from the tool also allows the company to measure change. “What's really critical is to have bona fide metrics where we have the data and a goal and can continuously measure ourselves,” she says. “We can also do a metric on customer satisfaction — we had to know where we were starting to know where we were heading and be able to move the dial.”
Having all the data has also been key for Pamela Ferranti, manager of the meeting management solutions department for Xerox Corp., in Rochester, N.Y. “Since we started our globalization process in 2004, our average cost per attendee has actually dropped as opposed to other companies that are experiencing rising costs,” she says. “We're able to deliver the most cost-effective meeting or event using what our global purchasing department has put in place with preferred hotels, air, ground transportation, etc. Because I have all the data and can pull reports on anything, I have the facts to present to management and can show how we are driving down costs.”
And some of those costs came from unexpected areas. “We were spending $900 to $1,600 a day renting LCD projectors at hotels in the U.S.,” says Ferranti. “It was a very easy sell to management to [get approval to] purchase them, so now we can ship them to meeting locations when appropriate. That was one small thing that turned into thousands of dollars of savings.”
Ferranti says the process is still ongoing, but Xerox has made considerable progress since 2004. “Anyone with a meeting of 15 or more attendees of which 10 require air and/or hotel must register through our software,” she says. “Then we outsource to BCD Meetings and Incentives, a third-party global meeting management company that we contract with. It took people time to get used to registering meetings and using the Web-based attendee management tools, but it caught on.”
Currently Xerox has implemented the process in the U.S., is about to roll it out in Canada, and will next move into European operations. “We haven't rolled out completely on a global basis yet,” says Ferranti, “because it takes time to understand what each region needs and has to offer.” Although the program isn't formalized in Europe yet, she's encouraged that “there's a big awareness of what we're doing here and some of our overseas operations have approached us because they want our help.”
That eliminates an obstacle that some companies have faced, when countries outside the U.S. feel that the corporate office is forcing them to submit to standardized programs. Reiterating Odom's philosophy, she says, “You need the buy-in from the countries you're working with. You can't just walk in and cram it down their throats — it simply won't work. You need to understand their concerns and issues so they can be addressed.”
From Travel to Meetings
It's no coincidence that consolidating global meetings is often an outgrowth of travel consolidation. Once there's a consolidated program in place for hotels, air, and cards, meetings are often the next logical step. And it's all part of what today is often referred to as “.”
The National Business Travel Association has been at the forefront of championing strategic meetings management programs or SMMPs, publishing several white papers on building an SMMP and what goes into it. “A SMMP is never done,” says Lee Ann Adams Mikeman, co-chair of NBTA's groups and meetings committee, which has produced the white papers. “Those who have more mature programs should be able to apply the same principles, processes, and approaches to their international programs that they use for their domestic programs.”
Adams Mikeman notes that while a key part of developing any SMMP is to develop the policy and build stakeholder buy-in, global meetings consolidation has special challenges. “Just as a start, you have the culture and language differences, currency changes, technology compatibility issues, and different contract laws and business regulations,” she says. “Sometimes people fail to use the resources that are available to them when dealing with these challenges. Departments from procurement to travel to risk management can help in the process, and we have several white papers on various aspects of SMMP. There's no reason to reinvent the wheel.”
She also advises starting the research and background process early. “Do your homework and research so you're ready. When the window of opportunity opens, it might only be open for a short time. You've got to be ready to go when the opportunity presents itself.”