Let's face it: Small meetings are often an afterthought. They make up the greatest percentage of most companies' meetings, yet get the least amount of attention. They're one of our most important communications tools, yet there's often no one in charge of making sure they're getting their message across. They cost us millions of dollars yet most of us don't track or consolidate our spending to save money.

"Overall, our company probably lost hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on small meetings," says Nick Azelborn, vice president and director of Technology-Based Learning Services at Motorola's Schaumburg, Ill., headquarters. "We run thousands of meetings a year, but only a handful--the big ones, like the stockholders' meeting--are planned by our corporate meeting organizers. It occurred to us that most meetings are set up by secretaries who frequently don't even know, for instance, that they can negotiate with a hotel, and that we'd stop losing money if these people had a better idea of the rules of the game."

In a $30 billion company with more than 130,000 people in hundreds of offices around the world, the savings, says Azelborn, "are in the millions."

Meeting Planning Training at Motorola So, in 1996, Motorola set up a company-wide meeting-organizer training program called "Effective Meeting and Event Planning." The course is part of an overall corporate training curriculum in which the company has invested $225 million. Each Motorola employee is required to take 45 hours of courses of his or her choice annually.

The course was designed by a Motorola event organizer in 1996 as part of her graduate studies and was immediately adopted for use as a training tool by Donna Swenson, senior meetings manager at Motorola's Fort Lauderdale, Fla., office. "Formerly, people were getting their training outside the company, at MPI [Meeting Professionals International] courses and such--if they got any training at all. We thought this was a great idea." Today, Swenson travels to Motorola facilities around the world to train employees. Most recently, she was in Beijing.

The course is delivered via Motorola's intranet and traditional instructor-led classroom training. It covers several major areas novice organizers need to know in order to plan and run a meeting effectively: how to gather information from the person who wants to hold the meeting; how to read and understand a contract; how to negotiate; how to form an event plan; how to manage event logistics; how to manage on site (work with hotel personnel, check rooms, monitor daily bills, etc.); and how to wrap up the event (including debriefing internal clients and writing thank-you notes).

According to Swenson, perhaps the most underrated skill is knowing what questions to ask, both of the boss who wants the meeting planned and of the hotel when doing the actual organizing. "My manager, [Director of Event Management] Evelyn Laxgang, once told me, 'You're only as good as the questions you ask,'" Swenson says. "In our classes, the participants do role playing, one being the organizer, one being the boss. We have the trainees ask the questions, then refine them as we go along until they're asking the questions they need to ask."

The manual used for the training is comprehensive. In addition to nuts-and-bolts details about subjects ranging from contracts to negotiating, there are case studies, timelines, worksheets, and a glossary of terms commonly used in the meeting-planning business. "Unless you're a meeting organizer or in the hotel business," Swenson says, "you probably won't know what 'shoulder season' means."

"The course is really an awareness of what planning is all about and what the hospitality business is all about," says Laura Olson, a Motorola project manager who works with Azelborn. "Every meeting has a goal and if all the pieces are put together well, it will reach those goals. There are many disaster stories regarding meetings, where attendees wind up having a bad experience because those goals aren't met. A proactive planner can avoid these problems and doesn't have to run around putting out fires."

Azelborn adds that the course has received high praise from participants. So much so that Motorola now licenses the course for use by other companies, in conjunction with McGettigan & Partners, a firm that sells meeting-planning services and software.

At Hewlett-Packard, On-the-Job Training A $43 billion company with 125,000 employees scattered throughout 104 worldwide divisions, Hewlett-Packard (H-P) also generates a lot of meetings. According to Rich Del Colle, meetings program manager, based at the company's Burlington, Mass. office, about 70 percent of the people who plan them are not professional meeting organizers and must fit it in along with other responsibilities.

"We always knew we had to do something about meeting planning," he says. "We knew when we canceled meetings we were getting hit with a lot of fees and we could see that a lot of our people who were planning meetings were operating without any real training. When we talked to our hotel partners, they told us the planning process was sometimes difficult because some of our people planning the meetings didn't really know the business."

About three years ago, Del Colle decided to take action. "We basically asked in our newsletter what we could do to help [the meeting executives]," he says. "The list of in-house people who responded that they wanted training in this area grew to about 1,400."

Along with Marriott, one of the company's travel partners, H-P conducted focus groups and surveys with employees charged with planning meetings. Out of this came H-P's Meeting Planning Assistance Program. Along with formalized curriculum, organizers are trained by the company's travel partners.

Del Colle explains: "When we refer an H-P planner to our preferred agency, the agency goes through what I call a 'discovery process' and will ask the organizer questions about the proposed meeting. Through this process, knowledge is imparted to the planner."

He also worked with the company's Information Technology Group at the Palo Alto headquarters to create a software program to deliver the formal training. "Marriott, American Express, and United Airlines partnered with us to do this and, in return, they were allowed to use the program with their clients," he says. The company also has a Web site with information for people planning meetings, which allows them to network with other executives in any city to get details about facilities, costs, and so forth. It also provides resources for people negotiating contracts and information on attrition clauses, even a boiler-plate contract.

The training and resources have brought much-needed skills to a decentralized group of meeting executives. "There's no way we want to truly centralize our meeting planning," Del Colle says. "The solution for us has been to bring in preferred vendors that focus on meetings, such as hotels, airlines, and travel agencies, to act as on-the-job instructors."

A state-by-state listing of colleges and universities offering meeting planning courses:

Alabama * University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa (205) 384-6157

* Faulkner State College, Bay Minette (800) 231-3752

Arizona * Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff (520) 523-2845

California * California State University, Fullerton (714) 449-5945

* California State University, Long Beach (310) 985-5561

* California State University, Sacramento (916) 278-4433

* Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles (310) 338-1972

* Orange Coast Community College, Costa Mesa (714) 432-5835

* San Diego Community College (619) 584-6568

* University of California, Los Angeles (310) 206-8120

* University of California, La Jolla (619) 534-5823

Colorado * Metropolitan State College, Denver (303) 556-3152

District of Columbia * George Washington University, Washington (202) 994-6280

Florida * University of Central Florida, Orlando (407) 823-2188

Georgia * Georgia State University, Atlanta (404) 651-3512

Illinois * Roosevelt University, Chicago (312) 341-4321

Massachusetts * Bentley College, Waltham (617) 891-2800

* Bunker Hill Community College, Boston (617) 228-2000

* Cape Cod Community College, West Barnstable (508) 362-2131

* University of Massachusetts, Amherst (413) 545-2535

Michigan * Michigan State University, East Lansing (517) 353-9211

Missouri * Columbia College, Columbia (800) 231-2391

* St. Louis Community College, St. Louis (314) 644-9749

Nevada * University of Nevada, Las Vegas (702) 895-3161

New York * New York University, New York City (212) 790-1340

* Niagara University, Niagara Falls (716) 286-8270

* Paul Smith College, Paul Smith (518) 327-6227

* Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester (716) 475-2063

Oklahoma * Northeastern State University, Tahlequah (918) 456-5511

Oregon * Mt. Hood Community College, Gresha (503) 667-7486

Pennsylvania * Pennsylvania State University, University Park (814) 863-0009

Rhode Island * Johnson & Wales University, Providence (800) 343-2565

South Carolina * Clemson University, Clemson (803) 656-3400

* University of South Carolina, Columbia (803) 777-6665

Texas * El Centro Community College, Dallas (214) 746-2213

* Richland College, Dallas (214) 238-6008

* University of North Texas, Denton (817) 565-2436

Vermont * Vermont College of Norwich University, Montpelier (800) 468-6679

Virginia * Northern Virginia Community College, Annandale (703) 323-3457

* Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg (703) 231-9459

Washington * Washington State University, Seattle (206) 587-6349

* Washington State University, Pullman (509) 335-5766