When Alticor instituted a meeting policy five years ago, the new rules said that every meeting of 10 or more people that required room nights had to be registered and planned through the company's meetings department. As anyone who has tried to institute a meeting policy knows, that's a tall order.

Egos and habits can get in the way of consolidated meeting management. Companies that create policies to steer meetings to preferred properties, centralize meeting contracts, standardize request-for-proposal templates, or simply register every meeting to track spending often face critical issues of compliance. It's not unusual to find employees who chaff against change, not wanting to relinquish control of their meetings.

To make matters complicated, observers say there is no single best strategy for ensuring compliance; rather, the approach should vary based on a company's culture. Some have found success with executive edicts, while others rely heavily on internal marketing or incentives. “It has to be culturally consistent,” says Rick Binford, vice president, field sales, Conferon Global Services, Novi, Mich., who works with clients on defining meeting policies. “That's the divining rod to use when setting meetings policy and deciding how to best support it.”

99 Percent Compliance

For Alticor, parent of direct-selling companies Amway and Quixtar, a mandated approach was the way to go. “There was an edict put out that everything needs to go through special events,” says Craig Ardis, director, global special events at the Ada, Mich. — based firm. “One of the things that drove that was the president of our company got up at an employee meeting and said, ‘Here's the new edict, everyone's going to live by it, including myself.’”

A little executive muscle went a long way. All but a handful of the 1,500 or so meetings held since the policy went into effect in 2000 have been registered and planned through the centralized meetings department.

“Since meetings are a large expense and a key factor in the success of our business, it was important for me to be involved in the process,” says Alticor's president, Doug DeVos. “We use them to educate, discuss business issues, and launch new products. So it only makes sense to have simpler, cost-effective, and successful meetings be a priority.”

When Alticor established its meeting policy, the company was struggling. “We were looking at ways to streamline our operation, minimize costs, and consolidate and leverage our spend,” states Ardis. “Everybody understood what the objective was, and they understood that they had to comply — it was the environment at the time.”

Before 2000, Alticor's meeting management was disjointed. Major meetings came through global special events, but the rest were handled by the various departments that sponsored them. “You had inexperienced nonprofessionals working in a meeting planners' role,” says Ardis. “We also recognized the liability the company [could face] with inexperienced people signing contracts.”

Once the team got its arms around all the meetings the company was running annually, Ardis showed executives how different sponsors were using many of the same venues and suppliers but not leveraging the buying power. “It did not take long for us to see the opportunity we were missing.”

Over the years, the program has saved the company millions of dollars. Now, Ardis' scope is broadening to handle meetings worldwide.

Meeting expenditures are one of the top three spends at Alticor. “With meetings being a significant part of our marketing budget, it is important to manage it on a global scale,” says DeVos. “Everyone working with the same requirements helps to save time and money.” Since the policy was established, only a handful of meetings have circumvented the centralized department, says Ardis. There is no penalty for those that don't, just a stern reminder of the process and the benefits that the meeting staff can provide by leveraging expenses, negotiating, and using preferred suppliers and venues. “They see the connection.”

Laying Down the Law

A mandated approach also works at Weyerhaeuser, a forest-products company based in Federal Way, Wash. “This is a highly compliant company — it's just our culture,” says Suzanne Fletcher, director of travel and meetings, food service, and transportation.

When Fletcher developed a policy in 2001 that said all meetings of 15 or more people that involve a contract had to go through her department, it became, essentially, law at the company. Fletcher and her staff of five source more than 800 meetings per year.

“Management here has been incredibly supportive of this unit, and that's the key,” she says. The chief financial officer, who oversees meetings and travel, gave Fletcher the teeth she needed to enforce the policy by supporting it in communications and printed materials.

If a meeting owner does not book through the centralized department, the invoice will not get paid. “Our accounting department will not pay direct billing,” she says. “It has to be on a corporate meetings card.” And only the planning staff has those cards.

The unpaid bill is sent back to the meeting sponsor with a note telling them that they did not follow policy. At that point, the meeting department steps in and pays the bill on the corporate card. This has happened a few times over the years, explains Fletcher, but it's not habitual. If they get dinged once, it doesn't happen again.

No Buy-In Without Communication

Mandates without buy-in don't necessarily ensure compliance. The key to buy-in, observers agree, is communication — not just up front but ongoing reminders of the benefits of the policy. It takes resources and a dedicated effort, Conferon's Binford says, but “that's really the gas in the engine to fuel compliance over time.”

At Alticor, the cost-cutting environment and DeVos' support got the program off the ground; however, communication and performance were critical to maintaining momentum. “We sold this to everyone we came in contact with, and one of the ways that we sold it was with data on the amount of spend on meetings on an annual basis,” says Ardis. They communicated the mandate through face-to-face meetings, e-mail blasts, and intranet Web postings.

It was the same for Weyerhaeuser's Fletcher. “It's a constant sales job,” she says. The policy is referenced in a monthly company newsletter and promoted on the Weyerhaeuser intranet. Fletcher has also visited company locations across the country to discuss the policy. “It is very important to build the trust. For a lot of the smaller, more remote locations, it's a harder sell for them to understand. ‘Why would I call Seattle when I want to have a meeting across the street?’” she says. But once they get familiar with the process and realize that it can lighten their workload and save money, they're happy to come back, she says.

Todd Zint, vice president, marketing communications, at New York — based National Financial Partners, is building an internal marketing and branding strategy to promote his company's meetings policy. A brochure titled What Makes a Good Meeting a Great Meeting? informs users about the policy, the process, the services provided by the centralized department, and the benefits. “It's kind of like an ad campaign,” says Zint. “If they want to save money and save time, we can do it better, faster, more efficiently,” he says. The company, which spends about $5 million per year on meetings, expects to save $500,000, or 10 percent, in 2006 by capturing more of the spend via the centralized structure.

While 100 percent compliance is the goal, Zint knows it won't be achieved overnight. “You have to build confidence, and it's done one client at a time.”

Stakeholder Management

“The term consolidation can get people's backs up,” says Michael Malinchok, vice president, meetings technology at WorldTravel Meetings & Incentives, Chicago. “The term suggests shrinking the number of meetings, and that's not necessarily true.” It's not about combining and condensing, he says, it's about managing the purchasing of goods and services. The message should be, “We're going to help you buy better and, ultimately, help make your staff more efficient. The content we're not going to touch.”

Weyerhaeuser's Fletcher agrees. Facing meeting sponsors who had been planning their meetings for years and who did not want to hand over the reins, she made it clear: As long as they register and source the meeting through the centralized department, the meeting owner can still plan the meeting content. “We don't want to take away that feeling of involvement. All we want to do is negotiate the contracts.”

When Fletcher rolled out the new company meeting policy, she didn't have time to build awareness of it. “If you are under time constraints, you come down with that heavy hammer, but initially, it's not as well-accepted,” she says. “If you have the luxury of time, I would highly recommend you get a committee together of some of the big meeting owners and explain to them the benefits.”

That's exactly what Kari Knoll Kesler did when she joined St. Louis Park, Minn. — based Honeywell two years ago as global manager, meetings and events. Executives handed her the reins of the meeting department, with the job of driving a consolidation plan. One of her first steps was establishing a steering council of the 15 largest meeting producers. “Stakeholder management needs to start before design,” she says.

In a company in which 600 different groups hold about 5,000 meetings at a cost of nearly $90 million annually, Kesler realized that the success of the program relied on communicating the new program. So before she officially launched it, she reached out to internal stakeholders. She spent almost all of last year collecting data, communicating with internal stakeholders, designing the program, and laying the groundwork for a January 2006 launch.

In communicating the new program, she took a grass-roots approach. She holds off-site summits twice a year with the steering council to talk about the policy, brainstorm, and share knowledge. “We're going to build a meeting-planning community here. That community concept is huge, especially in a nonmandated environment, because they believe they are part of something bigger.”

Kesler has established a decentralized structure in which meeting requests funnel through an online technology platform with her and her staff of four providing support services — from planning to site selection to sourcing. Last month, a third-party meeting management company was hired to assist with internal requests.

With the new meetings software in place this year, Kesler plans to do a number of “road shows,” introducing the program to the nearly 600 users, demonstrating the software, communicating the benefits, and answering questions. She will also publish a monthly newsletter about the meeting program and will use some incentives, such as discounts or rewards for booking canceled space.

All groups must register their meetings online, but they are not mandated to use Kesler's staff to plan the meeting. If internal users wish to outsource to a third party, she will provide them with an analysis of what it would cost for the in-house staff to service the meeting versus outsource it.

However, Kesler expects them to embrace her department's services, which include planning, sourcing, and the use of preferred suppliers. “The bulk of our planning is done by [employees who are not professional planners]. For the most part, they're looking for us to tell them who to use. That's why I'm not that concerned about a mandate [to use our services], because we have an environment where they want us to help them.”

If they do not register the meeting, the omission will be reported to company brass. “We'll have monthly reporting that shows how many meetings we have, how many meetings we are aware of, and where the gaps are.”

Incentive to Comply

At Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis, Paul Tomaszeski can relate to Kesler's challenges. Novartis, like many pharmaceutical companies, is successful because of its entrepreneurial spirit, and mandates go against that culture.

In 2003, Tomaszeski, executive director of business support services, established a centralized sourcing department at the company's American headquarters in East Hanover, N.J., to manage site selection and contract negotiations. To drive use of the department without a mandate, he had a strategy: incentives.

When departments are given budget targets, there is no incentive to meet or come in under budget. In fact, there are disincentives. A department head could find that if she has succeeded in coming in under budget, her reward in the next cycle is a budget line that has been further reduced because she has proven that she can manage with less.

In Tomaszeski's case, his group offers department heads the chance to keep some of money it saves. “And there are no strings attached,” he says. “It [the department] doesn't have to spend that money on meeting-related services.”

It's become an attention-getter within the company, Tomaszeski says. “Departments are looking for something that will help them out, rather than just seeing those savings swept away. Once you get something like this rolling, it takes on a life of its own.”

Six Sigma at PWC

If there's any doubt about the growing importance of meetings in corporate America, consider PricewaterhouseCoopers. The New York — based consulting firm is employing Six Sigma principles to its meeting department, one of only 12 areas in the organization in which the process is being applied.

Six Sigma is a methodology that uses data and statistical analysis to measure and improve operational performance. At PWC, it is being applied to find out how to get more compliance with meeting policy. “The Six Sigma process has helped us to understand why people are not going through our team,” says Debi Scholar, meeting and event services director.

So far, the process has revealed that 54 percent of the meetings spend is not going through the meeting department. “While we thought we had a great policy in place, in fact, more than half of the meetings are not going through the proper protocol. We do over 900 meetings just within our team, and that's a significant spend, so you can imagine how many more meetings are being held without going through our team.” (The renegade meeting spend was found by going through accounts payable records.)

Analysis found two primary reasons that meeting sponsors are not using the meeting department: They don't know about it, or they know about it but choose to ignore it.

Meeting sponsors in the latter camp had a number of reasons for not using the company's centralized services:

  • they think that meeting planning is part of their job;

  • they believe that they don't have to;

  • they are concerned about losing control of the planning;

  • they are trying to avoid the approval process; or

  • meeting services does not meet their expectations.

The next step in the Six Sigma process is addressing these issues to increase compliance in order to capture and leverage more of the meeting spend. Currently, there are no penalties for not complying.

The meeting department reports to the chief financial officer, and Scholar has monthly calls with finance leaders in each of the business lines to communicate about the volume of meetings, savings generated, lead time of meetings, and so on. “There have been huge benefits in communicating regularly with those leaders,” she says, because it has increased their visibility among executives.