Meeting executives trying to get a handle on their companies' overall meeting spending face a Catch-22: Until you get the data on how much is being spent, it's tough to convince people that it's important to gather the data.

Betsy Bondurant, CMP, associate director, meeting planning and trade show for Amgen based in Thousand Oaks, Calif., spent a fitful five years building the business case for a corporate-mandated process by which meetings are sourced and contracted. After finally bringing a technology solution to the table, meeting consolidation is now fact at the world's largest independent biotechnology company. Here's her story.

Grass-Roots Headache

The consolidation bug bit Bondurant in 1998. Not old-school consolidation in which one department takes on the meeting planning for an entire company, but something more strategic: She wanted data. Her department coordinated a large slice of the company's sales and marketing meetings, but as with most large, fast-growing organizations, many meetings fell outside the sales realm. Even within sales and marketing, not everyone looked to the meeting department for help.

Bondurant didn't want to produce all those meetings; she just wanted to know how much was being spent, and where and when they were happening. Her first goals were to collect data that she could leverage to get better rates and to demonstrate the benefits of capturing meeting data companywide. But how could she do that without a budget and a mandate?

“In 1998, it was definitely a grass-roots project. It wasn't a corporate initiative,” Bondurant says. She started with simple paper surveys that went to all administrative coordinators as well as the finance people in each functional area. “We got some data that way, but to dig for the information became unmanageable.”

The next stab was only slightly more productive. “We decided to develop an internal meeting registry — strictly voluntary — asking people who were planning a meeting to enter information on the Web.” But even building a simple registry — with just the name of the hotel, meeting dates, and an estimate of the number of rooms and the cost — “was a struggle,” she says. Not counting meetings planned through Bondurant's department, fewer than 100 meetings were registered on the system in 1999, with numerous others continuing to fall through the cracks.

At that point, the volume of work in her department increased, and she had to shift her focus away from consolidation. “Frankly, it languished,” Bondurant says.

e-RFP

In 1999, about the time Bondurant set up the meeting registry, she started a second initiative that was also a precursor of things to come. Instead of having all the planners in her department doing site sourcing, she centralized that responsibility.

“We had about eight planners who were doing all their sourcing themselves the old-fashioned way — by phone or e-mail, then waiting for the faxes to come in. It was a time-consuming process that didn't make sense, so I identified one person to manage all that, and we created an internal RFP [Request for Proposal] form [using an Excel spreadsheet].”

Once the system was set up in her department, Bondurant made it available to other parts of the company. Like the meeting registry, using the sourcing service was voluntary, but unlike the registry, users saw benefits. “The meeting planners estimated they got 20 percent of their time back, and we also discovered synergies: We found cases of different sales managers planning meetings at the same hotel in the same month with different rates.”

Rate parity was just part of the picture. “The main thing was we wanted to be able to look at the contracts. So many people look at contracts not recognizing what can be negotiated and not understanding the possible penalties.”

Finding a Partner

In late 2000, Bondurant started exploring technologies that could bring her hopes of a meeting registry to life and upgrade the centralized sourcing concept. Fortunately, despite limited data on the company's overall meeting spend, the incomplete picture was still impressive. “We were able to go to senior-level management and say, we've been able to identify $14 million in spend with hotels — that's F&B, sleeping rooms, and all the ancillary stuff. People started to raise their eyebrows.”

Bondurant didn't have a big budget and didn't want a lot of bells and whistles. What she did want was a Web-based RFP, data capture and reporting capabilities, and sourcing professionals who were willing to work with Amgen's established relationships at the hotel chains' national sales offices. She found a match with Philadelphia-based StarCite, which started off using Amgen's existing Excel RFP worksheet and in April 2002 moved to a Web-based version.

Here's how the system works: When someone fills out an online RFP — a bona fide meeting planner or an administrative person — it is sent simultaneously to StarCite and Bondurant's internal sourcing people. (There are two now.) StarCite manages getting that RFP to Amgen contacts at the hotel chain national sales offices as well as independent properties, with a request for a 48-hour turnaround. The data comes back to the Amgen sourcing person, who reviews it and sends it to the person who submitted the RFP and who makes the final site decision.

“Once it's determined that we're going with hotel X,” says Bondurant, “word goes back to StarCite, and they do the initial round of contract negotiations. … They have our contract addenda and understand our ‘have to haves,’ our ‘nice to haves,’ and other potential concessions. StarCite gets the contract cleaned up, and then it goes in to the sourcing team. They do all the final negotiations and facilitate the signature process, because we found all kinds of people were signing contracts without appropriate signing authority.”

Besides capturing data on destinations and spending, Bondurant tracks savings on sleeping rooms, calculated as the difference between the price on the original RFP and the price after negotiations. She's tracked this for several years and has seen the percentage savings climb to 25 percent in 2002. “We recognize that that is probably going to flatten out,” she says.

Success!

In 2002, several hundred meetings went through the system, perhaps 85 percent of the total, estimates Bondurant. In 2003, that should approach 100 percent; in December, the company mandated corporatewide use of the Amgen sourcing team. “Not only do Amgen staff members have to source meetings through this system, but anyone who does business on behalf of Amgen, including third-party medical education companies and independent planners.”

Along with the sourcing mandate, a new rule says that anyone with a meeting of 30 or more room nights must use RegWeb, StarCite's Web-based online registration tool. “We're doing that to capture data and also to have a more consistent look for Amgen meetings. You could have an audience that is touched by internal Amgen as well as outside planners or medical education companies, and all three things look completely different,” she explains. “We're trying to get a better handle on that.”

StarCite's product line-up also includes Cliqbook, an online air travel booking tool, which Amgen has used for one national sales meeting. It's not mandated, but 42 percent of the attendees at that meeting used it and gave it good feedback, Bondurant says.

Self-Funded

The cost of the StarCite services is a non issue, says Bondurant. The system is “self-funded,” with a commission on hotel rates that wasn't there before. “Some of the hotels have asked, ‘Why are you now going through a third party when we've spent eight years developing a great relationship with Amgen?’ I understand that perspective, but I just need to be able to capture data.”

But Bondurant hasn't forgotten her hotel partners. Before signing on with StarCite, she made sure it agreed to work with the national sales offices that Amgen had developed relationships with. “My philosophy was that it was our spend, and I felt it was important that the NSOs recognize the benefits of a relationship with Amgen. It's worked very well. I have to credit StarCite; they spent a lot of time with the NSOs getting them to understand the electronic RFP.”

And while the economy may deserve much credit, Bondurant has not seen rates go up by 10 percent, moving from net noncommissionable rates to a commission structure.

With new and more robust data on its way, Bondurant looks ahead: “Down the line, are we shifting market share? Are we concentrating our spend with fewer hotel chains? Are we going to bundle our meeting spend with our transient travel? I think there's a lot to be determined. “I'm very passionate about this because I'm passionate about doing the right thing for the company, and about saving money and risk aversion. I think the processes that we have in place have really defined what that looks like and protected Amgen, and will continue to give us the best value for our dollar.”

Tech Tools

Amgen is sourcing its meeting sites and capturing data using the StarCite system, but StarCite is just one of a number of companies with Web-based solutions to companies' meeting consolidation needs. Here are some of the industry leaders:

Driving Compliance

Selling the e-RFP at Amgen has been an ongoing responsibility for Betsy Bondurant, CMP, associate director, meeting planning and trade show, for Amgen in Thousand Oaks, Calif. She says it's often nonprofessional planners who need the most coaxing. “There are people who enjoy meeting planning. You just have to educate them that the contracting and sourcing part can be easily divorced from the tactical meeting portion and that they're really two different disciplines.”

Bondurant makes sure to focus on the benefits of the new process, explaining that planners can expect to see lower rates, save themselves time, and have the contract negotiation taken care of. “A light bulb goes on, and they think ‘Amgen is liable. Why don't I let the experts do this for me?’ and to us the risk aversion and cost avoidance is huge,” says Bondurant.

She has spread the word about e-RFPs using brown-bag seminars — “lunch and learns” — inviting administrative coordinators and meeting planners to hear about the process. And with the new corporate mandate to source meetings through StarCite, everyone who does meetings on behalf of Amgen has also been invited to participate in a conference call to walk through the new process. And in the case of the medical education companies and independent planners, Bondurant has also written letters about the new policies.

“We're being somewhat understanding. This is a new process; you're not going to get 100 compliance,” Bondurant says.