In the midst of uncertainty and economic calamity, Louann Cashill, CMP, CMM, is one meeting professional who's having “a lot of fun.” Why? Every day she comes to work, she's saving her company money. “This is probably the most exciting time in meeting services history,” says Cashill, meeting services manager, Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A. Inc., Torrance, Calif. “We are having such a positive impact and getting very positive feedback.”

Cashill has been slowly but successfully getting the word out across the company about the meeting services department and its potential to save meeting sponsors time, money, and risk. In the span of 18 months, the number of meetings for which Cashill's department did the sourcing and contracting increased by 300 percent. “It's huge,” she says. “It's more than we anticipated.”

If You Build It …

If you have a strategic meetings management program — or the beginnings of one — in place, you're hoping for a success story like Cashill's. But without a track record, without a corporate mandate, and without a clear picture of who is planning meetings companywide, how do you achieve compliance with meeting policies?

There are a few issues to be addressed. First, your fellow employees have to know you exist. Second, they have to understand what you do and what you want them to do. And third, they have to be convinced there's something in it for them.

Of course, one way to tackle all three issues is to have executives require anyone planning a meeting to register it with your department. Without that mandate, though, you need to be part detective, part educator, and part politician.

Planner, P.I.

“Once they use our services, they become an advocate,” Cashill says. “It's just finding the audience.” She has found her audience through presentations to executives, webinars, blurbs on the corporate intranet, and a series of one-hour forums (see sidebar, page 19).

Cashill also hasn't waited until Toyota's SMMP is fully in place to start hunting. “We're eating the elephant one piece at a time,” she laughs. “We focused on the area where we would have the biggest impact, and that's hotel sourcing.” With some planners going directly to hotels, others using third parties, and no one coordinating efforts, Toyota was spending far more on meetings than it had to. So Cashill brought in StarCite as a sourcing partner, making it simple for meeting sponsors to fill out a request form online and then to choose “hotel sourcing only” or “full meetings management support.”

Offering the sourcing-only option, Cashill believes, is the key to her success. “We've made progress by saying, ‘You continue doing the meeting planning, and we'll help you if you need us, but let us source the program. Let us negotiate the contract in order to protect you and Toyota.’ There are so many compelling arguments. And to be truthful, I don't know any administrative assistant who enjoys calling around to properties and waiting for return calls. It's a long, arduous process.”

Once a meeting sponsor uses the sourcing process, Cashill continues, a relationship begins. And once they see the value of sourcing hotels and negotiating contracts through the meeting services department, they may ask for planning help as well — and share their experience with colleagues. “We've been able to nail the customer service,” Cashill says. “That's why positive word is starting to spread.”

Cashill knows she's getting the service right because she gives users carefully developed surveys that include space for candid comments. “Having the survey results and the positive responses will help us gain traction in requesting executive endorsement,” she says. “We have a travel policy. Our goal is to implement an enterprisewide meetings policy that would include a process for consolidating hotel sourcing, negotiating, and contracting through the meeting services group.”

And They'll Tell Two Friends …

Meanwhile, at Microsoft in Mountain View, Calif., Vivian Eickhoff, CMM, group events marketing manager, is part of the Microsoft Events Team, a 100-person organization that was centralized in 2000 to manage the company's core strategic events.

There is no mandate for internal business groups to work with her, however, so Eickhoff has had to take charge of crafting a message and getting it out there. “At the beginning, we had to sell ourselves a lot, and explain why people should go through our team,” she says. It was a slow start, but their perseverance has paid off. “Back then, I never would have thought that we would be consulting as much as we are. Now we're getting to pick and choose the meetings we should be doing. We won't do someone's team meeting, for example. We focus on events where the goal fits right into a primary objective for our company.”

Eickhoff notes that there's a ripple effect once internal customers start getting value from a meeting services team and spread the word. For example, in May 2007, she learned that one of the business groups was planning a product launch in Los Angeles in February 2008. She knew that her events team could bring a lot to the table for that meeting; the group leaders were not sure.

“I met with them and explained why we should be a part of it,” Eickhoff says. She gave them specifics: The meeting sponsor was not up to date on partner contracts, for example, but Eickhoff could offer experts in that area. “I also discussed our budget management philosophy — managing the budget end to end and even being able to tie it back to the internal system and account for every penny,” she says. “It was a conversation around partnership and how with this business group's knowledge of the product and my team's knowledge of events, it would be a dynamic partnership for success.”

Ultimately, she says, “they understood that they would still have ownership. And we might have firm suggestions but we were not going to tell them what to do. Often it's a control thing. They have a lot at stake. We get them to understand that we have a lot at stake, too.”

Once she got the green light, the meeting sponsor never looked back. “My greatest satisfaction was one month into the project I got e-mail from the meeting owner saying, ‘This is great.’ Our team really delivered. We changed her perception. Now she tells her colleagues, ‘You have to call the events team.’”

Of course, this success hinged on Eickhoff uncovering plans for the kickoff in time to get involved. “Our company is so large. I wish I always knew when we were about to roll out a new version of a product so we don't miss the opportunity,” she says. “We don't have to sell ourselves as much anymore, but some people still don't know about us. So we are always searching for meetings to pull into our portfolio. Many times we find out about events through word of mouth, so we keep our eyes open to ensure our team is working on the right events and we are helping our company.”

Money Talks

As planners like Cashill and Eickhoff successfully source more and more meetings, they gain the data on savings, efficiencies, and risk avoidance they need to make the case for a company-mandated meeting policy. Preparing to launch her SMMP at Minneapolis-based Medtronic Inc., Donna Patrick, CMP, CMM, manager, group meetings, events, and travel, created a slide presentation for executives in late 2007. The first big impression she made on them: Her approximation of the company's total meeting spend. “It's always more than you think,” she notes. Her presentation continued with an explanation of how Medtronic Meeting Solutions would mitigate those costs, leverage the company's spend, and identify areas of cost avoidance.

The executives were politely attentive at first, she recalls. But “the light bulb went on” when she told them about two Medtronic divisions meeting at the same time at the same hotel with two different planners, two contracts, two sets of terms. They understood that lost opportunity. She didn't get them to approve a companywide mandate, but they asked her to continue to collect data, which they promised to review.

One year later, she met with them again, showing the significant savings that were realized when meeting sponsors went through her department. Perhaps more compelling to the competitive division heads, she showed usage comparisons among divisions, and which divisions had logged the most cost savings.

The result? In late 2008, executives announced that use of Patrick's department for sourcing and contracting is now mandatory.

Bring in the Big Guns

If your executives haven't laid down the law, there's another group that can reinforce your message: procurement. A strategic meetings management program is all about consistency and control — two goals close to the heart of any procurement department. Not surprisingly, procurement often works hand in hand with meeting services on RFPs, contracts, and preferred vendor agreements.

Microsoft's Eickhoff has found that procurement representatives can play a useful role as enforcers. “In some situations, we may want to bring our procurement lead to a meeting to discuss RFPs and policies around hiring approved vendors,” she says. “If it's a challenging meeting, this can be helpful, as procurement can really put the stake in the ground regarding policies and the risks for not complying.”

Both Eickhoff and Sharon Marsh, CMP, CMM, meetings group manager at Medtronic Cardiovascular in Santa Rosa, Calif., champion the benefits of holding annual preferred-vendor events to allow meeting sponsors to get to know these suppliers.

“Our team hosts an annual event managed by our senior vendor account manager called Vendor Briefing Day,” Eickhoff explains. “All of our core vendors attend, and we offer a day of training, insight into our team's direction for the year, networking, and an opportunity to learn from the experts. We always have a session around policies and our procurement lead comes to speak and answer the questions. I think it's a unique opportunity for our team and vendors to have this direct access to procurement and see the ‘person behind the curtain.’”

In a previous position at a technology company, Marsh worked as a meeting manager within the procurement department, which planned an annual vendor fair. It included tabletop exhibits, along with lunch, and any employee could stop by to meet vendors, such as American Express, car rental companies, hotels, and cell-phone providers. “The primary purpose was to get employees to see which vendors they should be using,” Marsh says.

She suggests giving meeting sponsors a behind-the-scenes look at how preferred vendors are chosen. “When we contract with preferred vendors, we will include some of these users in the process,” she says. “By allowing them to see the parameters we use when going out to bid and the high standards to which we are going to hold the vendors, they buy in to what we are doing. Some will always resist, but if we show them sound business reasons behind the decision, it is hard for them to fight it. They will not look very corporate-minded in front of their peers if they choose to waste money by using non-compliant vendors.”

Today's Twist

No one wants to be seen wasting money these days — which makes the case for SMMP compliance all the more compelling. “We are in the midst of a significant global cost-savings initiative,” says Patrick at Medtronic, which has brought the benefits of using her department into sharper focus.

At Toyota, Cashill is getting the chance to meet some occasional planners when they find themselves needing to cancel or postpone a program for which a contract has been signed. “I'll get the phone calls for help when it's a contract they may have negotiated on their own,” she says. “It's been an opportunity for us to reach out and educate people. They may have to pay a cancellation fee, but we explain how we might have been able to negotiate better terms.”

Patrick has also fielded such calls from planners who may have “signed contracts with no rebooking clause and with an agreement to pay full penalty even if they cancel one year out.” Now they're wondering how to get out of paying tens of thousands of dollars in penalties. “I try to work with the hotel on their behalf, which has helped reduce costs,” she says. “However there have been a few occasions where the hotel pretty much said, ‘The contract does not have a rebooking clause so you are on the hook.’ I always politely remind the planner to go though my process moving forward. I get no arguments!”