As an administrative assistant at Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J., Vanessa Hubbard planned board and committee meetings for her department, bringing up to 75 people to four- and five-star properties for five days. While she was a whiz at planning the programs, she wasn't comfortable signing the sizable contracts required — and she had no idea how to negotiate.

“I had no training, so when the contract came, I had to take it at face value,” recalls Hubbard, who has since joined the company's centralized meeting department and earned her CMP. “I never knew I could change a cancellation clause or negotiate for A/V or room charges or other items for free.”

When ETS launched a centralized meeting program in 2003, Hubbard embraced it as a way to learn more about that part of her job — and eventually saw meeting planning as a stepping-stone to a new career. Other administrative assistants at ETS were not as welcoming. Several even viewed the new department as a threat. “I was in the middle of that rumor mill,” she says, as many worried that their jobs were going to be taken away.

Good, But Not Good Enough

It's not an unusual scenario: When meeting managers begin to require that everyone who plans meetings register them through the centralized meeting department, the greatest resistance often comes from the administrative staff.

“A lot of admins were not hired to be meeting planners, but it's a part of their jobs that they enjoy,” says Peggy Hemphill, founder and president of Your Corporate Source, a West Hartford, Conn., company specializing in business process models for strategic meetings management and corporate travel programs. “So they try to stay under the radar and continue doing what they've always done.”

Unfortunately, what they've always done may not be in the company's best interests.

Lacking the training that comes with a professional planning background and having to juggle many other responsibilities at the same time, administrative assistants may not put time into shopping for the best sites and are unlikely to negotiate with hotels and airlines.

JoAnn Chmura, CMP, CMM, relationship marketing manager at Connecticare, a Farmington, Conn.-based HMO, has seen that firsthand. As the only professional planner at the company, she handles meetings for the sales and marketing department, while administrative assistants put together meetings for five other departments — some as big as 150-person client events.

When she's negotiating a meeting at a local hotel, she often discovers that an admin is also using the property for a different event. “When I look at their contract, it is usually so much more expensive than what I could have gotten,” Chmura says.

A big part of the problem is that the time crunch on most admins is huge, says Emily Hoffman, a spokesperson for the International Association of Administrative Professionals. “When you add on a new task, it tends to fragment people,” she says. “I'm not sure administrative professionals could truly [be effective at meeting planning] unless they wanted to completely leave their own duties behind.”

That said, Hoffman points out that meeting planning has long been a part of the administrative professional's job description. In fact, IAAP's two certification programs both have questions on meeting planning, and the organization offers seminars on planning basics at its annual conferences.

Break Down the Wall

Before reaching out to your company's ad hoc meeting planners, one of the biggest challenges is to identify who exactly those people are. “In most cases, companies don't have that data,” says Hemphill. She suggests starting with a survey to identify everyone who has some planning responsibility.

That's what Jennifer Dela-Cruz, senior meeting planner, Royal Bank of Canada, Toronto, did as the first step in planning an internal conference to bring planners together for education and networking. (See sidebar, page 19.) She sent a survey to some 80 people at the company — those with “meeting planner” in their job titles, as well as administrative assistants and others identified by suppliers as having booked a meeting in the past year.

Once you've found the administrative assistants and other ad hoc planners, the next step is to gain their respect and let them know you're a resource, not a competitor. Recognizing that admins are often overburdened and underappreciated can go a long way in that effort, says Kathleen Zwart, CMP, meetings and events manager, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Florida in Jacksonville.

“The aim is not to take away control but to ensure that they get the best deals they can,” Zwart says. And to follow policy: A new on-site conference facility opened this fall, and all Blue Cross Blue Shield meetings must now try to book there before looking elsewhere. If the facility isn't available or appropriate for a particular meeting, that event can go off-site only if it is approved by a senior vice president — and if the planner works through Zwart for the site selection and contract negotiation.

She will work with the admins who are responsible for planning meetings to identify options — bringing them on site inspections where appropriate — and to negotiate contracts. “They'll come to see that I'm making their jobs easier, not harder,” she says. She does expect some resistance, but hopes that her reputation as a resource to part-time planners will help.

In fact, signing contracts is one of the first things admins feel comfortable giving up — and that's often a good place to start working with them. “You're not taking away the very important role they play,” says Hemphill. “You are just removing the risk.”

Another tactic for winning over administrative assistants and their bosses: Proving the savings achieved by working through the centralized meeting department. When Kim Bladen, CMP, corporate meeting planner, enterprise sourcing and supplier management at ETS, negotiated a rebook clause that saved the ETS satellite office in California more than $100,000 last year, it brought that group completely on board.

“Over the years, we've gotten a lot more respect from our internal clients — admins and management — because they realize that we do understand what's going on, and we want to help them meet their goals,” Bladen says. “These days, more and more people are coming to us before they even start planning.”

Other Roadblocks

Even with the risk management and cost savings to be achieved, change can be threatening. Connecticare's Chmura ran into a surprising amount of resistance to her efforts to pull all off-site meetings under her umbrella by January 2009. The goals are clear — to save dollars and to ensure brand consistency — and she has the support of her CEO and the chief sales officer. But at the meeting she held to introduce the idea, she got pushback from department heads who complained that good administrative assistants may quit because a part of their jobs they like was being taken away. They argued that their admins know the audience better and are, therefore, better qualified to make appropriate choices for their meetings.

And as Rita Hartman, an administrative assistant and meeting planner at Boston-based Aravon, a division of New Balance Athletic Shoe Inc., who has been planning meetings as a part of her job for more than 20 years, points out: “Often the part-time planner is not recognized and rewarded and not paid as much as the full-time planner. So you have to be careful in your approach to make sure you treat them as an equal.”

ETS's Hubbard agrees and says the company works at being sensitive to the planner/admin dynamic. The meeting team refers to administrative assistants as “clients” and touches base several times a year with trips to satellite offices. They also held a series of roundtables to introduce the centralized meeting program when it first launched. Nonetheless, many of the ETS admins didn't change their ways until they were forced: A new company mandate requires that meetings can only be paid for on a corporate card issued exclusively to the centralized meeting department. “They can negotiate all they want, but when it comes time for payment and signing the contract, it is null and void because they don't have authorization,” she says.

Policy support is critical when trying to rein in wayward admins, agrees Bladen. “It helps that the SMMP directive came from the top,” she says. “Having the support of your executives is key.”

On the Flip Side

Of course, once you start looking into meeting planning at your company, you may discover that having admins on the job isn't the concern you thought it would be. Patricia Kerr, BA, CMP, director, distribution sales support at Manulife Financial, Toronto, says that while preliminary research shows that admins handle up to 70 percent of the meetings at her company, there are no plans to change that. That's because the meetings they organize are generally small and probably account for only 30 percent of the total meetings budget.

“We are not spending the dollars to put senior meeting managers in a position of managing 70 percent of meetings by number, but the smallest percentage budget-wise,” she says. “You're not going to find synergies — you don't need a senior person to do the small meeting.”

Instead, Manulife provides a small-meetings toolkit and a variety of templates, rules, and tips, so planners “have the basics,” Kerr says, adding that the company is rolling out a standardized registration tool that all admins will be trained on.

At ETS, while contracting and payment are centralized, admins have a lot to do to put together meetings, Bladen says. “There's still plenty of responsibility,” she explains. “With the number of meetings we have, we can't possibly do all the things they do.” Each of the seven professional planners in the centralized meeting department works with a flexible number of internal clients. The admins are all trained in StarCite meeting management technology, and they use that to request a meeting. A professional planner then reviews the request and works with them to negotiate the contract. “Our primary role here is to negotiate contracts that protect ETS and to leverage our spend to reduce our costs.”

Sidebar: Royal Bank of Canada
Why Not Have the Meeting Planners Meet?

WITH MORE THAN 70,000 ROYAL BANK OF CANADA employees in Canada, the United States, and 39 countries around the world, Jennifer Dela-Cruz didn't know all the company's full-time meeting planners, much less the people who handle meetings part-time.

“I was getting introduced to other RBC planners by our vendors” at meeting industry events, says Dela-Cruz, senior meeting planner, who is based in Toronto. “It just didn't seem right that we didn't know each other.”

So she set out to change that, launching the company's first-ever meeting planning conference to share best practices, encourage networking, and perhaps begin to leverage buying power.

Her first step was building a business case for holding an event — and getting a budget. Dela-Cruz wound up finding sponsors for almost the entire one-and-a-half-day conference, which attracted 47 attendees, including 21 part-time planners and administrative assistants. The Fairmont Royal York in Toronto hosted the event and other area properties kicked in for meals. She used her $5,000 budget from RBC mainly for travel expenses.

Speakers covered such topics as green meetings, working with hotels, and RBC buying power, and the event also included presentations by the RBC procurement department. In addition, Dela-Cruz arranged her own form of “speed dating” — brief meetings between conference sponsors and planners.

To sustain the networking started at the conference, Dela-Cruz now has a list of about 200 ad hoc planners in the company whom she tries to keep in touch with on a regular basis, both by e-mail and through a new blog on RBC's internal Web site, open to everyone in the company. About 10 regional meeting planners in the United States and Canada write monthly on a variety of topics, and anyone in the company can post comments or questions.

Planners and admins use the blog to share everything from hotel special offers to menus to ways to plan a green meeting. A meeting planning tutorial and downloadable documents such as standardized contract addendum also are available on the site. Dela-Cruz says the blog and the links have helped to professionalize meeting planning among the part-time planners, and are helping her to begin the process of harnessing RBC's enormous buying power.

Related article:
Getting Started With Strategic Meetings Management Programs