Seven years ago, in a landscape more or less devoid of educational outlets for high-level industry professionals, a small group of corporate meeting executives found each other. Their goal: to start a forum to discuss the issues that they were dealing with as heads of meeting departments in major Fortune 500 companies — managing people, consolidating meetings, leveraging their spend.

Over the years, members of the Meetings Competitive Advantage Forum, which has remained pretty much anonymous until now, have quietly become an influential force in the industry. You might even say they are the pioneers of the strategic meeting management movement.

Not that they're looking for accolades — or attention. Many MCAF members did not want to be interviewed for this story and did not think the publicity was necessary. But the majority of this exclusive 40-member association did agree to share their story, ultimately because they feel that their focus — strategic meeting management — is the future of the industry.

“We have an opportunity to lead the movement and to be a resource for other people, not just ourselves,” says Michele Snock, CMM, global manager of meeting services at Cisco Systems, San Jose, Calif., and an MCAF member for the past six years. “What's the harm of trying to make a change in our industry and telling people what we're doing? It could potentially inspire other groups to do the same.”

Ahead of the Curve

MCAF's inaugural meeting in January 2000 was attended by just a handful of corporate meeting planners, including Madlyn Caliri, CPM, procurement manager and meetings and events program manager at AT&T in Austin, Texas. The group saw itself as an alternative for those who had moved up through the ranks and outgrown the education that was being provided by the industry associations.

“There's so much that happens at those associations that is truly successful,” says Michael Greto, CMP, event manager, strategic events at Coca-Cola North America, Atlanta. “But I'm looking for education at a much higher, more strategic level,” he says. MCAF, which he was invited to join in 2001, filled the void, delving deep into the principles and practices of strategic meeting management. “I learn more at MCAF than at any other conference.”

Snock points out that the major industry associations are now “coming to the table” with more strategic offerings. “That's a step in the right direction,” she says.

For example, in 2003, the National Business Travel Association debuted its Groups and Meetings Committee, and the following year Meeting Professionals International introduced the Global Corporate Circle of Excellence. Both include MCAF members: Caliri, Snock, and Theresa Tamer, CMP, director, strategic events at Coca-Cola North America, sit on the NBTA committee. Caliri was one of its founding members, and Snock pulls double duty, sitting on MPI's GCCOE as well.

Snock is glad that MPI and NBTA are tackling these issues and is happy to volunteer her time. “I'm hoping to make a difference,” she says, but adds that she would like to see the groups get “off the white paper track” and come up with research and case studies that show how to build a business case for strategic management programs.

By participating in these committees, speaking at industry conferences, and being quoted in magazine articles, MCAF's members — many of whom are recognizable names in the industry — have quietly brought attention to the business side of meetings. “We're the quiet company,” says Tamer. “We don't draw attention to ourselves, and we prefer to stay that way because we get a lot more done.”

As Snock puts it, any influence that MCAF members have had is a byproduct of the overriding mission of the group since day one: to share ideas and best practices, address challenges, benchmark, and help each other ramp up programs at their companies. She is the first to admit that, “in essence, this group was not meant to be anything more than a resource for ourselves.”

On the Agenda

MCAF consists of 20 major corporations, including Oracle, Hewlett-Packard, Gap, Cisco, PricewaterhouseCoopers, AT&T, and Coca-Cola. Each company is allowed to have two individual members. The limit is 20 because, says Snock, “We want it to be an organization that can all fit around the same table and work with each other.” (At the next meeting, however, the group will discuss whether it will expand.)

Most of the member companies are Fortune 100 companies, and membership is by invitation only. Invitations are extended based on recommendations from others in the group. Most members either have strategic meeting management programs in place or are working on one. About five companies are on the waiting list if openings arise. The group also has an attendance requirement that says if you miss two meetings in a row, it's time to step aside.

MCAF members never share preferred pricing with each other, says Snock. “We do share overall benchmarking statistics on percentage of savings.” Also, though some members are from the same business sectors (mainly technology and financial services), there are no major competitors in the group.

The group meets three to four times a year, with each member taking a turn hosting and planning the meeting in his or her city. They try to keep it on an East-West rotation, as most of the members are on the coasts. There are no dues or fees, and attendees pay their own way, with the host footing the bill for the meeting space. There are two officers, a team leader who focuses on strategic direction and putting together the agendas, and a membership chairman, with the players rotating every two years.

Because there are no supplier members, the forum allows members to speak freely and in-depth about specific situations and best practices without getting a sales pitch. “We love our suppliers, but this is an opportunity to talk turkey,” says Snock, “and get into the nuts and bolts of what we're trying to accomplish within our corporations.”

At the end of each meeting, the group develops the agenda for the next by voting on a list of hot topics. (Each company has one voting member.) Surveys are typically sent around before the meeting for additional agenda input.

The meetings last a day and a half. Attendees arrive on a Wednesday night for dinner, meet all day Thursday, and leave Friday after lunch. The agendas cover a lot of ground. At the last meeting, for example, Thursday kicked off with a panel of hotel executives fielding questions on working with global sales chiefs, and was followed by a presentation on socially responsible meetings. In the afternoon, members shared best practices on metrics — that is, how they measure performance, cost savings, etc. They also discussed how high oil prices are affecting their programs, the use of webinars, and the dos and don'ts of placing business during high-risk seasons. Other hot topics have included how to get buy-in from the administrative assistant community, measuring return on investment, and event marketing strategies. Individuals also discuss their involvement in industry events and advisory boards.

Often, the group invites experts to shed more light on topics. DMC officials were invited to talk about insurance, liability, and other related subjects; another time, speakers were brought in to present about measuring ROI. But, says Snock, “when we do bring suppliers in, it's to be educated by them, not to get a sales pitch.”

Sharing Best Practices

When Greto and Tamer were invited to represent Coca-Cola on MCAF in 2001, they were in the early stages of developing a strategic meeting management program, so the feedback they received was invaluable. They were able to benchmark their processes against what other MCAF companies were doing and to incorporate some best practices into their model.

“That's one of the reasons it piqued our interest — that accessibility to 20 major corporations that are sharing information,” says Greto. Based on feedback from the others, they were able to formulate a new standard letter of agreement with suppliers, for example. Often, members will initiate surveys of members on a topic of interest, such as tax deductibility of incentive programs. “Once all the information is compiled by the person who was asking, they are in turn able to share the results, which is phenomenal, and usually it happens within a two-week turnaround time,” explains Greto.

The give and take is why members are so enthusiastic about MCAF and why, for most of them, it has replaced other educational outlets. “We can talk through these issues and get some great ideas because someone else there has done it,” says Snock. “And we have no qualms with someone taking our idea and redoing it in their company.”

For example, based on MCAF feedback, Snock developed an internal Web site to better communicate Cisco's meeting program to the administrative assistant community and facilitate the process of registering meetings. It proved to be an effective method of tracking the many smaller meetings throughout the company. “It was beneficial to me because we kind of piggybacked off some ideas the others had,” she says.

Hearing about the various technologies that companies use has been most helpful to Jack Eichhorn, director, meeting services, at Oracle, Redwood Shores, Calif., who joined MCAF a year ago. “To sit in a room with 20 of your peers and understand not only what they're using, but the challenges they have been able to overcome — it's a great opportunity.” Learning what other companies are doing has helped him to avoid “re-creating the wheel,” says Eichhorn, because chances are, one of the members already has tried it.

Debi Scholar, meeting and event services director at PricewaterhouseCoopers, Florham Park, N.J., who joined MCAF four years ago, has incorporated elements of other members' meeting policies into her company's meeting policy. “What is the definition of a meeting? What does a meeting policy look like?” These are some of the questions that she asked. “Our meeting policy today is a combination of that of probably three or four other companies. We just tweaked it for our internal environment.”

She has also gotten insight into the types of metrics that executives are looking for from meetings managers. “While I think I might know what interests our chief financial officer, in terms of sharing metrics, it's also really great to see what types of information others are sharing.”

Creating the Recipe

Some would say MCAF is part of another movement — the rise of niche educational groups in the meetings industry. In recent years, Joan Eisenstodt, chief strategist at Eisenstodt Associates, a Washington, D.C. — based meeting consultant, training, and facilitation firm, has seen a growing number of such groups. She is involved in two of them: W2W, a group of women leaders in the meetings industry that formed in 2003; and INMEX, Unite Here's meetings education arm.

“It's the specialized education that we've gotten so far away from at these huge industry meetings. That, to me, is where we lose the sense of community,” says Eisenstodt, who had not heard of MCAF. The role of the meeting professional is much more complicated now than it was five to 10 years ago, so there is a growing desire by people with similar jobs — whether it's pharmaceutical planners or meeting department heads — to convene in niche groups.

Eisenstodt does not see smaller groups siphoning off the big association meetings, but rather complementing them. “A lot of us like to go to the big meetings,” she says, for the networking, the socializing, and the education. She suggests that the big associations develop niched hot topic areas at their meetings for people who want to get together on their own.

If MCAF does inspire other organizations to form, that's a good thing, says Eichhorn. “Our industry would be better off if there were additional organizations or opportunities to drive education and knowledge and the skill base.”

As far as MCAF, Snock hopes that the group's shared experiences and educational efforts will someday make strategic meeting management the norm throughout the industry. “Once upon a time, companies didn't have travel departments,” she says. “Now they all do, and they all operate all pretty similarly, and I think meetings departments will do the same.” Over time, she believes, the process will be less cumbersome, less daunting, and more companies will jump on the SMMP bandwagon.

Between now and then, “there's so much more to happen,” says Snock. “That's why it's exciting. We're in the beginning stages, and we're kind of creating the recipe.”

Strategic Meeting Management 101

What exactly is strategic meeting management? “It's not really about the meeting at all,” says Michele Snock, global manager of meeting services at Cisco Systems, San Jose, Calif. “It's about looking at the enterprise and how we (the meetings department) affect the enterprise. It's about spend optimization.”

At Oracle, Redwood City, Calif., the essence of a strategic meeting management program is the three “Ts” — track, trend, and trim. “You have to be able to track it to trend it,” says Jack Eichhorn, director, meeting services. “If you can't track it, you can't trend it, and if you can't trend it, you can't trim it.”

One of the big challenges in launching an SMMP is getting senior management on board. “Unless you have an executive champion, it's really hard to get an SMMP going,” says Snock. It's a Catch-22 because you can't launch an SMMP without a business plan, but it's hard to get the data for a business plan without an SMMP.

She recommends compiling as much information as possible and finding an executive champion to support the initiative. “Once you do that, you then have to change the perception of the people in your company,” she says — not just the executives, but everyone who touches meetings, including those accustomed to planning their own meetings. “The administrative assistant community, for example, can really make you or break you. If they don't buy into what you're doing, it could be a disaster.”

For more information on strategic meeting management programs, check out the following articles and white papers:

Marketing or Procurement: Where Does the Meeting Department Belong?

While there is no standard model, most of the MCAF members who have strategic meeting management programs operate within the procurement structure. Michele Snock, global manager of meeting services at Cisco Systems, San Jose, Calif., and Jack Eichhorn, director, meeting services at Oracle, Redwood Shores, Calif. — who are both aligned with procurement at their respective companies — say that it's easier to implement an SMMP if the meeting department reports to procurement or operations rather than to marketing.

One reason is that marketing departments tend to focus on marketing meetings, not on the gamut of corporate meetings, explains Snock.

Also, the two departments view meetings very differently. “Marketing should really be focusing on the content and driving the marketing messaging,” says Eichhorn. “As part of procurement, we want to support that requirement, but our motivation is different.” While marketing's mission is to invest in meetings to optimize the experience for the customer, the procurement side looks at how to spend as efficiently as possible without diluting or hampering the meeting or the marketing message.

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