Looking with dread at the year ahead? You're not alone. Your peers also are canceling programs, losing meeting team members, and trying to stay positive in an industry that's gone very negative when it comes to meetings. At the same time, many planners are reminding senior executives of their value, and finding that value in their strategic meetings management programs. In March 2004, the Groups & Meetings Committee of the National Business Travel Association released a white paper called “Building a Strategic Meetings Management Program,” which remains the standard framework for an SMMP. (Find it at www.nbta.org.)

Not that everyone uses the term. Dan Young, CMP, director of event planning and field recognition at Thrivent Financial for Lutherans in Minneapolis, has been guided by strategic meetings management principles since 2002 — before SMMP was common parlance. Last year, Young reported $1 million in cost savings due to the company's negotiating leverage. That's impressive no matter what you call it.

Launching an SMMP, Step by Step

  1. Define Your Current Situation

    “Any SMMP starts and ends with data,” says Lisa English, CMP, CMM, director of operations at Concepts Worldwide in Carlsbad, Calif. That means figuring out how many meetings your company books and who is booking them.

    Tamara Gordon, global travel and meetings director at UnitedHealth Group in Minneapolis, joined the company when many of the 800-plus meetings already were being professionally planned, but without real strategies in place. “My first challenge was to find out what was out there. This is difficult in any large company if your meetings are fulfilled by several third-party suppliers and internal planners,” she says. “The methods I used included pulling the invoices of third-party planners. With these, I came up with a calendar of events as well as the contacts managing those events.”

    Gordon is part of the procurement area and had access to payment information such as purchasing card and corporate card records, which yielded more clues on who was booking meetings. Another step she took was to be made point of contact for approval of T&E suppliers being added to the company's vendor database. “Requests are routed to me,” she explains. “If it looks like a meeting, I contact the requester and educate them on our process.”

    Gordon also asked peers in other areas of the company to “keep their ears and eyes open” and let her know about any outlying meetings expenses. Finally, she met with American Express Corporate Travel, UnitedHealth's travel management company, asking them to alert her if anyone planned meetings outside her department.

    For Paul Vandevere, conference and event planning manager at Lincoln Financial Group in Radnor, Pa., meanwhile, the situation was a bit different. Meetings were planned internally and already had been consolidated when he joined the team. However, there was no cohesive technology, no mandate for using the department, and no platform to capture data and spend. “There were 400-plus meetings on the calendar,” he notes. “It was quite a large animal. In order to leverage our spend, we needed to start gathering data.”

    So now it's time to look at the numbers.

  2. Calculate What You Spend on Meetings.

    Listen up: Kate Lastinger, CMP, CMM, is about to save you a lot of time and effort. “The current mode for SMMPs is someone goes on a treasure hunt for meetings spend, which takes tons of time and is rarely accurate,” says Lastinger, founding partner of strategic meetings management consultancy The Metaphrasis Group, in Atlanta. “Back when SMMPs started to take hold, the treasure hunt was the only way to do it.” But she sees a better way.

    “If you have a strong meetings department, take the amount of your meetings spend, which you know exactly, and bump it up to the industry standard, which is 1 to 3 percent of a company's revenue,” she advises. Meeting managers should weight the average based on their overall meetings profile: pharmaceutical companies, for example, will shift toward the 3 percent figure. “The difference between the spend you know for sure and the industry standard gives you a good idea of what you're going to uncover as unmanaged spend.” Since it's tough to be accurate with your treasure hunt anyway, this formula can save you months of work.

    You need to come up with a number for total spend in order to make your case for managing that spend. Which leads to your big opportunities …

  3. Identify Opportunities.

    “Launching an SMMP involves an internal sell,” says Lisa English of Concepts Worldwide. “Especially now, because of the economy, you need to be clear on what the payback will be.”

Fortunately, an SMMP can bring major payback:

  • Risk mitigation through centrally negotiated contracts

  • Cost savings through professional negotiation and increased negotiating leverage

  • Process efficiencies

  • Meeting and branding consistency

You want to trumpet all that potential, but don't overpromise, English advises. “We know from some benchmarking that an SMMP can save 10 percent to 15 percent of meetings spend. But you won't get there in the first year and maybe not in the second year. Set achievable goals so you don't get the plug pulled,” she says. “Understand what the C-level needs to see to allow you to keep moving. Set incremental goals. The first year will be discovery (plus the benefit of risk mitigation). The second year you will save 3 percent to 5 percent. Make sure you will meet or exceed the goals you set.”

Among the opportunities that Tamara Gordon has identified is simply getting all the business units under one umbrella. “There is cost-savings potential when we consolidate our spend across the enterprise. Right now this spend is often recognized only at the [individual business unit] name, and not rolled into UnitedHealth Group,” she explains. “We have not been leveraging the spend across the entire business.” She also expects to realize savings from managing cash flow — that is, not sending money out sooner than necessary — and by shifting all payment to a meetings credit card.

Other benefits stem from the greater visibility of meetings under an SMMP, notes Todd Zint, CMP, CMM, vice president, meetings and event marketing, at NFP Insurance Services Inc., in Austin, Texas. A corporate meetings calendar, he says, “allows each new meeting request to be reviewed for audience overlap, holiday schedules, industry conferences, and potential use of a canceled meeting credit.”

The biggest opportunity for planners lies in the cost savings and avoidance they can show senior management. “We put a dollar value on all the concessions we negotiate. That's cost avoidance,” Zint explains. “And we consider everything we negotiate over and above what an admin would get when booking the same meeting as our true organizational value-add. That's the confidence we are building in our service, so the company knows it has the systems and the people in place to get the job done.” The bottom line: “Strategic processes and measurable results equate to job security.”

As consultant Kate Lastinger puts it, “SMMP makes you powerful. When an exec says, ‘I'm cutting the sales kickoff,’ you don't have to accept it! Get in there and show why that's a bad decision. Say to that executive, ‘Listen, how do we retain salespeople in this environment? They need motivation, incentives, reassurance. These meetings are critical. If we can keep our $5 million worth of sales meetings, I'll find ways to cut that budget, and I also propose taking the $3 million worth of training meetings scheduled for 2009 and converting them to a Web-based format.’

“With the right SMMP in place, you can easily identify opportunities to cut spend without hurting the meetings that positively impact your bottom line. Identifying ‘quantity spend’ events for the axe while maintaining ‘quality spend’ events will save meetings jobs in a challenging marketplace.”

4. Create the Framework for your SMMP

There's more than one path to SMMP nirvana. Says Zint of NFP Insurance Services, “SMMP is the guideline but you need to see how to integrate the components within your company's framework, which takes time, patience, and executive buy-in.”

Likewise, Paul Vandevere at Lincoln Financial Group says, “Right now we are taking a broad approach to SMMP. We are forming it around the company as it is organized now.” Vandevere's advantage is that his department already is set up to handle everyone's meetings, so, conceptually, he's not introducing a whole new way of doing things.

Gordon's company outsources most meetings purchasing and logistics to third parties. Straightforward business meetings are handled by American Express Corporate Meetings Solutions, while “high-touch” meetings, such as incentive conferences and large customer events, are bid on individually by the three incentive houses that represent UnitedHealth's preferred suppliers.

Developing that preferred list was another of Gordon's tasks, one that required skill in diplomacy and negotiation. “Some of our business units had long-term relationships with [third-parties],” she says. “The business had never been put out to bid.” Gordon did call for bids, and by doing so was able to renegotiate existing and potentially outmoded contracts — all in a way that didn't ruffle feathers. “We didn't want to go to a business owner and say, ‘This pricing is not competitive,’” she explains. “So we restructured the way the pricing was configured, reduced the fees, and maintained the relationships.”

5. Put it in Place

There are options for planning your rollout. One way is to start with a single business unit. “Find one group that will agree to 100 percent compliance, following all the policies of your proposed SMMP,” suggests Lastinger of Metaphrasis Group. “Do that for six months, then go to your executives and show them the comparison: This division followed all the rules while [others] just logged their data over the same period. The rule-following division was 10 percent more efficient, was able to reuse canceled space, used contracts that all had the same attrition clause thereby reducing risk, and so on.”

That's essentially what Vandevere at Lincoln Financial Group is doing. Lincoln Financial Distributors, the business unit in which the meetings department resides, will serve as beta tester for the SMMP, allowing Vandevere to “perfect and hone the system,” he says. “The beta testing will be used as a benchmark to demonstrate what the system can do for the other business units.”

Another rollout option is to start by just asking anyone booking a meeting to voluntarily register it with your department. Point out the advantages to the company when all meetings spend is tracked. When a meeting is registered, offer to help with sourcing.

“Figure out how to drive people toward you,” says consultant English. “You are providing them with contract solutions and payment solutions. You are making their lives easier. Once they hear about that, they will come find you. If you try forcing it, they will rebel.” Try to develop working relationships companywide. “Start a monthly call of meeting planners. Provide them resources and education,” English advises.

Communication is key to any SMMP, and it doesn't stop after you launch the program. You will want regular contact with your stakeholders and with management. As English puts it, “You need to manage up and manage out. You need to create a community.” She suggests regular reviews of your program as well. “Put course corrections right in your business plan. In this environment, you might want to propose a review every six months. Apply ROI measurement to your SMMP initiative to quantify your results.”

SMMP Elements

Registering Meetings

Registration is the wellspring of an SMMP. All the benefits of risk management, cost savings, and consistency flow only when every meeting is registered, professionally sourced and contracted, and tracked. So what meetings need to be registered? For NFP Insurance Services Inc., it's any gathering of 10 or more people at a non-NFP facility. At UnitedHealth Group, it's 10 or more people using contracted meeting space or requiring a hotel and/or air travel. At Thrivent Financial, it's an event that costs $2,500 and uses an off-site venue and travel.

Some planners are able to get corporate mandates for employees to register meetings. Absent a mandate, expect to start a public relations campaign in which you make a pitch for saving people time, effort, and money, and for keeping them out of legal hot water when they use your meeting registration process. “Be careful with your customer base,” says Lisa English. “Understand their perspective, whether it's a professional planner or someone who does one meeting a year.”

At United Health Group, Tamara Gordon launched the SMMP with a kickoff meeting. But before then, she had laid some careful groundwork. “I started to build relationships with the largest stakeholders,” she explains. “I knew their business and the companies they were working with. When the ‘official’ kickoff meeting came, with senior management included, it was no surprise to those who plan large meetings and events.”

How much detail should you require at the point of registration? Here, less is often more. “Make it simple,” says Lastinger of Metaphrasis Group. “Name, division, name of meeting, purpose of meeting, where it's being booked, expected budget, and actual budget. When it doesn't work, you're making it too complicated.”

Approval

To follow the best practices outlined in NBTA's white paper, approval for a meeting should come from someone at a higher level than either the person requesting the event or the meeting planner. At Thrivent Financial, Dan Young points out one benefit of the many levels of approval required for his meetings: The company rarely cancels programs, because everyone is on board from day one. The spending level triggers the appropriate approval process. Young approves contracts up to $250,000. His supervisor approves them up to $500,000; the CFO approves them up to $1 million; and over $1 million the contract must be approved by the president of the company. “These are e-mail approvals. It's an efficient process that is meant just to inform everybody,” Young notes. “They aren't sitting there reading the contracts.” That's because the process originates with Thrivent's contract attorney, so that, if it's a new contract, everyone along the chain can see that legal approval was obtained. And if it's a contract with a hotel chain Thrivent uses often, standard terms and conditions have long been negotiated.

Sourcing/Procurement

UnitedHealth sGroup's 15 annual “high-touch” events are bid on by the company's preferred incentive house suppliers. With those suppliers, Tamara Gordon says, “we have developed terms and conditions, and we have negotiated their fees and how they charge those fees.” Before each meeting, “we send them the specs — number and demographics of attendees; length, budget, and timing of the program; as much as we can give them. We direct the site selection to some degree, giving our destination history and whether we prefer a particular region. When bids come back we perform standard analyses using both quantitative and qualitative data.”

Planning/Execution

The question of the actual planning of meetings — will they be internally planned or outsourced? — is one that lies outside the framework of an SMMP. Whichever solution works for your company, however, a corporate overseer is a must, says Kate Lastinger. “To efficiently run an SMMP, a company should assign at least one project manager. This manager should be pulled out of the meeting planning process to focus on the business of strategic meetings management.”

And if you are not using any third parties, the economic crisis might prompt you to consider them for at least some parts of the process. “You can't be afraid you'll lose your job to a third party,” says Todd Zint at NFP Insurance Services. “Outsourcing meetings services can be a strategic decision if you continue to manage elements that impact the culture and integrity of your event. Always position yourself between your internal client and the third party.”

Payment/Expense Allocation

Zint began putting elements of his SMMP in place when he joined NFP Insurance Services more than four years ago. Two of the changes he has instituted were designed to make the expense allocation process more efficient.

One move was to shift the meetings department's budget, including employee allocation based on usage, onto the business units. “It used to be that the meeting sponsor would say, ‘I've invited 14 extra people, but you can't change the menu from lobster to chicken.’ I had no control, yet supposedly I was accountable,” Zint explains. “So then at the end of the year I'd get asked, ‘Why are you over budget?’ It put me and my team in a difficult position.”

Now, Zint has a predetermined schedule of pre- and post-meeting conferences with the business leader where they review the forecasted and actual budget in detail, so the meeting sponsor sees how last-minute decisions can affect the bottom line.

The other major change was to create purchase order numbers with accounting codes and meeting codes built in. That way, the money spent (on deposits and final payments) and the money earned (from sponsorships) goes in and out of a single bucket — “like a checking account specific to each meeting,” Zint explains — making the accountants' jobs easier and creating an audit record of vendor payments for Zint to compare against a detailed event breakdown and review with the business leader. “This helps us avoid surprises and educates meeting sponsors on the importance of managing within expense guidelines.”

Zint's goal for 2009 is to use a meetings credit card solution for all meetings expenses, which will make bill-paying easier and provide richer data for negotiating leverage.

Analysis/Reporting

Creating reports for senior management is what keeps an SMMP going. At Thrivent Financial, Dan Young sends an event-summary report to his supervisor and to the CFO that lays out cost-savings: the spend per attendee, the meeting's proposed budget and its actual spend, and return on investment based on subjective evaluations that measure how well the event met its objectives. A room-pickup report includes the negotiated room rate versus a standard online rate.

Technology

To get approval to buy StarCite's enterprise system for Lincoln Financial Group's SMMP, Paul Vandevere says, “I stressed the fact that the technology, as the core of the SMMP, will automate the entire process, allowing for greater staff efficiency and productivity. I stressed the increased visibility of the department as an innovative cost-savings and cost-avoidance advocate, the importance of leveraging our spend, and how the technology will enable us to capture that information. These are all part of our continuing strategic goals.”

As important, he points out, “the technology will help us show our value. Meeting sponsors don't think about how much we save them on a daily basis. We are not party planners, we are managing meetings. Especially in these economic times, we want to show that we are giving them 100 percent.”

SMMP: The Definition

The strategic management of enterprisewide meetings-related processes, spend, volume, standards, and suppliers to achieve quantitative cost savings, risk mitigation, and superior service.

Source: Groups & Meetings Committee, National Business Travel Association www.nbta.org

SMMP: The Sum of Strategic Parts

The elements of an SMMP include registration and approval of meetings, sourcing/procurement, planning/execution, payment/expense allocation, and analysis/reports. At the core of these elements is technology, and linking them together is a clearly defined corporate meetings policy.

Here’s Some Good News: An SMMP Can Even Help You Drive Corporate Strategy

Dan Young's meetings department at Thrivent Financial has managed the companywide meetings calendar since 2003. Now, says Young, CMP, director, event planning and field recognition, “we are trying to drive the entire field and corporate planning process through strategic event planning.”

Translation: Taking into consideration Thrivent's incentive conference schedule and major training events, along with industry events such as Million Dollar Round Table, Young recently proposed to senior management a schedule of dates in late 2009 for key strategy sessions, so that corporate goals and messages would be set in time for the following year's field conferences. “Then, when January 2010 hits, everything is a go,” he explains, “and everyone in the organization has time to plan and implement corporate goals.”

Improving your company's entire strategic planning process? That's serious added value from the meetings department.