You can take the woman out of hotel sales but you can't take hotel sales out of the woman. Kathy DeLand, director of meeting services for MassMutual Financial, was a hotelier before she jumped the fence to meeting planning. And she still sums up her working style with this old service axiom: “The answer is yes. What's the question?”

For Diana Ruddick, DeLand's biggest internal client, that attitude is key. “No matter how ridiculous the request, the meeting services staff takes it seriously,” says Ruddick, vice president, retail distribution. “Our qualifiers give them very high marks.”

At the end of the day, that's what counts. “They make it look effortless,” Ruddick says. “And you know how much effort it takes to make it look effortless.”

BIG PLAYER

In the rapidly consolidating world of financial services, MassMutual Financial has been one of the acquirers rather than the acquired, evolving from a century-old local insurer into a global force in financial services. Still based in Springfield, Mass., the company has 27,000 employees and representatives and is continuing its climb up the Fortune 500 list, at 83rd place on this year's roster (up from 90th in 2004).

The meeting services department has grown accordingly. Having centralized just over a year ago, it comprises a lot of people handling a ton of meetings: 12 planners and 6 production and audiovisual staffers together manage 145 major off-site events and 800 local programs annually. In fact, the department recently added staff. (When's the last time you heard that news?) “We added two people in the past year because we were inundated with requests for our services,” says DeLand.

Part of that is the department's doing. Two years ago, DeLand put on her “sales hat,” and visited the heads of the company's numerous lines of business to tout the professionalism and negotiating power that the meeting services department could bring to bear on events. After that, she says, “the phones started ringing.”

Event-planning activity in 2004 was up 30 percent over 2003, according to Ricky Swaye, corporate vice president, corporate services. That activity will keep increasing as Mass-Mutual Financial continues to grow and as more events previously planned outside the department come into the centralized fold.

COMING TOGETHER

Back in January 2001, when DeLand joined the company, meeting management was spread across several departments. The conference planning department handled the big stuff, including eight to 10 major sales conferences. The event planning department handled local meetings and events, including those held at the MassMutual Learning and Conference Center, a 40-room property owned by MassMutual in Chicopee, Mass. In most cases, the separate lines of business planned their own meetings.

In June 2004, the meeting services department was created from the two former meeting departments and the audiovisual staff. “Centralization lets us effectively measure the company's meeting spend, ensures consistency, and gives the company true professional meeting and event planners leading the process in all aspects of program management,” DeLand explains.

Other changes came with the consolidation. For example, DeLand worked with the procurement department on a standard addendum and contract-review procedures. “We work hand in hand with them,” DeLand says. (See sidebar at right.)

Also at that time, meeting services became part of the global travel area and was moved under the umbrella of corporate services, overseen by VP Swaye. Consolidating the functions, Swaye says, improved communication, productivity, and accountability.

And, of course, there's the volume. A recent initiative, for example, is to negotiate with hotels from an enterprise perspective, combining the transient business (the travel department's turf) with the meeting business (DeLand's turf) in order to get the most leverage.

“Where there is volume, there is savings,” DeLand says.

The global travel department also includes executive and corporate travel and flight operations, and management of the conference center. Charles Corey heads up MassMutual's in-house travel agency with seven full-time employees making air reservations for group and transient travel. “We also offer this as a service to our 25,000 agents at no fee,” Corey notes. The department recently went live with GetThere, an online booking tool that Corey expects will reduce the company's per-transaction cost significantly. Individual travelers will use GetThere to request a reservation, which will then be booked by an agent using Sabre.

Despite moving to online booking, Corey emphasizes that MassMutual believes in “high-touch” service. For example, a representative from executive transportation attends high-level events and this year a travel agent attended the Leaders Conference, MassMutual's biggest incentive program, to handle any travel needs that might arise.

DeLand likewise emphasizes the high-touch philosophy. “We have a wonderful relationship with our key clients and deliver a high level of service,” she says. “There's a lot of talk about cost-savings, which is important, but service is just as important.

“That's the value-add that this group brings. We don't just want to give clients a good experience. We want to give them a memorable experience. We want incentive attendees to say, ‘That was the best I've ever been to.’ We're always doing something fresh.”

That's one thing Diana Ruddick appreciates about working with an in-house meeting planning team. “They handle so many requests,” she says. “They really need to know these [attendees] — who we need to take care of, what terminology we use for these people, that certain [qualification] levels get certain perks. Some companies outsource the whole thing. I don't know how they do that. Our meeting services department knows our business, our culture, our qualifiers, our executives. That's priceless.”

Of course, Ruddick remains pretty focused on costs, too. “Meeting services manages the budget but it's a direct charge to our part of the business, so they have to treat it as their own,” she says. “I wouldn't sleep at night if I knew that my budget was in the hands of outsiders.”

TECHNOLOGY: THE NEXT FRONTIER

A year after its consolidation, the meeting services department is set to face its next challenge: software.

“We're moving toward a more technology-driven department,” DeLand explains.

As with travel reservations, meeting registration is now being done online, eliminating the 2,500 fax-back forms that used to flood the department. According to DeLand, MassMutual considered creating a proprietary system with its own tech department but instead decided to sign on with an online registration vendor. However, she adds, “we also are investigating vendor and possibly proprietary technology that will assist us with measuring spend and savings as well as [having] reporting capabilities.” DeLand now manually tracks and reports the department's savings — that's “true, negotiated savings,” she points out, such as free upgrades, staff rooms, food-and-beverage discounts, and resort fee waivers — but recognizes the advantage of automating that and other meeting management tasks.

“We're very early in the process,” she says, “but we have a keen eye to get that accomplished for the sake of efficiency, history, and having all of our information in one location.”

Reviewing Every Contract: Your Procurement Partner

Mary Beth Rzegocki isn't part of MassMutual's meeting services department, but she's a critical part of the meeting management process.

Every supplier contract hits her desk first — in the procurement department. “I check each clause to make sure it's up to MassMutual standards,” Rzegocki explains. “I look at what's there and what's missing.”

The complexity of the contract determines how much work she does. “If it's a small dinner we won't put in a ton of legalese,” she notes. But meeting contracts with hotels get a lot of time and attention. “Attrition and cancellation are what I spend most of my time on,” she says. For example, she always checks for a “rooms resold” clause, so that MassMutual doesn't have to pay for canceled rooms that are then rebooked — minus marketing costs, she notes. “We want to be fair to the hotel as well. We want contracts to be equitable for both parties.”

Another clause often added has to do with meeting room changes: “We put in that the hotel may reassign us with written authorization,” she says. “We like to know what's going on.”

Rzegocki checks in with meeting industry Web sites and experts on a regular basis to keep up with changes. She notes that after 9/11, for example, “force majeure clauses got tightened up.”

After Rzegocki reviews a contract, it goes back to the meeting services department with her notes on what MassMutual must have in the contract and what it can do without. She also often wants another hotel in play in case the first-choice property is inflexible. “That can give us leverage, too,” she says.

Shuffling every contract across another desk might seem inefficient in a time-crunched business, but Rzegocki takes a different view. “Some might see it as a bottleneck, but planners don't,” she says. “It takes the burden off of them so they can focus on negotiating.”

DeLand concurs: “It's a partnership,” she says. “No one is vying for anyone's job here. We are still the key point of contact with the vendors. But while we are the experts on what can be negotiated, we're not the legal experts.”

The Mentor Mentality: Learn from Each Other

When Kathy DeLand became head of a newly centralized meeting services department at MassMutual Financial, she was faced with a group of meeting planners with widely varying experience and a rapidly growing roster of events to manage.

To mesh the many skill levels, DeLand and her team developed an internal mentoring program. Three teams each include a very experienced planner, two or three mid-level planners, and a newer staff member. The teams hold regular meetings and work together on events, with the most experienced planner taking the lead. A less experienced planner shadows the mentor on site and the following year becomes the backup planner for the event.

DeLand herself has called on peers at other financial services companies in New England, tapping their decades of experience for advice and counsel.

She's also turned to the educational resources of industry organizations such as ICPA and Meeting Professionals International, and encourages peer networking. The department has a long-term goal of getting everyone some type of certification, such as the Certified Meeting Professional designation. “We push industry involvement and networking,” she says. “It's better than living in a silo. When we have staff meetings, every two weeks, I have been using them as industry educational sessions. There's a lot of knowledge to be shared out there, and I want to expose the staff to that.”

THE MASSMUTUAL LEADERS CONFERENCE

Inspiring the Next Generation

Some 2,700 attendees landed in San Diego in August for the annual MassMutual Leaders Conference, the company's biggest incentive meeting. With a full slate of business sessions and a full children's program, the conference is a huge effort for Kathy DeLand, director, meeting services, and her team. Planning starts early.

“The site is chosen two years in advance and it takes a year and a half of planning,” DeLand says. Because of its size, the conference is held in top-tier cities or destinations such as Orlando and Hawaii where more than one hotel can house qualifiers and their families. (Hawaii, in fact, saw the highest registration numbers ever for the event: 3,000 people attended.) In San Diego, DeLand booked the Marriott Marina and the Manchester Grand Hyatt.

Qualifiers may bring one guest on the company's tab; others come at their own expense.

And come they do. Families see each other year after year, developing lasting friendships. And, naturally, there are a few families with two or three generations of agents returning to the close-knit community of the Leaders Conference. “You'll see strollers at our general session,” DeLand says. The children's program, she adds, is more than “baby-sitting,” involving infants through teenagers in age-appropriate activities coordinated and supervised by a professional childcare organization. “We really get children engaged,” DeLand says. Likewise, during nonbusiness time, activities are chosen with families in mind. Rather than a golf tournament, trips to zoos and theme parks are planned.

Another critical part of the conference is the Blue Chip Fair, a trade show and tech fair that is part of MassMutual's internal marketing plan, highlighting its product lines and software that can enhance agents' businesses.

In addition, DeLand points out, the conference includes dozens of peripheral meetings — luncheons, activities, or receptions that are requested by particular business lines or executives. And there are also pre-meetings of agent advisory boards. “The Leaders Conference is one meeting but it's more like 50 events,” she says. “It's major project management.”

MAKE IT MOTIVATE

The task of giving each program a unique flavor falls to Diana Ruddick, vice president, retail distribution, who comes up with the conference theme. “In any given year it's my job to inspire and motivate,” Ruddick says, adding that the theme is used throughout the year and ties into other events and short-term sales campaigns. This year's theme, “Doing Well by Doing Good,” spotlights agents who get involved locally. “It's not just marketing for them,” Ruddick notes. “They're genuinely helping their communities.” The theme extended to the Leaders Conference business program as well, with planned workshops on charitable giving.

“We try to make the Leaders Conference inspirational, making agents feel good about what they do for a living and maintaining their relationship with MassMutual,” Ruddick says. The family atmosphere goes a long way toward achieving those goals, she believes. “As we say, we ‘enroll their families.’ That's our culture. The MassMutual family is a powerful concept.”