For a company that introduced its brand to the U.S. market only in 2001, ING has become a big name in financial services. Originating in The Netherlands, ING operates in 50 countries and counts 14 million U.S. customers. The company also gained visibility here when it became the first-ever title sponsor of the New York City Marathon in 2003.
Acquiring companies to fuel its growth, ING faced a familiar dilemma — whether to consolidate meeting management in one office or keep everyone in the field doing their own thing.
ING's solution, the company hopes, represents the best of both worlds. Meeting planners are decentralized, sitting in offices from Phoenix to Denver to Hartford. But meeting management, in effect, is centralized. Allare signed by the strategic sourcing department, corporate meeting planning guidelines are in place, and all meetings are registered, so that total meeting spending is tracked. The goals? Meeting consistency and negotiating leverage.
Step by Step
The aims were straightforward enough, but reaching them required time and determination, not to mention the buy-in of far-flung planners using their own considerable experience to manage 375 meetings a year. Step one, therefore, was to get them together.
In 2002, they gathered in Minneapolis. From that first meeting has evolved the M@I (Meetings @ ING) Summit, an annual event to which the company's 18 planners are invited for two days of learning, networking, and brainstorming.
“It's imperative to bring the team together to share best practices and hear from our internal partners,” explains Lisa Poulton, director, conference planning operations, in Hartford, who organizes the summit. Chief among those partners is Deanna Bloodgood, sourcing specialist in ING's strategic sourcing department, and a key player in the drive to capture ING's total meeting spending and use it as negotiating leverage.
In late 2002, planners were told that all meeting contracts would now be signed by the strategic sourcing department in Minneapolis — quite a change for planning veterans like Jana Stern, who has managed her meetings for a decade, through two corporate mergers. However, Stern, director, conventions and conference planning for ING's life insurance business based in Minneapolis, takes the long view. “My relationship with the vendor needs to remain positive from beginning to end, and sometimes when you are dealing with legal issues the relationship gets muddy,” she says. “Strategic sourcing can navigate through the vendor's contracts and attorneys. My expertise is the needs of the particular ING group. Strategic sourcing's expertise is the needs of ING from a legal perspective.” Not to mention, she adds, that letting go of the contracts has taken a lot of paperwork off her already full plate.
Bigger news came at the 2005 M@I Summit, when Bloodgood launched the plan to go out to hoteliers with one RFP that included all of ING's incentive meetings for the year. Selecting a few brands and giving each multiple programs should mean significant savings. (See sidebar, below left.)
A Full Agenda
Poulton and Bloodgood create each year's M@I Summit agenda with input from attendees and other ING stakeholders who have a message to deliver.
At its heart is the sharing of information among the company's meeting planners. “We do roundtable talks on any topics they want: creative ways to save money, food and beverage ideas, meeting themes, etc.,” Poulton says. There is also time to discuss destinations: Each planner gets five or 10 minutes to report on the good, the bad, and the ugly from properties they've used recently.
Also critical to the agenda is communication from internal “partners.” In the past, the planners have heard from representatives of the compliance department about NASD and SEC regulations, the tax department about guidelines for submitting 1099 or W2 forms to attendees, and the branding department about uses of the ING logo and where to find details online about appropriate logo colors and styles for on-site and print materials.
According to Jana Stern, who has attended all five M@I meetings, it's time well spent. “I find it very valuable,” she says. “I believe in forming relationships with the other planners that will benefit both of us. We can share information on DMCs we've used, hotels we've stayed at, theme ideas, and uses of technology. There is never a lull in conversation with this group.”
Best practices are shared — everything from cool branding ideas (example: customizing hotel key cards with the conference or company logo) to creative budget-saving ideas (example: find out what events are on site the same day or the previous day as one of your meeting functions and look into piggybacking the BEOs; that is, plan a menu with some similar items, so the hotel can purchase in bulk and pass along those savings).
Poulton and Bloodgood also are able to include any necessary training for planners at the summit meeting. At the June 2006 event, for example, the first phase of new meeting management technology from StarCite was rolled out. The rollout was the culmination of a years-long selection and trial process during which planners companywide were surveyed about what they needed from a technology product. Several providers then created demos, and planners were offered the chance to work with them and test their user-friendliness, customizability, and reporting options. After analyzing more feedback, ING made the final decision to go with StarCite.
“The first training was on the registration piece, which was very well received,” says Poulton, because it automated the previously cumbersome process of manually registering meetings. At next year's M@I Summit, additional training will be offered on the attendee registration and management tool and the RFP system.
Invitation to Suppliers
And it isn't just meeting planners who attend the summit. On arrival day, Poulton and Bloodgood hold a “pre-meeting” with national sales managers from the major hotel chains with whom ING does the most business. “We go over our policies and procedures, have a Q&A session, and review our financial objectives for the year,” Bloodgood explains. “They get a big picture of ING, a better understanding of who we are. We also can address any challenges — for example, with regard tolanguage. It strengthens the relationship a lot, and signifies that they are important to us.”
Isabel Mahon, director of global sales for Fairmont Hotels and Resorts, has attended two M@I Summits, and sees their value for planners and suppliers. “They want buying power and consistent contracts, so that's part of why they want all the planners to use the same global sellers. They're trying to get planners to bond and to trade information at these meetings,” she says. “I am able to learn more about trends within the individual businesses, and it helps me to build stronger relationships with planners who are in locations I don't get to that often.”
Mahon applauds ING's decision to give suppliers a bit more “air time” at next year's meeting — an educational session with planners. “There are only about eight of us, so we can each have our five minutes to tell them what's new and then they can ask us honest questions. We're not talking room rates,” she explains. “It's big-picture stuff — we even talk about the state of the industry.”
ING also invites whatever destination management company they've chosen for the meeting to participate.
Evolution of a Meeting
After the first couple of planner summits were held near ING home office locations, Poulton began surveying planners about destinations they were considering for upcoming meetings. Those became the short list for the M@I Summit destination. That way, some planners could combine their site inspections with M@I attendance, even being able to experience the property's meeting capabilities firsthand.
Poulton and Bloodgood can also consider booking the meeting into a property where ING might have a credit for liquidated damages.
And the 2006 M@I Summit was held in Dallas in part to coincide with the annual meeting of Meeting Professionals International, which some of the ING planners were attending.
While planner-to-planner communication will remain the core of the summit, future M@I events could include outside speakers or professional development sessions. The agenda will continue to evolve, says Poulton, accommodating the interests of attendees, an awareness of industry trends, and ING initiatives.
Negotiating Frontier: The Consolidated RFP
Tracking past meeting spending to use as negotiating leverage with suppliers is a good idea. But the next frontier for meeting planningis consolidating the RFPs for many meetings into one package, and soliciting bids from hotel brands for groups of meetings rather than one program.
Deanna Bloodgood is moving forward with this process for ING's 10 annual incentive meetings. “This year we started by soliciting bids from all of the brands that were identified by the meeting planners as potential suppliers,” Bloodgood explains. “Then, using the initial responses, the planners built their budgets, presented to their internal customers, and pared the potential locations down to a short list. Our next step was to go back to the [hotels'] national account managers with the brands that remained on the short list and ask them to respond with a rate/concession package should multiple programs be awarded to properties that they represent. Our message to them was, ‘If we are to be successful in influencing the business owners’ decisions and driving the business toward one brand, we need to go to them with an offer that is significant enough to get their attention.'”
This year, she continues, ING started with eight brands and a few independent properties, came up with a short list of five brands, and hopes to place up to four programs with a single brand.
Out in the field, ING meeting planners are getting used to submitting the properties and destinations they are considering and working together to find overlap, says Lisa Poulton, director, conference planning operations. It isn't happening overnight, but the planners are on board. “I don't think it limits our choices,” says Jana Stern, director, conventions and conference planning at ING in Minneapolis. “Each planner comes to the table with where they want to go, and we work to find common ground. Strategic sourcing isn't telling us where we have to go.”
From Planner to Point Person: Lisa Poulton Looks at the Big Picture
ING's meeting management strategy — decentralized meeting planners working off centralized policies and procedures — only works if someone keeps the communication flowing, taking a bird's-eye view with her ear to the ground. That person is Lisa Poulton, director, conference planning operations.
Previously a meeting planner with ING and a predecessor company in Hartford, Poulton and her then-supervisor had already started looking at ING's big picture by collecting information about total meeting spending in a database. At that point, it was a measure of protection — ”back when procurement was a scary word,” Poulton jokes. Their aim was to demonstrate that the goals of meeting planners and of ING as a whole could be aligned.
When senior management at ING began to focus on making meeting management more efficient and consistent, Poulton was the natural choice to be the liaison between meeting planners, compliance, and strategic sourcing (procurement). She was appointed in December 2004.
“With the decentralized reporting structure, ING needs someone to bring all those things together,” Poulton explains. “My job is to create partnerships between the planners, strategic sourcing, and outside vendors with the goal of providing an efficient process for managing meetings.”
Currently on Poulton's big-picture plate are two projects with the crisis management, legal, compliance, and security departments. The first is to create standard procedures for emergencies or crises that may occur during an event, and the second is to design a pre-event risk-assessment checklist for meetings.
But ultimately it's keeping the lines of communication open that may be Poulton's most important role. “I communicate regularly with the planners,” she says. She maintains a Web site on ING's intranet that contains all meeting-related policies, contacts, forms, and communications. She sends e-mail blasts with important information such as regulatory updates or changes in policies. This information is then archived at the Web site and may also be added to an M@I Summit agenda for follow-up. Poulton also distributes quarterly Web-based newsletters, which also are archived at the meeting Web site.
While she proactively delivers information, she's also available to field questions from planners. “I am a resource. I can get them in touch with the right person,” says Poulton, who is quick to note, however, that she's still one of them. “I still put my hands into a few meetings,” she says, “so as not to forget what the team actually does.”
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