For Lynne Schueler, it was the good, the bad, the ugly, and the Big Idea.

The good: Her employer, Principal Financial Group in Des Moines, mandated companywide use of Schueler's department for planning meetings.

The bad: With an unknown quantity of additional meetings about to hit her department's plate, Schueler, assistant director, meeting planning services, could not hire more staff. Nor could she get a much-needed overhaul of her meeting registration Web site, critical to the department's efficiency, because the meeting department had been moved to the bottom of the IT priority list.

The ugly: Meanwhile, as part of a companywide cost-cutting initiative, a consultant with little knowledge of the meeting industry came in to chop some budgets. (Readers will be nodding their heads in recognition — at Principal Financial it was called “Operational Excellence.”)

“He went out and found a third party on the Internet, got some quotes, went to senior management, and said ‘Lynne's not saving you enough money,’” Schueler recounts. Long story short: It was a bogus proposal. Hotels whose rates were included in the bid hadn't even been contacted by the third party. “I was going to go up against this consultant but it never got that far,” she says.

And then the Big Idea: “We needed Web registration, we needed group and meeting expertise for air ticketing, and we couldn't add to our head count,” Schueler explains. “So I pitched a proposal to use a third party.” Not to take over meetings, but to handle two of the three big planning pieces — online registration and air ticketing. Not everyone jumped at the plan — inside her department or outside.

FROM IDEA TO IMPLEMENTATION

Schueler's idea was that if a meeting planning company was doing the online registration and air ticketing for all of Principal Financial's programs, that outside company could also be an on-call meeting planning resource during crunch times or when last-minute events dropped onto the department's to-do list. “Our business is turning fast and furious,” she says.

But she found a number of third parties who dismissed her proposal. “Many said they didn't want to do it unless ultimately they got everything,” she says, meaning the land and hotel pieces of the programs in addition to the air and registration. “When they don't get all the business, they don't make as much money. Meanwhile these third parties were selling themselves as able to save more money with their buying power and their high-tech staff. Even though senior management supports us, that sticks in their heads and they start wondering, ‘Why aren't we saving more money?”

Schueler, who was an account manager with a third party before joining Principal Financial 13 years ago, believes she knows both sides of the issue. “I know incentive houses get commissions and a percentage markup,” she says. In addition, she points out, “If we only did five or six meetings a year, I wouldn't need seven planners and all that overhead. But a third party doesn't want a 20-person training meeting.” Shueler's department did more than 100 meetings in 2003, and that number is increasing dramatically this year now that the mandate is in place.

Schueler's big idea wasn't exactly what those inside her close-knit department wanted either. “For planners, it's really hard to let go of control,” she says. “It's hard for all of us to learn to delegate. When you let go of something, you want to make sure people are doing it as well as you would do it.” She was careful to solicit input from her fellow planners throughout the RFP process, and she told them: “There is a little risk, but don't feel threatened. We need the support.”

DIVIDE AND CONQUER

Ultimately, they chose a medium-sized company where Principal Financial was “a big fish.” The company designs the meeting Web site and registration pages, adapting a Principal Financial template customizable for all meetings, and it also handles all air ticketing. Schueler gets regular reports during the registration process.

Meanwhile, she and her team handle all hotel contract negotiation and food and beverage planning. “We are still the contact for hotels and for our customers,” she says.

Schueler will sign an annual contract with her third-party vendor but probably not bid it out every year. “It's very healthy to bid business but it's such a long process,” she notes. “If we're satisfied and the pricing is fair, we will probably go out to bid every three years.”

So far, the outsourcing plan is paying off. “I am a great risk-taker,” Schueler says. “There's risk but we're going into it positively. Why wouldn't I use all the resources available to me?”