How to survive government scrutiny with your meetings intact.
In June, when the U.S. Treasury released guidelines for policies related to “excessive or luxury expenditures” — including meetings — at companies that had received funding under the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, companies that received no TARP cash may have assumed they'd be free from government scrutiny. Bad assumption.
On August 17, with the healthcare debate in full flower, more than 50 insurance companies (only one of them a TARP recipient) received a letter from Sen. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Sen. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., requesting the following: “a table listing all conferences, retreats or other events held outside company facilities from January 1, 2007, to the present that were paid for, reimbursed, or subsidized in whole or in part by your company, as well as the purpose of such events and documents sufficient to show the location, number of participants, and all expenses incurred, including transportation, lodging, food, entertainment, or gifts.”
Recipients were not told exactly why the information was requested or what would be done with it. And they were given less than three weeks to pull it together.
Scared yet? Kelly Everhart thinks you should be. “You cannot wait any longer to implement a policy on meetings — to identify correct business purposes and link those purposes to your meetings,” says Everhart, managing partner at Strategic Management Solutions LLC, the Minneapolis-based consultancy she launched just over a year ago. Everhart is using the experience gained with companies such as Honeywell and BCD Meetings and Events, along with her specialty inand risk management, to help enterprises implement programs. “The letter to healthcare insurers is evidence that, for whatever purpose, the government is going to take a more active role in companies' management of their business,” she says.
The Silver Lining
The head of meetings at one of the targeted insurers says that, because of perception, his company canceled its incentive programs for captive sales agents and relocated a conference for independent agents from a high-profile international destination to a U.S. resort. “The producers understood. Everybody was canceling,” he says. “But I believe we missed an opportunity to stand up and be counted.” The full impact of incentive program cancellations, he believes, might yet be seen in declining agent retention. But he remains philosophical. “Life is a pendulum. I have a feeling that we will be doing business as we always have, and hopefully soon.”
Meetings may come back as they always have, but designing, sourcing, tracking, and reporting on them will have to change, says Chris Gaia, vice president of marketing at Maritz Travel in Fenton, Mo. In fact, he believes that's the silver lining to this increased scrutiny. “We can advance the cause of the industry,” he says. “My advice if you are an event planner is: Don't look at this as a compliance task. It's not about simply reporting activity. You must articulate and define the value of meetings, whether you are a TARP recipient or not.”
Are You Fed-Proof?
Specifically, says Everhart, “you need to know what you're spending and understand why you are spending it. Then you will be prepared to answer questions about your spend.” If you have launched a strategic meetings management program at your company, she says, “you're there. If you haven't, you need to start.”
First step: Look at the U.S. Treasury guidelines and write a policy in line with that, Everhart suggests. (See sidebar, page F9.) “You need the basic elements,” she says, “an approval process, the business purpose for each meeting, a way to monitor spending, and a process for reporting on spending to determine if you are getting a return on your investment.”
Joshua L. Grimes, Esq., a meetings industry attorney who gave a presentation about dealing with TARP-recipient rules at the Meeting Professionals International annual conference in July, suggests including these practices in corporate meeting policies as well: Require a minimum of three RFPs or bids from hotels and other suppliers for each event, document your reasons for selecting your vendors, standardize your company's expense reports, require receipts, and retain meeting records for seven years.
But you don't have to do everything at once. “In the context of setting up your SMMP, a small step can take you a long way,” Everhart says. For example, you could start by setting up a credit card to track meeting expenses. “Also, companies can define a ‘meeting’ for the purposes of tracking as a number that is meaningful to gather data for the onset of the program. It doesn't have to be the smallest events: Tracking at a higher level (say, meetings of at least 50 attendees), then moving toward a smaller level, will get the ball rolling and provide more refined data year over year.”
However you begin, this is the time to make your case to senior executives. “The message to execs is: Not only do we need to do this because the feds are breathing down our necks, but SMM is also good business,” Everhart says. “We'll get cost savings and minimize risk.”
And you'll raise your own profile, Gaia points out. “Think more broadly. What is the value created for your business? There is a lot more to be gained on that side. And who is the best person to bring it? The event planner. Get in front of this and lead it.”
(For articles on starting a strategic meetings management program, go to www.MeetingsNet.com and search for “SMMP.” Or visit the National Business Travel Association Web site at www.nbta.org to download the white paper “Building a Strategic Meetings Management Program.” Also at the NBTA site, click on “Professional Development” for information on the new strategic meetings management certification, or SMMC.)
Bottom line: You should probably start thinking like a TARP recipient. Know the policy requirements set out by the U.S. Treasury. Use the meetings industry Model Board Policy as a starting point for creating your own policy. And do it visibly. “Hoping the press doesn't take note of your event is not a strategy,” Gaia says. “I understand hiding your signs last year when we were in the heat of the moment. But that time has passed. If we are hiding now, it comes across as if we are ashamed of this.”
And if you are ashamed of it, you need to fix it. “There are still legacy problems — i.e., ‘this is the way we have always done it,’” Gaia explains. “That's not enough to meet today's challenges. What are the business goals you are attempting to achieve with this meeting? How can you better integrate an understanding of your participants into program design? You need to think more broadly about other stakeholders you are serving with the meeting” — is there a community service component, for example? — “and you need better documentation and a definition of meeting success.”