When an AIG senior executive arrived in Shanghai for a high-level meeting in 2004, he noticed AIG signs in his hotel. For a different meeting. “He said, ‘I should have known about this. Give me a list of all our meetings,’” says Kelli Livers, CMP. “No one could.”

That seemingly straightforward request blossomed into complex work on a strategic meetings management program (SMMP) — an effort to identify, track, and touch all meetings across the AIG enterprise in pursuit of cost-savings and consistency.

Tapped as point person for the task was Livers, director, global meeting services, who is based in Houston and reports to AIG's Global Sourcing Services department. “Sometimes I wonder what I've gotten myself into,” she laughs. “I'm impatient. I want action. But when you're this big, it's a process.”

The good news: Livers had been through it before. She directed the process on a smaller scale at VALIC, an AIG subsidiary, where she centralized the management of meeting contracts for eight regional offices. “We put an approval process in place and we did all the negotiating and contracts,” she explains. “We saw the savings pretty quick,” since the ad hoc planners had no negotiating experience, “and whatever the hotels sent, they took.”

Seeing It All

VALIC's regional offices were one thing. As a whole, AIG has more than 90 operating companies across the U.S. and does business in more than 130 countries. The scope of a nationwide — let alone worldwide — consolidation project for AIG was daunting. But the business case was too strong to ignore.

“There were several drivers behind this,” says Randee Stypulkowski, director, global travel services, who initiated the program, “including our inability to provide senior management with reports on the number of meetings and meeting spend, recognition of the fact that multiple meetings were being held at the same location by different business units with no coordination or collaboration, and the need for transparency of our meeting spend to leverage volume across the entire enterprise.”

Transparency has become a buzzword among companies determined to get their arms around meeting spending, an area now solidly on the radar screen of corporate America. A recent article from The Conference Board Review called meetings “the biggest money pit of them all,” blaming, in part, “the entrenched, secretive culture of meeting planning.”

Indeed, an SMMP can unsettle some who may prefer to have their meetings flying under the radar, since its goal ultimately is to bring all meeting spending to light. Carlin Putman, manager, AIG VALIC and AIG Annuity Incentives & Promotions, recalls that not all of VALIC's regional offices wanted to leap aboard the consolidation train. “They resisted at first. They were having to put out there what they were spending, how many meetings they were having,” she says. “The process uncovers some unnecessary spend. But they realized we weren't trying to take over their jobs. And they saw that we were actually getting them better meeting deals and concessions they wouldn't think to ask for.”

Now that the entire AIG enterprise is consolidating, Putman is in a sense on the other side of things, a meeting planner out in the field. As of March 2006, all AIG domestic planners doing a meeting of 10 or more people where a contract is being signed must register that meeting with Livers' department. Then designated company officers sign all supplier contracts rather than the planners themselves. But Putman isn't complaining. Though AIG has standard contract terms and conditions in place with hotels, planners have the flexibility to negotiate their own concessions based on specific meeting requirements. Personally, Putman would rather have prenegotiated terms and conditions. “It's a godsend,” she says. “It saves time and money because there is no back-and-forth between legal departments.”

First Steps

Of course, as Putman notes, “I've lived and breathed this whole process already.” Conceptually, she was on board from the start. For others across the enterprise, their introduction to the process was a “plain-Jane spreadsheet” that Livers sent out in January 2005 in an effort to figure out how many meetings were going on out there and who was planning them. She targeted CFOs at AIG's 90-plus operating companies, from New York to L.A.

The survey revealed 225 meetings (then defined as gatherings of 25 or more people), with 40 percent of that meeting spend being generated by ad hoc planners, such as administrative assistants. Many of these were using third-party meeting planning companies.

The other 60 percent of the spend was coming from a core group of professional meeting planners — people like Carlin Putman. Livers identified 15 of these planners and organized them into the Meeting & Events Travel Council, essentially an internal advisory board and peer networking group. She convened the council last March in Tampa and is planning the second of what she hopes will become an annual gathering for next March. The 2007 meeting included a tour of the offices of American Express Travel, AIG's air travel provider, and brand updates from NSO representatives of AIG's preferred hotel chains.

Relationships Matter

The council has been involved throughout the consolidation process. They help to select preferred suppliers; they are the first to receive training on technology upgrades; and they serve as a sounding board for new initiatives. They also continue to develop and maintain their own relationships with suppliers, even though a major piece of any SMMP is the creation of preferred-supplier agreements.

Relationship-building doesn't go out the window when those agreements get signed, Livers says. “By all means, I tell my NSOs [national sales offices] to give our key planner list to all of their local hotels,” she says. “But I want to make sure the NSO is always included in the process so they can monitor and track our business. It gives them the same oversight I'm looking for.”

So who makes the cut when it comes to suppliers? Livers believes the process has been smooth at AIG because of the direct involvement of the Meeting & Events Travel Council.

For example, they designed the RFPs for third-party meeting planning companies, then scored the proposals that came back. The number of third parties was reduced from 15 to 4. “The cost savings was huge,” Livers notes. The council is now in the process of creating RFPs for DMCs and production companies. “It helps compliance when they've had a voice in the decisions,” she says.

Choosing the preferred hotels was a bigger job but, in a way, a simpler one: Livers looked at data from the original survey of operating companies in 2005. “I saw that the majority of key planners were using the four major chains — Hilton, Hyatt, Marriott, and Starwood,” she explains, so AIG negotiated standard contract terms and conditions with each of them. Others will continue to be added, she notes, and independent hotels are not left out of the mix, especially in certain markets. “If you're going to Colorado Springs, you're going to the Broadmoor,” she says.

Still, limiting suppliers limits choices, right? Yes and no, says Livers. “When we source a meeting hotel through StarCite [AIG's SMMP technology provider], all hotels are loaded,” she explains. “Our preferred transient hotels, our preferred chains, and everything else. No one is excluded, but we want to make sure our preferred properties are always included.”

Understanding Meetings

And when a planner wants to book a property off the preferred list? “We'd need to have a business reason for it,” Livers says. “If the preferred hotels weren't available on the meeting dates, for example, we'd document it and move on.” Absent a compelling reason, the preferred brand should get the booking.

Still, as a career meeting planner, Livers knows that things aren't always cut-and-dried. “I bring to the table the reality of what is involved,” she says. “I understand when people say, ‘We need this incentive to go here, four other companies are competing for these producers, here's where they are going … ’”

Livers' meeting planning background helped to gain her the trust of AIG's experienced planners and enhances the partnership with AIG Global Sourcing Services. “I'm not a random sourcing person,” she says. “That's a relief to the key planners.”

And while they are working under stricter policies and no longer signing their own contracts, these planners are still the owners of their programs.

“We were going after the contracting,” Livers explains. “But we are the picture of decentralization from a planning perspective. I told them, ‘I don't want to plan your meeting for you. I just want your contracts to have the best terms and conditions and pricing for you,’” she continues. “A lot of them are happy that they don't have to worry about the contracts. They just have to focus on the meat of the meeting.”

Randee Stypulkowski reinforces the point: “One of the largest controllable areas of spend is in advance review of the hotel contract. While this allows us to secure savings, it also reduces our exposure from a legal and risk management perspective,” she says. “A great deal of time has been focused on creating and using our standard contract templates. By removing the contracting component of the meeting from our internal meeting planners, they have more time to work with their internal meeting sponsors to ensure the event is a success.”

“I love technology!”

For ad hoc meeting planners, who may do one meeting a year or for whom meeting planning is but a small piece of their jobs, there is a new option for hotel sourcing through StarCite. If requested, two dedicated “sourcing specialists” can build the electronic RFP and manage hotel responses for the planners. “The sourcing specialists have been trained on AIG's contract templates and have years of experience in negotiating meeting contracts,” Livers says. “They come back with a consolidated document outlining the options and comparisons to help the planner and meeting host make the best decision based on the business requirements,” she continues. “We require at least three bids and that our preferred brands are included.”

Livers expects use of the service to grow. “Our goal is to provide resources to AIG planners to streamline and make the process more efficient.”

The sourcing component is but one of the tech updates that will keep AIG's SMMP evolving. And Livers is definitely one to push those upgrades. “I love technology,” she says. She has consulted with StarCite on numerous improvements and is looking forward to the company's rollout of a new budgeting module. Senior executives “have been extremely pleased with the reports we have been able to provide to date,” she says. But with the expanded budget reporting capabilities, “we will be able to break it down by supplier — so I can show Hyatt exactly how much we spend with them. We will be able to show actual budgets versus projected budgets, and we will be able to assign subcategories and attach invoices.”

Putman notes that the technology's flexibility is a benefit: “I've seen changes with the StarCite system because we've voiced our opinion,” she says. Overall, “I think it's a positive with regard to being able to leverage our spend as AIG. Seeing where it started and where it is now, it's night and day. I used to get faxed registrations and type them into Excel spreadsheets. Now I can run a rooming list on an hourly basis, I can maintain waiting lists for activity signups, I can run 1,000 different reports any which way I want. It's amazing how much time you save.”

Worldwide Reach

With the domestic policies and procedures solidly in place, the next phase is to get compliance globally. “That's our heaviest focus now,” says Livers. “We will partner with planners and meeting sponsors worldwide to ensure we understand the business and cultural requirements on a regional basis.” The meeting registration procedure was officially launched internationally this past June. And as meetings are reported, Livers is gathering data on suppliers with an eye toward setting up preferred-supplier agreements.

Advice Box

Get Executive Buy-In and Keep Them in the Loop. “Report on key accomplishments as you work through your program,” advises Randee Stypulkowski, AIG's director, global travel services.

Communication Is Key. “Prior to our program there was no method of communicating with our planners, since many of them operated within their specific division and did not know other AIG planners,” Stypulkowski says. “We now publish a global calendar with all our meetings and events on our intranet site,” which means, she points out, that “we are able to leverage our canceled space by reselling that space within the AIG enterprise.” Beyond the calendar, Kelli Livers, CMP, AIG's director, global meeting services, envisions a chat room where planners can share experiences with hotels, restaurants, and other suppliers and venues in various destinations.

Work Your Networks. Call on peers in your industry and others, and look for help from industry associations such as FICP, Meeting Professionals International, Professional Convention Management Association, and National Business Travel Association. Kelli Livers is a member of NBTA's Groups and Meetings Committee, which has published 10 white papers on building and maintaining strategic meetings management programs. Livers believes that NBTA and the meetings committee deserve a wider audience among meeting managers. “Most meeting and events people are not aware of the meeting piece being brought into NBTA,” she says, since NBTA's primary focus is transient business travel. “But even if you don't have responsibility for transient travel, you still have to partner with them,” she notes. “I wish I had known about it when I started this project, because I would have loved to see the sample policies.” Find membership information at www.nbta.org.

Educate Your NSOs. They need the big picture. “Four or five years ago, the [national sales offices] didn't know AIG,” Livers notes. “Some companies don't have AIG in their names. When I first took on this role, I met with the NSOs and told them that I really need one point of contact so that person knows what this account is. If these are our preferreds, what happens if their hotels are not replying? I need the NSOs to help their hotels. We're in this together.”

Technology Is Your Friend. It took Randee Stypulkowski, director, global travel services, and Kelli Livers, CMP, director, global meeting services, AIG, a year to identify a technology provider for the company's strategic meetings management program. “We did research within the enterprise to see if any technology was already being used by AIG companies and networked with our peers on technology providers,” Livers explains. Tech companies did presentations at AIG, and then Livers and her team compared the systems based on their initial requirements — modules for registering meetings and generating electronic approvals. “We had to have a system that was flexible and could be customized for our department,” she adds, “and also could address the needs of the end user — the planner.” Further, the system had to be able to grow with AIG. “We launched our policy/procedures in phases and we will continue to add components,” Livers says. “In order to support that process we need a technology that can support our program as we add and expand required elements” — more detailed budget reporting, for example. Also, the system had to be able to accommodate different languages and currencies as the international launch got under way.

And as the final step, Livers notes, “we had to ensure that the technology could pass our internal IT security process. We have a strict policy and an annual review process.”

Stick With It. Perhaps the most important piece of advice is that you must stay focused and be patient, says Stypulkowski. “Build your program on incremental success and keep at it!”

Big Results

10%-20%

Savings during AIG's first year of consolidation

26%-43%

Savings on contracted room nights since implementing strategic hotel sourcing

80%-85%

Meetings currently being registered