FOR LYNNE SCHUELER, IT WAS THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE UGLY — AND THE BIG IDEA.
The good: In July, 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 no 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 hoteland 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, theplan 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?”
THE BIG PICTURE
Leanne Acton's story reads like the opposite of what some planners fear about the big third parties. In a sense, she owes her in-house meeting planning job to Maritz.
Back in 1996, Penn Mutual Life Insurance Co., Horsham, Pa., decided to outsource all of its meeting planning to Maritz. The result? Penn Mutual's meeting planning became less efficient.
Tim Bruins, senior account executive at Maritz, picks up the story: “We needed a liaison to help us understand their goals for their programs,” he says. And frankly, Maritz just needed to be able to get someone's attention within the company — someone whose job priority was to make sure Penn Mutual's meetings were successful rather than someone who had meetings tacked on to the bottom of an already full list of job priorities.
In 1998, Leanne Acton, CMM, was hired as manager, conference planning and travel services. “The company realized it needed a high-level in-house meeting planner to talk to the third-party suppliers,” she explains. At the time there were two in-house meeting coordinators working with Maritz, focusing on logistics. In the years since Acton came on board those roles have developed into professional planning positions, and Acton has been promoted from manager to director — all while working with a third party. “People are worried about losing their relationships with management and hotels if they use third parties,” she says. “I actually have a better relationship with management because of working with a third party. I think it can give an advantage to the planner to be more strategic.”
As an example, Acton mentions the security document that she created for her company and has shared with peers during presentations at ICPA meetings. Because she wasn't consumed by the “nuts and bolts” of conferences, Acton could take the initiative to produce this document that her company really needed. “I'm able to think ahead and outside the box to bring new and necessary ideas and programs to my company that they appreciate,” she says. “I get respect from my management because I do that.”
Bruins of Maritz says he and his team serve as Acton's “arms and legs. She can look at the bigger picture rather than worry if the signs are being done correctly.” He also of course mentions the big advantage of working with a big partner: buying power. Penn Mutual may book a property that it will use once in 10 years, he says, but Maritz might use that property 10 times in one year. Penn Mutual gets to piggyback on that volume. “And they benefit not only from a pricing standpoint,” Bruins notes, “but also from things like favorableclauses and upgrades that they can pass on to their producers.”
Maritz handles eight large Penn Mutual conferences annually, five of them incentives. “I'm the decision-maker,” Acton says. “Maritz is an extension of my team.”
Working with Maritz also means that the Penn Mutual team can grow and shrink as it needs to, without Penn Mutual absorbing all of the overhead. “If they're swamped, we can take on a program we don't usually do,” Bruins says. “We have resources they can draw from.”
In fact, Acton cites the depth of Maritz as one of its selling points when Penn Mutual reviewed the outsourcing decision and went through a major RFP process several years ago. “Penn Mutual, like all companies, can sometimes make last-minute meeting decisions. When we need all hands on deck, we wanted to know how many hands that would be,” she says. “We wanted a company with a strong support system behind them, and with a lot of technology available to them. All of our conferences happen within a short period of time.”
The RFP asked the third parties to bid on a particular conference. When the bids came back, they were reviewed by a focus group that included members from purchasing, senior management, and meetings.
The group considered cost, creativity, what the planning team would look like, and what kind of on-site support would be provided. After narrowing the choices to three, Acton and the focus group visited each company to get a sense of their personalities, support systems, and technological capabilities.
“We came up with Maritz as the top choice,” Acton says. “I like the way Maritz is set up. Tim is my senior account executive. He will help with big issues. I have a day-to-day contact, Michelle Erard, who handles all the details and will be on site at the meeting. Within the Maritz framework, Michelle is the person who talks to all of the vendors, both inside Maritz (like those who are involved with promotional materials) and outside. For me, it's just one call to Michelle. She also knows my top producers and what they like. That continues the personal touch which Penn Mutual is always striving for.”
The personal touch extends on site as well, where Acton can devote all of her energy to the producers rather than ballroom setups. “If a producer comes to me with a special request — to change a flight, for example — I can say ‘of course,’ go to my Maritz on-site travel director and get it done.” The upshot, she says, is that “everyone is happy. The producer is happy because I was able to do him or her a favor, that makes me happy, and subsequently my management is happy. We've met our goal of making our producers feel very, very special.”
Full Plate? Eight Great Tips for Outsourcing
“When selecting a third party, take your time and do the math. You are going to be working with these people day in and day out. You have to trust and respect each other. And if there are personality clashes with you or your management, it is never going to work.”
— Leanne Acton, CMM, Penn Mutual Life Insurance Co.
“You need someone who knows your company. That takes relationship-building. It works best for companies that know they need help on an annual basis.”
— Steve Clark, CMP
“An RFP gives a lot of exposure about your company, so don't go out to the world. We requested proposals from seven companies and narrowed it to two for a final in-person presentation.”
— Lynne Schueler, Principal Financial Group
“Be very clear about exactly how you want bids to be priced, and make sure you understand what is in each of the responses so you can compare them appropriately.”
— Lynne Schueler
“Rather than hire the larger incentive companies, hire experienced independent planners to work on a project basis. The big companies do a great job, but they have to pay all their overhead. There isn't a thing they do that they don't charge you for.”
— Linda Bourbonnie, Corporate Events Coordinator, Old Mutual Financial Network
Create your initial list of meeting planning companies or independent consultants through referrals from peers in the industry. Or ask vendors you like and trust to recommend meeting planning companies or independent planners who have impressed them.
Get an idea of the previous experience of the companies you're considering. Have they worked with sales forces like yours? What size programs are they accustomed to managing?
Make sure the company you ultimately choose is on good financial footing.
The Future Is Here: Why Outsourcing Is on the Rise
Many insurance and financial services companies today have experienced, efficient in-house meeting departments. They've consolidated, they've cut costs, they achieve major savings through negotiation. From management's perspective, it's smooth sailing.
But under the surface, these departments are working like crazy to balance their workloads, staff sizes, and budgets. In a business world where procurement officers come looking for exact numbers, meeting planning remains an inexact science, especially with event calendars fluctuating like never before. A last-minute program means planners' plates are overflowing; a cancellation creates a lull.
That's where Steve Clark, CMP, sees a place for outsourcing. In December 2002, after 18 years at CUNA Mutual (with whom he is still under contract), Clark left his full-time position to start an independent consultancy. He's quick to say that he believes in internal corporate meeting departments. “An independent planner can't fully replicate an in-house department,” he says. “There are too many pieces of the puzzle.” However, he adds, “the future of in-house departments will be better and stronger if they embrace strategic outsourcing.” When Clark left CUNA Mutual, he had just begun to outsource, and he could see where the meeting industry was headed. “There's a lot of corporate meeting business out there,” he says. “And Corporate America is trying to get away from benefits and insurance. So they use contracted vendors because they don't want you under their umbrella.” That can help in-house departments pitch hiring independent planners: Fees can be paid out of the budgets for specific projects.
Clark gives examples from his own clients: In one case, he took over a series of meetings when a staff person left the company. In another, he helped with site selection. In yet another, a client canceled the program Clark was to work on. If he'd been on staff, they'd still be paying him.
“You have to find the right fit for your company, somebody you trust to help you with whatever volume you can't handle,” he says. “You still control it, you still own it, and the person becomes like an employee — but one you use as needed.” He understands the reluctance of some planners who feel they are opening themselves up to a third-party takeover. “You have to trust your independent contractor,” Clark says. “I tell potential clients, ‘I don't want your job. I already had it.’”