Your company's top brass wants flawless meetings. They want efficient transportation, service so good it's hardly noticed, and an environment that, depending on the event, inspires, motivates, or fades away so that business can get done.

It's a big job. But in today's business environment, it's not the only job for meeting planners. “Senior management wants seamless meetings but they also need to see what value you brought to the meeting, what was the company's total spend, and did you negotiate effectively in making this purchase,” says Marianne Steckert, vice president at risk and insurance services giant Marsh Inc. in New York City.

Steckert leads the event management department — a newly strengthened centralized department, which now falls under finance rather than marketing. The shift, she explains, was made “to get a better understanding of how we're spending our money and to take advantage of sourcing opportunities. It's about spending money wisely, but not about being Draconian about how we're spending the dollar.”

This balance between free creative rein and accountability may be the new model for corporate meeting management: The meeting planner stays in the lead role but the department is overseen by the “numbers” folks.

What's Old Is New Agan

Corporate travel has been taken over by purchasing or procurement departments in many companies across all industries. Some suggest meeting planning looms like the next big target for the pencil pushers. (See sidebar, page 30.)

But a closer look at procurement principles reveals concepts meeting planners are well-versed in by now: the use of formal RFPs, standardized contracts, preferred suppliers, and, of course, volume buying. Volume buying is possible only when a company gets its arms around total expenditures in one area; in other words, by consolidating or centralizing management of that spending. Meeting planners have been singing that tune for years. What's different is where the push is coming from now, says Christine Duffy, president and COO at Maritz McGettigan in Philadelphia and a veteran in helping companies consolidate meeting and travel spending. “Procurement is driving the centralization of registration and hotel sourcing as a way to manage meeting spend across the company,” she says.

If your company's meetings aren't all coming through your office — at least for site selection and tracking, if not for the actual planning — it's time to make your pitch for a centralized department. (Use Duffy's numbers: Consolidating meeting planning can save a company up to 25 percent on logistics expenditures.) If you're already handling all meetings, make sure you're doing the number crunching and reporting that show senior management your effect on the bottom line.

Get the Mandate

Even though centralization is nothing new, a surprising number of companies still haven't done it. And in some that have, the lack of a mandate from upper management has hamstrung planners, preventing them from capturing meetings across the enterprise and from realizing their true buying power.

Steckert got the mandate in early 2003 because management wanted to know two seemingly simple things: how much the company was spending on meetings and when and where all the meetings were taking place. Clear enough goals, but complex to reach without a way to gather far-flung data.

Now, meetings of 30 or more attendees in a non-Marsh location or events that cost $25,000 or more must go through the event management team for review and then approval by the executive committee. In the past six months, Steckert has more than doubled the number of meetings she handles, and she expects the list to grow in 2004.

To structure the consolidation effort, Steckert spent several months searching for a technology vendor that could provide online sourcing, registration, RFPs, and data collection. (At press time a vendor had been selected, but contracts had not yet been signed.)

“The budget piece is really important as we try to centralize a decentralized system,” she says. In other words, being able to run regular budget summaries for senior management will be critical to proving the value of her team. Those reports might show, for example, that a meeting came in under budget because Steckert booked a five-star hotel on off-peak dates. Steckert also will be able to show her negotiated savings based on Marsh's total volume with particular hotel companies.

In addition, the package Marsh selected includes a comprehensive hotel sourcing component, with the ability to manage canceled or postponed programs by getting the word out companywide about booked space going unused for which the company would be paying cancellation charges.

With air travel already consolidated at Marsh Inc., the focus has shifted to capturing and leveraging the company's total meeting spend — quite an undertaking for a 38,000-employee company. “When we get this right,” says Steckert, “we'll be making the most of our meeting resources.”

Sourcing Center

At another financial services giant, Aon, Gary Pearson is a one-man show, gradually consolidating sourcing for the hundreds of meetings planned by Aon personnel in the United States. With 150 to 200 meetings coming across his desk annually, he says, “we're probably halfway.” And that's just the domestic meetings of the 55,000-employee global company.

Though meetings are not required to go through Pearson, director, meetings and conventions, he does have the backing of management — support that he will surely maintain, considering that he saved half a million dollars in the first seven months of this year. Every month he sends savings reports to senior execs. “And I don't do it against rack rates,” he points out. “This is a true amount — our starting point versus where we finish.”

Pearson works for Aon Service Corp. in Chicago, a subsidiary of Aon created solely to purchase services. The structure is similar to Steckert's: Pearson has the meeting expertise and the supplier relationships, but he's under the procurement umbrella, not on the marketing team. A 24-year meeting planning veteran, he joined Aon Service Corp. in 1998 from his meeting planning position at Combined Insurance, one of the companies from which Aon was formed. After an off-the-cuff conversation with Aon's CEO in which Pearson laid out the benefits of consolidated meeting planning for the enterprise, Pearson found himself interviewing for the job. “Since then I've been trying to get the word out,” he says.

He's found help in this task from his hotel sales contacts, who will call him when they see an Aon meeting booked by someone else. Pearson can then get on the phone with his colleague and explain his role. What it comes down to, he says, is “I can save them time, money, and aggravation.” But he's not trying to take every little event. “If they've got rapport with a local hotel, I'm not going to do any better,” he acknowledges. “But if they're going farther afield, I have hotels across the country.”

With a couple of exceptions, Pearson doesn't do the planning or on-site management of the programs. His role is sourcing, tapping his national hotel sales contacts and leveraging Aon's total business. “You need management's full backing to make it work,” Pearson says. “You must also prove your savings and worth to the organization. That helps you retain management support and win over others, showing them that they are saving more than they could individually.”

Information Is Power

Karyn Evans, CMP, CMM, manager, meeting and event services, and her team at Allianz Life in Minneapolis handle more than 650 events a year. Most of these are one-day workshops; the rest run the gamut from incentive programs to multi-day business meetings to internal employee events.

Evans is the first person to hold her position at Allianz Life: When she signed on with the company three years ago she was charged with creating the department. Executive and senior management expected two benefits from the centralized event services team: consistency in the quality of meetings, particularly the workshops, and cost savings through volume buying.

Evans has delivered on those goals, but what she's also delivered is efficiency. This has come mainly through the collecting and sharing of information by her team. There's no reinventing the wheel in her department. If someone finds a good site inspection checklist for spas, it's carefully filed for future use. The team holds regular meetings so that individual planners can bring up challenges they're having and get help from others who have been there, solved that. Team members also record what they learn during programs and review it during post-meeting debriefs so that the lessons are incorporated into the next program. “The team does a fantastic job in being objective and stepping out of the box when considering how to do things differently in the future,” Evans says.

But the most effective way information is shared is through the company's internal “traffic system,” a Lotus Notes — based database that holds the keys to planning every meeting on the department's docket. A planner with a workshop at a Chicago hotel, for example, can pull up information on that hotel and see how workshops have fared there in the past. The planner will find notes such as “Use Royal Meeting Room” or “Never use this hotel again.” The planner also will find feedback from workshop facilitators about the property. And the database is a negotiating aid, enabling the planner to see past rates. Given a higher rate, the planner can question it.

Evans' department charges back for its services, so the online system also serves as a project management tool, giving team members a way to track their time spent on individual meetings. Each event has a job number, Evans explains, and a list of all the steps involved in planning it, from negotiating the contract to processing invoices. At any point, Evans can pull a report for one of the business units that shows how many hours have been spent on an event — or on all of their events.

Still to come is the ability to run reports showing the company's total spend with individual hotels and hotel chains. Evans has data for the group side, but Allianz Life's accounting department handles transient hotel business so those records are separate. However, Evans and her counterpart in accounting are now consolidating the data, which Evans plans to bring to hotel companies.

Overall, the event services team is winning kudos for its creativity and for raising the bar on all events, Evans says. “We've become very trusted. People value what we bring to the table,” she says. “We don't focus just on the logistics or just on the fun. We spend more time making sure we're doing the right thing by the company and our employees.”

No-Brainer?

A centralized meeting department ensures consistency, saves big money, increases efficiency, and gives a company power by giving it information on its total meeting spending. With such clear benefits, why haven't all companies consolidated their event planning?

“I think there's still a lot of difference in opinion on what consolidation looks like,” says Maritz McGettigan's Duffy. “Most large corporations will tell you that they are consolidated. Many may have pieces together but have not really leveraged the total spend across the enterprise, especially not on a global basis. This is where corporate transient travel is so far ahead.”

Procurement: Friend or Foe?

The answer may be “partner.”

It seems that pencils can't get any sharper, but companies are still trying to wring every last cent of savings from their budgets. And because they know how much procurement departments have saved in buying commodities — and, now, some services — every expenditure is getting attention.

“A very significant number of Fortune 500 companies are moving to — or are well into — a strategic sourcing model for their procurement departments,” explains Mark Trowbridge, general partner at Strategic Procurement Solutions, a consultancy in Coleville, Calif. “Their CEOs are saying things like, ‘Mr. CPO [Chief Procurement Officer], you are responsible for every dollar spent with outside suppliers, and your task is to bring that down 7 percent this year.’” One result of the trend, he says, is that “corporate travel departments are reporting more and more to procurement in every industry sector.”

Whether meeting departments will start reporting to procurement is debatable. But procurement's involvement somewhere in the process seems ever more likely. “More and more often, Carlson Marketing Group is hearing from clients that there is an additional step in the process, an additional set of eyes involved in the decision,” says Patty Sabo, senior buyer at Carlson in Plymouth, Minn. “They tell us that their procurement departments will be reviewing proposals and budgets — as a first or intermediary step or even as the final decision-maker.”

Number crunchers as final decision-makers for complex programs like incentives? Even procurement types have a little trouble imagining that. “The typical purchasing person does not have the perspective necessary to plan a large meeting,” says Trowbridge, who spent years as a procurement officer before launching his consulting firm. “But the purchasing group can bring resources to the process. For example, there may be big printing expenses involved. Procurement may have an established contract with a printer. You have to look at the whole picture — at all the things that need to be bought.” The bottom line, he says: Procurement should help where it can, “and then get out of the way.”

Your Allies in Consolidation: NSOs

Do you know your national sales contacts for all the hotel chains? You should.

There are solid, bottom-line reasons to develop relationships with hotel companies' national sales offices (NSOs).

Just listen to Aon's Gary Pearson on the topic: “I rarely start the process without going to the NSO. They set the table for me,” he says. “Aon is still not a name everyone knows, but we're among the top clients of several hotel companies. The NSO tells the individual hotels about us. We only have to do one credit application a year. They're invaluable. They can open doors.”

Here are some ways NSOs can help you, put together with input from all of the national sales reps listed below:

  • They offer one point of contact for all hotels and all brands within a chain.

  • They track and monitor total production for individual companies and therefore help to make your case to individual hotels, giving the hotels the big picture.

  • They link the production of a parent company with its subsidiaries and regional offices, even if you haven't quite got the consolidation effort completed.

  • They know your company, your history, your culture, your attendees, your expectations, your hot buttons, and whether or not a particular property is the right fit for your group.

  • They tell your story to individual hotels, so you don't have to repeat basic information about yourself and your company.

  • They can help you with multiple-year agreements that might offer additional concessions and cost savings.

  • They can step in if you have difficulties with an individual property.

  • The partnership between you and the national sales office can enhance your credibility within your own organization.

  • They are a resource for hotel value dates.

  • They can help eliminate the prospecting calls and e-mails you get from individual properties.



The following is a list of national sales offices for hotel companies with representatives focused on the financial services market:

Isabel Mahon

Director, Global Sales, Insurance Fairmont Hotels & Resorts
(312) 245-0034
isabel.mahon@fairmont.com

June Locke

Senior Manager, Insurance Market Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts
(312) 944-4949
june.locke@fourseasons.com

Francine Liem Cobb

Director of Sales, Insurance and Worldwide Accounts
Hilton Hotels
(816) 801-7900
francine_cobb@hilton.com

Marilyn Brumbaugh

Director, National Accounts Hyatt Hotels and Resorts
(914) 939-3366
mbrumbau@cnsopo.hyatt.com

Diana M. Gonda

Director of Sales, Midwest KSL Resorts; (773) 975-6609
d.gonda@comcast.net

Judy Parker

Director, National Accounts Marriott Hotels & Resorts
(847) 318-1208
judy.m.parker@marriott.com

Pam Ferguson

Director of Insurance Sales The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co.
(312) 628 7685
pam.ferguson@ritzcarlton.com

John Jeffrey

Global Account Director, Insurance Sales Starwood Hotels & Resorts
(972) 691-3105
john.jeffrey@starwoodhotels.com