Nationwide: The Meeting Specialists It's noon, and Jodi Woerner has been on the phone since 9 a.m. negotiating a hotel contract for an incentive meeting. For some time now, she's been talking about whether or not children under four will be able to eat for free, and the topic of conversation is making her stomach grumble.

Soon the deal's closed--youngsters will eat gratis, and Woerner is happy. She has just saved her employer, Columbus, Ohio-based Nationwide Insurance, a good sum of money. And as contract coordinator, enterprise meeting and conference services, saving money through hotel contract negotiations is Woerner's specialty.

Like Woerner, everyone else in the department plays a very specific role in the meeting planning and implementation process--roles that this centralized department has modeled after positions in a typical hotel lineup.

For example, Consulting Manager Kelly Stratton is Nationwide's counterpart to a hotel's director of sales--she manages all hotel contract negotiations for all meetings. Woerner and Judy Hart, site coordinator, report to Stratton. The role of convention services manager is played by Shirley Mertz, CMP, implementation manager, who handles the logistics of the meetings.

"We are set up differently than everyone else in the industry because we never tried to pattern ourselves after small meeting planning departments," says Stratton. "We wanted to be a large meeting services group that could handle volume the most effective way possible. Instead of having everyone be a jack-of-all-trades, the most functional system was specialization within the department.

"The fact that we are specialized means that, for example, my girls and I speak the same language as a hotel sales department. We are trained in getting down and dirty with contract terminology," she continues. "This gets Shirley's group out of the administrative portion and allows them to focus on planning meetings."

Echoes Mertz: "It's a very effective way to operate. While we are working on meetings, Jodi is negotiating the contract for the next one. The expertise that everyone has is what's great about this department."

A very precise method of planning meetings has developed from that expertise. "If a meeting owner calls our department, the call is funneled to Judy Hart. She immediately does a series of 'discoveries' and then she and I confer on what locations best suit a meeting," says Stratton. After RFPs have been answered, Stratton and Hart give three to five hotel recommendations to their client. "The client then calls us back and requests a site inspection, which we'll do if the program is big enough, or a contract," she explains.

At this stage, Hart passes the meeting file over to Woerner, who negotiates the hotel contract and acts as a liaison with the client. After the contract is signed and Woerner has sent the client a letter documenting it, Mertz takes over. "Once I receive the information from Jodi, I assign the meeting to a planner," says Mertz. "We handle everything from selecting speakers to managing room lists to coordinating ground transportation." Working with her in this "convention services" side of the department are three meeting planners--Linda Davis, Virginia Ryan, and Christy Corey--and two meeting coordinators, Nikki Hoffman and Heidi Bails.

This specialized system was adopted in 1994 when a survey of Nationwide's operating units revealed that some 150 employees were spending a total of $12 million a year on meetings. The finding prompted the creation of a task force to consolidate all of that spending. "Back then, it really ran the gamut as to who was planning meetings," Mertz notes. "It was scary because anyone--not necessarily meeting planners--was signing contracts."

So the task force decided to centralize planning in order to leverage buying power. And according to Mertz, the meeting department has saved Nationwide more than $4 million during the past three years. "That's important, because part of our CEO's vision is to offer the lowest possible premiums to our policyholders. By leveraging buying power and ultimately saving money we can, in turn, be a low-cost provider," she says.

With several major recent acquisitions under its belt, Nationwide currently boasts 18 subsidiaries and some 150 business units. Each unit has its own slate of meetings, making for a grand total of about 500 each year.

The meeting services department, currently responsible for half of those meetings, is hoping to draw in even more business in 1999. "We are spending the last fiscal quarter of 1998 preparing for marketing blitzes," says Stratton. She explains that the department needs to be marketed because for the first time it will be charging for its services: "Before, we were on an allocation system, and business units--rather than individual departments--paid for meetings," she explains. "Now our clients will be paying out of their own budgets, and we are going to have to work through this change very closely with them."

Stratton predicts that Nationwide's continued acquisitions and the new internal charging process will open doors for her department. "We are going to have the opportunity to work with a wider, more diverse audience than ever before," she says. "And we're prepared for our business to increase."

Teamwork Makes the Department Go 'Round Collaboration is a hallmark of Phoenix Home Life Mutual Insurance Company, Hartford, Conn.--and it is the primary characteristic of the insurer's meeting department. "The company has a philosophy that there is life beyond Phoenix and that sometimes employees have to prioritize," says Jody Lee, special events coordinator, corporate communications. "My boss is especially understanding--we work such crazy hours that we don't clock in and we have flex time, meaning that we all pick our own schedules."

Lee's boss, Assistant Vice President Cheryl O'Sullivan, encourages teamwork. "Our department has a sharing environment," she says. "We are still small enough to be aware of what everyone else is working on. If anyone needs help, all they have to do is yell."

The department includes five full-time employees and two part-timers. Linda Hirsch, manager, conference services, works with O'Sullivan on Phoenix's five annual incentive conventions. Three back-to-backs run every March, followed by two back-to-backs in April, ranging in size from 150 to 450 attendees. But everybody pitches in along the way. Explains O'Sullivan: "Some of us are good at coming up with creative menus, while others are good at making sure all of the i's are dotted. But we consider ourselves interchangeable."

Handling all other meetings, about 100 in the Hartford area each year and 20 regionally, are conference planners Lisa Genereau and Gail Ricci.

Budgets and bill-paying for all meetings and events are handled by Roberta Nair and Eileen Hollings- worth, both retired, part-time administrative assistants who know the Phoenix ropes well: They used to work full-time for the department.

Jody Lee, meanwhile, runs all corporate sponsorship events held for Phoenix's clients and corporate executives. Phoenix is a local and national sponsor of the American Basketball League, for example, and sponsored a professional tennis tournament in Hartford in November. During that event, Lee was responsible for running a 120-seat hospitality area. Lee says the department's unwritten policy of collaboration has fostered real friendships among them: "We are a tight-knit group."

Exceeding Attendee Expectations We are all about service," says Anita Roye, meeting and travel planner at New England Financial in Boston.

Sound like a hotelier talking? It's not surprising. Roye used to be on the hotel side. And she's not the only convert in the travel and recognition department. Assistant Vice President Jeff Calmus jumped over from hotel convention services. And Joan Mahon, senior meeting and travel planner, came from a travel background. "We have an experienced department," says Calmus. "We speak the same language as our hospitality partners, and this makes for business relationships that work well."

Rounding out the department is Dawn Montague, meetings assistant. Having studied hospitality administration in college, Montague speaks the industry language, too.

The quartet is responsible for five incentive meetings and some 30 additional meetings each year. "We plan everything from housing to food and beverage to decor," says Roye. "We take the responsibility of managing attendees so seriously that we really don't let go of any details."

Calmus adds that for the larger events--like the 1,200-person Leaders Meeting--some outside help is necessary. "We use a number of outside suppliers such as DMCs, but we are actively involved," he says. "The more control we have, the better."

That control extends even to final night dinners, for which the department creates seat assignments. If you're imagining a roomful of disgruntled people, Roye says it doesn't happen. "We spend a lot of time on it. We're very close to our field," she says. The department knows, for example, who would appreciate some time with the president or which qualifier should be seated at a certain executive's table. "We pride ourselves on our relationship with our field."

And with the home office. All executives go into meetings knowing exactly what is planned and what their roles are. "We have a briefing meeting for them about a week prior to each of our field meetings," Mahon says. "We give all levels of management a briefing packet explaining what should happen at the meeting and why it's happening."

The department keeps itself on track with a Roles and Responsibilities document created for each meeting by VP Mary Dexter. The docu- ment is updated weekly and available to the meeting team on a shared computer drive. It delineates every meeting task and who is primarily responsible for each step. "We stick to the notion that if you have a responsibility, no one else is going to do it," Calmus says. "Flawless pre-planning is the key to successful events."

Department: Enterprise Meeting and Conference Services

Number of Employees: 9

Department Reports to: Officer of Administration, Enterprise Services

Total Meetings per Year: 250

Incentive house/site selection firm used: None

Department: Corporate Communications

Number of Employees: 5

Department Reports to: Vice President of Corporate Communications

Total Meetings per Year: 125

Incentive house/site selection firm used: None

Department: Travel and Recognition

Number of Employees: 4

Reports to: VP, Career Agency System

Total Meetings per Year: 35

Incentive house/site selection firm used: None