Do Corporate Meeting planners from different sectors face similar challenges, and, if so, would they benefit from hearing each other's approaches? To answer those questions, editors fromand its sister magazines, & Incentives and Financial & Insurance Meetings, convened a roundtable in Cambridge, Mass., in November. We brought together six experienced planners from the medical, financial, insurance, and technology fields for a candid discussion.
MEDICAL MEETINGS: Why don't we start by talking about what your biggest challenges are — those things that keep you up at night?
LINDA CARROLL-KING: I have three major meetings in January that are literally one after another. I have a week in the Bahamas, a week in Lisbon, and then another weeklong meeting. It's very challenging. Those meetings used to fall in January, March, and April, and they decided not very long ago to put them all together. For themeeting, which was always held in April, I got a call literally two weeks ago from our vice president saying, “I hope you don't mind; we're moving it due to a potential product launch.”!
ROB GINGRAS: We have 11 people in my department, and we do 300 to 400 meetings annually. The challenge isn't so much the volume of meetings — even though it is very high — as it is the complexity and detail that we are required to get involved in now. In the past 12 to 18 months, we have had to become the company's event marketing experts.
This has put an incredible amount of stress on my staff, because not only were they not prepared for that kind of strategic shift in our function, but they were hit with it without any warning.
SULLIVAN-ELLIOTT: For us, it is a different take because we market CME meetings, and we charge people to attend our programs. [Attracting people to attend] is a constant challenge. We need to make certain that we are doing our research, making sure that [our educational programs] are cutting-edge and [that we are responding to healthcare professionals' learning needs]. We need to conduct needs assessments and surveys, [conduct research] online, and attend other meetings to see what people want and expect.
JENNIFER GARVIS: My biggest challenge is that our CEO and all our senior staff were originally engineers. They are very numbers-driven, and they want everything to have a quantifiable basis. So we have to explain to them things such as brand awareness or image management — things that are all wrapped up in a meeting's success but that you can't measure with a dollar figure. That has been a struggle. They become supportive for a while, but then they go right back to focusing on leads or sales volume. I have to constantly remind them of the art versus the science.
MICHAEL BURKE: For us, lead times have definitely shortened. A lot of things cause people to change meeting dates often. We are a property and casualty company, so something like Hurricane Wilma comes through and our focus shifts to getting adjusters on the ground, finding hotel rooms, and helping to keep the business running.
Right now, we're also going through a corporate re-branding, so there are many initiatives around that effort, with the CEO getting out to the agents and us setting up executive flights and venue logistics. It's back to back to back. It can be challenging.
MM: Do you find yourselvesmore to keep up with all the work?
GARVIS: I worry about the time and energy it takes to manage an outsource program and vendors — and the expense. Sometimes I want to scream at the vendors: “I am paying you huge dollars — it would be easier if I did this myself!”
PHYLLIS CONNELLY: We're the exact opposite. We have our own in-house creative services department, with eight staff people. Our meeting planning department is part of the communications services department, which also includes public relations and advertising. We have three graphic artists who are all part of the department. So we have everything in-house, and we don't outsource.
MM: Getting back to things that keep you up at night, how has your involvement with procurement evolved?
CARROLL-KING: When I first started dealing with purchasing reviewing my, they would always say, “We're not going to do that.” Working with purchasing has been an education process. Hotel contracts are not like buying items for the office.
That's gotten better, but working with them still takes a long time. If I send out afor, let's say, a half million dollars, I think, “When will I ever see it again?” I keep getting e-mails and phone calls from the hotels saying, “When am I getting that contract?”
Even with exhibits, when thecompany sends me a work order, usually about four weeks before a show, I have to send it to purchasing. Purchasing has to send it to legal. If the dollar value is over say $50,000, the president of our business unit has to sign it.
GARVIS: I always have to explain the meeting-industry terminology — exactly what the service is — because they don't often understand what I'm trying to buy. And then there are things like trade show service prepayments. They tell me, “What do you mean you are paying them in advance? They haven't done anything for you yet. And often, for a variety of reasons, I don't necessarily choose the vendor that bid the least. Procurement does not understand that at all. The mandate is for you to go with the cheapest vendor.
MM: And then there's all the paperwork, especially since Sarbanes-Oxley …
CARROLL-KING: It has gotten so out of hand. With 55 meetings, it has just bogged down the process enormously.
BURKE: We have a threshold that after a certain level, [an expense] has to be approved by a cost center manager and finance controller. Above that, if it is at a certain expense level, the president of the company and the CFO have to sign off on it, too. But we do very few of those meetings. And they are very good at getting back to us in a timely manner, so it really has not had that much effect.
GARVIS: We kind of recalibrated with Sarbanes-Oxley, but we didn't have to go right back to scratch. Dollar amounts have to get approved at various levels. They always have. But I don't get the same kind of questions that I used to. I've been with my company for eight years, and especially in the last three or four years I think they see the knowledge and value that my team and I bring.
GINGRAS: In some ways, Sarbanes-Oxley has been a good thing for us. What it forced us to do is look at the numbers and it also put us in the driver's seat policywise.
MM: Can you tell us more about how you measure, both for your meetings and your departments?
GINGRAS: We measure ROI on three different levels, one of them being the return by the department. What is the value of the department to the organization? The second level is the value of the programs to the company, and the third level is [the liability we diminish through things such as contract negotiations].
We measure the ROI on all three of those very differently. For the value of our meetings to the company, we poll attendees — that sort of thing. But in contracting, if we just signed anything and everything as it came to us, we would expose the company to fairly substantial dollars in liabilities, in exposure, in initial commitments, in legal commitments. So we spend a lot of time and effort rewriting contracts, putting riders on, and putting addendums on to protect us and reduce our corporate liability. That is more of a soft measure.
BURKE: ROI seems cyclical. It seems, every two years or so, we have to go through the process again. We don't have the resources to track as much of this information as we would like with three people and 250 meetings. It's just impossible to do. But we're fortunate to have a CEO who recognizes the value of having internal planners. He sees how we interact with our agents on conferences. And we become part of the marketing team with our independent agents.
GARVIS: When I first came to Avid, actually, all the contracts were being done by our legal department. Boilerplate contracts would come in from a supplier and they might make a few minor changes, but nobody in the legal department even knew what the word “” meant in terms of a hotel. They just were not aware that the way the contracts were written could vastly affect the cost, that it's not just about X rooms for X dollars. Finally, at one point, I sent a comparison of my version and our legal team's to management and said, “Which one do you want me to submit to the vendor?” They were amazed. No one had a clue about the level of detail that we deal with. And so, it is an education process internally to prove your value, and sometimes you have to do that because you can't necessarily do it in dollars and cents.
CONNELLY: All the planners in my department are asked to attain a certain percentage of cost savings for each meeting they plan. Additionally, on an annual basis, we benchmark our savings against the financial services industry by sending out a survey to the Financial and Insurance Conference Planners membership.
CARROLL-KING: In my industry, pharmaceuticals, it's very different. The return on investment at trade shows is very difficult to measure because we're not selling anything. We are really there for branding and to meet with our key customers [our physicians]. We try to meet with them; we try to engage them in conversation. That's why we also try to have CME symposia at some of these key meetings.
SULLIVAN-ELLIOTT: We don't really use [the term] return on investment. For us, it's return on education. We see if [participants] have taken what has been presented to them back to their practice, or, for a scientist, back to their lab. One way we implement ROE is through our on-site program evaluations and six month post-evaluations.
MM: Is the use of your department mandated in your company?
CONNELLY: We encourage employees to take advantage of our services. Liberty Mutual is a global company, and as we go forward, the complexity and volume of these meetings will encourage those clients to use us as a resource.
BURKE: Our travel and meetings policy dictates that we coordinate meetings of 10 or more people. Occasionally we will get an individual who is not familiar with the policy. However, we have checks and balances in place with accounts payable. That way, we don't have people throughout the company signing contracts committing the company to liabilities. It works well for us.
MM: Changing the subject a little, tell us about site selection trends.
BURKE: For our agent incentive trips, we always go to nice facilities. These are our key agents, and we're not going to take top sales agents to a three-star property. It's got to be at least four, and often five.
CARROLL-KING: I do go international, and my salespeople usually want a resort so there is golf and a spa. We'll be in the Bahamas in January. I also do meetings in Europe. For instance, our global management meeting will be in Lisbon this year.
MM: Have you been given destination restrictions lately?
CARROLL-KING: I can't look like I am lavishly spending money for no particular reason. I have always had restrictions. For a pharmaceutical company, the scrutiny is huge. The outside is always looking. We're doing the right thing, but [the scrutiny has] put so much pressure on purchasing and finance (to ensure this).
MM: I've heard that medical companies prefer not to hold meetings in hotels with wireless Internet access, due to privacy and security concerns.
GINGRAS: We are prohibited from going wireless because of information protection and regulatory compliance such as HIPAA [Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act]. We had a preferred property in Chicago that went fully wireless. We were required to remove them from the approved list until a suitable remedy was found.
MM: Many planners talk about budget cuts — have you had staff cuts?
GINGRAS: Our staff was reduced two years ago, but since then, I have added back the original positions eliminated. These last two positions I had a hard time filling. There aren't enough experienced planners out there.
BURKE: It's amazing. [When we were hiring recently] we had such a hard time finding a qualified candidate. And we don't have time to teach and to train. We need somebody who can hit the ground running.
MICHAEL BURKE, CMP, is manager of conference and travel services for the Hanover Insurance Group Inc. He and a staff of three planners handle 250 meetings a year; he is also responsible for the on-site travel department.
LINDA CARROLL-KING, CMP, is senior meetings manager for Genzyme Corp., based in Cambridge, Mass. She handles 55 meetings a year, including international sales meetings, incentive trips, and educational programs for healthcare professionals. She also manages the commercial support process.
MARIE SULLIVAN-ELLIOTT, CMP, MBA, is manager of event planning for Serono Symposia International Inc., based in Rockland, Mass. Accredited by the Accreditation Council for CME since 1986, Serono Symposia is an independent, nonprofit corporation supported in part by unrestricted educational grants from Serono Inc. Her department manages approximately 15 large conferences a year.
PHYLLIS CONNELLY, CMP, is senior meeting planner with Liberty Mutual, Boston. Her team of seven planners handles all the company's incentive and sales meetings, from 175 to 200 annually.
JENNIFER GARVIS, CMP, is corporate meetings manager for Avid Technology, Tewksbury, Mass. Her team of five plans 35 to 45 meetings and exhibits annually.
ROB GINGRAS, CMP, is director, corporate services, conference and travel, CIGNA Corp., Hartford, Conn. He has eight direct reports and three indirect people on his staff and plans 350 to 400 meetings a year.
ALSO PARTICIPATING: Betsy Bair, editorial director, The Meetings Group; Regina Baraban, editor, Financial & Insurance Meetings; Tamar Hosansky, editor, Medical Meetings; Sue Pelletier, executive editor, Medical Meetings; and Barbara Scofidio, editor, Corporate Meetings & Incentives. Many thanks to The Hotel Marlowe, Cambridge, Mass. (www.hotelmarlowe.com), for hosting this event.