It's not a glamorous process. And it doesn't happen overnight. In fact, rolling out a strategic meetings management program is a pretty labor-intensive job that's often met with some tough resistance.

Just ask Tom J. Tolvé, CMP. As Novo Nordisk's senior manager of meeting operations, Princeton, N.J., Tolvé co-led the effort to put an SMMP in place back in 2005 and has helmed the program through various evolutions over the past four years. The result: He and his team have succeeded in cutting meeting costs by an average of 15 percent.

Seizing the Opportunity

It began in 2005, when Novo Nordisk's executive team wanted to get a better understanding of the company's spend on meetings and “they just couldn't do it,” he says. “That really catapulted the decision that yes, we need this project.” Having come from Bristol-Myers Squibb, which had a strong SMMP in place, Tolvé seized the opportunity to initiate the program.

“The first thing we did was benchmark against industry colleagues and find out what worked and what didn't from those who already had plans in place,” says Tolvé. “Then we collected all this industry data and compiled it into best practices for the company.”

The next step was to get support and feedback from other areas of the company. He assembled a task force of people who had some involvement in meetings, including admins who planned meetings as part of their jobs, as well as those on the clinical team who were responsible for meetings but didn't actually do the planning.

It took Tolvé and his task force more than a year to finalize the standard operating procedure (SOP) he had drafted and get senior management's approval. And it took another six months to complete a phased rollout of the program to each department within the company. By April 2007 the entire company was onboard and the SMMP was a mandated process that everyone was expected to follow.

The 50/50/50 Rule

“The primary purpose of the SMMP is to make sure that everyone is working within the same guidelines for sourcing and working with our preferred partners, says Tolvé. In a nutshell, if an event has at least 50 cumulative room nights, 50 attendees, or a budget of $50,000 or more, it must be registered through Tolvé's department.

There are also sections in the SOP stipulating the process for registering a meeting, how to handle room rate commissions, procedures for canceling a meeting, guidelines on food and beverage spend, maximum allowable room rates, and timelines for when each step of the process must be turned around, such as reporting post-meeting attendee data. This last step is critical, given stricter regulations on tracking physician spend. Some states have passed laws requiring pharmaceutical companies to track and disclose payments made to healthcare professionals, including costs related to meetings. On the federal level, the Physician Payments Sunshine Act, pending in Congress, has similar requirements.

With the SOP finalized and the SMMP implemented across the company, finally Tolvé could breathe a sigh of relief and give himself a pat on the back. Well, not quite. His work was far from over. “You write something and put it into action, and then you have to revise it 137 times because you realize what sounded good on paper is never really realistic when it comes to execution,” says Tolvé.

Guidelines on turnaround times and spend all were revised as the process got going. In addition, Tolvé and his team made the decision to centralize the sourcing function. “When we first developed this program, we did not have a dedicated agency to do all of our sourcing. We realized that was a mistake, and so we went to bid and brought in one agency [Robbinsville, N.J.-based Meeting Alliance] to handle all sourcing.”

Another important component of the program was marketing it to everyone in the company. “We didn't have a fun name for this program,” says Tolvé. “We were calling it the Novo Nordisk Centralized Meeting Consolidation Program. That doesn't exactly roll off the tongue.”

The team decided to rename the program MeetingSource and began changing all collateral to reflect the new name. It was a big endeavor, says Tolvé of the effort to rebrand the program, but it was worth it. People definitely responded to the name change, he says.

Good Cop, Bad Cop

But getting people to actually use the system was one of the biggest struggles, notes Tolvé — especially admins. “Let's face it, hotels have a great way of wooing potential clients and there are a lot of people who enjoy being wooed.”

Not surprisingly, admins did not react positively when they were told they would no longer benefit from hotel perks. “When we first rolled out this program there were some people who wanted nothing to do with me and this system. They would see me coming and walk in the opposite direction,” he recalls. “We definitely had people who tried to circumvent the process.”

Getting people to register their meetings through the system often requires a dose of education. “We play good cop, bad cop a lot with our legal and finance departments,” he adds. “When a contract comes to legal for review and it hasn't gone through the appropriate channels, they red flag it — same with accounting. It really then becomes an opportunity for me to educate this person on the process.”

Another ongoing struggle is getting people to comply with timelines for reporting post-meeting data, notes Tolvé, who is the first to admit the 45- to 60-day deadline for reporting can be hard to adhere to. “Oftentimes communication and education about the business reasons behind data reporting are enough to get people to comply with the process, but when that approach doesn't work, Tolvé often relies on what he jokingly refers to as “the scare tactic.”

“If an internal person is really behind on the deadline for reporting, we will go right to his or her manager and explain the business reason for needing this data,” says Tolvé. If the offender is a third party, referencing the agreed-upon contractual terms is usually enough of a motivator to get results.

Compliance Incentives

But it's not all “follow the program or else.” Tolvé has also been known to offer rewards to those who adhere to the system and meet deadlines. “Last year I ran an incentive where everyone that submitted their post-meeting data within the 45-day time frame was entered into a drawing to win a weekend in New York City and dinner for two.”

The best PR for the program, however, is word of mouth, he says. “Nine times out of 10, when someone registers a meeting, relinquishes control of the sourcing process, and gets aligned with the preferred vendors in the company, they end up coming back to me and saying, ‘You were so right, I still got to be involved, but I didn't have to do the grunt work.’ They tell a friend and before you know it, more and more people are singing our praises.”

Partner with Procurement

Another important facet of Tolvé's job is proving the SMMP's value to procurement. And while meeting managers and procurement executives have been known to clash at many companies, that is not the case at Novo Nordisk. “I'm blessed when it comes to my relationship with procurement,” says Tolvé. “They really respect [the expertise] I bring to the table and all they ask is that I keep them in the loop.”

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To strengthen the relationship, he proactively submits a monthly report to procurement detailing all the metrics his team has captured for meetings companywide. “Basically the report is a summary of trends,” he says. “If I see a sharp increase in one area [such as cost per attendee], I will do an analysis to determine the reason and include this in the report.”

Metrics Tolvé measures and reports monthly to procurement include the number of new meeting requests received, the number of meeting requests logged per department, and the number of completed meetings. For the meetings in which post-meeting data has already been submitted, Tolvé also reports back to procurement on the number of attendees per meeting, average cost per attendee, total spend for the meeting, total savings achieved, and savings as a percent of the actual cost.

Bringing in the Bucks

Achieving measurable cost savings isn't enough for, Tolvé — who has also found ways to generate revenue through his department. When Novo Nordisk uses third-party agencies to plan its meetings, the commission from the hotel is split between the third party and Novo Nordisk.

He also has negotiated preferred agreements with some smaller hotel chains, audiovisual companies, and destination management companies in various cities. “The contracts stipulate that we will get anywhere from a 3 percent to an 8 percent rebate when we use these vendors,” he says. The funds are reinvested into the meetings department to offset the cost of the online meetings tool as well as the purchase of meeting materials such as folders and badges.

Branding the Brand Teams

Tolvé has developed another revenue stream by allowing internal brand teams to sponsor certain aspects of company meetings. While this option would not be suitable for an investigator, CME, or advisory board meeting, he has offered it for internal sales meetings and speaker trainings.

“We will let a brand team sponsor the breaks or even the entire event,” says Tolvé. “Each brand team is always jockeying to get their brand seen as the top brand and make sure our sales reps understand the messaging.” This offers them a chance to reinforce that message in other areas of the event outside of the meeting room or training session. The brand team pays a certain amount to Tolvé's department for the privilege and, in turn, their brand is represented throughout the event — on napkins, ice sculptures, banners, and the like. “The money simply gets transferred from their cost center into ours.”

In addition to reinvesting the funds into his department, Tolvé uses the money to support the company's corporate social responsibility initiatives. “We have made donations to local organizations such as Cradles to Crayons, (which helps support low-income and homeless children) and are in the process of embarking on a larger scale CSR program with the funds that we will generate in 2009.”

Next Step: Small Meetings

The next step: expanding the program to include small meetings that come in below the current 50/50/50 rule. “We are looking into implementing a small meetings tool to get a tighter capture on that spend,” he says. “But it's really a question of being careful what you wish for. There are not always enough resources to take it to that level [of detail].” Based on his track record so far, it's probably safe to say he'll find a way to get it done. n

Get Strategic

Find out Tom J. Tolvé's strategies for creating a successful national sales meeting at the Fifth Annual Pharmaceutical Meeting Management Forum, organized by Medical Meetings and the Center for Business Intelligence, March 29-31, 2009, at the Baltimore Convention Center. Other sessions cover regulatory updates, managing meetings in tough economic times, planning effective incentive programs, and much more. For information, visit

Compliance Conundrums

To ensure meetings and events are meeting regulatory guidelines, Tom J. Tolvé, CMP, senior manager of meeting operations, Novo Nordisk, Princeton, N.J., partners with his legal and compliance departments. “In our legal department, we have one lawyer and one paralegal who are dedicated to the meetings department's needs,” says Tolvé. It's a touch point he uses regularly to ensure he is up to speed on the latest requirements for meetings as well as to iron out some of the “grayer” areas of the revised Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America's Code on Interactions with Healthcare Professionals.

One such area involved the code's ban on choosing resorts for meetings involving healthcare professionals. “But the code doesn't specify what a resort actually is; you can ask different companies and get different answers based on their interpretation of the guidelines.”

In an effort to get to the bottom of the “Is it a resort or not?” conundrum, Tolvé outlined a business case for what he believed was the definition of a resort property and spent three months working with his legal and compliance departments to revise it until all were in agreement.

Ultimately, Novo Nordisk defines a resort as any five-star or five-diamond property, or any property that has two or more of the following: golf, spa, beach, or casino. In addition, a property is also considered a resort if both the destination where it is located is considered the main attraction (such as Miami or Vail), and the property has less than 50 square feet of meeting space per available sleeping room.

The code also says meals provided to healthcare professionals at meetings must be modest. Tolvé is currently working with legal and compliance to determine how the company will establish food and beverage limits for its meetings. For instance, will service charges such as bartender fees and chef fees all roll up into per-person limits on F&B, or will the company include only the cost of the actual meal when calculating these charges? “We don't have an answer right now on this,” he says.

One thing Tolvé is certain of: There will be no “creative accounting” when it comes to the meal caps — food and beverage will be calculated at market value. “It has to be done honestly. I won't play games like paying $9,000 for a meeting room in order to serve lobster and caviar at a price that comes in within the per-person rates.”

It Takes a Team

The Strategic Meetings and Event Management team, as it is called at Novo Nordisk, consists of three separate divisions: convention marketing and planning (with three employees dedicated to this function), speakers bureau programs (with two dedicated employees), and meeting management (where Tom J. Tolvé, CMP, senior manager of meeting operations, resides along with one contracted meeting planner and three contracted sourcing personnel). The team is involved in planning larger promotional meetings, incentive trips, and internal meetings. And Tolvé says about one-third of his time is dedicated to managing the SMMP companywide.