Global strategic meetings management. Talk to meeting planners at any major pharmaceutical company and they'll likely tell you it's the next frontier for their companies. While the concept is fairly straightforward — extend the tools and processes for U.S. strategic meetings management programs across all offices worldwide — executing a global program can be extremely challenging.

During a thought-leaders panel discussion on day one of the Pharmaceutical Meeting Planners Forum, a group of experts engaged in a lively conversation about strategies for going global, moderated by meeting consolidation pioneer George Odom, who serves as senior director, Advito, Dallas. As former leader of global travel and meeting services for Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly & Co., Odom spearheaded the company's move towards global meetings consolidation in 1999.

Culture Clash

One of the main challenges in executing a global program is getting a handle on the language, culture, and regulatory differences from country to country, said Odom. “Where are you seeing companies trip up?”

“When the model is being driven out of the U.S., one of the biggest challenges is that there is usually a greater level of complexity in Europe than the leader of the initiative originally thought there would be,” said panelist Shaun Casey, managing director, EMEA, BCD Meetings & Incentives, based in The Netherlands. “From an organizational point of view, different countries work in different ways, and the variations between regulations in each country are phenomenal. Trying to get your head around all of that is a virtual impossibility.”

When selling the program to stakeholders in other regions of the world, these issues can really come into play, added Carol Krugman, CMP, CMM, director of client services, George P. Johnson, North Easton, Mass. “We tend not to think about language and culture first when implementing a global program because English may be the [official] language of the company, but when going country to country, you really need to have an understanding and sensitivity to that particular culture and do your homework ahead of time.”

“It's really important that you don't approach this as, ‘It's my way or the highway,’” echoed Lynn Ridzon, director, strategic sourcing and procurement, Amgen, Thousand Oaks, Calif. “Instead, offer best practices that have worked in the U.S., and ask how you can make them work in that particular region.”

Taking on Technology

Technology is another area that becomes increasingly important when implementing a global program. Companies need to have a centralized technology platform for managing meetings in order to keep data consistent across all regions, said the panelists.

When you consider the need to keep track of regulatory changes in each country and track spend on a per-attendee basis, technology really becomes a factor, said Krugman. “It's no longer about how much we are spending on a meeting. It's about how much was spent on Dr. Smith at a particular meeting. Can we prove to an auditor that we did not spend more than the proscribed limit of ‘x’ dollars or euros per day to feed Dr. Smith on a specific date? We're looking at some pretty sophisticated software to track data on this level.”

“Having good IT applications is critical,” agreed Casey. “In Europe, there are hundreds of ways of defining meeting types, and the greatest area of confusion involves the different interpretations of what constitutes savings and cost avoidance. These have to be defined upfront and tracked consistently in the technology application.”

One best practice is to create a centralized Web portal where anyone across the corporation can access information about meetings and find the meetings department contacts, said Ridzon. “This should be the place where people can see if their meeting will conflict with any others. It should also be where you report the savings the department is achieving.”

Ridzon also advised planners to use their colleagues in procurement when trying to quantify cost savings and get buy-in for a global program. “Your procurement people can help you [compile financial data] and help you measure ROI,” she said. “There are formal processes in place in a procurement organization that you can use when you speak to company executives.”

“It's about showing senior management that we are being good stewards with the budgets that are entrusted to us,” added Paul Ashley, director, global sourcing, Pfizer Inc., New York. In this economy, being able to show that value is extremely important, he added. “At Pfizer, we have a new CFO, and he wants to know that we are spending the company's money wisely.”

Communicating Compliance

How can meeting professionals ensure that their suppliers are enforcing audit and compliance guidelines? asked Odom.

“We do spot checks,” said Ashley. “And keep the lines of communication open. You really have to have an effective supplier measurement process in place.”

“And provide the training,” added Ridzon. “If you have a supplier partner, it is a true partnership only if you provide them with training. Every company has its own level of compliance guidelines in place. You need to have key performance indicators and service-level agreements outlined in your master service agreement.”

Krugman took it one step further, stating that it is “incumbent on the [third-party] agency to have someone on staff whose job includes partnering with the compliance department” so as to know the client's guidelines inside and out. “Staying updated and current on U.S. federal and individual state [pharmaceutical marketing] guidelines — not to mention those of regions and individual countries outside the U.S. — could become a full-time job,” she said.

Sometimes even more difficult than ensuring supplier compliance is ensuring that employees comply with internal meetings management policies that are in place. This challenge can intensify when a program expands globally.

One audience member addressed the panel with an ethical question regarding complying with preferred-supplier agreements. Hotels get caught in the middle when it comes to internal compliance, she said. “If an employee is supposed to use a preferred meetings management company to book the meeting, but instead calls the hotel directly, is the hotel supposed to say no to the request?”

Planners should ask hotel sales people to contact them if they get requests that are out of compliance, said Ridzon. “The onus is then on the internal [planner] to communicate with this person who is out of compliance. Most of the time it is an issue of the person just not being aware of the policy.”

It is in the hotel salesperson's best interest to address the issue up front, added Ridzon. “As a hotelier, you are not going to be looked at as a rat. We are going to find out eventually [this person was not in compliance] and then go back to the hotel and ask why we weren't contacted about this.”

“What is the best way to have these policies embraced by employees and followed on a global level?” asked Odom.

“It has to come from the top,” said Krugman. “Until C-level management makes the policy mandatory, it will never be completely adopted.”

Managing that compliance once a mandate is in place is equally important, said Ridzon. “There has to be a downside to noncompliance so [employees have] an incentive to use the system.”

In closing, Odom asked what the future holds for strategic meetings management.

“SMMPs become even more important when you hear about a recession and economic woes,” said Ridzon. “When money is tight at a company, where do [top executives] look first to cut spending? Travel and meetings. Would you rather management just slash budgets or would you rather be in an SMMP environment where you can sit down with the budget slashers and say, ‘Let's make some rational business decisions on where we can cut spending.’ In times like these, this is where you can really provide value to your company.”

Partnering With Procurement

Participating in a panel discussion on global meetings consolidation at the Fourth Annual Pharmaceutical Meetings Planners Forum in Baltimore, George Odom, senior director, Advito, Dallas, offered the following tips:

Find a procurement ally

Having procurement in your corner can be a tremendous help in getting a global program off the ground; just be sure your goals and experiences align. “Find someone in procurement with a services background,” advises Odom. “If your procurement person's experience has only been in purchasing widgets, you will need to educate him or her on purchasing in a services model in order to develop a productive partnership.”

Talk their language

“Procurement is generally very linear in their thinking,” says Odom, “while planners are usually very fluid.” The result: miscommunication. “Give procurement as many specifics as possible upfront so they can look at sourcing meetings as more than just a number.”

Who's the leader?

While procurement usually has a leading role in executing a global meetings consolidation program, Odom says it is important to differentiate between what decisions lie in procurement's hands and what meeting planners will have control over. “Procurement can teach the meeting planners formal procurement processes so they are comfortable handing over some of the decision-making to planners.”

Take a Six Sigma approach

By going through a global implementation as part of a Six Sigma approach, you are less likely to get pushback, says Odom. (Six Sigma is a data-driven approach for improving business management.) “If you have a Six Sigma group in your organization, consider getting on their to-do list. You will get a lot of resources for your project.”

Do a gap analysis

Enlist subject matter experts in different areas of the company to put together a gap analysis for meetings management. “Make a list of where you are today and where you want to be, and determine a step-by-step process for closing that gap,” said Odom.

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