Mary Keough-Anderson has been around meeting planning long enough that her AV specs once included filmstrips. In 34 years with Liberty Mutual Insurance she has seen how meeting planning has evolved—but more important, she sees where it has to go.

“There has been a major shift in meeting departments in larger companies, from a logistics focus to a strategic focus,” she says. It’s known by different names—event strategy, event marketing, engagement marketing. Broadly, it means paying more attention to how events can have a direct impact on a company’s growth and profitability. In turn, that means working with meeting owners to tease out specific and measurable objectives. The process often includes asking questions that senior executives in traditional industries aren’t used to answering. For example, “What are the emotions you want attendees to feel when they arrive at this event?” Feel?

Facing the Future
But let’s take a step back. Keough-Anderson, director, meeting management and event strategy, didn’t come to work one morning and start changing the dialogue. Instead, she proposed a benchmarking process that would assess her department’s work through hours of internal and external interviews, Web-based surveys, and on-site meeting audits. It was grueling, but 18 months later Keough-Anderson had restructured and renamed her department, created and filled a “director of event strategy” position, and set her team of meeting planners on a new course.

She acknowledges that it was  a major exercise in change management. But it’s a necessity. “If we don’t continue in this direction as an industry we will be left behind,” she says. “I firmly believe that.”

 

Growth Story
Before retiring in August, Keough-Anderson had gone from audiovisual assistant, to launching the company’s meeting department, to leading that department and overseeing a $10 million-plus budget. Over those same 34 years, Liberty Mutual Insurance Group (number 82 on the Fortune 500 list) has become a global company with 45,000 employees in more than 900 offices worldwide.

One of the things that Keough-Anderson’s longevity earned her is trust. “It took years and years of time and service to develop the trust and respect of senior management,” she says. Asked about how she made the pitch to invest in a benchmarking study, she talks about taking the proposal to her boss, the senior vice president, corporate communications, who then took it to the CEO; about including it in goals tied to her own performance review; and about explaining that with Liberty’s growth, the events department had to evolve.

But the bottom line is the trust. If Keough-Anderson believed it was critical, senior management believed it, too.

“As the company grew, my department grew, and our workload grew,” she says. Meanwhile the events industry started changing. The traditional responsibilities of a meeting department—logistics, cost containment, service delivery—remain, “but they’re the baseline requirements today at large companies,” Keough-Anderson says. “Now we need to transition to event strategy and marketing. If you want a seat at the table, you need to help the company invest effectively in events.” What that meant for her team, she says, was no less than “a new mission, a new structure, and a new operating plan.”

To get there, Liberty Mutual hired an outside agency, George P. Johnson Experience Marketing, to conduct the two-pronged benchmarking study. First, they would measure internal customer satisfaction and get feedback on her department. Next, the department would be measured against industry standards and cutting-edge teams at similar-sized companies. “You have to go outside the financial and insurance sector to find very innovative meeting departments,” she says. “[The agency] looked to business-to-consumer events and to other industries such as IT and telecom.”

The research revealed that Keough-Anderson was running a top-notch, but traditional, meeting management department. It came as no surprise. And interviews with meeting owners confirmed something else she suspected: Some of them agreed that they would like their events to have better-defined objectives, but they wouldn’t expect that type of strategic thinking from the conference management department. They’d expect that from, say, the marketing folks.

“For some of them, it’s a whole change in mindset,” she says. “We needed to introduce the concept to them, and show that we’re adding more value.”

She delivered that message as part of her “relaunch” tour, in which she took the benchmarking results and shared them with key clients across the business units, explaining that meeting planners could be—should be—their marketing partners, helping to drive branding, strategy, customer and employee engagement, and, ultimately, profitability. She told them about the department’s new name—Meeting Management & Event Strategy—and shared its new mission: “To provide Liberty Mutual Insurance Strategic Business Unit partners with industry leading expertise, best practices, and flawless service in creating and delivering exceptional meetings and events that drive business results and employee engagement.”

She also told them about a new hire: the director of event strategy, who would guide the planning process for high-profile meetings. These events would go through a rigorous review—the strategic experience mapping process, which had been developed by David Rich at George P. Johnson.