Every few years, American technology companies look around and ask themselves, “What business are we in?” This ordinarily happens right around the time profits take a dive and the CEO starts saying, “We're too fat” at every meeting. Whatever business a tech company is in, it is certainly not the event logistics business. Any 25-year-old consultant knows that. And so, the meeting departments get the ax, and the business is outsourced.

While alleged experts in the meetings field point to this scenario as evidence that there's no point to being a logistics specialist, Michele Snock, manager of meeting services for world-famous Cisco Systems of San Jose, Calif., is here to say it ain't necessarily so. Her department isn't just surviving at Cisco. It isn't even just thriving. It's kicking butt. And Snock has been generous enough to share her strategies. Yes, you too can make it in logistics. All you have to do is make yourself competitive with outside meeting planning firms. Here's how:

Step One: Document savings.

Step Two: Dedicate yourself completely to customer service.

Step Three: Repeat steps one and two every day.

Being Competitive

Of course, the real “step one” of success in the in-house meeting logistics business is to work at a company that fosters entrepreneurial instincts. “At Cisco, one of our key corporate values is that everyone is empowered to make the right decisions,” says Snock. “Cisco gives all employees stock options, which make every employee an owner of the company. Employees are expected to spend Cisco money as if it were their own — because it is their own! So there is no mandate for anyone to use our services. With no mandate, we have to compete with outside meeting planning companies, and that's what we've done from the beginning.”

“One of our corporate values is empowerment, but another one is frugality.”



The competitive ace in the hole for Cisco Meeting Services is that there is no markup for services, hence no motivation to add elements for the sake of profit. However much an outside firm may protest that it only wants what is best for the client, the firm still has as first priority its own bottom line. Snock plays on the convergence of interests that an internal department enjoys with its customers. “One of our corporate values is empowerment, but another one is frugality,” says Snock. “We're definitely working in the best interests of Cisco, because we're Cisco, too.”

Right behind that comes Snock's determination that her service capabilities will be second to no one's. “If they're offering registration services, we have to offer them too — and they must be equal to or better than what's available from an outside firm.”

Demonstrating Savings

Meeting planners regularly lament the difficulty of proving return on investment — what an organization receives in return for the money spent on a meeting. When you're in logistics, you don't worry about that. All you have to do is demonstrate that you're getting things done for less than the other guys. Here, Snock relies on her “no markup” position to prove value. “We take what the outside service would have cost, deduct the typical 18 percent markup, and declare that the savings,” she says. “Anything we feel we've saved over and above that by good negotiation is added in also. For example, when we do a good job on contract liability clauses — reducing the company's potential liability exposure — we take that as credit, too.”

Because hers is an in-house service, she doesn't have to worry about whether she's in touch with the corporate culture. Her organization lives in it. And, as should be clear by now, the Cisco corporate culture believes in the joy of frugality. So, for example, CMS doesn't think twice about its policy of having Cisco employees double up when they attend off-site Cisco events. They even have a roommate notification service. “When they register for an internal meeting, employees can select a roommate,” says Snock. “That person then receives an e-mail notice that they've been selected, and a prompt to register for the meeting — where they can choose someone else as a roommate if they want to!”

Cost savings reports are presented to Cisco top managers once a quarter. These reports are used to justify CMS's continued existence as well as its potential for adding staff. “Every time we get a new piece of business, we have to allocate,” says Snock. “That means not just thinking about whether we can handle the business, but whether we can handle it well.” In other words, CMS expands its staff only when there is new business that will save the company money and when Cisco senior managers agree that without new staff, service will suffer.

Service First

And after savings, service is the name of the game, according to Snock. “A requirement for working in this department is a commitment to customer service,” she says. “That's why we like to hire people with hotel backgrounds — they understand the hospitality business, understand how to treat people.”

Knowing how to treat people means knowing when to give up some control and when to take control. An example of the former is the CMS policy of letting the admins (Cisco-speak for secretaries and executive assistants) who ask for their services take part in what they see as the fun stuff — such as coming along on site inspections. “We don't necessarily hand them the banquet menu and say ‘pick,’ but we do want to listen to their suggestions and give them some options,” says Snock. “We want them to feel like they're the customer, just as they would if they went to an outside meeting planning company. We're not to going to dictate to them. They want to stay in control. I would, too.”

An example of the latter — of taking ownership of a part of the job the customers don't want — is CMS's billing practice. “The invoices come to our department; we pay them, then charge back to the department that held the meeting,” says Snock. “They get a bottom-line statement from us that says how much the meeting cost. They are always welcome to see all the backup, but they almost never ask for it. They trust that we've done our job and have carefully reviewed the bills. It's great for them because they don't have to worry about anything; we take care of all of it.”

The Right Tools for the Job

An important aspect of providing good customer service is having some great tools to make working with CMS convenient. This being Cisco, it should be no surprise that the Internet looms large. CMS has a Web site on the Cisco internal network — it is not available for public viewing. The Web site has two links. The first is a “request for support” form — an internal RFP — that Cisco employees use to ask for meeting planning help from CMS. These forms are downloaded to a database that Snock uses to assign requests to specific meeting planners, track the progress of meetings, and track cost savings.

The second link accesses current Cisco meeting attendee registration sites. Originally created by Cisco's information services department, the basic registration software was judged too clunky when it came to report creation and was redesigned a year ago by an outside contractor with meeting planning experience. The contractor, Michael Benedict, has become a full-time Cisco employee, CMS manager of data services. Benedict is creating a series of a dozen or so Web registration templates for CMS customers to choose from for their meetings' sites. There will be one especially for a seminar, one for a meeting with hotel sleeping rooms, one for a meeting without sleeping rooms, and so on.

Once again, the business came in-house in the interest of cost saving. “We're not going to reinvent the wheel every time someone needs a new Web site,” says Snock. “When you use an outside firm for your Web site — I've seen this on invoices — they may charge a nominal fee per registration. But every time they make a design change or add some new function, that work is charged by the hour, at $150 or $200 an hour. By offering a choice of templates, we're trying to keep down the costs. Then again, if they really do need a custom design we can offer that, too.”

The registration sites all have one-stop shopping features: Attendees can make room reservations and select activities to participate in at the meeting. As mentioned, they can even select roommates. In addition, there's a link to the group travel department.

An Online Solution for the Quick-and-Dirty

CMS handles meetings of all sizes — from 10 people to 1,000. Not all meetings need the same degree of service. For the quick-and-dirty, one-day meeting, CMS created Meeting Express. This internal service is — for the moment — two extranet sites developed in cooperation with the Network Meeting Center in nearby Santa Clara, Calif., and the Silicon Valley Conference Center in San Jose, Calif. CMS has negotiated very good package prices with these venues. Cisco customers who need a bare-bones meeting for 10 to 100 attendees can log on and pick space, dates, and menus and receive a total price and confirmation from the relevant venue by e-mail or telephone. Then the customer provides an internal billing number to the venue representative. Once a month, CMS receives an invoice for all meetings held at that venue, and uses the billing number to charge the amount to the relevant department.

“We're taking a portion of the business that is continuous and offloading it and automating it so we don't have to touch it,” says Snock. “It lets us step out of the role of middleman.” She plans to add other local vendors to the site as the project goes along.

Growth!

At this writing, Cisco Meeting Services has 12 dedicated meeting planners in San Jose: three handle large conferences; three handle one-day events (department off-site meetings, picnics, banquets); two handle short-term local-to-headquarters meetings; two handle specific lines of business (very active internal customers); and two take on everything else. Three planners are based at Cisco's largest branch, in Raleigh, S.C., and 10 are in Cisco's London office. Snock hopes to add a few more at one of Cisco's Southeast Asia locations and is very enthusiastic about CMS's future.

“Our first year, we did 250 meetings; last year we did 700; we expect to do 1,200 this year,” she says. “And we estimate that we are only getting about 35 percent of all meetings at Cisco because so many managers still want to do their own thing.”

One immediate prospect for growth is to take on a piece of Cisco's training seminar business. “They've asked us to bid; when we saw what the outside firm they currently use charges, we realized we'd have to hire additional staff. It's at the senior management level now for consideration.”

On to Marcom?

The next frontier, says Snock, involves partnering with various marcom managers at Cisco who are responsible for customer and partner conferences and events. Currently, many of them outsource all their logistic support needs. “It has been slow going, as it takes time to build a reputation and instill confidence. The Marketing Communications groups were using outside resources long before we hung our shingle out for business. When we first came in and said ‘Hi, we can help you,’ they were … skeptical.” She says the main difference between CMS and marcom groups is that the marcom people are content-driven. “They are there to deliver a marketing message,” she says. “We're there strictly for logistics. We want to help set the stage for the message.”

She believes the door to this type of business will be CMS's improved online registration service, which will be complete in a few months. “We'll be able to say, ‘Come look at this; it's as good or better than anything you've ever seen, why not use us?’ If we get the registration part of the business, I think some of the logistics portion will follow,” she says. “They won't stop going to outside companies, but they'll understand we can provide full service. And, as we would for any customer, we can say, ‘Hey, come to the meetings we manage, see how we do our work. We're good, and you can save a ton of money.’”

From Outside to Inside

Michele Snock came up in the meeting business from the hotel side. She started as a desk clerk. “When I got out of college, I worked on Wall Street for a few years and hated it. I wanted to get into the hospitality industry. I wanted to go to Cornell's Hotel School. I took the GMATs and the whole thing, and got a letter saying, ‘We would have accepted you, but you didn't have any hotel experience.’ They said they'd save a place for me for the next year, and that I should go out and get some hotel experience. I decided the heck with that, and just plunged in. I started out as a desk clerk, got promoted, went through the hotel's management program, and left after four years, as the assistant executive housekeeper. I moved to Hawaii and worked at two resorts, one as an assistant manager, the other as a convention services manager.”

Altogether, she spent eight years in the hotel business, then another 12 as a meeting planner in Silicon Valley. While she was convention services manager at the Hilton Hawaiian Village she was spotted by Burlingame, Calif.-based Conference Planners. “At the time, it was very small; there were just a few people. Since then, they've really grown.” She left Conference Planners in 1990 and went to Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), the Silicon Valley chip maker. Three years ago, she moved over to Cisco, following her old boss, Ralph Colunga, who joined the company to build the Travel, Metro (online expense reporting), Meeting and Event department — TMM&E — under which Snock's department falls. “Cisco had nothing, so we just went about recreating what we'd done at AMD.”