Are you a chummy dealmaker like Captain Kirk or a logical administrator like First Officer Spock? (Non-Trekkies, stay with us for a minute.) Do you make meeting buying decisions based on relationships, on how you feel about the job a particular supplier will do for you? Or are these decisions-everything from hotel rooms to stage lights to flowers-based strictly on the facts, gathered during a formal, step-by-step, purchasing process?

Recent trends in this still cost-conscious business climate suggest that senior management may prefer the sharp-penciled, pointy-eared among you. So much so that meeting planners without strict buying processes could find their companies' purchasing departments stepping in to take over supplier negotiations for meetings.

Sound scarier than a Klingon invasion? Not to meeting planners who already have sound practices in place.

But meeting planners who haven't formalized their supplier selection, bidding, and negotiating processes-especially those who feel no compulsion to do so because of their solid supplier relationships-should consider this a red alert. Further, meeting planners with logical processes for hotel and airline purchases shouldn't stop there. Trend watchers in purchasing have identified meeting expenses other than travel and lodging as targets for cost-savings that purchasing departments can achieve. (See sidebar, page 32.) If you're not going to do it, they'll come in and do it for you.

"The trend is that corporations are finally acknowledging that they're spending a tremendous amount of resources on meetings. They're appreciating that more skills are needed," says Jim Daggett, CAE, CMP, a meeting management consultant and head of JRDaggett & Associates in Chicago. "More and more, I am finding that planning responsibility, or the ultimate authority for meeting planning, is slowly but surely falling under purchasing rather than marketing."

That's a bit of a leap for some meeting planners. "Meeting planning is a marketing function," says Lance Wieland, CMP, director, meeting services, at UNUM in Portland, ME. "[The meeting department] directly impacts the bottom-line sales for this organization. For most insurance companies, [meeting departments] were created because people recognize that incentives need to be managed professionally in order to compete effectively in the marketplace."

But competition is also the reason that companies are becoming even more dogged about monitoring expenditures. And when you have a department created to do just that, the fit seems natural. "With today's competitive environment and bottom-line emphasis, purchasing skills have become an integral part of the meeting- and travel-buying function," says Harold Seligman, head of travel consultancy Management Alternatives, Inc., in Stamford, CT. "And that means either building a team with someone who has purchasing skills or having meeting planners go out and learn those purchasing skills."

Do Your Homework So what are these skills? They are as seemingly simple as creating requests for proposal (RFPs) and as radically new to meeting planners as holding bidders conferences.

The key, explains Daggett, is that "it has to be formalized. You've got to go through an RFP process, with a certain number of quotes required, and make a decision on a number of criteria. I think a lot of meeting planners make emotional decisions in selecting sites: They know somebody at a property, they get pressure from higher up, they just like the location. Whereas purchasing departments look at these decisions from a business perspective. Which is not just a financial question, but: Can this supplier deliver a product we want? Will it meet our objectives? Does it make good business sense?"

This is nothing new to meeting professionals like Scott Uselding, CMP, until recently the director, incentive programs and special events, at National Life of Vermont in Montpelier. (He is now director, groups and incentives, at Mutual Travel & Incentives in Seattle.) Uselding has long used RFPs for hotels and other suppliers, increasing his own efficiency and garnering high marks from suppliers who appreciate getting detailed, yet concise, information about his programs.

"RFPs save time and, ultimately, money," Uselding says. "They also give suppliers a level playing field." For example, Uselding sent the same RFP to three destination management companies for the final night event of a Hawaii incentive program. Had he skipped that formal step and instead met with or phoned representatives of each company to chat about the company's needs, he points out, it could have subtly hindered one company's chances to demonstrate its capabilities.

"What if I talk with one, and I'm really psyched, we're throwing around ideas, everything's great," he suggests. "Then I talk with the next one and I'm tired, or I don't connect with the person right away, so I don't give them as much information as I need to. Am I doing the best I can do for my company? No." The standard RFP removes subjectivity from this first layer of information-gathering.

"We recommend, if it's practical, that everything be done in RFP form-or at least a form that requires all suppliers to answer the same questions, so it's an apples-to-apples comparison," says consultant Seligman. "If hotels send you their own bid forms, you'll spend hours trying to figure out who's offering the best deal."

But even if you use RFPs on occasion, the discipline of purchasing requires that RFPs are used all the time. That means planners must be skilled enough to get the process back on track even when-or especially when-it appears that the decision already has been made. "In the corporate world, you have these planners who are told, 'We're going to have the meeting here.' The decision comes from on high, and the planner is saddled with that meeting facility," says consultant Daggett. "The more experienced planner will be able to communicate to the VP that maybe this is not the best place to hold the meeting. And now they've got the purchasing department to back them up. Purchasing policies have existed for a lot longer than meeting planning has: If you're buying a copier, here's the procedure for that large investment. Now, people are saying that meetings are large investments, requiring a much more structured decision-making process."

Uselding offers a specific scenario: "Say a client wants to go to Northern California. Mr. Smith just came back from X Property in Napa. They're locked in on the property, locked in on the dates. As a planner, I can be an order-taker and call that property to see if it's available. Or I can go back to the client and qualify their request by asking, 'What do you like about this property? What do you want to accomplish?' and a whole list of other questions. Then I can put together an RFP and say to the client, 'Okay, I'll take a look at eight to ten properties that might fit.' I'll send them RFPs, and the list will get cut in half based simply on rates and dates.

"Then who is most appealing?" Uselding continues. "Maybe it's the initial property, but it's our responsibility to manage up and to educate our internal clients about the range of possibilities. The RFP process is part of getting people to fully develop their criteria."

That's right on the money, according to Craig Koval, a Buffalo, NYbased business management consultant who specializes in purchasing. "The biggest problem is going in up front with meetings not spec'd properly. If you leave it up to the supplier, you'll get [and pay for] things you don't need," he says. "Purchasing would work with planners to show them how to ask questions of themselves about what their needs are. You want meeting planners to get what they need-not less, not more-at the best price."

Getting Together Already many planners report that they work with their companies' purchasing departments, either on paperwork, or for bulk product buying such as room amenities. But they're not too keen on increasing purchasing's role in meeting planning.

The departments' goals are too different, according to UNUM's Wieland. "It comes down to a question of creativity and the [meeting] industry," he says. "There are a lot of commodity items, and that kind of buying works well for the purchasing department. The options are definable, and they don't change all that quickly.

"The meetings and travel industry, on the other hand, is in flux. Prices can vary tremendously in one day. If a pencil company has an order fall through, the pencil price doesn't plummet. If a hotel cancels a big program, that price plummets."

In addition, he speculates, "the typical purchasing manager thinks in terms of cash. But a lot of the best deals in the meetings industry are not cash deals." Meeting planners often accept a higher room rate, for example, if the hotel makes other concessions such as complimentary rounds of golf, an extra reception, or more suites. "These types of multilevel deals exist a lot in this industry."

The second issue, Wieland says, is creativity. "You don't think of purchasing as having a motivational function. I might be excited if I get a little better desk, but I will definitely work harder if the company is taking me to Maui rather than Portland in January."

Nevertheless, Koval says, "we need to get purchasing involved because there is so much money being spent. You want to know exactly what every piece of a meeting is going to cost you."

And unless a meeting planner has comprehensive information-gathering systems in place and is a skilled negotiator, chances are he or she doesn't know what every piece costs, only that the whole thing is coming in under budget.

For example, Koval explains, "purchasing should work with meeting planners to say, 'Here we have three viable suppliers. Are they okay?' If the answer is yes, then purchasing goes in and negotiates. Meeting planning shouldn't care which one is finally selected," since they've approved all three.

Tell that to the people who've been doing their own negotiating for years, says Chris Etzler, manager of purchasing and travel at Meeting Professionals International (MPI) in Dallas. When his position was created some nine years ago, the transition to a centralized purchasing source met predictable difficulties.

"For example, the person doing the marketing and print buying at the time had established contacts. When a piece got designed, you called Joe. Joe printed everything. Well, I started jobbing things out, looking at other facilities. People got nervous. I worked very hard to earn their trust, and now they know the more money I can save, the more pieces they can do.

"But folks did not like relinquishing control and going through a central purchasing manager. It takes longer, everyone has to plan a little better, but the final product is the best money can buy."

Making the system work, Etzler admits, takes getting all the stakeholders to take the broad view. "Everyone has a different vision of how things come together," he says. "Marketing wants the biggest splash you can get; purchasing wants to save every nickel, dime, and quarter; meeting planning wants to meet its budget; the CEO wants all the attendees to be satisfied. They all need to work together more than they do now. The more people you bring to the table and let make suggestions, the better."

A Vote for the Vulcan Still shaking your head, convinced that your own supplier relationships are the key to getting the best deals for your company? Consider the recent experience of one of Harold Seligman's clients. "He had put 15,000 room nights into a hotel in 1996. Now, because demand is so great, the hotel sales manager wanted a substantial rate increase to renew the contract for 1997 and beyond. When the meeting planner balked, the hotelier said, 'Take your business elsewhere.' Whatever relationship had been built up is being undermined by greed. This particular sales manager even said, 'Well, if business falls off, we'll come back and talk to you.' After a multiyear relationship!

"Meeting purchasers will still maintain social relationships with their suppliers, but they can no longer be as willing to take the proposal of a supplier at face value," he continues. "Now they're competitively bidding everything and doing much more analysis. Meeting planners are looking for appropriate service at the best possible price. And relationships are becoming less and less important all the time. It's an evolutionary thing."

Boldly Going Where They've Never Gone Before If you happened to wander through your company's purchasing department last May and picked up a copy of Purchasing Today, published by the National Association of Purchasing Management, you might have been surprised when you flipped to page 46.

There you'd have seen an article titled "Purchasing and Meetings: A Natural Multi-Billion Dollar Fit," in which business management consultant Craig Koval states, "With the average cost of a major meeting approaching $1 million per event, an opportunity has been created for purchasing to have a significant cost-reduction impact."

News to you? Rest assured Koval isn't talking about purchasing departments taking over meeting planning. He acknowledges that most companies already monitor their travel and lodging expenditures well. Instead, he makes a case for the involvement of purchasing departments in all other meeting expenses-production and staging, speakers, gifts, and promotion materials, to name several. "There's this whole big area-40 to 50 percent of the total meeting cost-that nobody's really looking at," Koval says. And when it comes to making these other meeting purchases, "all meeting planners are interested in doing is trying to live within the budget they've been given."

That's not enough, says Koval, who believes purchasing departments can help their meeting planning counterparts. For example, they can help planners create clearly worded "statements of work" for suppliers. "A statement of work is a one- or two-page overview of your needs, sent to eight or ten companies. It's a step before a request for proposal. You're just weeding out who can and who can't do the job," Koval explains.

Let's say you're choosing a production company. If you don't send statements of work, Koval warns, "you might select a supplier that does not have the complete level of expertise and/or equipment required. And that supplier will employ subcontractors, which escalates the cost."

In addition to discovering a supplier's capabilities using this tool, Koval suggests meeting planners use the statement of work to ask about contingency plans. What additional resources will the production company have on site to handle an emergency or a significant last-minute change? "As soon as you start changing things, that's music to the supplier's ears," says Koval, explaining that every change is a chance to charge you. "Say your president walks in for his rehearsal and wants a different setup. You don't want to hear, 'Okay, but we'll have to air freight that in.' "

That's just the beginning. A purchasing take on buying a final night event would also include quality measurements-a way to review the performance of suppliers. Meeting planners can create a grid, for example, that shows the planned time and the actual time for setup, rehearsals, teardown, as well as the costs due to changes. Keeping these records can give you leverage the next time you negotiate with the supplier.

At the contract stage, Koval suggests, agree on overtime rates and additional equipment markup in writing. "You don't want to be at the supplier's mercy in a time of need."

Standardization is another trick of the purchasing trade that Koval applies to meetings. "Standardize the staging, lighting, video projection, and sound that will be available at meetings. This will set the expectations of your speakers and the attendees," he says. "It will also eliminate frequent last-minute changes, help contain your costs, and at the same time allow suppliers to make capital investments and realize a reasonable rate of return on them. Sets can be designed that can be modified through lighting, attachable sections, and signage to give each meeting a unique look."

The final page Koval takes from purchasing's book is the long-term agreement. Could you increase your buying leverage with a supplier of, say, room amenities, by working out a multiyear contract? "Even if you can't reduce the cost," Koval writes in his article, "you should be able to increase the service."

Of course, long-term agreements bring the benefit and the risk of having favored suppliers. This is another area where a grounding in purchasing helps meeting planners to avoid getting complacent. If you're hesitant, just make the purchasing department the bad guy. Says Koval, "You can say to a supplier, 'I know you didn't have to bid the past three years, but I'm being forced to do this.' Suppliers get lazy. You may find out you're paying a premium. It doesn't mean you have to stop using them, but you probably want to renegotiate."

Purchasing 101: The Bidders Conference An Old Technique in a New Setting When I mailed a bid package to five Orlando hotels last December, along with an invitation to a bidders conference to learn more about my organization's Annual Symposia, I got a variety of responses. "If I want your business, I'll be there!" said one. "You mean, we're all going to sit in the same room and talk?" another asked.

The plan for a bidders conference came to me when a presenter at the 1996 Insurance Conference Planners Association Annual Meeting raised the idea. Having been a purchasing agent for the National Council on Compensation Insurance, Inc. prior to my current position, and before that for a large manufacturing company, I thought, Why not? The symposium price tag is well over the $10,000 threshold we (and most companies) have set for competitive bidding.

So, turning back to my purchasing skills, I prepared a bid package for each hotel with company information, meeting dates and specs, meeting history, and information on some of our "hot buttons," such as hotel security and building maintenance.

The bidders conference was held at the Hyatt Orlando Airport, a site that was not under consideration for the symposium. We started at 9 a.m., and spent the bulk of the two-hour meeting going over the spec sheet, with me answering questions about everything from room pickup to date flexibility to our attendee profile. A review of the spec sheet is the heart and soul of a bidders conference. The best part is that I only had to answer the questions once, not five or six times.

One attendee remarked that she learned more about me, my organization, our meeting needs, and what was important in securing our business, than she ever would have learned in a phone conversation or by mail. Another changed his original presentation to focus on a second property he represented because the information shared during the meeting made it the obvious choice.

After the conference, I did site inspections at the hotels. That's when we talked money. This follows the pattern of a textbook bidders conference: You meet with everybody, then they send a written proposal or arrange for a one-on-one discussion.

But a bidders conference was too unfamiliar a concept for some, it seemed. Two hotels that were sent the package declined to attend. In purchasing terms, they "no bid" the business-not uncommon. But usually a no-bid happens after the bidders conference. In this case, I was dumbfounded that as a potential customer I was treated so dismissively.

But I will certainly hold a bidders conference again. For any planner who has identified a city for a meeting, a bidders conference is an ideal way to focus on your needs and those of your potential hospitality partners. We owe it to our suppliers to provide them as much information as possible. We owe it to our companies to maximize every dollar we spend. A bidders conference is an ideal vehicle to make this happen.

Interested in boning up on your purchasing skills? The National Association of Purchasing Management (NAPM), based in Tempe, AZ, runs a slew of one- and three-day seminars year-round. Call (602) 752-6276, or check out NAPM's user-friendly Web site at http://www.napm.org.