Implementing a meetings consolidation program overseas takes patience, diplomacy, and flexibility.
A decade ago, few companies thought about consolidating their meetings globally. You could count on one hand those actually attempting it.
Not so today. Many companies that began consolidating their worldwide corporate travel in the early 1990s have taken that effort to the next level: meetings. Meetings, according to American Express, can account for 40 percent of a company's T&E spend. The payoffs of standardizing processes and technology across multiple countries are huge: data aggregation and cost savings, consolidation of suppliers as well as meeting planning staff, and the opportunity to share best practices.
We followed companies in three different industries — technology, manufacturing, and pharmaceutical — at varying stages of this complicated procedural shift, which can take several years to complete. There's much to learn from the many small steps they took and what they faced at each one.
After Xerox Corp. rolled out itstransient travel consolidation program in 2004, management approached Pamela Ferranti, manager of the meeting management solutions department in Rochester, N.Y., to build a similar model for consolidating global meetings.
With facilities around the world, the company decided to start the process in its larger markets. To date, consolidation has taken place in the United States and Canada. All of Europe is slated to roll out by the end of this year, followed by Brazil.
“We haven't rolled out completely on a global basis yet,” says Ferranti, “because it takes time to understand what each region needs — both big and small things.” For example, she has to consider the language that each country will view on global Web sites, what currency will be used in data reporting, and which vendors will handle the meeting logistics.
Xerox's program has multiple goals: to gather more robust spend data; to leverage negotiations with hotels, ground transportation operators, and other vendors; to mitigate risk by standardizingand procedures (and limiting damages in the case of cancellations); and to create a consistent corporate message via the Web.
One of Ferranti's biggest challenges has been communicating to key players around the world. “We won't just send out a 50-page document. We explain the process, why we're doing it, and what you can expect as a result.” At press time, she was planning a trip to key European offices to demonstrate the company's strategic meeting management software in person. “Until I saw the demo myself, I wasn't even sure we could really do it. But the technology is so exciting.”
To track meetings activity across the 53,000-employee company, Xerox uses technology from Philadelphia-based StarCite. “All meetings of 15 or more attendees, of which 10 require air and/or hotel, must register through our software,” she says. “It took people time to get used to registering meetings and using the Web-based attendee-management tools, but it caught on.”
From an operational standpoint, Ferranti's department, which consists of her and one other person, is the hub. “We have oversight and responsibility for everything related to the technology and the meeting-management company. Everything will go through us and/or the technology.”
Meeting departments in each country still do their own thing when it comes to planning; some manage it themselves, and some work with BCD Meetings and Incentives. Xerox eventually plans to outsource all planning to BCD. “Everything has been fragmented and inconsistent, and we are moving toward bringing it all under the one umbrella,” says Ferranti.
Though far from complete, the consolidation has already led to savings. “Since we started our globalization process in 2004, our average cost per attendee has dropped because of the agreements we have with preferred hotels, air, ground transportation, etc.” Some of those savings came from unexpected areas. “We were spending $900 to $1,600 a day renting LCD projectors,” says Ferranti. “It was a very easy sell to management to go out and purchase them. That one small thing turned into thousands of dollars of savings.”
Aggregating meetings data on one master calendar has also led to savings. For example, this past summer, she had a U.S. meeting facing significantfees. “We were able to see that several people were going to the meeting but hadn't registered and weren't being counted against the room block,” she says. The company also booked some other meetings at the same time and place. “At one point we faced $180,000 in attrition — and at the end of the day, it turned out to be zero.”
Metrics are also a main goal for ICI, a global paints, adhesives, and specialty products company with 26,000 employees in 55 countries worldwide. Unlike Xerox, the company is at the beginning of the process: It just rolled out its consolidated global meetings program in the U.S. and the U.K. in June, with plans to expand to China by the end of the year.
“We're looking to save 10 percent of our meetings spend,” says Lee Ann Murphy, director of global procurement in Boston, who oversees the program. “But right now we don't even have the numbers to tell us what our spend is. We're anticipating we need a good nine months before we start seeing meaningful data coming through.”
To start, Murphy held face-to-face meetings and conference calls with stakeholders, primarily the executive assistants who plan meetings at the largest subsidiaries in the U.S. and U.K., in conjunction with American Express, which handles the company's meeting management and registration through GetThere. The plan is similar for China.
ICI is targeting meetings of 10 or more attendees. “We're not mandating it, but we've found that our employees are fairly compliant in other areas, so we expect compliance,” says Murphy. “We're hoping the other countries will come to us after they see how well this works. But first we need to get it all up and running in these three countries, which account for the bulk of our meetings.”
The global program will also help to eliminate risk from decisions made by ad hoc planners such as administrative assistants or independents. ICI has no planners to handle logistics, and only Murphy and a colleague in the meeting department. One of her first goals is to standardize contracts in terms of attrition and liability, issues that could be overlooked by occasional planners.
“We're positioning it as a value-add to the people who have been planning meetings,” she says. “We're taking away the part that they don't like to do so that we can save money, but they still have control over the areas that are important to them and their bosses. We'll handle the procurement pieces while they continue to do the planning. So far, it's been well-received.”
Just as with Xerox, global consolidation is a logical next step for ICI. “We've done everything that we can do to save money at this point,” says Murphy. “We need to do more than negotiate better deals. ”
George Odom is a pioneer in global meeting consolidation. During his tenure at Eli Lilly and Company, he spearheaded a program starting in 1999 that today covers the U.S., Canada, Germany, the U.K., France, Italy, and Spain, along with other European, Middle Eastern, and African countries. Although he recently left the company to become senior director of business development for Advito, the global consulting division of BCD Travel headquartered in Dallas, he says of his former Lilly colleagues, “they're still on the right path.”
Odom had a meeting-planning background but moved into travel when Lilly was starting to consolidate that area. “Then we looked at strategic sourcing in other areas — where were the other dollars going? We had close to a $40 million spend in meetings in 1999, so that was an obvious area to look at. We were confident consolidation could work because we'd already done it in travel.”
Some of Odom's most significant challenges didn't involve technology or employee buy-in, but rather cross-cultural communication. “Most of those who fail do so because they try to apply a U.S. model to other countries,” he says, “and that just doesn't work. There are different cultural nuances as well as different regulations and laws.”
When he met resistance, it was usually when planners already had processes that worked well. “Some countries already have wonderful suppliers and don't want to change just for consistency. But it could also be that they don't realize the benefits of change, and then it's an educational process. We have to remind them that we're trying to get the best and most appropriate service at the best price, but that it's not just about cost-cutting. Meetings are a service, and sometimes we get so deep into cost-cutting that we forget that.”
To learn about each country's processes, use of his department was not mandated — at first. As the program grew, individual countries added policies and mandates, but there is no global mandate. “Early on, we were just trying to get people to understand the value and how to work better in each country; then we were able to formalize more processes as we moved along.”
Odom recommends a stepping-stone approach. “Start with consolidation in each country,” he says, “then move onto regional consolidation and finally global. We did an initial analysis in each country of its spend and procedures, and then moved to central meeting planning in each country, created standardized practices, captured data, sourced vendors, and so on.”
It's the same with the process. “First you might say all meetings have to be registered,” he says, “and then move on to logistical things like who can sign a, who can determine if there's the budget for the meeting, and who has authority to commit funds and sign contracts. Down the line, we added in preferred suppliers. It's a progression.”
With global consolidation, he says, it's important to remember that one size doesn't always fit all. For example, he says that in the U.S., most of the Lilly planning functions were outsourced; while some affiliates in Europe outsourced, others had internal planners, and others were a hybrid.
“It's all a very fluid process,” he says. “You have to have a plan, but you also have to be able to improvise and modify that plan.”
It's no coincidence that consolidating global meetings is often an outgrowth of travel consolidation. Once there's a program for hotels, air, and cards, meetings are often the next step. And it's all part of what is often called “programs.”
The National Business Travel Association has been a champion of SMMPs, publishing a number of white papers on the topic. “SMMP is never done,” says Lee Ann Adams Mikeman, co-chairman of NBTA's Groups and Meetings Committee. “Those who have more mature programs should be able to apply the same principles, processes, and approaches to their international programs that they use for their domestic programs.”
She notes that while a key part of any SMMP is developing the policy and building stakeholder buy-in, global consolidation has special challenges. “Just as a start, you have culture and language differences, currency changes, technology compatibility issues, and different contracts laws and business regulations,” she says. “Sometimes people fail to use the resources that are available to them when dealing with these challenges. Departments from procurement to travel to risk management can help, and we have white papers on various aspects of SMMP. There's no reason to reinvent the wheel.”
She also advises starting the process early. “Do your homework and research so that you're ready. When the window of opportunity opens, it might only be open for a short time. You've got to be ready to go when the opportunity presents itself.”
For more tips and case studies on meetings consolidation, visit MeetingsNet.com and search for “meetings consolidation.”
HEADQUARTERS: Stamford, Conn.
NUMBER OF EMPLOYEES: 53,000 worldwide, 28,000 in the U.S.
STARTED GLOBAL CONSOLIDATION PROCESS: 2004
IS THE PROGRAM MANDATED? Yes
MEETING SIZE REQUIRED TO REGISTER: 15+ attendees, of which 10 require air and/or hotel
OUTCOME TO DATE: Average cost per attendee has dropped because of use of preferred vendors
UNEXPECTED BENEFIT: A master calendar listing all meetings and their specifics. It allows planners to tell someone in one country that a particular meeting date won't work, for example, because the key players will be at another meeting. It also includes the whereabouts of everyone in the company who is traveling, in case of an emergency.
HEADQUARTERS: Slough, U.K.
NUMBER OF EMPLOYEES: 26,000 in 55 countries. The bulk of the company's meetings are in the U.S., U.K., and China.
STARTED GLOBAL CONSOLIDATION PROCESS: April 2007
IS THE PROGRAM MANDATED? No
MEETING SIZE REQUIRED TO REGISTER: 10+
OUTCOME TO DATE: Within nine months, the company expects to see the first useful data on its meeting activity.
NUMBER OF EMPLOYEES: 41,350 worldwide, with research facilities in 50 countries, R&D facilities in 9 countries, and manufacturing plants in 13 countries
STARTED GLOBAL CONSOLIDATION PROCESS: 1999
IS THE PROGRAM MANDATED? In some countries
Xerox Corp. and Eli Lilly and Company faced unexpected hurdles working toward global consolidation. Here are some of the big ones.
At Xerox, Pamela Ferranti, manager of meeting management solutions, is looking at the benefits of in-country air fulfillment versus a central fulfillment center. “I can't access some of the best Canadian airfares from the United States,” she explains, “so in that case, in-country air fulfillment makes the most sense. We're exploring right now to see if the situation is the same in Europe.”
In any global program, dealing with multiple currencies can be a challenge. At Xerox, when Ferranti needed to define which currency to convert to, “we decided on U.S. dollars because we're operationally managing this from the U.S. Our metrics and measures remain the same across the board, but we have to do conversions to do them.”
One of the biggest challenges is getting cooperation from managers who think that their country's meeting-planning operation is under control, or from employees who feel that meeting planning is part of their jobs. Ferranti faced that. “You need the buy-in from the countries you're working with,” she says. “You can't just walk in and cram it down their throats.”
At Eli Lilly and Company, planners learned from the consolidation process how the U.S. PhRMA code or CME requirements are different from regulations in other countries. “It's different in Germany vs. the U.K. vs. Canada and so on, so you might need a different infrastructure,” says George Odom, former leader of global travel and meeting services. Differences can range from the simple — limits on meal expenses — to the complex, such as constraints on the kinds of information that be discussed at a meeting. Logistics, too, come into play, such as whether a government has to approve the list of attendees. “Each country is responsible for supplying information about their regulations and sharing that with everyone else so we can make the most appropriate choices,” says Odom.