Not long ago, Marybeth Roberts took a ride from Amgen's office in Thousand Oaks, Calif., to Santa Monica to check on a meeting she was overseeing. It wasn't because of a lack of confidence in the supplier hired to run the meeting, or to put out a proverbial fire. She just decided to put in a courtesy call.

“I didn't need to be there,” says Roberts, senior manager, meetings and trade shows at the biotechnology company. “I knew the supplier was doing a phenomenal job. But it's important for me to get in front of our internal client and have them understand that while the supplier is doing a great job, I'm the one behind the scenes making sure that's the case.”

Site visits like this are something she does occasionally to strengthen bonds with internal clients and supplier partners — key players in what she calls the “matrix” of relationships that her staff works so hard to cultivate.

Under Amgen's consolidated structure, meeting planning is outsourced, and the meeting department staff acts as project managers. So, whether she is informing administrative assistants of the department's services, or making her case with compliance or legal, or keeping up with her many suppliers (for whom Amgen holds annual vendor forums), Roberts spends more time managing relationships than she does managing meetings.

A New Model

When Amgen began consolidating meetings in the late 1990s, it was on the cutting edge of that trend. Betsy Bondurant, associate director of meetings and trade shows, started looking at consolidating meetings “long before it became the industry buzzword that it is today,” says Roberts, whom Bondurant hired away from Procter and Gamble in 2000.

Previously, Amgen's meeting department had handled all planning and sourcing for some 300 meetings a year, but there was no mandate to use those services. In 2001, the company mandated that all meetings with 10 or more sleeping rooms per night must be registered and sourced through the department.

Amgen tapped RegWeb to handle registration and hired StarCite, a company with a platform of online products and services that help to manage the meeting planning process and control spend, to take care of sourcing. Now, all planning functions are outsourced to independent suppliers while the 16-member meeting staff serves as project managers, overseeing the suppliers and facilitating requests from various departments within the company for approximately 600 meetings per year, about 35 percent to 40 percent of which involve external attendees.

“They're project managers, but they all have backgrounds as meeting planners,” explains Roberts, one of four managers under Bondurant. “Our people oversee everything from the sourcing to the meeting planning to the budget.” Logistics are outsourced to one of eight independent meeting planner suppliers on Amgen's preferred list. Meeting requestors can plan their own meetings if they wish, states Roberts, but there is no flexibility around sourcing. All meetings must be registered and sourced through the meeting department.

“If they want to do the planning themselves, we let them,” she says. But, she adds, very few do.

How It Works

When a request comes to the meeting department, the first step is to get the internal client's input on the suppliers they would like to use. In addition to the eight preferred meeting planning vendors, Amgens uses one preferred AV supplier, one security vendor, and one destination management company network. The majority of hotel spend is focused on a limited number of hotel chains.

Only hotel contracts go out to bid. The internal client can request that certain hotels be sourced, and the internal meeting staffer might include additional hotels on the list.

The final list is sent to StarCite, which issues the request for proposals. When the availability report arrives, the project manager looks over the proposals and makes a recommendation.

The final hotel decision rests with the client. However, because the meeting staff is made up of experienced planners, the requestors typically agree with the project managers' recommendations. “Cost is definitely an issue, but not the only factor we consider,” says Roberts. Amgen is more interested in the best value — rather than the cheapest — and whether the property has the space that is required.

Once the hotel is chosen, StarCite handles the contracting and negotiations, based on feedback from the internal project manager. “The biggest risk to Amgen is in the contract signing,” says Roberts, which is why that task was taken out of the hands of the departments years ago and given to a sourcing manager on the meeting staff, who oversees this process, facilitating sourcing and contracting with Philadelphia, Pa.-based StarCite employees and recommending vendors to the internal client.

Meet Me at the Forum

Because Amgen outsources all meeting-related services, it considers its suppliers to be an arm of the company. To keep the lines of communication open with this group, Amgen created two key programs: suppliers' forums and a supplier relationship management department.

The forums — one for hotels and one for meeting-planning vendors and other suppliers, such as AV, destination management, and security companies — are held annually and provide the opportunity to discuss big-picture and day-to-day matters. “We talk to them about new policies and procedures, and introduce them to new people on our staff. We talk about the company's values, as well as goals and objectives for the year. Basically, it's about everything they need to know about working with Amgen,” Roberts says.

Staff members and StarCite representatives make presentations and answer questions. After a general information session, the staff meets separately with vendors to go over specific issues.

Amgen usually invites two to three representatives from each of the preferred vendors to the forums, which are held at Amgen's Thousand Oaks offices and typically last a day and a half. For the hotel vendors' meeting, representatives from the eight hotel chains that Amgen works with are invited. For the other suppliers' meeting, representatives from the eight meeting planning companies attend, as well as people from the other preferred suppliers. (Suppliers pay their own expenses.)

“Not a lot of companies hold forums for their vendors,” states Roberts, who says the vendors enjoy the opportunity to meet with them as well as with the other suppliers with whom they might end up working. “They really feel like they are partnering with us.”

Additionally, the meeting staff routinely does performance reviews with the vendors that they use the most often. “We typically do a debrief after each big meeting,” says Roberts. “It includes an evaluation by the attendees, but then we also review what we and our suppliers can do better and what worked well.”

Another progressive initiative developed to strengthen ties with the supplier community is the supplier relationship management department. Established a year ago, a supplier relationship manager serves as an objective resource to answer questions and settle disputes.

“If we have an issue with a specific supplier, she'll get involved — and vice versa,” says Roberts of the supplier relationship manager, who used to be a senior manager in the meetings department. “We call the department ‘Switzerland,’” she jokes, “because they are neutral. They are an advocate for the supplier, just as they are an advocate for Amgen.”

Internal Partners

Although Amgen's meeting department is part of the sales and marketing division, the staff also works with other divisions in the company, including compliance.

The compliance department is relatively new, and was developed to ensure that the company adheres to strict pharmaceutical code standards and federal accounting regulations, including Sarbanes-Oxley. Many of these restrictions and standards apply to meetings. “Each project manager is accountable for making sure our meetings adhere to the compliance policies,” she says. They do not run every meeting through compliance, only those about which they have questions. One big compliance issue, she says, relates to venue selection and the type of hotel appropriate for certain meetings.

The meeting department also works with the legal department on meetings with budgets over a specified limit. Initially, legal had asked to review every meetings contract (more than 600 a year). But, she says, “We were able to help them understand our expertise and that maybe they only need to review contracts that are of high dollar value.”

Another group that the meeting department must reach is the administrative assistants charged with planning meetings. When the company first mandated use of the meeting department for sourcing, the meeting staff held a series of brown bag lunches to explain the new process. These sessions are now done on a routine basis, so that all new staff are aware of the policies and procedures. Says Roberts: “It's very important that they understand the value that we bring to them” in terms of cost savings and operational efficiencies.

Amgen's outsource model has created significat negotiated savings on hotel meeting contracts. In 2005, the company negotiated savings of 23 percent on hotel meeting contracts (based on the hotels' initial quotes). Over the years, the numbers have been equally impressive. For example the meeting department negotiated savings of 22 percent in 2004, 32 percent in 2003, and 25 percent in 2002 over the hotels' initial quotes.

Results such as these have gotten attention within the company, particularly procurement, which actually has very little involvement with meetings. “They are not coming in and saying, ‘You could save a lot of money if you did this,’” she says, “because they've seen that we are actively pursuing cost savings and minimizing risk.” Every quarter, her staff prepares a report on how much they spend and save — and that's about it, she says.

Intuitively, though, Roberts knows that the key to her department's success is not as much about the bottom line as it is about relationships with internal clients and external vendors.

Case in point: For a recent meeting that the meetings department sourced, the only hotel with availability was one they were reluctant to book because of past service issues. So Amgen requested that the hotel include a service clause in the contract, agreeing to pay a penalty if the service issues arose again.

When the hotel's salespeople balked, Bondurant remedied the situation with one call to the national sales manager, with whom she has a very strong relationship. “The NSO was able to step in and get the hotel to agree to the service clause based not only on the value of the contract, but the importance of the relationship with Amgen for the chain.”

In the end, it was all about the relationship.

“The fact is, the data doesn't get you anywhere without the relationship,” says Roberts. “You need the two of those together.”

Small Meetings, Big Effort

One way Amgen streamlined its processes was to create a small meetings desk. Instituted a year ago, it handles meetings of 10 to 75 sleeping rooms, up to four days long, with no more than two breakouts, for Amgen employees (not customers or people outside of the company). That's about 185 meetings a year.

Why handle this type of meeting separately? “Small meetings take up a lot of the staff's time,” says Roberts. A 25-person meeting, for example, can take almost the same amount of resources as a large sales meeting because it still involves room nights, food and beverage, transportation, etc. “By making it a turnkey process, it really frees up a lot of time internally.”

A project manager is assigned to the desk, overseeing all small meetings that come through the department. Once the hotel is selected, the internal client deals directly with the meeting-planning supplier, leaving out the middle man — the project manager. This frees up staff and resources for larger, more visible programs.

The small meetings desk has been so successful that Amgen is looking into developing a day-meetings package, which will involve setting up standard contracts with hotel partners specifically for day meetings without sleeping rooms. Stay tuned.

From ‘Planners’ to ‘Project Managers’

How have Amgen's meeting staffers reacted to the change in their roles from meeting planners to project managers?

“Some of them saw it as a great opportunity to expand their knowledge and influence and to be seen as more strategic,” says Marybeth Roberts, senior manager, meetings and trade shows. Others balked, she says, because they like doing logistics and everything that goes with planning a meeting. “It's a bit of a dilemma, because you want people who know how to plan and who are good at it, but they are not going to be doing the planning, so they might not be happy in that role.”

Several staff members have been promoted to new positions within the company — one to the supplier relationship post, another to a job supervising sourcing — in the five years since the change took place. “At a lot of companies, you have meeting planners and that's all they can ever do,” says Roberts. “We can choose to go on to do something else within Amgen because we've gained lots of great skills — not just meeting planning skills.”