What do you do when hotels won't book your meeting more than 60 days out, but you need to secure space at least three months in advance?
This question goes to the heart of the day-meeting dilemma. It's particularly pertinent today, as more and more planners within the insurance and financial services industries are tasked with planning meetings lacking overnight stays. A recent survey by Insurance Conference Planner found that roughly one-third of education and training meetings managed by ICPA-member planners were catering-only meetings. With anecdotal evidence suggesting those numbers are trending up, planners face a number of challenges as the day meeting becomes an ever-increasing part of their business.
ALLIANZ'S BREAD AND BUTTER
Day meetings — in the form of education and training workshops — are so important to Allianz Life Insurance Company of North America that, about four and a half years ago, a centralized meeting and event services department was formed to reflect that reality.
At the time, there were seven different companies under the Allianz Life umbrella, headquartered in Minneapolis. Many of the divisions had their own meeting coordinators, which was an unwieldy and inefficient system — particularly in light of growing numbers of daylong workshops and training sessions being implemented companywide. Enter Karyn Evans, CMP, CMM, who was brought on board in November 2000 to manage the new department. The proliferation of hundreds of day workshops and training meetings “was the primary reason” behind centralizing Allianz Life's meeting functions, she says. The reorganization, she notes, allowed the company to leverage buying power and put best practices in place.
Today the six-person meeting and event services department has two meeting planners — Lisa Marie Borchert and Mary Kay Hokanson — who dedicate most of their time to managing education and training workshops. Borchert supports Allianz's fixed annuities, Life and Long-Term Care division, Allianz Individual Insurance Group, while Hokanson supports USAllianz, the variable annuities division. One of several challenges they both face: With no guest rooms attached to the workshops, large hotels are reluctant to book meeting space with the three-month lead time the planners often require. In fact, many properties routinely avoid committing meeting space more than 30 days out.
But while day meetings may not be important for hotels, they play a critical role in achieving corporate goals and objectives at Allianz Life. Borchert and Hokanson expect to manage more than 800 nonovernight workshops between them this year, a hefty percentage of the total 850 meetings and events the department handles overall. And the number of day meetings at Allianz Life is trending up, says Borchert, “as we continue to grow and gain market share. I don't believe there are any other insurance companies that host the extensive number of workshops for independent planners, agents, and reps across the country that Allianz Life does,” she says. The workshops, she continues, are Allianz Life's “bread and butter” — the kinds of meetings it needs to connect with the company's agents and to cover product information.
Considering the clout with the number of overnight meetings that Allianz Life brings to the table, there had been expectations of leveraging this volume into negotiated buying power for day meetings. But even though this approach “works for a few locations,” Borchert says, “as a whole, venues don't want to chop up their sales week by taking our half-day meeting. Once we even had a general manager cancel a signedand pay us to walk away because he had a bigger piece of business on the table.” That particular property is unlikely to see any Allianz Life meeting business in the future. Adds Evans: “We value the partnership that we have with the chains that will book our day meetings, and often those are the ones that we go back to for our larger programs.”
To help ensure that venues honor their contractual agreements for meeting-room specifications, and that the workshops run smoothly without a planner on site, Borchert and Hokanson rely on past experience. The department has built an extensive database of properties booked over the last four years, which includes feedback from meeting presenters. If a property does a good job, the planners will use it again. Because the workshops are usually drive-to affairs, Borchert and Hokanson look for locations that are near major highways, easy to find, and offer free parking.
The property database has proven to be one of the great benefits of Allianz Life's meeting department centralization, according to Evans. For example, she says, “if a planner calls XYZ hotel and is quoted $1,500, we can look at the database and see that we were there six times last year and the most we ever paid was $500. It's a great way to track our booking history and meet the service expectations of our internal clients.”
For typical training and education workshops of 55 to 125 attendees, Borchert and Hokanson book regularly with major chain hotels “whose brands represent a service level and product that is aligned with our core values,” Borchert says. If a hotel chain requires them to work through its national sales office, they will comply. But the planners prefer to work directly with hotels “because they are quicker to respond to RFPs and the details don't seem to get lost in the hand-over.”
The WOW Factor
Recently, Hokanson was charged with managing a new kind of workshop called WOW — Wholesaler-Owned Workshop. The wholesalers are Allianz Life employees and many of them are responsible for smaller cities like Fargo, N.D. — cities that previously got bypassed on the day-meeting schedule. “This way we are able to meet our reps and our clients in their home areas” says Hokanson. “The workshops may have only 15 to 20 attendees, but the wholesaler may be working with agents there who are doing two or three million dollars in business, so this is great face-to-face time.”
The dates and locations of the workshops are determined by the wholesalers and presented to Hokanson, who subsequentlymeeting space, issues invitations, and handles all other logistical details. The typical budget for these events is $900, Hokanson says, and she will manage approximately 300 of them this year.
For WOWs, with their smaller levels of participation, she also books smaller hotels, which can present a particular set of problems. For example, she says, a smaller hotel may have no formal contact person for meetings, and she'll end up negotiating with a front-desk employee. “I'll get off the phone [after negotiating a deal],” Hokanson says, “and ask myself: ‘Do I really have space on that day?’”
Even with the larger day meetings, budgets between roughly $1,800 and $2,500 present the planners with administrative dilemmas. Many hotels won't direct-bill for such small amounts. Allianz Life requires that hotels provide detailed, itemized charges so bills and credit card statements can be reconciled, but that's easier said than done. “We're constantly following up,” Hokanson says. “It's a real challenge, especially with the smaller properties.”
Sometimes, if the circumstances are right, the planners will use nontraditional meeting space. For example, Hokanson has a wholesaler who asked her to book a small movie theater for a WOW meeting. The venue “worked great,” Hokanson says.
QUEEN OF THE DAY MEETING
Kathy Wallitsch, CMP, director of meetings and events for Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Rhode Island in Providence, plans more than 300 meetings a year, the vast majority of which are day meetings. She's gotten so good at dealing with the nuances of these events that she now calls herself “queen of the day meeting.”
Wallitsch is one of a two-person meeting planning staff that sits within corporate communications. Her function is “basically to provide a service to the other departments,” she says. “If marketing wants an off-site meeting, they call me. Based on the criteria for the meeting, I'll find the best site and I'll negotiate.” She plans everything from daylong employee meetings to educational meetings for BC/BS constituents, with attendance ranging from 10 to more than 1,000 for annual employee meetings. Most are held within the state, easy driving distance for attendees.
She's been doing the job for so long, and Rhode Island is so compact, that she has been able to establish some buying power. For example, she often negotiates advantageous deals with small hotels that have function space available. And, while not a hard-and-fast rule, Wallitsch tries to find suppliers that already have a solid business relationship with BC/BS. “All off-property meetings are managed through my area in an effort to secure corporate buying power and brand consistency,” Wallitsch says. “This ensures that the meetings have the same tone and feel to them. And by working with customers of ours, it shows loyalty, and in a small state that is very important.”
Because BC/BS can bring suppliers volume business, Wallitsch often receives concessions that range from getting a lower meeting-room rate to having a free break thrown into the mix. “I have established relationships with [hotels] in the state [that we use repeatedly],” she says. “So I have standard things the hotel will do for me that they won't do for others.” For example, if Wallitsch books a particular hotel in Warwick, R.I., she knows it will provide her with two-way radios as part of the deal.
To find appropriate venues for out-of-state meetings, Wallitsch has cultivated relationships with convention and visitors bureaus, and she also uses her memberships in Meeting Professionals International and ICPA, an Association of Insurance and Financial Services Conference Planners, as resources.
Cheryl Geid, national travel and meeting planner for Grant Thornton LLP, a Chicago-based financial and professional services firm, plans about 30 day meetings a year. They are all internal events, ranging from training sessions for lower-level staff to strategic planning sessions at the partner level, with an average of 30 to 75 attendees. While most of the meetings are held in Chicago, Geid is sometimes tasked to plan day meetings at other locations throughout the country.
If she can't use her company's meeting space, nonresidential conference centers are always her first choice for a day-meeting venue. “They are easy, capital E, A, S, and Y,” she says. “That's the advantage to meeting planners.”
The Complete Meeting Planner rate structure typically used by conference centers is another plus, says Geid. The CMP at nonresidential centers usually covers meeting space, basic audiovisual services, and food and beverage, and helps to simplify budgeting, she notes. And, unlike staff at typical meeting properties who have to worry about the total multiday experience for attendees, nonresidential conference center staff are much more strictly focused on the details that enhance the meeting content. “That makes them a good fit for a lot of our training sessions,” Geid says.
Additionally, any kind of technical upgrade involving electrical work is bound to be cheaper at a conference center, she says, because they are not bound to use union labor. “That's a huge advantage.” Geid has also found conference centers to be more flexible than hotels when it comes to solving technical issues. For example, the Summit Executive Center in Chicago was easily able to increase its broadband capabilities in order to handle Grant Thornton's technology needs at a recent meeting.
Bob Dean, chief learning officer for Grant Thornton, has facilitated many training sessions at Summit, and he believes that cutting-edge technologies give nonresidential conference centers a competitive edge. “The facilities are up-to-date, the staff are [tech savvy], and they have the technology that allows you to plug and play,” Dean explains. He adds that getting attendees away from the office for day meetings works well for learning.
Give Day Meetings Some Attention — BUT NOT YOURS
Even at companies where meeting planning is consolidated, the lowly catering-only meeting is often left out in the cold. Planners don't have time for them, national sales contacts for the big hotel chains don't have time for them, and so these meetings — critical, but cookie-cutter — are booked out in the field, lost among hundreds of individual expense reports.
Now there are third parties that can help. Here are two that have developed a specialty in booking venues for day meetings.
EVENTCOM TRACKS SPENDING
EventCom Technologies by Marriott (http://marriott.com/meeting/eventcom/default.mi) originally was launched as a one-stop shop for multiproperty technical events, coordinating sales and service of communications technologies at Marriott properties worldwide. The company has evolved to fill a niche that planners are only now realizing needs to be filled. The drive to cut costs continues unabated, and when planners let go of any meeting — even one with no sleeping rooms — they let go of the ability to control that booking and track that spending. And when you're talking about hundreds of catering-only meetings annually, it adds up.
“Internal meeting departments have been scaled back,” says EventCom Director Tom Maguire. “They're focused on where the big spend is — the 5,000 room-nights in Orlando. But there's still the onslaught of small meetings. They don't have time for them, but they need to drive compliance and track spending.”
Take the scenario of the dozens of local or regional training or sales meetings planned by field managers. EventCom can set up a Web site for those managers that walks them through the process of requesting a meeting. The relevant information gets sent to EventCom, which books the properties (not just Marriott brands, by the way — if another hotel company's property works better for a particular meeting and comes in with an appropriate rate, that's the one that gets booked).
After each program, EventCom receives the entire invoice, so the client is able to see exactly where the manager is spending the company's cash. And because these meetings are now being tracked, they can be added to the company's total meeting-buying volume.
EventCom signs with the property, much as an independent planner would, negotiating to make sure the meeting comes in at or below budget, and then runs a monthly report showing budgeted and actual figures so the client company knows its spending is on track. Then the company pays EventCom 10 percent of each invoice.
— Alison Hall
HELMSBRISCOE TAPS REGUS NETWORK
HelmsBriscoe (www.helmsbriscoe.com), one of the world's largest site selection firms, never really tracked the overall demand for day-meeting space that their 600-plus associates were experiencing, says Peter Shelly, executive vice president. But after gathering input from the associates, Shelly says, “my eyes were opened,” by the number of day meetings HelmsBriscoe offices were booking.
Recognizing a growing need, HelmsBriscoe saw a good fit with Regus Group PLC (www.regus.com), a United Kingdom-based company with leases to more than 3,700 meeting rooms in offices all over the world. An agreement reached last year gives HelmsBriscoe associates the ability to book day-meeting space for their clients through an electronic scheduling service provided by Regus. “It's clean and it's very quick,” Shelly says, adding that the associates' response has been “extremely positive.”
— Michael Bassett
No Room at the Inn?
10 Great Tips for Finding Unconventional Day-Meeting Space
University or college conference centers, typically used for evening courses, are often available for corporate day meetings.
Go online to Unique Venues (www.uniquevenues.com) for a database of more than 7,000 facilities suitable for day meetings, from zoos to dude ranches.
Second-tier hotels of major chains, such as Courtyard by Marriott, often have plenty of available meeting space — and at a much lower cost than luxury properties.
Civic arenas, such as Chicago's newly renovated Soldier's Field, are beginning to dedicate particular areas as day-conference venues.
Large restaurants can often accommodate day meetings by changing a private dining room into a meeting room — and good food is a bonus.
Don't overlook convention centers, particularly for a large group.
Check out private clubs for available and affordable meeting space.
Use your imagination. One company's planner booked a bus for a mid-day brainstorming session.
Ask The International Association of Conference Centers (www.iaccnorthamerica.org) for a list of its member centers, including those that are nonresidential.
Be flexible in dates and times. For example, there's usually a better chance of finding hotel or conference center meeting space on a Monday or a Friday.
Tips 1 and 2: John Potterton, director, Summit Executive Center, Chicago; Tips 3 to 8: Cheryl Geid, Grant Thornton, LLP, Chicago; Tip 10: Eric Baron, the Baron Group, Westport, Conn.