With some 100,000 employees in more than 65 countries, Amsterdam-based ING Group has become a worldwide financial services giant. Meanwhile, after a string of acquisitions over the past few years, its North American subsidiary, ING Americas, leads the list of U.S. insurers in life and annuities premiums.

With that kind of growth — especially when it happens primarily through acquisitions — comes an inevitable focus on cost-cutting. Add a softening economy, and the penny-pinchers make a beeline for functions that could be outsourced. At ING Americas, they came knocking at the meetings and travel door last winter.

Outside vs. Inside

In February 2000, Judy Martin, shareholder relations manager at ING Americas corporate headquarters in Atlanta, joined a task force charged with investigating “commodity spends,” including meetings and travel. The task force's first idea: Outsource everything. They put all of ING Americas' incentive business out to bid, receiving proposals from 11 incentive houses. The field was narrowed to five finalists, who came in and made presentations. The goal was to save money by selecting one preferred vendor.

However, two of the formerly separate insurance companies had long-standing relationships with particular incentive houses, and it soon became clear that neither one wanted to give up its supplier. “The task force realized that we couldn't make just one recommendation,” Martin explains. So she told her fellow committee members: “Instead of using an incentive house, which charges 15 to 17.5 percent of the total program cost, let's look at what our strong base of internal meeting planners can do.” She was an experienced meeting planner, Martin explained, and many of the companies ING had recently acquired came with experienced planners as well.

At first, the idea seemed too unwieldy. There wasn't enough staff to take on all of ING Americas' meeting business. That's when Martin suggested creating a meeting team from the planners at ING's life companies and trying it out with the Life Group first. (The Life Group companies include ING Security Life and ING Southland Life in Denver; ING Reliastar in Minneapolis; ING Security Connecticut Life in Avon, Conn.; ING Life of Georgia in Atlanta; and ING Reliastar in New York.) Martin's proposal was accepted on a trial basis and the work of the task force was put on hold until the fourth quarter 2001. At that point, the outsourcing option will be revisited.

Creating a Brand

Martin quickly succeeded in getting a mandate issued to the Life Group's divisions: If you're planning a meeting, you must work through the newly formed meeting team. The mandate had two main goals: cost savings, gained by increasing the Life Group's purchasing volume and thereby its negotiating power with suppliers; and quality control, gained through new standards that would be created for all Life Group events. “Every meeting sends a message about the company as a whole,” Martin says. “Traditionally most of the emphasis has been on the main incentive meetings. But that's just one piece. All sales channel meetings are important because you want to show the quality ING brings to the table.”

Martin put her particular strength — negotiating — to work in discussions with hotel companies, exploring the possibility of better deals based on the Life Group's greater volume now that it would be working as a unit rather than as separate companies. Messages from eager suppliers were soon filling her voice mailbox.

“We have a chance — and a challenge.”
— Judy Martin, shareholders relations manager, ING Americas

Perhaps more important, senior executives noticed the difference between a meeting planned by the internal team and a meeting planned by, say, an administrative assistant without extensive planning experience.

“With an internal meeting planning team, we're elevating all of our sales channel meetings to a higher level — to the ING level,” Martin says. “ING is a major player and with that comes the professionalism and top quality in meetings that you would expect. We're aiming for consistency in meeting properties, creative materials (invitations, promotion, and on-site materials), registration processes — we're almost creating our own brand.”

The quality control extends even to the business programs themselves, Martin says. In part, that means everything goes across the desk of ING's new compliance officer. “All meetings, even a one-and-a-half-day business meeting, will go through the compliance checklist,” Martin says. “We're developing guidelines and processes with the compliance department regarding how we can work together.”

Far-Flung, Close Knit

The meeting planners of ING's Life Group are far-flung: Martin and Karen Burnsed in Atlanta, Jana Stern in Minneapolis, and Jody Kotouc in Denver. Two new support staffers recently were hired for the Denver department. ING Americas is based in Atlanta, but the meeting team reports to the Marketing Communications department in Denver. And the head of the department there reports to an executive based in Hartford, Conn. Considering ING's growth and acquisitions, Martin points out, having a department spread out geographically is not an unusual model.

How will it all work? Lots of communication, so that everyone knows the big picture. That means not only better negotiating positions, but also that when one group gives up its first booking option at a property, for example, that option might go to another of the Life Group companies.

The wisdom of bringing all meeting planning in-house appears clear, but in practice, it's been slow going. Still, Martin believes, “long-term, the Life Group will have a centralized internal meeting team based in different locations.”

A Model Department

“With an internal meeting team, you get people who take ownership.”
— Lynda Garvey, meeting conference team leader, ING Aetna

Meanwhile, the meeting department at ING Aetna Financial Services, acquired by ING in December 2000, provides a model for the successful internal team. It's an especially relevant model for the Life Group — and for meeting departments at companies throughout the industry struggling with justifying their existence — because Aetna's meeting team survived intact after serious scrutiny by corporate cost-cutters.

“Meeting planning was one place where the company thought they were going to save a lot of money,” says Lynda Garvey, meeting conference team leader at ING Aetna in Hartford. “But they found out they were not. We run a very tight department. We maximize every dollar we spend as if it were our own.”

And Garvey keeps meticulous track of it, including a financial debrief with executives after every meeting. She can point out savings both major and minor. At a recent conference, for example, “instead of bottled water at $3.50 a pop, we used paper cups and water coolers at 60 cents a cup. We know how to cut corners and still produce a high-end product.”

Besides knowing little tricks of the meeting trade, the department has well-established relationships with suppliers that can save the company big bucks. For example, the relationship with one hotel chain recently helped the company save a major cancellation fee: The fee was paid, but was applied to a future program Aetna booked into the same property.

But there's more to the story than dollars and cents. Garvey, who joined the department only a year and a half ago, explains: “This unit is very entrenched. They have a phenomenal relationship with the attendees. Everyone knows everyone by name. And they know Aetna — its goals and objectives.”

So not only did the company determine that outsourcing would not be cost-effective, she says, but there was a realization that “you'd also take all that personality out of the meetings.”

The department includes Ellyn Rossing-Gaynor, who has been with Aetna since 1966; Karen Lamoureux, with Aetna since 1989; JoAnn Galvin, a 15-year planning veteran; and Lisa Poulton, who joined Aetna in 1997.

Building on the department's traditions, Garvey is adding exposure to industry organizations such as the Insurance Conference Planners Association and Meeting Professionals International and to industry events such as the Incentive Travel & Meeting Executives trade show. Her goal is to broaden the department's knowledge base and boost its creativity through increased networking.

Still, where Aetna's meeting planners really shine is in giving every meeting the personal touch. With an internal meeting team, Garvey says, “you get people who go above and beyond — who take ownership. The pride this staff has in their work is unbelievable.” The key? “The staff knows the audience. We take the pulse of the business. That makes us viable.”

The Life Group continues to work toward the goals the Aetna group has achieved, but first it has to clear the outsourcing hurdle once again. Says Martin: “We have a chance — and a challenge.”