Quick Steps for Fast-Track Meetings

In September 2001, Chris Pentz, CMP, president of Levittown, Pa.-based PENTZ Group Communications, received a call from a complete stranger. The woman needed a proposal for a 100-person meeting that would take place in Brazil… in five weeks.

“When do you need the proposal in hand?” Pentz asked on a Monday.

“Friday,” the woman said.

“I'll see what I can do,” Pentz said.

The real problem was that Pentz was leaving the next day for the Motivation Show in Chicago. So she dropped everything else and organized the best darn Brazilian meeting proposal ever put together stateside in less than one business day.

When it was on its way, Pentz had a revelation: “I dropped everything to do this. Maybe they just called to get a quote!”

The next day, on her way to the airport, Pentz checked in with her office. The Brazil meeting was a go — now in four weeks and six days! “All my plans for my time in Chicago changed,” she recalls. “I met with representatives of a chain of hotels in Rio and a destination management company from Brazil. By the time I left the show, I had everything I needed.”

Talk about being in the right place at the right time. Not everybody and every meeting will come together that smoothly, so here are some tips from planners for realizing your fast-track meeting:

  • Establish an agenda or checklist

    You'll need a good, thorough checklist of what needs doing. Refer to it constantly and take pride in scratching out completed tasks.

  • Choose the site

    Based on the objectives of the meeting or event, book the property, both guest rooms and meeting space, first. If you do not know which city you're going to — but you know the dates — work with national sales managers for the major hotel chains. They can find out faster than you what's available and where, and they can do that for you while you're doing something else.

    Do business not only with national sales managers but with chains that keep their hotel Web sites up-to-the-minute; and use sourcing sites like StarCite, mpoint, or ProcurePoint. “A sourcing tool puts a lot of pressure on the hotel to respond quickly,” says Joann Kerns, associate director of global meeting management for Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. in Princeton, N.J. “Hotels have to give their best rate on first pass. My attitude is, don't make me come back three times.”

    Use your network of colleagues to get referrals you can depend on. Over the last two years, the pharmaceutical industry became known for quick turnaround meetings; its lead times shrank with the economy. That, says Chris Pentz, is when she recognized the true value of colleagues. She often turns to this network, the MIM listserv in particular, for recommendations of tried-and-true places in a time pinch. Pentz explains, “Sometimes you have to go to a property you're not familiar with, and there are so many unknowns.”

  • Use professional resources

    Whether you know the city you're going to or not, work with the city's convention and visitors bureau. They can help you quite a bit in finding the hotel you need, and they can put you in touch with destination management companies, photographers, printers, and florists.

    If you're worried that a CVB won't turn around the information you need quickly enough, Pentz suggests a take-no-prisoners approach. Tell them, “I am working with Chicago and San Francisco, so whoever gets me a response back quickly, as long as it's affordable, that's who we'll go with.” In a fast-track meeting, you may not be able to wait for more than one viable response. “If I have space and a good rate, I'm going with that,” Pentz says. “There may be 20 responses — three days later. Too late!” In fairness to the CVB, you must tell them your deadline.

    Use your preferred vendors. But one of the dangers of short scheduling is that preferred vendors may already be booked. Daphne J. Meyers, senior event manager for Microsoft Business Solutions, Fargo, N.D., says that investing time in establishing relationships with a consistent pool of vendors makes this potential headache evaporate.

  • Minimize the paperwork

    Most properties today are eager to accommodate your timelines, even the short ones. “If you tell them they need to do something fast, usually they will respond to that,” Pentz says. She adds that the hotel generates the proposal, and, after her review, the contract as well. “Most of the time the hotels do generate the contract. We then provide the hotel with our addendum.”

    Larger companies, like BMS, have a standard contract addendum. Kerns says: “We send it to our national sales contacts, who are familiar with its contents.”

    Caveat: “Smaller meetings should have more negotiating power other than just rate,” Kerns says. “Get concessions! You're filling a need for that hotel. I have a checklist of 30 things we go through on every contract — comp rooms, upgrades, comp upgrades, group rates, meeting room rentals, phone lines, waiving Internet access fees and patch fees for electricity, discounts on F&B, comp receptions…”

  • Assign a fast-track team, delegate, and check in regularly

    “The next big thing is putting the team together,” says Meyers. “Who will be involved? Which vendors will do what? Which internal stakeholders, content providers, and decision-makers will play a part? The rest of the process comes from there. It's a matter of updating and adding.”

    Meyers meets with her team every week during the meeting countdown. “By getting together, we make sure information is disseminated and new questions are answered. The planner's job is making sure that information gets out and people know what they need to do,” she says.

  • Avoid elaborate meals and functions — or outsource

    Sometimes there are no shortcuts. Menus take time, Pentz says, so avoid them if possible. “If the meeting's objective allows you to go to a conference center, do that. You know there will be breakfast, lunch, dinner, and continuous breaks, so you don't have to fuss with menus.”

    If you have to stay downtown, a conference center may not be an option. Or, sometimes the client wants to go off-site one night. Then you have to deal with entertainment, food, ground transfers. A local DMC can help put those details together at the last minute.

  • Take advantage of technology and the Internet

    “Most people use online registration tools,” says Kerns. Web registration is a speed accelerator for Bristol-Myers Squibb. “We utilize Web tools for 95 percent of our internal business,” Kerns says. “That's 24/7 access, which makes it very easy to recruit and register attendees. You're not sending out invitations; you're sending e-mail with a link to a Web site to register. For internal business, it works like a charm.”

    For external meetings, Kerns recommends using a product such as Isofax (http://www.isofax.com) that allows you to merge data from an Excel document.

  • Be decisive!

    For independents: When you have just four weeks, make decisions quickly and move on. If your client wants three options, then it behooves you to give them three excellent choices. What if they pick ‘B’ and it would never work? Pentz says you'll be more successful if the client trusts your decision and they don't micromanage a fast-track meeting.

“The longer the lead time, the more time you have to change things,” Kerns says. “I think it's great to do short-term meetings. You can order, execute, and move on.”