Mary Keough-Anderson has been around meeting planning long enough that her AV specs once included filmstrips. In 34 years with Liberty Mutual Insurance she has seen how meeting planning has evolved—but more important, she sees where it has to go.

“There has been a major shift in meeting departments in larger companies, from a logistics focus to a strategic focus,” she says. It’s known by different names—event strategy, event marketing, engagement marketing. Broadly, it means paying more attention to how events can have a direct impact on a company’s growth and profitability. In turn, that means working with meeting owners to tease out specific and measurable objectives. The process often includes asking questions that senior executives in traditional industries aren’t used to answering. For example, “What are the emotions you want attendees to feel when they arrive at this event?” Feel?

Facing the Future
But let’s take a step back. Keough-Anderson, director, meeting management and event strategy, didn’t come to work one morning and start changing the dialogue. Instead, she proposed a benchmarking process that would assess her department’s work through hours of internal and external interviews, Web-based surveys, and on-site meeting audits. It was grueling, but 18 months later Keough-Anderson had restructured and renamed her department, created and filled a “director of event strategy” position, and set her team of meeting planners on a new course.

She acknowledges that it was  a major exercise in change management. But it’s a necessity. “If we don’t continue in this direction as an industry we will be left behind,” she says. “I firmly believe that.”


Growth Story
Before retiring in August, Keough-Anderson had gone from audiovisual assistant, to launching the company’s meeting department, to leading that department and overseeing a $10 million-plus budget. Over those same 34 years, Liberty Mutual Insurance Group (number 82 on the Fortune 500 list) has become a global company with 45,000 employees in more than 900 offices worldwide.

One of the things that Keough-Anderson’s longevity earned her is trust. “It took years and years of time and service to develop the trust and respect of senior management,” she says. Asked about how she made the pitch to invest in a benchmarking study, she talks about taking the proposal to her boss, the senior vice president, corporate communications, who then took it to the CEO; about including it in goals tied to her own performance review; and about explaining that with Liberty’s growth, the events department had to evolve.

But the bottom line is the trust. If Keough-Anderson believed it was critical, senior management believed it, too.

“As the company grew, my department grew, and our workload grew,” she says. Meanwhile the events industry started changing. The traditional responsibilities of a meeting department—logistics, cost containment, service delivery—remain, “but they’re the baseline requirements today at large companies,” Keough-Anderson says. “Now we need to transition to event strategy and marketing. If you want a seat at the table, you need to help the company invest effectively in events.” What that meant for her team, she says, was no less than “a new mission, a new structure, and a new operating plan.”

To get there, Liberty Mutual hired an outside agency, George P. Johnson Experience Marketing, to conduct the two-pronged benchmarking study. First, they would measure internal customer satisfaction and get feedback on her department. Next, the department would be measured against industry standards and cutting-edge teams at similar-sized companies. “You have to go outside the financial and insurance sector to find very innovative meeting departments,” she says. “[The agency] looked to business-to-consumer events and to other industries such as IT and telecom.”

The research revealed that Keough-Anderson was running a top-notch, but traditional, meeting management department. It came as no surprise. And interviews with meeting owners confirmed something else she suspected: Some of them agreed that they would like their events to have better-defined objectives, but they wouldn’t expect that type of strategic thinking from the conference management department. They’d expect that from, say, the marketing folks.

“For some of them, it’s a whole change in mindset,” she says. “We needed to introduce the concept to them, and show that we’re adding more value.”

She delivered that message as part of her “relaunch” tour, in which she took the benchmarking results and shared them with key clients across the business units, explaining that meeting planners could be—should be—their marketing partners, helping to drive branding, strategy, customer and employee engagement, and, ultimately, profitability. She told them about the department’s new name—Meeting Management & Event Strategy—and shared its new mission: “To provide Liberty Mutual Insurance Strategic Business Unit partners with industry leading expertise, best practices, and flawless service in creating and delivering exceptional meetings and events that drive business results and employee engagement.”

She also told them about a new hire: the director of event strategy, who would guide the planning process for high-profile meetings. These events would go through a rigorous review—the strategic experience mapping process, which had been developed by David Rich at George P. Johnson.


Four Tiers of Meetings

But not every event would warrant the full exercise, so Keough-Anderson also explained that meetings would now be grouped into four tiers:

1. Executive level/high touch/incentive meetings
These meetings go through a detailed objective-setting process every year, and the full strategic experience mapping process every two or three years. The first event to be comprehensively redesigned was the 2012 Liberty Mutual Insurance Legends of Golf tournament. The result? Stakeholders rated it the “best ever.”

2. Department meetings/small hospitality events
These meetings may involve the director of event strategy or may require primarily logistics service from the meeting department. The assessment is made on a case-by-case basis.

3. Small, regularly planned meetings
These are meetings of fewer than 50 people that traditionally have been managed outside the meeting department by administrative assistants and other occasional planners.  Keough-Anderson worked with the corporate travel department to identify the meetings and who was planning them. Those employees were contacted and introduced to StarCite’s Small Meetings Solution, which requires them to input all their meeting information and gives them the benefit of access to pre-approved contract terms and conditions and other tools. Keough-Anderson held webcast-based training for them; 40 employees have gone through it thus far.

“The message is: ‘You keep your meeting, but here’s a great tool, and all the benefits to you of using this tool.’ Then I can capture all the data and improve Liberty’s overall negotiating leverage and vendor relationships.”

4. Ad hoc small meetings
As part of the restructuring, the meeting department became part of Corporate Shared Services, meaning that its expenses are allocated across all strategic business units according to capital. Previously, the department ran on a chargeback system, with users paying for their specific services. Tracking staff time in order to allocate charges was too complex and time-consuming, Keough-Anderson explains, and some clients avoided using the department because they didn’t want to pay for the service. But one risk of this change, she adds, was that “the floodgates would open” and the department would be overwhelmed with new programs. To counter that, overnight meetings of 50 or fewer people (up to a maximum of three nights and four days), or day meetings with 75 or fewer people, also are managed outside the department through the Small Meetings Solution. Meeting owners are taken through the 45-minute webcast to learn how to use the tool, and the meeting department is available for consultation as necessary. In addition, Keough-Anderson and her team updated a Resource Guide on the corporate intranet, which takes novices through the meeting planning process and includes a glossary of terms.


Getting the Planning Team On Board

Every year, Keough-Anderson holds a planning meeting with her team, where they discuss and set objectives for the coming year. After the benchmarking process, the 2012 event was devoted to painstakingly reviewing all the tasks the team performs in order to refine the process.

Though Keough-Anderson usually runs the meeting, this time she brought in a representative from George P. Johnson to facilitate. “It allowed me to participate, and it was an objective person to keep us on track and focused, and to drive the conversation,” she says.

The entire team of 13 was asked to list all of the tasks they perform when planning a meeting. Everything was posted on stickie notes on the wall. Then the group put each task into a category (launch, database management, production, security, due diligence, and many others).

“We asked everyone to get up and look at all stickies and then we had a conversation as a group, where we asked, ‘Is there duplication of effort? Could we eliminate this step?’ At the end of the meeting we all decided what needed to be fixed and created a project leader for each task.”

For example, the planners’ client proposals all were slightly different, so one team member was assigned to create a PowerPoint template that everyone would use. “We want everything that leaves the department to look the same,” Keough-Anderson says. Another team member was assigned to update the department’s client evaluation survey, which is sent to meeting sponsors and asks for feedback on the overall performance of the meeting planner and the outcome of the event.

The team also added a step to the process—the project brief, which kicks off the planning phase of a program and reviews an event’s theme, objectives, and budget in broad terms.

Lessons Learned
The off-site team meeting relates to the key piece of advice that Keough-Anderson would give to other department heads looking to add strategy to their processes. “Get buy-in from your team before you start,” she says. “Explain the value and the possibilities. You want them to participate. Communicate early and often. Keep them engaged throughout the process with what you’re discovering. And keep it positive.”

She also advises finding whatever reserves of patience you have: “The benchmarking process required a lot of patience: Scheduling the interviews, especially with senior management, was a big challenge—getting an hour of their time, and potentially asking them for second interviews. I knew it was going to take time but I knew it would be worth it.”

For her, the whole project “has been a blast,” she says. “It’s the one thing I wanted to do before I retired.” There is ground yet to cover, particularly in measurement. The team did strengthen its existing measurement process by customizing and reworking surveys to attendees and to clients. But getting to comprehensive ROI measurement involves getting access to more data. “It’s almost a full-time job,” she says. And though she won’t be there to oversee that piece, she knows the department is well positioned to keep moving forward.

Not that she is leaving the industry—her future plans include mentoring, guest lecturing, and consulting. (At press time, her replacement at Liberty Mutual had not yet been hired.)

“We’ve brought the department up to the next level,” she says. “Based on the outcome of the benchmarking and the feedback we get from agents, brokers, and customers, who attend a lot of other events, we are the best in the industry. Nobody does it like Liberty. And that’s our ultimate goal.”


What it Means to Plan Strategically

As part of the new strategic experience mapping process for Liberty Mutual Insurance’s high-profile events, meeting owners are asked key questions, all designed to discover what they want attendees to think, feel, act, and do as a result of the meeting.

These include:
• What emotions does your audience need to feel by attending this event?

• What opinions do you need attendees to form during this meeting?

• What do audiences need to do at the event in order to be motivated to act on the company’s objectives (pre-event, on site, and post-event)?

Answers to the questions influence the meeting design, meeting content, and meeting promotion. For example, the “story” of the event may be the key to creating a desire to attend. What is its history and tradition? Who else is invited?

When the director of event strategy, a member of the planning team, and the meeting owner work through these questions, an audience profile emerges and the meeting owner is left with a clarity of purpose for the event, says Mary Keough-Anderson, who recently retired as the head of Liberty Mutual’s meeting department. “We help them crystallize their objectives,” she says, “and tie those objectives into the event experience.”


Benchmarking: Learning How You Rate

Liberty Mutual hired George P. Johnson Experience Marketing—and Experience Marketing Strategy Global Practice Leader David Rich—to benchmark its meeting department, identifying best practices and areas for improvement. The 18-month data-gathering process included:

1. Interviews
One-on-one interviews with the 13 members of the company’s meeting department; more than 50 face-to-face interviews with key meeting stakeholders, including leaders of the company’s strategic business units as well as the CEO; interviews with members of the corporate communications department, which the meeting department is part of; and interviews with external partners, including destination management companies, hotels, production companies, and others.

2. Surveys
More than 70 Web-based surveys were sent to meeting stakeholders who were not personally interviewed; surveys also were completed by external partners, including destination management companies, hotels, production companies, and others.

3. Audits
Three on-site meeting audits were conducted. Agency representatives observed and evaluated how the meeting planners engaged with customers, how the events were run, the branding, speakers, breakouts, content, entertainment, engagement, and everything related to the experience. Three events were audited: a hospitality event (customer-focused); a training session (a human resources meeting in Boston, the company’s headquarters city), and a recognition confernce (one of the company’s larger incentive events for agents).