Meeting professionals today must have quick, accurate answers when CFOs ask tough questions about meetings. And that means having a comprehensive, reliable process in place for collecting and analyzing meetings data.
“Strategic meetings management is still relatively young. Companies are still working toward gathering data and realizing the potential of that data,” says Kimberly Meyer, founder, Meetings Analytics, a data management and analysis firm. “On any given day, you should be able to say, when someone asks, ‘We’ve already conducted 60 meetings this year and we have 100 more on the books. Some can be done virtually, some can be scaled back, some can be combined.’”
Better yet, Meyer suggests, say it before you’re asked. “Be proactive about bringing senior management insightful information. That’s what makes you a strategic partner.”
Age of Accountability
“Traditionally planners have not had responsibility for data reports or management,” says Kevin Iwamoto, GLP, vice president, enterprise strategy, Active Network/StarCite. “Following the recession, there has been a higher demand for accountability, and planners are now being asked to provide more information and data about sourcing, much of which is related to Sarbanes-Oxley. This is part of a growing demand overall for transparency around spend, involving detailed analysis and thorough documentation.”
Indeed, spending and savings are the first step in any reporting plan for meetings management. Victoria Johnson, CMP, CMM, global manager, meeting services and sourcing, at Underwriters Laboratories, creates quarterly reports as spreadsheets showing a flat dollar amount of savings. The report has two parts—“procurement” savings (savings from hotel) and “on-site” savings (such as the 67 percent she recently saved by using an outside audiovisual company rather than the in-house AV). Also attached to the report is a spreadsheet from Johnson’s third-party sourcing rep detailing the number of meetings in the quarter and the rep’s hours worked on those meetings.
Johnson sends her report to the director of global sourcing, who forwards it to the CFO as a single data point. “It’s one number: This is the amount saved through our procurement process.”
Iwamoto of Active Network/StarCite considers this the critical number. “The savings report is the most important report a meeting manager must send to a supervisor,” he says. “The report needs to be regular year-over-year, or quarter-over-quarter, so it provides transparency into the savings associated with the spend. Above all, this is what allows executive-level personnel to design an effective and consolidated program as well as justify the very existence of meetings and events consolidation.”
Johnson also adds risk mitigation and cost avoidance data to her reports. These come from negotiating with, for example, bus companies, caterers, DMCs, or restaurants. “Risk mitigation and cost avoidance are not recorded as cost savings, but I do track them. Risk mitigation includes things like not having to send a deposit, or getting mutual indemnification. As an example, the report will say, ‘For 500 I avoided deposits and increased protective language for the company.’”
A goal for Johnson is to implement a system for capturing the savings realized by ad hoc planners in the company.
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Compare and Contrast
At PwC, where meeting sourcing and logistics are outsourced, explains Karin Milliman, CMM, strategy implementation director, meeting and event services, the third party is held to negotiated savings targets as part of its service-level agreement. Milliman receives a monthly “scorecard” with data on their performance, including customer satisfaction, use of preferred hotels, how quickly they take a meeting request and send out an RFP, how quickly they get options back to the meeting requestor, and whether they’ve met the savings targets.
She summarizes the savings in a quarterly Excel report she sends to the CFOs of the company’s four lines of service: assurance, advisory, tax, and internal. These reports include, by business line and for the entire firm, the volume of meetings, number of participants, cost of each meeting, total budgeted spend, total actual spend, and use of virtual meetings.
“If a line of business asks why the actual costs are higher than budgeted, I should be able to tell in a heartbeat,” Milliman says. In a recent case, it was because attendance grew. “The challenge becomes, if I run these on day 10 after the close of a quarter but the invoice lag is 60 days, it’s not an accurate actual cost.”
“As of the Q1 reports this year, the CFOs can drill down in addition to getting the high-level snapshot,” Milliman notes. The reports also include a graphical representation of meetings by type (marketing, learning and development, human resources, and other). “That’s where, if spending on one type of meeting seems higher than expected, they can click through and say, ‘Oh, we added that meeting,’” Milliman says. Theoretically, since all meetings of more than $5,000 in spend must be approved beforehand, there should be few surprises. Ultimately the reports go to the COO, who looks at year-over-year numbers.
New Questions and Answers
One question her data has allowed her to answer more easily these days is how to contain costs. Meetings at PwC were scaled back during the recession, but when those meetings returned to their former volume, staffing and budgets did not follow suit. With the department and the planning process already lean, she says, the best option she had to offer when management wanted further cuts was to have fewer meetings. That led to a new type of data collection.
“Now we pull reports on what meetings in each of our markets went to hotels but could have been held in an office,” she says. In addition to being used to avoid meeting costs, this data has also made MES a strategic partner with PwC’s real estate department: The information is a measure of demand for in-house meeting space, which can be used for making lease decisions.
“We work with our internal reporting team to pull all the meetings that could have been held in an office but weren’t, due to space constraints. But it still takes some manual intervention,” she points out, because, for example, a particular client meeting might need to be held in a hotel and therefore would not belong on a list of meetings that could have been held in-house. “But if we take out that client meeting in April, it won’t be included in subsequent months.” So it’s a learning process that will continue to yield more precise reports.
Another new type of reporting Milliman has started is forecasting. Her account managers in two of the business lines “go out to their base weekly and ask what meetings are coming up but are not yet registered. Then they create a snapshot of those meetings by complexity level, compare it to the previous year, and compare it to the current resources we have available.”
In part this is necessary because many meetings have short lead times and are subject to change. One of the meeting account managers might be told, for example, to expect 31 sessions of XYZ Training to be registered in March and to be operated in June. But the following week one meeting might have been canceled and another might have outgrown its internal space and need to be relocated to a hotel.
“There are two things we need to know: When will you be ready to register the meetings (which starts the sourcing process), and when will the meetings be executed (which starts the planning process),” Milliman explains. The forecasts allow her to plan for appropriate staffing, something that she is able to do more efficiently since PwC begana year ago. (Internal managers continue to work on a strategic level with meeting owners.)
Regarding outsourcing, Milliman explains that when meeting volume returned post-recession, it prompted questions: “Do we want to hire more planners when PwC isn’t a meeting planning company? Or do we want to outsource so we can more easily handle shifts in meeting volume?” The answer was outsourcing, leaving Milliman and PwC time to focus on overall meeting strategy, including reporting.
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At Merck & Co., Lisa Meehan and her meetings management department have put much of their time and energy over the past year into data collection. It’s part of relaunching the company’s program with the implementation of a meeting management technology tool. (Having merged with Schering-Plough, Merck is expanding the global focus of its meetings program.) In researching technology for collecting data, the Merck team saw that a comprehensive, end-to-end meeting management tool was really what they needed. “It was data we wanted,” says Meehan, director, “but we needed to touch every piece of the meeting management process to get actionable and comprehensive data.”
The project was so big that the team decided not to go it alone. “Early on we engaged a data management partner to help us configure the technology in the right way,” she explains. In other words, they had to create fields for input on the front end that would result in reports that gave them the data they wanted on the back end.
For example, says Kimberly Meyer of Meetings Analytics, you might be collecting data on countries where meetings take place but neglect to track which countries originated those meetings. Or you might be tracking room rates but neglect to track room-night volume.
It takes time to uncover the places where additional fields will give you the fuller picture you want. But, as Meehan puts it, “I wanted to be sure we were pushing ourselves to drive maximum value from the meetings program in all areas, especially, but not solely, in spend management.”
After all of the fields were determined, the next step was to train Merck’s meeting planning and sourcing agencies on inputting data. Meehan’s team worked with Meetings Analytics on this process, developing, in the company’s parlance, a Business Process Manual, or BPM. “It covers how we execute a meeting, from registering it, to booking it, to reporting on it after it has taken place. We spent an enormous amount of time creating the BPM for the end-to-end process. It includes what data points are required, what data is optional, what must be in the system and when.”
The setup work took nearly nine months, but the result is a multi-page dashboard that allows Meehan to look broadly or precisely at all aspects of the company’s meetings and events. The programs can be totaled by division, by type, by attendance, by property, by meeting planning agency, by date, and by many combinations of those elements. She can see the average room rate by division, or by hotel chain.
“The full dashboard helps us steer the overall program,” Meehan says. “We will pick bits and pieces out of that to share with senior management. And we will create separate dashboards for key stakeholders—the group that does sales and marketing, for example.”
Meehan’s dashboard also reports on itself, in a way. Data is input by the meeting planning companies throughout the planning process, and Meetings Analytics provides bi-weekly e-mails and reports reminding them which data needs to be entered or reviewed. For example, the report will show that ABC Meeting Co. has input 52 budgets, but at the time the report was run they should have input 68 budgets. This relates to one of the most important goals Meehan had with this project—data quality.
Data in Action
An important learning opportunity presented itself in early 2011, just as Merck was planning to “go live” with its end-to-end meeting platform. Senior management said the company had to cut spending by a certain amount in order to meet year-end performance expectations, and meetings was one of the categories targeted to help reach that cost-avoidance goal. “They came to us and asked, ‘How much can you contribute and what actions would be required for that to happen?’” Meehan recalls. “At that point our data was not robust enough to have a complete picture of the best way to cut costs.”
In other words, she could see what meetings were on the books, but couldn’t easily see where the company had committed spend already or what cancellation fees would be owed. “It was a great learning experience because when we got the question, we turned to Meetings Analytics and asked, ‘How would you do this?’”
Without all the needed data, they still were able to look at how many meetings were registered, and categorize them as revenue-generating (those involving salespeople) and non-revenue-generating (such as internal training meetings). Deciding to cut 10 percent of the revenue- generating meetings’ spending and 25 percent of the non-revenue-generating meetings’ spending in order to reach the cost-cutting total, they were then able to suggest canceling some meetings, making other meetings smaller, and shifting some to virtual meetings.
This type of recommendation will be stronger when the “granular” data is available, Meehan notes—in particular, the recommendation to go virtual. “It is a big behavioral change,” she says. “Some believe you must be face to face, and when you don’t have the data to show a big bottom line impact, it’s hard to make the case.”
But if she could propose, for example, holding a shorter sales meeting and adding a virtual component that extends over several weeks, along with the data showing cost savings and possibly an increased impact on attendees because of the longer overall duration, that would be a powerful argument. Or she could suggest that salespeople attend in person but most of the headquarters audience attend virtually, and presumably show cost avoidance with no loss of the meeting’s revenue-generating impact.
“Hypothetically, with granular data, you can weigh the value of each component of a meeting,” she says. “You can see where the greatestis on attendees.” And with the ability to deliver that kind of business intelligence, she says, “you raise the value of the meeting planning organization to the level of a strategic business partner.”