It promises to become the stuff of legend: a winter's day in 2004, a hotel meeting room in Minneapolis, five meeting industry professionals staring at a white board. “We said, ‘We will not leave this room until we decide,’” recalls Mike Malinchok, at the time product manager for GetThere DirectMeetings.

The decision: What exactly should replace the term “meetings consolidation” to describe the process of managing the spend, risk, and quality of meetings across a company? “It was important,” says Malinchok. “We knew that if it resonated, it would be around for a long time.”

Four months earlier, in October 2003, the National Business Travel Association's newly formed Groups & Meetings Committee had met in Philadelphia, and had come up with the term strategic meetings management. A subcommittee was formed to develop a white paper on the topic. Now, in Minneapolis, they were going through the white paper, which had been written by Malinchok and Kari Kesler, then with ING Americas. “We were really hashing out every word,” recalls Tracey Wilt, manager, global travel and meetings management, at Xerox and founding co-chairwoman of the committee.

Adds Maddy Caliri, then with AT&T, “There was so much discussion around the s. Should it be meeting or meetings?” But just when she thought they might get bogged down in minutiae, she realized, “if this works, we are creating a new lexicon for the industry.”

Stir It Up

She was right. The term they settled on — strategic meetings management — has resonated industrywide since March 2004, when the white paper was first released. In just over five years, SMM has become the gold standard for professional meetings management.

Not that all meeting planners greeted the white paper with open arms at first. Far from it. Debi Scholar of Pricewaterhouse Coopers remembers when she first heard about it: “I was a member of the Meetings Competitive Advantage Forum [an independently organized group of meetings executives from Fortune 500 companies]. I hadn't heard of the Groups & Meetings Committee, but during my first meeting with MCAF, I remember the leader, Maddy Caliri, having a heated discussion with one of the MCAF members because the committee had just published the first SMMP white paper in the industry,” she recalls. “The member didn't think it was appropriate that a ‘travel’ association be involved with meetings management. I thought to myself, ‘Boy, if there is any group stirring up the industry and moving toward a more strategic role, I want to be part of it!’”

In hindsight, says Kesler, now president and chief strategist, KK Strategic Solutions, “picking apart the white paper ourselves was the best thing we could have done. We had no idea how much impact it would have, or how it would be scrutinized by others.”

Age of Procurement

And despite perceptions, many original committee members did know meetings. In fact, a couple were well into their first or second rounds of meetings consolidation, the precursor to strategic meetings management programs (SMMPs).

They also knew that Corporate America was taking a closer look at meeting spending. In particular, Kevin Iwamoto saw the writing on the wall. “I could see procurement getting involved,” says Iwamoto, president of NBTA from 2001 to 2003. “Being a procurement professional myself, I saw it as a natural evolution that meetings would undergo a rigorous process review just as travel had done when it went under procurement.”

Confirming his hunch, says Iwamoto, now vice president, enterprise strategy, at StarCite, were NBTA members themselves. “I recall being approached by travel managers who said, ‘My company wants me to take over meetings and I don't have a clue.’ I knew NBTA had to provide a resource for those who were facing this.” So he created the Groups & Meetings Committee.

“But then my term was over,” he says, adding that the committee's work really flowered under the next two NBTA presidents — Carol Devine and Suzanne Fletcher. Also keeping meetings issues front and center at NBTA then was Tracey Wilt, who had left the committee in order to join NBTA's board of directors — and also became the committee's first board liaison.

“The committee has provided a tremendous service,” says Iwamoto. “When you look at the members today, they are the leaders in SMM.”

The Wheel Keeps Turning

One of those leaders is Lee Ann Adams Mikeman, the committee's current chairwoman. “The strength and value of this committee is its members and their diversity,” says Adams Mikeman, who recently met with the committee to finalize educational offerings for this month's NBTA convention. “An SMMP is constantly evolving,” notes Adams Mikeman, who considers one of her proudest committee accomplishments the revision, with Debi Scholar and other members, of the SMMP graphic. “The first graphic was ingenious for its time and included a rectangular puzzle design with components represented as the puzzle pieces,” she explains. “The new graphic, a wheel, builds on this theme but uses updated program components and a shape that symbolizes movement and globalization. The arrows also convey the need for continuous review and revision to accommodate changing internal and external forces such as economic conditions and technology improvements.”

Ever Innovative

Mike Malinchok, who recently launched a new company, S2K On Purpose, to provide technology consulting, training, and executive coaching around SMMP implementation, remembers the “sense of unique energy” during the committee's early days. “It was energizing and a little intimidating,” he says. “But it wasn't the controversy that scared us the most, it was our concern over whether our work would be relevant. What if, after all the work, nobody cared?”

He needn't have worried.

The Groups & Meetings Committee has had a growing presence at NBTA's annual convention — a presence that will be larger than ever this year, with the launch of a certification program for SMM professionals. (See article, page 10.)

“This year's meetings management tracks were sold out in June,” says Kevin Iwamoto. “It's a real validation that creating the committee was the right hunch. And naming Maddy Caliri [now at Reed Elsevier] and Tracey Wilt as co-chairwomen was absolutely the right hunch as well!”

Meanwhile, the committee recently became the first at NBTA to have an Allied Member as a vice chairperson rather than having two Direct Members in the leadership positions. (Direct Members are buyers and Allied Members are suppliers.) “This has proven to be a very beneficial decision on the part of NBTA, considering the current economic environment where organizations are no longer able to support volunteer efforts of their employees as Direct Members as they have in the past,” says Linda McNairy, vice president, business development, at StarCite, who is serving as the first vice chairwoman from the Allied side of the aisle.

McNairy believes the committee has a lot of great work ahead of it. “Our committee continues to provide the push into new areas such as globalization, responsible meetings, virtual meetings, the role of social networking, and payment best practices, to name just a few,” she says. “While we have accomplished a lot, we believe we have only scratched the surface.”

And as the committee evolves, so do the experiences of former members, who remain SMM innovators in their day jobs. To ensure that future committees call on their expertise, Adams Mikeman is shepherding the formation of a G&M Committee Alumni group. “As long as the committee members continue building on past experiences through alumni outreach,” she says, “they will remain leaders in the field of enterprisewide strategic meetings management.”

More On/ Meetingsnet.com

  • More on the Groups & Meetings Committee and a list of its white papers are available at www.nbta.org.