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, that subcommittee was going line by line 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-chair of the Groups & Meetings 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 be getting bogged down in minutia, she realized, “if this works, we are creating a new lexicon for the industry.”

Stirring it Up

She was right. The term they settled on—strategic meetings management—has been resonating throughout the industry 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 PricewaterhouseCoopers, remembers when she first heard about it. “I was a member of the Meetings Competitive Advantage Forum. 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 G&M Committee had just published the first SMMP white paper in the industry,” Scholar 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!’ It was clear that Maddy was part of something much bigger that was about to go global, and I knew at that moment I had to meet Kari Kesler and Mike Malinchok. I consider them the three musketeers of what is now known around the globe as SMMP.”

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.”

The Age of Procurement

Despite the perception of some in the industry, many of the original committee members were in fact also members of Meeting Professionals International, and a couple of them were well into their first or second iterations of meetings consolidation, the precursor to strategic meetings management programs (SMMPs). They did know meetings.

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, was the experience of NBTA members at that time. “I recall being approached by travel managers who said, ‘My company wants me to take over meetings management and I don’t have a clue.’ We quickly found out that meetings are a whole different business. I knew NBTA had to provide transition information or some kind of resource for travel managers facing this.” So Iwamoto created the Groups & Meetings Committee.

“But then my term was over,” he says, adding that the committee’s work really flowered during the terms of NBTA’s next two presidents—Carol Devine and Suzanne Fletcher. Also keeping meeting issues front and center at NBTA at that time was Tracey Wilt, who had left her post as founding co-chair of the Groups & Meetings Committee in order to join NBTA’s board of directors and became the committee’s board liaison. (Wilt was the first such liaison—now all NBTA committees have them.)

“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 is Lee Ann Adams Mikeman, the committee’s current chair. “The strength and value of this committee is its members and their diversity,” says Adams Mikeman, who recently met with the committee to finalize its educational offerings for this year’s NBTA International Convention & Exposition in August in San Diego. Sessions will range from “SMMP 101” to “Re-engineering an SMMP,” in which professionals managing SMMPs discuss how they are upgrading and modernizing those programs in the current economic environment.

“An SMMP is constantly evolving,” notes Adams Mikeman, who considers one of her proudest committee accomplishments the revision, with Debi Scholar and other committee members, of the SMMP graphic from rectangle to wheel. “The first SMMP 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 add a new dimension that conveys the need for continuous review and revision to accommodate changing internal and external forces such as economic conditions and technology improvements.”

Ever Innovative

Though no longer a committee member, Mike Malinchok joined the group at its June meeting. “They asked me what it was like at the beginning. I told them there was a sense of unique energy to the committee then. I feel honored to have been a part of it,” says Malinchok, now a certified executive coach who recently launched a new company, S2K On Purpose, which provides technology consulting, training, and executive coaching around SMMP implementation. “It was energizing and it was a little intimidating. 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?” Obviously, he needn’t have worried.

The G&M Committee has had a growing presence at NBTA’s annual convention—a presence which promises to loom larger than ever this year, with the much-anticipated launch of a certification program for strategic meetings management professionals.

“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-chairs was absolutely the right hunch as well!” Meanwhile, the committee recently became the first at NBTA to have an Allied Member as a vice chair 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 currently serving as the first vice chair from the Allied side of the aisle.

McNairy believes the committee has a lot of great work ahead of it. “Our committee defined SMMP and continues to provide the push into new areas such as globalization, responsible meetings (often referred to as CSR), virtual meetings, the role of social networking in meeting management, models for partner management, and payment best practices, to name just a few,” she says. “While we have accomplished a lot since our inception, we believe we have only scratched the surface.”

And as the committee evolves, so do the experiences of members who have served their terms but remain at the forefront of strategic meetings management in their day jobs. To ensure that future committees call on the expertise of past members, 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.”

And as long as the committee keeps finding members with passion and energy, their contribution to the industry’s knowledge base will continue as well. “The intellectual capital that has come out of the white papers is phenomenal,” says Kesler. “And everyone gave it out for free!” Finding truly committed members may not be a challenge for the forseeable future: The Groups & Meetings Committee, Wilt notes, “has always had a solid waiting list of people wanting to get on it.”

For More Info
Click here for more on the Groups & Meetings committee and a list of their white papers.