Wherever you fit on the meetings management continuum, a meeting card program gives you a leg up when it comes to expense management.

  1. 1) High-Level Meetings Management: Your strategic meetings management program (SMMP) is well established. You've got the word out, and meeting sponsors enterprise-wide are registering their events with your department. You have a solid idea of your total meeting spend, which you are tracking and using for supplier negotiation. A meeting card gets payment to suppliers faster, gives you real-time budget tracking, makes reconciliation cleaner, and, with certain insurance options, can even protect you enough with small events that you can eliminate the cumbersome contracting process. What's new: If you use StarCite or Metron by Arcaneo as your online sourcing and meetings management tool, you have new options for directly integrating your meetings card spend data with the online tool. American Express has linked its Meetings Card with StarCite in a solution called meetings360, launched in September 2007, while Visa has linked its Meetings Card with Arcaneo's Metron.

  2. 2) Mid-Level Meetings Management: You're a department of professional planners and you're looking into an SMMP launch. Start with a meeting card and get baseline data on spending. Without a meeting policy in place, you won't capture all your spend at first. But introducing the card means you will have to do the legwork with your accounting department to match up the card's spend categories with your company's expense codes. Then your payment solution is already in place when you unveil your SMMP and begin to bring other meeting sponsors into the fold.

  3. 3) Small-Scale Meetings Management: You're a one-person meeting professional at a smaller company or you're part of a department for whom the SMMP concept isn't on the radar screen. Card companies say that large, global corporations with meeting spend of at least $10 million a year and a meeting policy in place are early adopters of meeting cards. But any company that wants a handle on meeting spend could benefit from a card program.

  4. 4) External Meetings Management: You hire third-party meeting planners to manage your events. It's a control issue in this case. Today there are many options for restricting card use, which can be useful for minimizing risk. American Express offers the Corporate Defined Expense Program, or CDEP, to its U.S. clients. Under the program, a card is issued for a finite dollar amount and that balance declines as the card is used for purchases. Similarly, Visa and MasterCard offer declining balance meeting cards, as well as cards that can be set up with per-transaction, per-day, or per-month spending limits, or with restrictions on suppliers approved for payment.

Deal Me In

The bottom line: Meeting cards work first as a discovery tool, then as a control, and ultimately as a way to make meetings management more efficient.

“To me, if you don't have a card program, you're only seeing 50 percent of your meeting spend — maybe less,” says Kelly Everhart, an independent meetings consultant. That's because when employees are using the invoice system for payments, “they can select any expense code they want,” she says, and therefore many meeting expenses can end up in a “miscellaneous” category. During Everhart's most recent project, with Honeywell Meeting Solutions, she helped the company boost the use of its meeting card, among other goals.

“A lot of companies don't know what they spend on meetings,” says Lisa Steury, vice president, global product management, for American Express. Once they introduce the meeting card, she says, they usually find they're spending more than they would have estimated.

“We observed that while many companies were putting parameters around purchasing cards and [individual] travel cards, and recognizing the benefits of managing cash flow and getting detailed spending information, meetings were the outliers,” says Janet Zablock, head of U.S. Visa Commercial Solutions at Visa Inc. That's changed over the past 18 months, she says, and now there is a major emphasis on capturing the spend for all meetings, not just the big annual events. “The other meetings were not visible,” she explains. “We found people looking for a way to manage and control those budgets.”

Adds Steury of American Express, “A growing trend is that the function of meeting planning is moving under procurement, whereas it used to be aligned with travel.”

It's a move that makes sense, considering the variety of suppliers that come into play with a meeting. “If you look at the data,” notes Visa's Zablock, “46 percent of meeting spend is non-travel related. A meeting card provides a holistic solution for tracking and managing all expenditures.”

As such, it is a hybrid between the traditional corporate card (or T&E card), which is used by individuals for transient travel and expenses, and the traditional purchasing card (P-card) which is used for regular, companywide purchases. Whereas a T&E card can be paid by the individual or the company, a meetings card is strictly paid by the company. And whereas P-cards are tied to specific suppliers, a meetings card is more broad-based and flexible.

What Matters Now

In the current economy, companies are focusing on the second major benefit of a card program: control. But that's a benefit that comes once you get all of your professional and ad-hoc meeting planners using the card.

Some of them, for whatever reason, would prefer not to be roped in to the meetings system, cautions Everhart. “Then the big issue is that people put spend in other buckets,” she explains, and it gets lost from the total meeting spend.

“So you want to make your card program as attractive as possible,” she continues. “Tell internal customers, ‘We will manage all of your payments. We want to take work off your plate.’ Reach out as much as you can by business line to administrative staff to get them on board. Ideally, they will register their meetings and that engages your program. If they don't, you'll have to catch them at payment time.”

She gives the example of a sales manager who put the cost of five leadership dinners on his individual corporate card. When the manager filed an expense report months later, the expense was denied, taken off his card, and put onto the meeting card.

The lesson: Relentless customer education is the key to making your card program a success.

Safety Nets and Bottlenecks

Honeywell has set up specific meeting card controls, including a daily transaction limit and a monthly spending limit. To go beyond those limits, a meeting planner needs approval from the finance and risk management departments.

There are other checks on the system as well. Whether a meeting organizer uses the meeting card or an invoice, all payments go through Kari Kesler, global manager, Honeywell Meeting Solutions.

“She reviews all invoice requests and works closely with the accounting department on T&E card requests to ensure appropriate data capture. In essence, she is the bottleneck,” Everhart says. “I can't say 100 percent of meeting spend is captured. But we are doing more than 95 percent for those who are working within the policy parameters and using Honeywell Meeting Services for their meetings.”

However, if an employee pays an invoice with an accounting code that is outside meetings, Kesler generally won't see it. Again, that's where the education comes in.

Other types of controls can be put on cards as well, explains Zablock of Visa. “Many companies don't have an internal meeting planner. So a meeting card gives an additional comfort level,” she says. “You can give an outside meeting planner a meeting card, with the condition that your company must approve spending beyond a certain point.”

Meeting cards also offer the possibility of pre-loading a dollar amount to create a so-called “pay-down” or “declining balance” card. “For a professional meeting planner, it doesn't make sense,” Everhart says. “But for an administrative assistant accompanying a group, it could be used for an unexpected expense.” The declining-balance option also is popular for smaller meetings organized by leaders in the field who are not necessarily meeting planners. They can be issued cards with set budgets and expiration dates.

Card Players

American Express Meeting Card

Launched: 1999

Features: Customizable controls include the option to pre-load the card with a budget, set single-transaction limits, monthly limits, and/or approved merchant restrictions. Track spending in real time online, and streamline supplier payment. Meetings360 is a partnership between StarCite and American Express that integrates the card's payment and reporting with StarCite's meeting management tools.

Fee: No fee for meeting card customers

Visa Meeting Card

Launched: 2008

Features: Customizable controls include the option to pre-load the card with a budget, set single-transaction limits, monthly limits, and/or approved merchant restrictions. Track spending in real time online, and streamline supplier payment. Visa has partnered with Arcaneo to integrate the card's payment and reporting solutions with Arcaneo's Metron sourcing and meeting management system.

Fee: Set by the bank that issues the card

Issuing Banks: Citibank, US Bank, JP Morgan Chase, and United Missouri Bank

MasterCard Meeting Card

Launched: 2004

Features: A pre-funded card with customizable controls, including single-purchase limit and approved merchant restrictions. Track spending in real time online, and streamline supplier payment.

Fee: Set by the bank that issues the card

Issuing Banks: Not provided

  1. How to Get Started

    1) Negotiate a proper deal with the card provider. “If you put a card program in place more than three years ago, I'd take a look and see what's out there now,” advises Kelly Everhart, a consultant with expertise in SMMPs and meeting card programs. With enough volume, you should be able to eliminate an annual fee and possibly get some complimentary add-ons, such as insurance, she says. “If you get high-quality risk coverage on your meeting card, you can rely on that for small meetings or events,” rather than having to go through a lengthy but required contracting process, Everhart notes. “With good card coverage, you can reduce the volume of contracts coming in.”

  2. 2) Ask about rebates if you go over a certain number of transactions.

  3. 3) Meet with your finance and accounts payable departments to match up their general ledger codes with those in your card program. “One complication might be that your accounts payable department is not as organized as you might like,” Everhart says. “Sometimes there is a lot of housekeeping to be done.”

  4. 4) Train all users and get the word out about the benefits of the card program.

  5. 5) Repeat step No. 4 often!

Related article: Getting Smart About Strategic Planning