It happens all the time: A senior exec wants to hold a small meeting and asks an administrative assistant to book it at a local hotel. The admin calls the hotel to inquire about available space, chooses the menus, arranges for audiovisual equipment, maybe even books a few sleeping rooms for out-of-towners. He or she then signs the, and they’re good to go.
Except that no one outside that group even knows the meeting is happening. The expense is never included as part of the company’s overall meeting spend, and inevitably the cost gets buried somewhere in the business unit’s operating budget. The hotel rate may be far more than what people in other parts of the company are paying with the same chain. And if the meeting gets canceled, there’s nothing in the contract to protect the company from liability and no one advocating to waive the penalty in lieu of future business.
All Too Familiar
It’s a common scenario, says Kevin Iwamoto, GLP, vice president of enterprise strategy at StarCite, who is based in San Jose, Calif. He uses the example of one admin who organized a couple of small meetings a month for her boss and paid for them on her personal credit card so she could build up the airline miles on her account. “Eventually, other people at the company started noticing that she was taking her whole family on these far away, exotic vacations,” he says—using miles earned from the company’s spending. Meanwhile, the company was missing out on an opportunity to track that meeting spend, leverage buying power, and mitigate risk.
Chances are, even if your company has aprogram in place, there are meetings being planned by admins or ad hoc planners that you don’t know about. But getting a handle on small meetings does not necessarily mean bringing them under the meetings department’s jurisdiction. In fact, many companies are finding that it is more effective to allow ad hoc meeting planners to plan them—as long as they are armed with the right tools.
The concept—often referred to as “meetings in a box”—involves developing prenegotiated packages with preferred suppliers that typically include set menus, meeting space, basic audiovisual, and standardizedfor events that fall into the company’s definition a “small meeting.” Admins can then choose a package that meets their needs and book the program without having to negotiate costs or review contract terms and conditions.
It’s the right approach at the right time, as companies look for new efficiencies and ways to do more with less in the current economy, says Susan Fenner, manager of education and professional development for the International Association of Administrative Professionals, Kansas City, Mo. Fewer internal resources often leave admins picking up the slack, she says. “Any job that needs to be done goes to the admin. Many times, they are being asked to pull together a meeting almost overnight. They don’t usually have any [professional] meeting planning skills and don’t get any training in things like hotel negotiations. If they are not doing this on a regular basis they may not know what to ask for or what savings can be had.”
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Evaluate the Potential
The first thing you need to understand before embarking on a meetings-in-a-box approach is the opportunity at stake, says Debi Scholar, GLP, CMM, CMP, CTE, CTT, assurance director for PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, Florham Park, N.J. Scholar, who spearheaded the development of a small-meetings solution for her company back in 2007, now consults with PwC’s clients on their SMMPs. “You’ll first need to find out the ‘size of the prize,’” or the amount of small-meeting spend that is not being tracked.
Those findings may surprise you. “Even though these individual meetings might be small,” says Iwamoto, “you’ll quickly find out when you aggregate them, they add up to a much bigger number than you might have thought”—in his estimate, as much as 50 percent to 70 percent of a company’s meetings activity.
Getting your arms around that spend, however, can be a tricky and labor-intensive process. “It’s kind of like the wild West,” says Iwamoto. “You have secretaries paying for meetings on their personal credit cards, invoices being paid with a company check or procurement cards—the payment process is really all over the map.”
Says Scholar, “When I look for meeting spend for clients, I ask for data from accounts payable and corporate-card data and sift through everything. The spend could be spread across as many as 40 different standard industrial classification codes and numerous general ledger codes in various business units.” She says she has found that while small meetings often represent the largest volume of meetings activity, they typically account for about 5 percent to 15 percent of total meeting spend.
The small-meetings solution Scholar rolled out at PwC applies to “firm” (internal) meetings, events, and learning programs with budgets of up to $25,000. The Meeting and Event Services (MES) team has prenegotiated pricing and discounts with area hotels for sleeping rooms, meeting space, AV, and food and beverage. Packages are also available for day meetings and include preset menus. The annual contracts are negotiated by MES with the company’s preferred hotels, so the spend is also included as part of the company’s overall volume.
The process at PwC involves registering meetings through the company’s meetings technology platform. Once the planner has selected a venue from the approved small-meeting properties, he or she contacts the sales representative at the selected property to inquire about availability and book the meeting package. A contract that is less than $5,000 can be signed by the planner and returned to the hotel sales representative to book the meeting. Contracts that exceed $5,000 require additional approval.
With preselected hotels and optional preset menus, the planner spends less time searching for properties and deciding on food and beverage. But Scholar notes that admins and planners still retain a significant role in the process: “There is still a lot of planning that has to go on, such as booking overnight sleeping rooms if required, planning any off-site activities, booking speakers, and developing meeting content. The small-meetings solution just takes the contract negotiations and pricing off the table.”
Kari Kesler, president and chief strategist, KK Strategic Solutions, Minneapolis, who previously served as global manager of meeting solutions at Honeywell International, is a firm believer in the opportunity a meetings-in-a-box solution affords. She says that during her tenure at Honeywell the company held about 5,000 meetings a year and “at least 60 percent of those were small- to medium-size meetings.”
The sheer volume of these meetings meant that it wasn’t feasible to bring them into the centralized meetings department to source. Instead, Kesler developed what she calls a “turnkey meeting solution.” We went out to the hotels in advance and said, ‘We’ll give you the opportunity to be our premier turnkey meetings partner, and in exchange we need you to set rates for the year and set packages that will not change, because we don’t want to negotiate for every one of these meetings.’
“[The corporation] gains efficiencies by not having to negotiate new contracts each time a meeting gets booked, and the hotel gains efficiencies because their salesperson has to negotiate and contract only one time for multiple meetings,” says Kesler. “And they don’t have to spend any sales time going after the hundreds of different people at the company who plan small meetings.”
Barriers to Entry
If you decide to embark on a meetings-in-a-box approach, be prepared for some roadblocks, says Kathy Rust, strategic travel and meeting consultant and president of Rust Associates LLC, Seattle. One of the biggest is identifying who in the company is actually planning these meetings and communicating the new process to them. “The spend gets buried in the company and the ad hoc planners that are planning these meetings don’t want to be found and don’t want to give this up,” says Rust. “You have to approach this in a nonthreatening way and take the approach of working together to find the best solution.”
One of the best ways she has found to figure out who in the company is planning small meetings is to go to the local hotels and ask who at your company is buying their services. “I have had success in getting names of people at the company who were planning meetings. From a relationship-building standpoint, hotels are generally willing to share this info.”
Another approach that PwC’s Scholar has used with clients is to pull accounts-payable and corporate card records and “look for people’s names who consistently book hotel spend with single charges over a certain dollar threshold,” she says. “Those are often people who are booking small meetings.”
The Supplier Side
From the supplier standpoint, entering into a preferred small-meetings relationship with a corporation is usually a win-win, says Julie Hills, the Crest Hill, Ill.–based senior director of pharmaceutical industry sales for Hilton Worldwide. “The hotel gets preferred access and visibility as well as the potential to build a relationship with the corporation that may eventually extend into larger meetings and transient business.”
An approach Hills often sees is for suppliers and clients to develop standardized meeting packages for either full-day or half-day meetings. The contracts typically involve pre-established concessions, such as catering discounts, and the pricing will often include a general session room, a breakout room, some basic AV, plus breakfast, lunch, and a break. “We also see [companies] ask for either the transient business travel rate to be used for sleeping rooms or for a flat rate to be quoted for the year.”
Hills advises that companies partner with only a few properties to make it worthwhile for the hotels. “The client does need to have a certain amount of volume in order for this approach to make sense. It goes along with the saying, ‘If you partner with everyone, you are partnering with no one.’ ” Also, she suggests that companies promote the preferred hotels on their corporate Web sites or through e-mails to ensure adequate adoption.
It’s the right approach, says Kesler. “If you provide [admins] with the right infrastructure and tool set, I think you can leave the small meetings where they are and still achieve the corporate objectives you are looking for.”