If there’s a pitch to be made in corporate meeting planning right now, it’s the one for implementing a strategic meetings management program. “Launching an SMMP involves an internal sell, so start with a business plan,” says Lisa English, CMP, CMM, president and chief strategist at Meeting Dimensions in Temecula, Calif. “Especially now, because of the economy, there is much more focus on demonstrating return on investment. You need to be clear on what the payback will be, how much time it will take to realize that payback, and how to prove the program’s worth at regular intervals.”

The good news is that the payback can be swift and significant. “Once you implement your SMMP you will see significant savings in your first year,” says Marybeth Roberts, director, Global Meeting Management, at Amgen in Thousand Oaks, Calif., who is well into her second major SMMP implementation. “In fact, you’ll get the greatest savings in the first year. We put our SMMP in place in May 2008 and we already have major savings to show for it.”

Data First
Getting to the implementation, however, comes after a lot of hard work and research, and a round or two of C-level approvals.

Amgen began work on its SMMP two years ago. “First we did an opportunity analysis, so we could say to senior management, ‘This is how much money we could save.’ We knew there was a huge missed opportunity because the meeting department was siloed in sales and marketing,” Roberts says. “So we explained that meetings should be moved to procurement so we could service the whole company.”

Doing an analysis as Amgen did requires assessing the current state of affairs first—most important, figuring out your company’s overall meeting spend. “You probably don’t know how many meetings your company holds,” says English. “To find out, you could start externally. Ask hotels and other vendors what kind of business they are doing with your organization. Get baseline data. That baseline data facilitates your business plan.”

Amgen used that method of discovery, as well as working through the finance department to identify invoices that appeared to be meeting-related. “We also reached out to key admins to see if they could help us identify people doing meetings,” Roberts explains. “Then we came up with the figure for total meeting spend.”

Whatever that figure, it can make a compelling headline—which can help you make your case, says Betsy Bondurant, CMP, CMM, president of Bodurant Consulting in Coronado, Calif and aCMI columnist (see page ?). “Our company spent $25 million on meetings last year,” or “Our company uses 80 different meeting suppliers” will turn heads. As Bondurant says, “A little shock treatment can go a long way to get the attention and support of executives.”
What doesn’t get their attention? Minutiae. Stick with the key points, and make your case in what Bondurant calls “executive-speak: brief, compelling, data-driven, and results-oriented.”

Make the Case
“In January 2008, we presented the opportunity analysis and recommended that we could save money by putting a global meeting management organization in place under procurement,” Roberts recounts. “But we told them it had to be for the whole company, not just sales and marketing. On January 31, 2008, we got approval.”

Following that, it took several months to create the organizational structure and put it in place. “Once we got buy-in, we put together a team to come up with the structure,” she explains. The team consisted of Roberts, a procurement executive, and two human resources reps. “We looked at the work that would be required and the skills available on the staff and came up with a structure.”

Before the SMMP rollout, the meeting team had supported only the sales and marketing area. Now, with all company programs being managed through the department, Roberts expects the volume of meetings to nearly double. Nevertheless, the SMMP team did not recommend adding staff. “Being 100 percent outsourced helps us be scalable,” notes Roberts.

In fact, significant savings came from identifying preferred meeting planning companies. “By having global meeting management use its vendors for all programs, we save the company money by reducing the number of meeting planning companies Amgen works with,” Roberts says. “Previously, the meeting department worked with eight. Adding in the rest of the company, there were 30 meeting planning companies doing Amgen programs. Now we will negotiate with nine companies to get their best rates.”

Get the Mandate
The best-case scenario for a meeting professional launching an SMMP is that executives will mandate that all meetings get registered with the meeting department. “When meeting management was in sales and marketing, we got an executive in 2002 to support us doing the sourcing of hotels for all meetings of 10 or more sleeping rooms,” Roberts says. “But not everyone was aware of the policy. The difference now is that we have a Web page on Amgen’s intranet with the policy on it. It’s very visible.”

Without a mandate, you’ll need to do a bit of PR about the benefits you offer in terms of saving time, money, and risk. Tamara Gordon, global travel and meetings director at UnitedHealth Group in Minneapolis, recently rolled out her SMMP with a kickoff meeting for all stakeholders. But before then, she had laid some careful groundwork. “I started to build relationships with the largest stakeholders,” she explains. “I knew their business and the companies they were working with. When the ‘official’ kickoff meeting came, with senior management included, it was no surprise to those who plan large meetings and events.”

Communication is critical, mandate or not—especially if the implementation of your SMMP is going to create big changes. “Be very careful with your customer base,” says English. “Understand their perspective, whether it’s a professional meeting planner or someone who does one meeting per year and it’s the highlight of that person’s year. Start a monthly call of meeting planners. Provide them with resources and education. Come at them respectfully. Collaborate. You need to manage up and manage out. You need to create a community.”

How to Keep It Going
With regard to “managing up,” Kate Lastinger, CMP, CMM, founding partner of strategic meetings management consultancy The Metaphrasis Group in Atlanta, recommends offering executives regular status reports, even before the SMMP is fully in place. “Give them a timeline they can digest,” she advises. “Every three months provide a timeline and label your updates: vendor selection first, progress on implementation second, beta test third, and so on through initial results. Not only does this keep your project top of mind, you are training executives to expect your reporting once your SMMP has launched.”

The point, says English, is to have data solid enough that you don’t get the rug pulled out from under you. “Understand what the C-level needs to see to allow you to keep moving,” she says. “Put course corrections and review right in the business plan. And make sure you will meet or exceed the goals you set.”

This becomes more challenging as your SMMP matures. Be sure you’ve got highlights to share after the initial glow of savings reports. As Lastinger notes, “In the first three years you get dramatic cost savings, then it plateaus. So then what’s the benefit? How do you keep your program?” She advises a continued emphasis on risk mitigation, along with some new initiatives. For example, consider branding: “How much do companies spend on branding initiatives?” she asks. “Is it consistent between your first-tier events in and the third-tier events? Recognize that you’re always customer-facing, and reinvest some SMMP savings into standardizing branding and meeting collateral.”

An SMMP gives you data, and data is power, both in negotiation and in setting you up as a critical link in your company’s strategic planning. “Because of the SMMP,” says Amgen’s Roberts, “I am able to provide senior management with all kinds of reporting so they can determine which meetings we should continue to hold, which meetings we should downsize, and so on.”

Click here for more on getting started with your SMMP.