"I jumped for joy."

That was Wayne Robinson’s initial reaction when he was asked to consolidate meeting planning for Guardian Life Insurance Co., New York, N.Y., in the fall of 2009. “We’d been talking about consolidation for years,” says Robinson, CMP, head of conferences and events for the company. “It may be a challenge but it makes complete sense.”

With a directive from the senior management team, the process of consolidating Guardian’s meeting planning—or, if you prefer, implementing a strategic meetings management program—is in motion. And it’s been “the most challenging thing I’ve done in my career,” Robinson says. “I didn’t realize how complex it would become until we began this journey.” His advice to others working toward the same goal? Just keep moving forward.

Spreading the Knowledge
In describing his work so far, Robinson mentions something that hasn’t been reported on much. Meeting planners often hear and read about demonstrating their value and the value of meetings to senior management. But it’s not just senior management that needs to be fully on board with a consolidation project. At Guardian, Robinson says, “senior management embraces it, so the challenge is incorporating meeting planning into legal, Source to Pay (procurement), and, now, security.

“A collaboration with internal departments is crucial to moving the SMM initiative along. There are points where the languages may differ but, at the end of the day, Guardian benefits and therefore we all benefit.”

It’s also important to recognize the level of reliance and trust that the field force has in the meeting department. “Our biggest advocates are the attendees and our internal clients,” he says. “Our value is to the producer, the sales rep, the wholesaler, the attendees who share information and business practices and receive corporate messaging at a meeting. In many cases this is the one time every year that they get together with the home office to learn about the state of the business and to network.”

And it is the meeting department that sets the stage appropriately for more than 150 meetings each year, so they meet objectives.

“The value of that face-to-face communication is critical but not always easy to measure,” says Robinson. “We’ve looked at meeting planning in such a quantitative way in the past 10 years or so as an industry. Now, in these times, it’s come full circle. Behind the curtain is a qualitative aspect. We all have relationships with our clients and attendees. We know what the hot buttons are for top producers. We know if they want to hear from their peers, from senior management, or both. We know if they need a professional speaker to add that pop and sizzle or if they want to hear from an industry-specific speaker. We gather so much information, and our finger is always on the pulse. That’s what we provide to Guardian. Our value is not just choosing destinations or a specific hotel. Our value is the attendee experience.”

The Legal Angle
For Robinson, remembering that—along with the positive survey results and grateful e-mails that come from attendees and clients to his team—keeps him motivated. “It’s part of what keeps the team passionate about what they do.”

And it has been helpful during some of the tougher parts of the consolidation process, such as contracting. At many companies, as at Guardian, vendor contracts make stops at procurement, legal, and/or both. For once-a-year purchases, it’s not a major burden. For the meeting department? “There are actually several hundred meeting- and event-related contracts that are required to pass through legal every year.”

The uniqueness of the meeting department’s needs became evident to the legal department about a year ago, when Robinson and his team submitted 70-plus contracts that all required signatures. Hotels explained that they needed the business on their books by year-end, otherwise the booked rooms and meeting space could be at risk. That helped to streamline the process. “It was a learning experience for both of us,” Robinson says.

Next up was working with the legal department on hospitality terminology—for example, he explains, “terms involving attrition and cancellation such as ‘slippage’ that are specific to our industry, and clauses such as indemnification that are not unique to our industry but could have an entirely different impact on a hospitality contract as opposed to other contracts.” Ultimately they created a Guardian “boilerplate” for hotel and event contracts that allows for swift legal approval.

The template took more than six months to iron out, as Robinson also had to be sensitive to the perspective of hotels. Any clause that would prompt legal review on the hotel side could cause delays as well. It was one of the first major steps toward a more efficient meeting planning process.

The Policy
Another was the creation of the meeting policy. For help in putting it together, Robinson called on industry peers and worked from an existing policy that he had written when he joined Guardian more than 12 years ago. He also collected data from an internal “commodity council,” a cross section of managers from each profit center responsible for travel or meetings, or in some cases the heaviest users of corporate travel services and meetings within a business unit. “We met to formally address challenges and discuss possible solutions,” Robinson says, “which would become the baseline for the new travel and meetings policy that would be presented to senior management.”

Best practices were solicited from many of the planners who now comprise the centralized meeting team, including Sharon Chapman, CMP, CMM; Kim Boriin, CMP; and Jodi Ieva, as well as Lynda Hylton Durand, who manages business travel in the Source to Pay department.

Getting the Team Together
All of Guardian’s meeting planners were fully on board with the consolidation plan from day one, Robinson says. “We all knew each other and shared the same goal, which made the transition pretty easy. They have a tremendous amount of experience, so it was a matter of getting together and putting the master plan into action.”

The master plan involved planners maintaining the existing clients with whom they had built relationships, trust, and knowledge, as well as taking on new clients who did not previously have the support of a meeting department. One task that remains is the development of a formal organizational chart, which will help to allocate the department’s workload—a workload that has increased as the number of meetings Guardian holds increases. “We’ve begun the process of cross training on different types of meetings,” Robinson notes. “Because we were responsible for separate business units and completely different meetings in scope and in many cases attendees (for example, incentives versus training and business meetings), we often didn’t have the time to share information that we all could benefit from, regardless of our responsibilities.

“We certainly had the talent but with everyone reporting to different departments we didn’t have the collaboration we have today.” In fact, a couple of team members recently chalked up another major step in boosting the efficiency of meeting planning at Guardian: the selection of a vendor for online attendee registration. “We gathered feedback on companies that are widely used in our industry from a cross-section of fellow planners,” Robinson says, and then Sharon Chapman and Amber Hancock took the lead in sending RFPs and inviting a short list of companies to do presentations and demos. The team selected SignUp4, and the new system was implemented in mid-2011.

And on the practical side, one of the benefits of consolidating meetings is the simple fact that it makes a meeting calendar possible. “In any given year there are a lot of requests for senior management to come to a meeting,” Robinson says. Previously, that had not been captured in one place. Now, Jodi Ieva manages a comprehensive calendar that details their schedules and commitments, includes all of the company’s meetings, and lists industry conferences such as those held by AALU, LIMRA, GAMA International, and other associations.

The Road Ahead
Even though Robinson did his joyful jump at the outset of the consolidation project in late 2009, even he underestimated the time it would take. “I gave myself two years, and although we have made great strides, we still have a ways to go,” he says. “We all knew going into this that it would take some time, and everyone has a great attitude toward our common goal.”

And when the consolidation is complete, Robinson has another goal in mind. He’d like to explore the synergies between Guardian’s individual business travel processes and its meeting management. “There are some initiatives in place, but I feel with the meetings component added, we’ll have more opportunities for companywide savings,” he says. Meanwhile he remains determined. “I’ve learned so much, I’ve developed more patience, I realize how amazing this team is. And I’m also learning to stop and enjoy the successes along the way.”