How do you create cohesiveness among your meeting planners when they sit in offices from Phoenix to Denver to Hartford?

At financial services giant ING, meeting planning is centralized: All contracts are signed by the strategic sourcing department, corporate meeting planning guidelines are in place, and all meetings are registered so that total meeting spending is tracked. But the planners are not in the same place. The company needed to decide whether to consolidate meeting management into one office or keep everyone out in the field doing their own thing. That's how the M@I (Meetings@ING) Summit, a two-day meeting for the company's 18 planners, was born.

Step by Step

The goals of this annual event, which was started in 2002, were straightforward: Create meeting consistency and negotiating leverage. But reaching those goals required time and determination, not to mention the buy-in of far-flung planners using their own considerable experience to manage 375 meetings a year. Step one, therefore, was to get them together.

“It's imperative to bring the team together to share best practices and hear from our internal partners,” explains Lisa Poulton, director, conference planning operations, in Hartford, Conn., who organizes the summit. Chief among those partners is Deanna Bloodgood, sourcing specialist in ING's strategic sourcing department.

Poulton and Bloodgood create each year's M@I Summit agenda with input from attendees and other ING stakeholders who have a message to deliver. “We do roundtable talks on any topics they want: creative ways to save money, F&B ideas, meeting themes, etc.,” Poulton says. There is also time to discuss destinations. Each planner gets five or 10 minutes to report on the good, the bad, and the ugly from properties that they have used recently.

Also critical to the agenda is communication from internal “partners.” In the past, the planners have heard from representatives from the tax department about guidelines for submitting 1099 or W2 forms to attendees and from the branding department about uses of the ING logo and where to find details online about appropriate logo colors and styles for on-site and print materials.

According to planner Jana Stern, who has attended all five M@I meetings, it is time well-spent. “I find it very valuable,” she says.

“I believe in forming relationships with the other planners that will benefit both of us. We can share information on various DMCs we have used, or hotels we've stayed at, theme ideas, and uses of technology. There is never a lull in the conversation when it comes to this group,” Stern says.

A great deal of the focus is around best practices — everything from cool branding ideas (example: customizing hotel key cards with the conference or company logo) to creative budget-saving ideas (example: finding out what events are on-site the same day or the previous day as one of your meeting functions and piggybacking the BEOs; that is, planning a menu with some similar items, so the hotel can purchase them in bulk and pass along those savings to you).

Poulton and Bloodgood also include training. At the June 2006 event, for example, the first phase of new meeting management technology from StarCite was rolled out. The rollout was the culmination of a selection and trial process that took several years, during which planners companywide were surveyed about what they needed from a technology product. Several providers then created demos, and planners were offered the chance to work with them and test their user-friendliness, ability to be customized, and reporting options. After analyzing more feedback, ING made the final decision to go with StarCite.

“The first training was on the registration piece, which was very well-received,” says Poulton, because it automated the cumbersome process of manually registering meetings. At this year's M@I Summit, additional training will be offered on the attendee registration and management tool and the RFP system.

Invitation to Suppliers

It isn't just internal meeting planners who attend the summit. On arrival day, Poulton and Bloodgood hold a “pre-meeting” with national sales managers from all the major hotel chains with which ING does the most business.

“We go over our policies and procedures, have a Q&A session, and review our financial objectives for the year,” Bloodgood explains. “They get a big picture of ING, a better understanding of who we are. We also can address any challenges — for example, with regard to contract language. [The meeting] strengthens the relationship a lot, and signifies that they are important to us.”

Isabel Mahon, director of global sales for Fairmont Hotels and Resorts, has attended two M@I Summits, and sees their value for both sides. “They want buying power and consistent contracts, so that's part of why they want all the planners to use the same global sellers. They're trying to get planners to bond and to trade information at these meetings,” she says. “I am able to learn more about trends within the individual businesses, and it helps me to build stronger relationships with planners who are in locations I don't get to that often.”

ING is also not afraid to give suppliers “air time” — in the form of an educational session with its planners. “There are only about eight of us, so we can each have our five minutes to tell them what's new, and then they can ask us honest questions. We're not talking room rates,” Mahon explains. “It's big-picture stuff — we even talk about the state of the industry.”

ING also invites whatever destination management company it has chosen for the meeting to participate in the sessions.

Evolution of a Meeting

After the first couple of summits were held near ING home office locations, Poulton began surveying planners about destinations they were considering for upcoming meetings. Those became the short list for the M@I Summit destination. That way, some planners could combine their site inspections with M@I attendance, even being able to experience the property's meeting capabilities firsthand.

Poulton and Bloodgood can also consider booking the meeting into a property at which ING might have a credit for liquidated damages.

The 2006 M@I Summit was held in Dallas in part to coincide with the annual meeting of Meeting Professionals International, which some of the ING planners were attending.

While planner-to-planner communication will remain the core of the summit, future M@I events could include outside speakers or professional development sessions. The agenda will continue to evolve, says Poulton, accommodating the interests of attendees, an awareness of industry trends, and ING initiatives.

“With the decentralized reporting structure, ING needs someone to bring all those things together,” Poulton explains.

“My job is to create partnerships between the planners, strategic sourcing, and outside vendors with the goal of providing an efficient process for managing meetings.”