Co. To See Returns On Online Tool Investment
The implementation of meetings management technology that links attendee registration with online booking and creates automated data reports this year will trim $155,000 off operational costs for media conglomerate Cox Enterprises Inc., according to the head of the company's meetings management department. The bulk of these savings are in the form of labor hours, he said, but increased leveraging power is expected to yield even greater savings in future vendor negotiations.
The "low-value costs" on which Cox has seen immediate savings are time-consuming administrative tasks that have been automated, said Jeff Messer, director of travel and event management for the large-market Atlanta-based company.
"These costs are things like cross-referencing rooming lists with arrival and departure lists and calculating room night pickups and room blocks," Messer said. "We had a support position that we promoted to a planner, because the software is now our support."
Online booking through Outtask's Cliqbook also saved labor hours, he said, because the company no longer needs a group air agent, Messer said. Requests for proposals also are generated automatically, he said, whereas previously planners created them manually.
Before the online system was adopted, Messer said reports were complied manually or not at all. Cox has a decentralized, non-mandated approach to meetings management, and the event management department formally was created six years ago. Messer said his department handles about 500 corporate meetings and incentives each year, and that the department acts as an internal service center. In 2001, the company developed its own technology to track meetings cost, but Messer said the system became inadequate.
"It served our needs, but as the industry changed we needed more flexibility with the tool," Messer said. "Our main need was to integrate with an online booking product and to increase efficiency within the department."
Flexibility also was a key requirement, he said, and an online system would have to adjust to the ever-changing travel industry. After narrowing the field of technology providers to eight, Cox in April chose Santa Clara, Calif.-based OnVantage Inc.
"We did full-blown demos with eight vendors and not all of them met our requirements. We were firm on that we were not going to sacrifice our requirements," he said.
The company required detailed, customized reports breaking down the costs of events in "every possible" category, Messer said. The company also required that the system be able to integrate with other technology systems, he said.
Cox executives had several internal planning meetings to outline the requirements of a meetings tech tool before beginning the search for a vendor, Messer said, and OnVantage customized the tool to the company's needs. "They came up with innovative ideas on how the system can be manipulated to meet our requirements," he said.
The first step of justifying the expense of adopting a technology system, Messer said, was to define what the company was spending on meetings.
"We made a list of some of the low-value processes that we were doing to manage an event and then took the average planner's salary and broke it down by how much time is typically spent on a simple event or a complex event," Messer said. "A three-day, cut-and-dry meeting is different from a full-blown incentive or a conference with various breakouts and complexities," Messer said.
The company did not consider outsourcing the department, he said, and operational savings are expected to grow each year.
"As the volume of business continues to grow for the meetings department, the savings will increase. We won't have to hire another planner should the volume go up by any percentage," Messer said.
Messer said there are greater long-term opportunities, such as increased leveraging power in vendor negotiations and detailed data reports. Messer said the next step is to increase the company's use of the meetings department. Though Messer said he wasn't sure what percentage of company meetings are submitted to the department, he said he was confident that "the majority" of events are handled through the approved process. Cox employees are encouraged to use Messer's department for any offsite event.
An internal marketing drive is planned for 2006 to highlight the new system and encourage Cox employees to use Messer's department for meetings management. The software already has generated a positive response from stakeholders, he said.
"In today's world, people won't wait on someone to call them to make their reservations," Messer said. "They're very pleased to be able to register for their event and then make their air reservations. It's one-stop shopping."
Improved data tracking also is expected to help in vendor negotiations, he said. The company leverages its combined transient and meetings spend with preferred vendors, but Cox will begin to track how a vendor turn its business away because of lack of availability or enough revenue.
"We can now break it down to the room rate, audiovisual spend and the F&B spend," Messer said. "We've taken it down to every possible level so we can use that information with vendors as well."'
Messer said he expects the company's meetings spend to increase in 2006 as hotel rates rise, despite the short- and long-term savings that the new system is hoped to generate. The company also has a standard addendum that it attaches to vendor contracts, he said, and the department's meeting planners use a meetings card to handle payment.
Cox Enterprises operates approximately 300 separate businesses and has 77,000 employees worldwide. The company is best known for its subsidiaries in broadband services, newspapers, television, radio and Web sites, including AutoTrader.com.