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Chicago - Despite the challenges
strategic meetings management initiatives in many organizations pose, financial
and efficiency savings gains prove the efforts worthwhile, buyers and a
consultant told attendees at the Business Travel Media Group's Tech Talk 2011
conference here this month.
"I have never in my life been so
exposed to something so convoluted and difficult to understand even the basic
elements," said WellPoint strategic sourcing manager for travel Cindy
Heston of meetings management. "Meetings is a whole different world."
Not on her agenda in 2008, when she was hired at WellPoint, Heston said meetings management a year later became her
night and weekend job as she attempted to answer the most basic of questions from
her chief procurement officer: " 'How many meetings do we have?' No one
had the answer. I raised my hand and said we can change our travel policy"
to require that employees "send me the contracts before they sign them,
and I can just count" the number of meetings.
"When you saw the contracts and
the terms and conditions, you were horrified to think about liability to the
company. I could have just done my count, but it was much more involved than I
even imagined," said Heston, who worked with suppliers to modify contracts
before they were signed.
Former Grant Thornton strategic
meetings manager Cindy Carlson said she also grew concerned about risks in
contracts signed by outside offices and the scope of the unknown when she first
tried to determine the number of meetings the company held nationwide. The
five-person meeting planning staff at headquarters, including three full-time
planners, executed about 125 meetings per year, "but that didn't include
any of the local or regional meetings or meetings that slipped through the
cracks, which is one of the reasons why we needed to implement a strategic
meetings management program."
Carlson said her former CFO asked
her, " 'Tell me what you don't know.' I realized that we didn't know quite
a bit. When we went to the next level of sophistication for our meeting tool,
that's when we got a bit smarter and started looking for ways to involve all
our offices to at least register meetings or go through some type of approval
so we had some idea" of nationwide meetings volume.
Technology also helped the accounting
firm consistently track total spending per meeting and savings, Carlson said. A
local office might report a meeting cost of $10,000, factoring only the hotel
bill, Carlson said, "but in reality it's more like $40,000 or
$50,000" when including travel, contractors, materials, shipping and
Data Drives Decisions
Armed with data on meetings,
WellPoint's Heston said she quickly "got the support for additional
headcount," policy changes and technology. Nearly two years after she
first began to study how meetings at WellPoint were contracted, managed and
tracked, Heston said the company now has more than 1,000 meetings a year and 15
professional planners who support different regions in the United States.
Within the travel team, two planners contract board and executive meetings. The
company's sales and marketing department continues to manage meetings
independently, "with our protocols now," Heston said.
Today, the company requires
"registration, not negotiation" of all meetings. Even WellPoint's
professional planners are required to register all events. "They cannot go
out to a hotel directly to start that dialogue. Don't push me a contract
because that means you've already started negotiations," Heston said. The
registration process "sends a message to our supplier base that we have a
relatively managed process at WellPoint."
WellPoint tried to rationalize its
supply base, "something that is very irrational as every event is a RFP.
Well, that's a time-waster," Heston said. "We worked with our
suppliers and said that we really want to have four paths of a
The first path is for a
"non-contracted event" held at a WellPoint facility with guest rooms
in a "transient block with no liability" at one of the company's
preferred hotels, Heston said. "We just block the hotels at our transient
rate." Most such blocks are for 20 to 40 attendees, she added.
Secondly, WellPoint worked with hotel
chains and eventually developed "54 template agreements," including
all terms and conditions, to make the contracts as "plug-and-play" as
A "more strategic way to handle
events," Heston said, is meeting bundling. "You have a broad scope of
all events going on in the business and you start to segment them. These are
Midwest broker meetings, and we have 50 that run every Tuesday and Wednesday.
Let's bundle these as a whole and not waste time doing them one at a
The fourth path is the standard RFP
for a single event that doesn't fall into other categories.
WellPoint uses technology for
attendee registration and RFPs. But Heston said there are key areas of meetings
management that no technology tool today sufficiently captures.
"Technology is great in round one" of hotel negotiations, "but
then everything goes offline. It's really a key area that we want to
automate." Heston said it's one of the "procurement validation"
aspects she would like to see such tools offer, along with integration with
expense technology and air analysis of destination options.
Hotel databases, Heston said, should
include base prices for such standard charges as Wi-Fi, taxes or audiovisual
basics, and it "would also be nice to run the transient hotel
program" on the same technology as meetings. That would make it easier for
a company to "almost have [airline marketshare analysis firm] Prism
metrics for hotels" and determine what share to give specific properties
in a market as part of their strategic partner programs.
Technology Options Abound
Meetings technology platforms can
help companies better see who is booking and attending meetings, and help boost
compliance with internal policies, regulatory reporting, vendor management and
risk management procedures, said Meetings Analytics founder and principal
Kimberly Meyer. Technology also can help document consolidation savings, which
vendors claim can exceed 15 percent, she added, and said industry metrics peg
"30 percent of all travel due to meetings, and the opportunities are
Unlike travel management, meetings
management is "far more manual, which means garbage in, garbage out,"
she said. Planners, whether internal or employed by travel or meetings
management companies, "may enter 500 different fields of data during
planning," she said.
"Meetings is at least 10 years
behind transient" when it comes to data standardization, Meyer said.
"Most of these tools have grown up talking different languages from each
other, from global distribution systems and from hotels. If you think you have
data issues in transient, just you wait."
Companies should carefully consider
whether they need technology to more effectively manage meetings. Those with
fewer than 100 simple, domestic meetings per year who manage effectively today
with a database or spreadsheet might find it provides the necessary reporting
and visibility. Those with more than 100 meetings, "complex meetings,
complex hierarchies" or that use various combinations of internal planners
and agencies "certainly need all the tools to manage meetings well,"
What one metric shows the value of
the meetings program?
The savings analysis, agreed Heston
and Carlson. "The way we were able to get to where we are today is to say
there's money in it," Heston said, pointing to double-digit percentage
savings. At Grant Thornton, Carlson said she was able to prove more efficiency.
"We were able to do more with less, which is a type of savings."
In addition to tracking budgets at
three stages of planning—approved, working and final—Grant Thornton tracked
savings for every cost avoided and perk negotiated, Carlson said. It also
tracked meetings per planner to determine when it needed to bring on additional