Several large companies are implementing their first meeting policies or revising existing ones, expanding governance over meeting approval, procedures and expenditures. Although policy clauses and requirements vary along with company size and structure of meeting operations, all have a similar hallmark: decreasing individual departmental control of events and increasing oversight of planning and expenditures.
The trend is borne out of the effects of the continually soft economy, weakened corporate performance and a desire to reduce corporate meeting costs. Though policy has been an increasing focus of corporations since 2001, those first steps consisted largely of shifting authority to sign contracts from individual meeting sponsors and administrative assistants to senior management and professional planners. However, today's policy development is more comprehensive, with more attention paid to centralizing meeting operations, increasing approval requirements and formalizing all meeting procedures throughout the company.
The Interpublic Group of Companies, a New York-based conglomerate of communications, advertising and public relations firms, has developed a new meetings policy as the beginning of a meetings consolidation effort. The policy requires management approval of all meetings—with level of approval varying by meeting size and cost—all meeting venues and directing all meetings to a central location.
The new policy is currently before the corporation's steering committee for approval, said Interpublic vice president of corporate travel Kathleen Kaden. Interpublic previously had no companywide meeting policy.
"The policy will govern all group and meeting processes, procedures and budgeting for all internal meetings," Kaden said. "The goal is to bring all meetings to one centralized location. We're looking at some electronic tools as well, but we're really just beginning the consolidation process."
Interpublic, which in 2002 completed consolidating its transient travel operations, hopes to have all meeting consolidation procedures implemented by the fourth quarter of this year, Kaden said.
Meeting management consultants said Interpublic's moves are not unique.
"There's almost an across-the-board movement to standardization of policy and compliance with policies," said Scott Graf, president of Chicago-based WorldTravel Meetings & Incentives. "It still usually stops short of a mandate, but companies are focusing on revenues and see savings opportunities here."
Graf said companies are strengthening two areas of their meeting policies: further involving procurement or purchasing executives in the meeting approval process—including removing full control of meeting budgets from the departmental level—and requiring the use of a single technology tool to register events.
"Procurement is getting involved, and they want to see how they can take advantage of preferred vendor programs already in place," Graf said. "Also, companies are telling employees that they must at least register their meetings through a technology tool as a first step."
Graf pointed to the pharmaceutical and financial services corporations—many of which already are comfortable with or have implemented meetings consolidation programs—as the leaders in policy strengthening moves.
Even companies that previously had developed a sophisticated internal structure to manage meetings are refining policy, said Danamichele Brennen, senior vice president of marketing and chief technology officer of Philadelphia-based meetings management and consolidation firm McGettigan Partners, a subsidiary of Maritz Travel Co.
McGettigan's roster of meeting consolidation clients is heavy with pharmaceutical companies, which have changed meeting operations in accordance with the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association's self-imposed guidelines on industry ethics (see story, page 33). One result is revised policy pushing more meetings to a central or outsourced point, Brennen said.
"These companies want to outsource non-core activities to make them arms-length transactions," Brennen said. "The pharmaceutical regulations are a big part of that, and so are the regular economic pressures we're all dealing with."
Brennen said clients are expanding meeting strategies to encompass more brands or divisions of the corporation, ensuring all requests arrive at a central point.
Brennen, though, does not see technology playing a significant part of new policy construction or revision. "Not in this economy," she said. "In any industry, the number of companies making significant technology investments are few."
France-based Aventis Pharmaceuticals is reviewing meeting policies of its operating groups, with the goal of developing a more comprehensive policy, said Bridgewater, N.J.-based director of North American travel management Armand LeCompte. Though the goal is not necessarily to strengthen each policy, the company is reviewing the best practices of each group to gain better control over aspects of the meetings program.
"People have meetings and choose venues randomly," LeCompte said. "We want them to think more about the process. Can we have the meeting in-house? We have 200 videoconferencing rooms—can we reach out that way? Our primary consideration is to get meetings done, but economics matter, and we want them to think about their objectives rather than just think travel for either transient or meeting."
One possible aspect of the new policy would be an emphasis on registration of meetings, LeCompte said. Some operating groups have adopted technology tools to do this, and Aventis will review existing and other options. "Some groups do have it and they do business quite well," LeCompte said. "But that is not shared across company lines. Technology is expensive and we're reviewing our options."
LeCompte said the new policy is being developed through dialogue with planners from each operating group. "We don't want to tell them, 'We're from the corporation, we're here to help, here's your policy,' " he said.
One travel manager at a large company is developing a stronger meetings policy that will require registration of meetings through a technology tool that can tie in with other travel technology solutions, with the goal of rolling out the new policy and the tool that enables compliance with it at about the same time this summer.
Companies with decentralized or lightly managed meeting programs also are looking to policy to tighten group travel operations. London-based energy management company Invensys Plc has no meeting policy and a plan to develop one is but a long-term goal. Yet, the corporation recently enacted a new travel policy (BTN, Jan. 20)
and that has helped the company meet a more immediate goal of identifying those employees in the corporation who plan meetings.
"We don't know who the players are and we must find them, but we're getting a better handle on that because of the travel policy," said Invensys global commodity manager for travel Cyndi Perper. "People planning meetings are going through our agency, TQ3 Maritz Travel Solutions, so they can get lower rates, and we get data as to who is planning them. It's a big start for us."