More Cos. To Consolidate Mtgs. Spending
Following years of slow, incremental growth, the number of corporations employing meetings consolidation initiatives appears poised to surge dramatically in 2004, according to a new survey.
An exclusive Meetings Monitor poll of 195 corporate meeting and travel buyers conducted by Meetings Today in October and November found that 23 percent of respondents plan to consolidate meeting expenditures in 2004, on top of 41 percent who said they already do so. The remainder of respondents indicated they have no current plans to consolidate.
The surprising results mirror extensive anecdotal evidence that many corporations—which already have implemented many transient travel management initiatives, such as new, restrictive policies and technology capabilities—have settled upon meetings and groups as the next, or only remaining, aspect of travel management that requires greater oversight.
Yet, the caveats in this space are plentiful. Many corporations have found that the chasm between planning to consolidate meetings and actually consolidating meetings can be wide and daunting. The difficulties inherent in corralling meetings data companywide, as well as turf issues, are just some of the reasons that consolidation may be the most likely area of meetings management in which the best-laid plans go awry.
"Well, everyone needs goals," said Jay Roseman, vice president of American Express Meetings & Incentives. "But in the current economic environment and the pressure on shareholder goals, you can't afford to have a controllable expense be uncontrolled. Is it going to happen now? Well, 41 percent [according to the Monitor] is progress over the past two or three years. It won't happen with one flip of the switch, but it is on the radar."
"We certainly have been seeing that trend," said Dick Zeller, vice president of consolidated business solutions at Maritz McGettigan. "Strategic procurement has been very active in that area lately. They've had success in other, more traditional areas of spending and have become more mature. They're looking for other areas to involve themselves, and meetings are very high profile."
He noted that the influence of procurement has driven meetings consolidation as a companywide effort, as opposed to an initiative driven by one aspect of a corporation and resisted by others. The overall corporate buy-in increases the chance for success, he said.
One company that will embark upon meetings consolidation is El Segundo, Calif.-based Computer Sciences Corp., said manager of global hotels and meetings Althea Heagy. "We plan to have a complete business plan for a consolidated approach by April 1," she said. "It's the last frontier for many companies. Everyone has gone global, everyone has online booking and electronic expense management."
The precise details of Computer Sciences Corp.'s meeting consolidation initiative are still in progress, Heagy said, and she is waiting for a white paper addressing the topic expected to be published next month by the meetings and group travel committee of the National Business Travel Association to use as a benchmark.
CSC now operates a decentralized meetings management program. A consolidated approach not only would offer the company better control over meetings contracts, and specifically attrition and cancellation clauses, Heagy said, but would allow more expenditures to be driven through the company's Diners Club corporate card.
A separate Monitor question found 61 percent of respondents, in some fashion or another, have combined at least some meetings and transient travel data for the purpose of negotiations with suppliers. About 42 percent said they use that combined data to negotiate with airlines and hotels, while 11 percent said they only combine data for air negotiations and 8 percent said they only do so for hotel. The remainder do not combine the data.
"All of our top 15 clients are linking meetings and corporate travel in some shape or form," Roseman said. "Some are more advanced, some are just starting out and some have been doing it for awhile."
He added that those clients typically have designated one individual to be accountable for all meetings and transient travel operations. They have followed that move with the implementation of new policies, which can be an extension of the existing travel policy adapted to meeting functions, usually setting up a central point for all spending data to be gathered for contracting and negotiating purposes. Eventually, limiting the number of preferred suppliers for transient and meetings is the final major step, he said.
"We do not see a quick centralization, though, of 10 suppliers to one," Roseman said. "These companies are putting structures around the pre-program phase of the event—the contracting and site selection—and the post-program aspects of billing, reconciling and tracking, and they're providing resources for the actual management of the program details." The next step for some corporations with combined meetings and transient travel management programs, he added, is the integration of meetings technology tools into the process.
Zeller also sees more corporations embracing combined meetings and transient travel management solutions, particularly when negotiating with airlines. "Corporations have done a very good job on the air side," he said. "They're able to use the corporate transient discounts as a ceiling for what they'll pay, and they'll use meeting or zone fares if they are better. But they are wrestling more with how they can line up transient and meetings for hotels. The properties that corporations use for transient travel and meetings tend to be different. They may be the same chain, but property ownership and management are issues."
BlueCross BlueShield Association manager of meeting services and corporate travel Terri Carlton has begun to converge the Chicago-based firm's meetings data with transient spending.
"We've always focused on the meeting side, and we've done a good job at that, but now we're focused on getting more bang for the buck on the transient side," Carlton said. "We're going to hotels and letting them know about all of our meetings business and the potential transient business we could bring. I have just one year of transient data, but it's something to start with."
Carlton has focused her negotiations around two cities, Chicago and Washington, D.C., and said negotiations with hotels there for overall meeting and transient deals have produced mixed results. "So far, two properties have responded very well, but one has increased its room rate," she said. "That's not going to fly."