More companies are embarking on strategic meetings programs to account for and proactively manage the 30 to 40 percent of total travel and entertainment expenditures spent on meetings, according to panelists speaking this week at a Connecticut Westchester Business Travel Association forum. By establishing such programs, panelists said, companies can leverage transient volume when negotiating with venues, align meetings contracts to corporate standards and formalize other sourcing and management processes, while also empowering meeting planners.
"If indeed companies are spending millions of dollars on meetings each year and you can save 5 percent, you are changing the stock price of your company," said session moderator Katie Otto, strategic sales executive at event services firm Experient. "That is where travel and meetings departments together can make a big impact."
Strategic meetings management, Otto explained, does not necessarily require consolidating meeting planning departments. "It really is about looking at the big picture and not one event at a time," she said. "It is all about the process and how technology can bring it together."
A first step is identifying those meetings not being managed. Otto presented data showing that 80 percent of all meetings--accounting for 20 percent of total meetings expenditures--are considered "unmanaged." To identify new opportunities, companies should gather as much information as they can from internal accounting systems and suppliers.
Another early step is standardizing at least parts of the process. That could mean a simple approvals process or requiring planners to internally register events. "At least you are putting that information somewhere," Otto said. "You can track where you are having the event, how many people, the name of the meeting, etc., so that you will not do four functions in the same week in the same destination at four different hotels, and not leverage your volume."
Connie Bocchieri, senior manager of global travel and meeting management at Pfizer, noted another key reason for logging all events: "We partner with our global security department and it is critical that they know where these meetings are being held."
Pfizer uses both internally developed tools and an outsourced provider to track meetings volume, budgets and other data. It also has a council for meeting planners to share information. "We spend a lot of money on meetings and we are trying to wrap our arms around that," Bocchieri said. "What is becoming more critical in the management of our meetings and events is the ability to be compliant" to both Sarbanes-Oxley regulations and pharmaceutical industry standards.
Since 2003, the number of meetings Pfizer is "touching" through strategic processes increased by "450 percent," Bocchieri noted. "It definitely is going from a more tactical level to a more strategic level."
When signing meetings deals, more companies are using sets of pre-approved terms and conditions. "It is not now the exception that a company is going to come to you with a standardized contract that has been approved by their legal [department]," said Diana Voto, national sales director at Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. "It is now the rule. It takes a lot of work to do that property by property or meeting by meeting. Those [suppliers] that understand it, embrace it and can work a strategy around it are able to build market share with those companies that are engaging strategic meetings management programs."
Meanwhile, hotel company representatives noted that more clients are tying together discussions on transient business travel rates and group contracts, and inquiring about such potential links in requests for proposals. Otto said greater involvement by procurement professionals in both travel and meetings has contributed to that trend. "Maybe we'll never be able to separate negotiated transient rates from group rates because of the complexity involved," she said, "but can we at least talk about them at the same time, so [suppliers] understand our volume and the leverage we bring?"
Strategic meetings management programs can evolve very slowly and need not rob administrative personnel of the "fun" of planning a meeting or two each year, Otto suggested. "Don't take that away from them, but make sure they have the right tools and are signing the right contracts," she said.
According to research produced by the National Business Travel Association groups and meetings committee in 2005, more than 86 percent of survey respondents said their companies were tracking total meeting activity; more than 80 percent were working to define and implement specific meetings policies; and more than 60 percent were measuring total cost savings through meeting management strategies. The committee currently is producing new research to measure the latest trends.
Voto said both large and small Disney clients have successfully implemented strategic meetings programs to help build compliance, create strong supplier partnerships and make the contracting process more efficient: "It is going to continue to gain momentum as companies make it part of their long-term strategies."