by Mark Phillips | August 01, 2011
Over the past 25 years, meetings management has changed by leaps and bounds. Once the purview of the lone executive assistant, marketing manager, or human resources manager flipping through hotel brochures and, often, booking a venue sight unseen, meeting professionals now have an arsenal of resources available for comprehensive venue research and selection, RFP submission, and site visualization. 

Processes and online tools that help planners manage a range of corporate events have matured, driving significant efficiencies throughout the planning process. According to the 2010 PhoCusWright report on groups and meetings, 75 percent of meeting buyers (compared to less than 10 percent in 2000) indicated that venue research, venue sourcing, and RFP creation are managed online, either always or sometimes.  

The art and science of strategic meetings management (SMM) keeps evolving as companies look for new and innovative ways to hold events and engage employees and customers in a cost-effective way while ensuring a return on investment. 
 
The Role of SMM
In the 1980s, meetings management often was decentralized, with various departments, regions, and offices following different policies and using multiple vendors for meeting venues, air, ground transportation, and other related expenses. When it came to choosing a venue or vendor, the process was inconsistent. Hotels were chosen based on personal preference or familiarity with the brand, versus cost or amenities. Registration often was handled manually via email and telephone—a time-consuming and expensive process. 

Companies gradually began to consolidate meeting planning (much like they previously consolidated transient travel), creating policies regarding venue selection and group-travel-related procurement. Corporate planners created uniform standards for meetings, which dictated registration and payment processes; these new methods were gradually rolled out to nonprofessional planners as well. Technical tools such as procurement, budget-tracking, and registration modules were adopted for booking and coordinating events. 

Such tools helped streamline and standardize venue selection and registration. With advanced procurement solutions, organizations could designate pre-approved vendors, taking the guesswork out of finding a venue in an unfamiliar destination, and use pre-negotiated contract templates, reducing expenses and risk.

Since 2000, the rise of technology-based tools for meetings also has led to the emergence of third-party planners as strategic service providers. This has mirrored developments in business travel, which went from a global web of individual travel agencies to a few larger travel management companies. In the meetings world, several savvy service providers emerged to offer what’s now known as primary SMM support, often supplemented by smaller third-party providers. 

Meetings Go Global
Most major companies today have a global presence and as a result, like travel in the previous 10 years, meeting planning has gone global as well. Companies need to have approved vendors in each country to select meeting locations and to service their local organizations. However, until recently many organizations have kept meeting planning and management under the auspices of their U.S.-headquartered offices. 

Companies increasingly are shifting to a more decentralized model, giving regional offices in EMEA (Europe, the Middle East, and Africa), Asia, South America, and Australia more control over meetings. These offices have basic, globally agreed-upon guidelines regarding venue selection, payment, and registration to ensure that meetings and events conform to overall policy. This shift arose largely from the realization that local and regional offices have more familiarity with local customs, laws, and regulations. As companies globalize their programs, third-party SMM firms have done so as well—employing teams around the world to deal with time-zone, cultural, and language issues for their global customer base.
 
Measuring ROI
As organizations have broadly adopted new sourcing tools and procurement solutions, meetings and events are being analyzed from an increasingly complex financial perspective. While this analysis still covers basic questions such as how much money the company saved by holding a meeting at a certain hotel or by eliminating coffee breaks, more and more meetings also are being judged upon their return on investment.

As part of this shift, companies are striving to understand the overall value of a face-to-face meeting and whether the participants thought it was worthwhile. Post-event surveys of attendees are conducted in an effort to evaluate whether the meeting contributed to their professional growth or a deeper understanding of the company and its products, whether it presented adequate opportunities to form closer bonds with colleagues or whether it resulted in 
behavior that met desired objectives, such as increased sales. 
 
Merging of Transient Travel and Meetings
SMM, until recently, has had its own separate trajectory—only occasionally intersecting with transient travel management policies and procedures. However, over time, the travel management and SMM teams have been more at odds because of differences between third-party vendors, technologies, and sometimes even their basic objectives within the enterprise. 

Lately more companies are combining the teams, policies, and spend of transient travel and meetings/event travel to better leverage their global service providers. Internal organizations, third-party suppliers, and travel technologies are adapting to this new evolution. 

As this happens, the need and opportunity for new destinations, services, and planner skill sets will arise.

Mark Phillips is chief operating officer of Landry & Kling (www.landrykling.com), cruise meetings and event specialists, and Seasite.com, the first cruise portal for meetings and events.