UnitedHealth Adds Meetings To Global Travel Policy

After spending 2007 and most of 2008 strengthening the UnitedHealth Group corporate travel program with a global travel policy and technology, global travel and meetings manager Tamara Gordon took a similar standardization approach to building a formal meetings management program for the Minneapolis-based health and insurance service provider.

The company now has common meeting planning and procurement procedures and a standard meetings policy across its business units, which have set the foundation for the rollout of an automated approval process and new meeting planning and procurement technology.

UnitedHealth holds about 1,000 meetings annually, including about 100 large conferences, events and incentive trips, according to Gordon. While UnitedHealth has several in-house meeting planners, much of the planning is outsourced to American Express, which planned 600 to 700 of UnitedHealth's meetings last year.

Gordon estimated that the company, which has about 75,000 employees, spends $30 million to $40 million on meetings annually, although a completely accurate figure is difficult to come by, as some meetings-related expenditure is categorized and paid for as business travel.

"The master bill for the meeting maybe just has food and beverage, and that is what will go on our meetings p-cards because all the individual rooms and airfares are going to the meeting attendees, because it's business travel for them," Gordon said.

To prepare for the new meetings program rollout, Gordon compiled a steering team and had American Express revamp UnitedHealth's meetings reports so the data would be "more meaningful" to senior managers and individual business units.

"In the past, I just got one big report," Gordon said. "I didn't have any hierarchy in there, and the businesses had no way of knowing what was their business and what wasn't."

A standard meetings approval process also is being deployed companywide. Currently, only about half of UnitedHeatlth's meetings require management approval. Once the manual approval process is rolled out companywide, Gordon plans to build an automated system.

Another process standardization is the introduction of a companywide policy that a professional meeting planner must be used for events that require more than 10 sleeping rooms. Although business units may negotiate their own meetings contracts with hotels and venues, they are required to attach the company's standard contractual addenda.

Much of the meetings program formalization also focused on communications and brand recognition of the overarching UnitedHealth program to enable the company to leverage its meetings spend with suppliers and reduce contract redundancy.

UnitedHealth uses a group air program managed by American Express, in which planners evaluate whether transient or group fares are more favorable. The company also has its meetings procurement consolidated with a single p-card vendor.

In the hotel buyer's market, Gordon is finding more receptivity to reducing rates for meetings than lowering transient rates, which are for the most part locked in for 2009.

"If we have one hotel preferred over the other and another hotel has a lower rate, we just go back to the other one and lower the rate so they get the business," Gordon said.

Meanwhile, UnitedHealth has been installing videoconferencing facilities at its six most populous locations over the last year to help reduce some internal meetings, according to Gordon.

The installation and management of the virtual meetings technology is handled by UnitedHealth's information technology department.

Originally published June 22, 2009