Crack the Whip: How a Meetings Policy Can Eliminate Redundancy, Rein in Spending, and Enforce Compliance

June 01, 2006 -- Successful Meetings

Tina Newman, CMP, knew she could do things better.

At Golden Rule, an Indianapolis-based health insurance firm, one of her responsibilities was reviewing the expense reports of the 150 salespeople who worked for the company nationwide. And the more Newman looked at the numbers, the more she realized how much money was being wasted on meetings.

"Salespeople were signing agreements that said they couldn't bring in their own audiovisual equipment and had to use the hotel's," she says. "They were paying meeting room rental fees that were ridiculous! Not that they knew they were ridiculous—they just didn't have any guidelines."

Newman, who calls herself "very aggressive" when it comes to cost savings, decided to create those guidelines herself. She embarked on a three-month analysis of the reports, came up with a list of what she considered "abuses," and wrote some rules governing both meetings and general expenses.

"I brought this to the vice president of sales, who said, 'This is great. Let's take it to the COO and have her look at it,' " Newman recalls. The COO agreed, and appointed Newman travel and events director, giving her responsibility for signing all meetings contracts and planning all meetings and events nationwide.

Today, 15 years later, Newman owns Total Meeting Planning Network, an independent planning firm based in Clark Lake, MI, that produces everything from 20-person board meetings to citywides of 10,000 or more, for the likes of Merrill Lynch, the Ford Motor Company, and Pfizer. And it all started with some head-scratching . . . and number crunching.

Follow the Money

As Newman's story shows, the impetus behind creating a meetings policy is often the desire to control costs—it's also yet another example of how procurement is increasingly driving meetings management. "In today's world, it just isn't smart to have unmanaged spend that's as great as the normal meetings spend for most large corporations," notes Lynn Ridzon, director of global meeting management for Bristol-Myers Squibb in Plainsboro, NJ.

One of the most effective ways to manage that spend, experts say, is by creating a meetings policy that centralizes and standardizes all meetings-related activities, from sending out requests for proposal to reviewing and signing contracts to approving budgets. Furthermore, as meetings grow ever more subject to outside scrutiny—from Sarbanes-Oxley legislation, to pharmaceutical guidelines, to rules governing entertainment at financial meetings and the like—it behooves organizations to set up policies that ensure compliance.

Meetings Maze

Just as no two organizations are alike, no two meetings policies are the same. "There isn't one model out there that fits all," says Ridzon, and that's an understatement—starting with what is officially considered a "meeting," and therefore subject to the policy. Many companies use a combination of attendance figures, budgets, and other components like air travel or hotel stays, while others simply focus on cost, or number of attendees. (The policy Newman wrote for Golden Rule was perhaps the most straightforward of all: A meeting was any gathering that necessitated the signing of a contract.)

As for the rest—Is the meeting planned in house or outsourced? Who approves the budget and signs the contracts? What suppliers can be used? What about emergency procedures? Is the policy mandatory?—the variations are literally endless, and reflect the type of firm, its corporate culture, and a host of other factors.

For example, at Xerox Corporation in Rochester, NY, Pam Ferranti, manager of meeting management solutions, oversees any gathering of 15 or more people, provided that at least 10 require air travel, hotel accommodations, or both. The process begins by registering the meeting with Ferranti's department via a technical tool (in this case, OnVantage), after which the actual planning is outsourced to a third-party company.

"The process isn't just about securing the air, hotel, F&B, off-site events, and so forth," explains Ferranti, "but about making sure we're using and leveraging our existing contractual agreements. Do I expect all 58,000 employees who work for Xerox worldwide to know our standard procedures, or who our preferred suppliers are? Of course not. With this process, they don't have to be aware of all the different contracts and policies."

Xerox's meetings policy is mandatory and highly detailed. For example, hotels hosting the company's meetings must have a Xerox machine available (if not on property, there must be one in the vicinity) during meetings for attendees to copy and print handouts and other documents. Contrast that with what goes on 3,000 miles away at Cisco Systems in San Jose, CA, where the policy is nonmandatory.

"We work by example and provide a sourcing solution," explains Michele Snock, manager of global meeting services, Americas, for the firm. "Our strategic meetings management program is extremely strong, but because one of Cisco's core values is empowerment, we can't tell people what to do. Instead, we tell them why they should do it. So our guidelines are very loosely written."

Whether policies are mandatory or not is a point of controversy. "To have a truly strategic meetings management program, you need a mandated policy," declares Bristol-Myers Squibb's Ridzon. "Many companies don't because it's not their culture, but I have a hard time believing they're as effective as they could be if accountability isn't attached to the policy. Even if they have the best corporate citizens in the world, how can they say they're capturing their ultimate spend and leveraging their buying power?" (Indeed, Snock estimates that she oversees only 60 percent of Cisco's meetings.) However, even officially mandatory policies may not have enough "teeth" to make employees obey: At presstime, one major accounting firm with a mandatory meetings policy was revising it because, according to one insider, "Compliance has been less than we expected."

Planners working in a nonmandated environment might want to avoid being surprised by a sudden change in the rules by proactively creating a meetings policy. At Washington Mutual in Seattle, for example, Kathy Rust, vice president of corporate event development, partners with the corporate travel manager to head up an event council. "We're trying to drive consistency and improve efficiency," Rust says of the firm's meetings policy, which is nonmandated. There's not a lot of teeth behind it yet, but we're still in the early stages."

Let's Get It Started

In the course of reporting this article, Successful Meetings was contacted by several planners who said they wanted to launch a meetings policy at their organizations but felt thwarted or overwhelmed. "I have no clue where to start," sighs Deidre Young Evans, a conference planner at New West Technologies in Landover, MD. "It's been very difficult getting people without a background in meeting planning to see things from my angle, which is that in order to do things as best we can and give our clients the best option, we need a formalized process."

Ridzon advises any planner in Young's position to start by investigating how much money is being spent on meetings, via financial and general ledger accounts, travel and entertainment policies, American Express reports, and the like. "Pull someone from finance into your team," she urges. "When meetings aren't centrally managed, getting your arms around the meetings spend is one of the most difficult things to do, but it absolutely must be done. To build a business case that will get the attention of senior executives, you have to give numbers, and you must have some rationale for those numbers." Once they determine the meetings spend, Ridzon estimates that planners can save at least 10 percent, if not 15 or 20 percent, in the first year of implementing a meetings policy.

That's what Tina Newman did at Golden Rule back in 1991. "I compared what the travel department spent six months before we launched the policy and six months after. Aside from the meetings, we saved a huge amount on expenses, because we'd never had guidelines before. I can't remember how much [we saved], but it was enough to compensate my salary—and enough to make the COO very, very happy!"

SIDEBAR

Waste Management


Thanks to Xerox's meetings policy, Pam Ferranti, the Rochester, NY-based manager of meeting management solutions for the company (which is headquartered in Stamford, CT), was recently able to piggyback two conferences, one for 450 people and another for 200:

"Because we use a centralized registration system, the coordinators realized they were both planning meetings in New York City at the same time. We decided to hold them both at the same hotel, which significantly improved our negotiation power. And because the system allows us to see the attendee lists, the coordinators were able to determine that the two groups would be a good fit, so it became an opportunity for them to meet one another. It also saved some employees who were planning on attending both conferences from having to travel twice."

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For an insider's view on how Credit Suisse's meetings policy governs its customer events, read Bank Secrets: Planning Customer EVents.