Meeting Professionals International Show Sees Defense of Industry

One theme that popped up again and again at the World Education Congress show held by Meeting Professionals International in Vancouver late last month was the need to measure and prove the value of meetings.

While that’s hardly a new topic after the last two years, the profile of the issue was raised a week before the July 24-27 show when President Barack Obama kicked off a major initiative to reduce the carbon footprint of the U.S government 13 percent by 2020 by calling, among other things, for a reduction in travel by government employees. That immediately drew criticism from the heads of the U.S. Travel Association (USTA) and the National Business Travel Association (NBTA).

Indeed, it came up bright and early Sunday morning in the Strategic Meetings Management Program Blueprint education session. “Once again, we saw President Obama vilify meetings,” said panelist Steve O’Malley, vice president and general manager of MaXvantage, a provider of strategic meetings management solutions. “We need to prove their value.”

His comments were echoed later that day by Christine Duffy, president of St. Louis-based Maritz Travel and co-chair of the USTA’s Meetings, Incentives, and Trade Show Council, who said the government was sending the message, it is “not okay to meet or travel.”

Even without the President’s initiative, though, strategic meetings management was destined to be a major topic in Vancouver. MPI announced at the show that it has hired Smyrna, GA-based Association Insights, a research and consulting firm, to produce a major research project on the value of meetings. This will be presented at the inaugural AIBTM—The Americas Meetings & Events Exhibition next June.

While it will help make the public case for meetings, the real point of the research is to “help meeting professionals go out and talk to bosses and to clients to really demonstrate the value of meetings to their organization,” said Didier Scaillet, MPI’s director of development, at the show. “A lot of planners are not equipped to do that.”

And showing that value—the return on investment—is just as important, if not more so, than the ability of an SMM program to cut unnecessary costs, O’Malley said.

One key to demonstrating value, added Duffy, who was speaking on a later panel, is taking the time to figure out what success will look like at the beginning of the planning process rather than collecting data during the meeting or event program and then trying to figure out what that data means.

The Role of SMM

Not that cost savings are an unimportant part of SMM, said Terry Sloan, director of business development, north America, for Carlson Wagonlit Travel (CWT) Meetings & Events, and O’Malley’s co-panelist.

He pointed to a study released in June by CWT’s research arm that found that fully two-thirds of companies do not manage their meeting spend centrally. The report, "Meetings and Events: Where Savings Meet Success"found that by applying best practices to areas like compliance, sourcing, and processes, companies can reduce their meetings and events spend 10 to 25 percent on average.

One company that has put SMM principles into practice and seen the benefit is Raytheon, Julie Hall, manager, meetings and special events, Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems, told the panel’s audience.

Raytheon’s experience with an SMM program began when the CEO asked the meeting planners in the company’s six divisions how much the firm was spending annually. “We could not answer,” Hall says, adding that they initially identified 65 meetings, and later found the real number was twice that.

While Raytheon’s six divisions are independent enough that the company ultimately did not centralize its meeting planning formally, it created a centralized meetings council that has had the same effect. “We planners work now as one unit,” she says.

And while the planners still don’t have complete control of all meetings, anyone who controls a meeting must at least consult with them. And once they do, Hall says, they often discover how valuable professional experience can be.

She relates one example of a group of administrators who did not want to cede control of their meeting. “We took the [winning] A/V bid from the 2007 meeting, erased the dollar amounts, and sent it to our vendor,” for a bid for the 2010 meeting,” Hall says. “It came in $30,000 lower—literally half.” At that point, Hall says, the professional planners were welcomed into the process.

When working with hotels and other venues, non-professionals “don’t know to ask for an F&B discount, to guarantee less than the registered number of attendees, not to put 12 people at a 60-inch round and expect them to eat,” she adds, pantomiming a diner struggling with knife and fork at an overcrowded table.