Let’s get together – how to build a great managed meetings programme

Bringing meetings spend under control is even tougher than running a general business travel programme. But escalating security concerns and evolving technology are persuading managers to take another look. Here’s how to get your meetings strategy started.
Written on 01.06.2016, 00:00
Let’s get together – how to build a great managed meetings programme

Businesses often spend as much money on meetings as they do on normal corporate travel (also labelled “transient travel”). Yet far fewer companies create a programme to manage meetings strategically in the same way as their transient spend.

“The situation varies from sector to sector,” says TravelpoolEurope CEO Søren Schødt. “Businesses in tightly monitored industries like pharmaceuticals and financial services usually have well-managed meetings programmes to meet their regulatory obligations. However, in many other companies, meetings is one of the last categories to get managed. Often the spend is hidden across the organisation under many different labels, such as as ‘marketing’ and ‘education’. And if you can’t see something, you can’t manage it.”

The situation seems to be improving, for several reasons. One is that  some companies have gone as far as they can with controlling transient spend, so they are seeking new savings opportunities. Then there is the question of risk management. Duty of care is becoming increasingly important, leading businesses to plan employee safety as carefully for meetings as for transient travel – something that was often not the case.

Finally, better technology tools are emerging to handle everything connected with meetings, including delegate registration, payments, spend tracking and potentially even measuring the success of the event.

If you haven’t yet introduced a meetings programme, here are some tips on how to get started:

Find the data
This is a notoriously tricky task because data needs to be tapped from numerous sources. One is the suppliers: hotels and other meeting venues. Third parties like travel management companies and specialist meetings agencies can also provide information. Research internally too by asking event organisers for data and checking card reports and possibly your enterprise resource planning platform. Then you need to consolidate the data, which be not only incomplete but also inconsistent. For example, some sources will include value-added tax but others will exclude it.

Going forward, the best way to ensure clean data is to channel all meetings contracts through a single internal department or external agency, and perhaps to use a consistent form of payment as well.

Engage stakeholders early
You can potentially upset people in your company when you start to “interfere”, as they see it, in “their” meetings. If you do not handle this resistance effectively and early, it can potentially kill your strategy.

The solution is to reassure planners you do not want to micro-manage their events. All you are interested in is improving the procurement aspects and making sure they meet duty of care commitments. In fact, you are making the situation better for organisers because you are taking away the “boring” and difficult parts of the job, leaving them free to concentrate on tasks such as choosing menus and looking after participants.

Find the right service providers and technology
Which third parties do you use today to manage meetings? What services do they offer? If you consolidated to a single agency for data consistency, could it serve you in every country you need it?

Research the technology options open to you as well. You may need more than one provider. You also need to understand how the technology works. For example, some buyers source venues through e-RFP tools, but the results can be highly unsatisfactory without carefully qualifying the suppliers invited to bid.

Negotiate discounted rates
Don’t rush into negotiations with suppliers until you have reliable data, or your position will be weakened. Create standard packages for half-day, one-day and 1.5-day meetings. You can use these templates to negotiate pricing with hotel chains (though you can often achieve even better one-off rates by talking directly to the property you intend to use). It is essential to create two-year deals because events are often planned many months ahead. As usual, showing you have the ability to switch suppliers and fulfil your volume or market share commitments will secure better prices.

Standard packages are also very useful for preventing over-spending on unnecessary items. Without them, hotels often start to put additional items into their propositions, such as candies or flowers on tables, or more food – for example, the standard package should specify how many courses and how many drinks are to be served for each meal.

Negotiate better terms and conditions
One of the most important reasons for centralising meetings procurement is that other people in your business pay little attention to T&Cs when they book an event. Create a set of model T&Cs which must be used in every meetings contract. The most important clauses of all will deal with cancellation policy, which can be extremely costly if it is not handled correctly. . Make it a rule that all draft contracts are sent to you for approval

Once again, the more you can convince suppliers that you will deliver substantial volume to them, the more likely they will be to agree your T&Cs. They will also be more accepting of your cancellation terms if you can give an undertaking to book another meeting within a defined period, e.g. three months. However, you can only make promises like this if you have good visibility of all your meeting spend, allowing you to direct bookings to preferred suppliers.

Negotiate with other relevant suppliers
Venue providers are not the only suppliers used in the meetings business. Consolidate and create agreements with other relevant vendors, including event producers and audio-visual companies.

Get your meetings policy right
Introduce a meetings policy which sets out how bookers should use appointed agencies, rules for using preferred venues and so on. Don’t introduce the policy until the programme has taken good shape, because you will soon lose bookers if the process does not work smoothly for them.

Encourage lower rate choices
Brief your agency to suggest an alternative to bookers’ first selection, so there is always a choice. Provide a benchmark by showing the booker the average rate the company pays for a meeting of that length in that part of the country. In the end, however, only the booker can judge whether their original selection can be justified, but you may succeed in influencing them to buy cheaper.

Consider integrating meetings and travel sourcing
Once the meetings programme is up and running properly, think about integrating it with your transient travel programme. For example, you can consolidate spend with the same hotels – the additional meeting volume should help negotiate a better rate for transient travellers. Another very important issue is duty of care. Are you using the same traveller tracking tools, security briefing procedures and crisis management planning for meetings as for regular business travel?

The TravelpoolEurope perspective – An effort that pays off
It is easy to see why companies may lack the enthusiasm or resources to manage their meetings spend fully. But it really is worth starting because the rewards are significant, including better prices, improved supplier relationships, reduced problems with contracts, better supplier quality assurance, improved risk management and big time-savings for bookers. And you don’t have to build Rome in a day. Each step you take with data, policy, communication and so on will produce improvements. After a year or two, you may suddenly find you have built a very powerful meetings programme.