Six tips to help you know where to start

The term strategic meetings management (SMM) has been around for well over a decade, referring to how an organization implements certain practices in negotiating, coordinating and documenting events to maximize annual spending. Even after this many years, however, the adoption of SMM across organizations isn’t nearly as widespread as it could be.

Betsy Bondurant, president of Bondurant Consulting, which advises companies on how to build SMM programs, estimates that more than 50 percent of large and midsize organizations have not yet made a concerted effort to capture and analyze where and how they spend money on meetings and events.

“Because meetings are not traditional commodities, they’re not routinely coordinated through a single procurement department,” she says. “But no company should let what might be several million dollars in spending simply go unmanaged.”

An SMM initiative doesn’t have to capture every meeting and event in order to be a success. “Any percentage of meetings that are accounted for and strategically managed will bring significant savings,” she says. “And once other people in the company—especially those who plan just a handful of meetings a year—learn about the benefits of the program, you’ll get wider buy-in and, thus, capture more meetings every year.”

Strategic Meetings Management Blueprint

1. Build a simple template to capture relevant information for each event. Software programs are designed to capture meetings data across entire companies. But Bondurant says that an SMM initiative could start off with a system as basic as each department having a spreadsheet to record the host destination; the host property’s brand; lead time from contract signing; outside vendors used; number of internal and external attendees; total budget; and actual line-item expenditures.

“Don’t make it so cumbersome that people won’t be willing to do it,” she says. “If you can capture a reasonable number of events from sales and marketing, research and development, training and human resources, and the executive level, you’ll have a pretty good portfolio of meetings with data and details you can analyze.”

2. Find patterns and trends upon which to capitalize. Perhaps it turns out that the majority of the meetings you capture have between 50 and 100 attendees; or use hotel brands in the upper-upscale category; or go to just five or six cities; or use third-party planning firms. Any such discoveries can spur decisions going forward that allow the company to get better rates and terms from suppliers.

3. Plan and act externally. Make a business case to present to the destinations or brands you’ll use most often in the next few years.

“Your company might not show enough meetings business to qualify for a national sales rep at a big hotel company,” Bondurant notes. “Having a national rep to help you strategically place many of your meetings would increase your possibilities while keeping to your budgets.” The rep can also conduct an audit across his or her brands to see if any of your firm’s meetings that have not yet been captured in your system are using their properties.

Bondurant finds that creating a preferred-supplier program works not just with hotels, but when it comes to third-party planning firms, too.

“The number of third parties a company uses can be shocking—I’ve had some clients that used dozens of different ones across all their departments,” she says. If an SMM program can get that number into the single digits, your third-party costs will go down because of increased volume to each supplier, while service will improve because each supplier better understands your corporate culture and preferences.

4. Plan and act internally. Captured meetings data can be assessed alongside information from the company’s travel manager to make sure the true cost of each meeting is determined, including airfare and other items that don’t come from the meeting budget. This coordination also lets planners develop RFPs for some properties that get a lot of the firm’s transient travel spend.

“Many of those properties have meeting facilities for 50 or 75 people,” Bondurant says. “So if you do a lot of smaller meetings, that’s a good opportunity to leverage your overall spending at specific hotels.”

Another benefit of having deep data is being able to develop a prioritized concession list for use by planners across the company. Bondurant suggests ranking your company’s 20 most preferred concessions so that your planners know how to respond when a hotel says, ”We can’t do all of these; which ones do you most want?”

5. Promote participation among outliers. Anticipate foot-dragging, Bondurant notes. “Some people don’t want others to know how many events they hold and what their budgets are, and risk being told where and how to hold their meetings,” Bondurant says. “So you need to show people what’s in it for the company—and for them.”

Especially for those who plan only a handful of meetings a year, highlight the fact that those events can have the same elements they’ve always had, but at lower cost and with less contractual risk (for example, more favorable attrition, cancellation and indemnification clauses). What’s more, people like to be patted on the back, Bondurant says. “If they see other departments’ successes getting noticed, more of those outliers will come into the fold.”

6. Communicate and educate. Showcasing lessons and results also sustains momentum among initial participants. Possibilities include a regular email newsletter with links to tips, case studies and learning modules housed on an internal website, as well as in-person “lunch-and-learn” sessions that cover specific topics and promote dialogue.

Bondurant says it’s not uncommon for a firm to reduce meeting costs by 15 to 20 percent two years after starting an SMM program. And while much of the low-hanging fruit gets captured by the first stages of a program, meeting costs can trend downward for years as more meetings come into the program and the firm’s negotiating position and internal processes become stronger.