Taking a strategic approach to meeting management is not an option any more. For those who are not sure what they'll be getting into, Kristin Dierickx, national director of strategic meeting management for BCD Meetings and Incentives, offers a definition: "At its very essence, SMM is the strategic management of enterprise-wide, meeting-related processes, spend, volume, standards and suppliers to achieve quantitative cost savings, risk mitigation and superior service. It includes matching departmental goals to corporate values and objectives while using data consolidation and reporting to enhance the strategic nature of the meetings planned.

"A strategic approach to meetings management through consolidation or a combination of centralization measures, is the answer for many corporations as they search for ways to cut costs, contain expenditures and minimize legal and financial risks," she adds.

SMM will increase visibility into meeting and event volume, spend, types of meetings and venues used giving the opportunity for more scrutiny and consolidation. The data collected goes a long way to reduce legal and regulatory, financial, operational and intangible risks by creating policy guidelines and compliance tracking. The visibility that SMM provides also gives corporations the opportunity to leverage meeting spend with their preferred suppliers for both meeting and transient business-related travel by giving the corporation the chance to present their entire package to a hotel or hotel chain for bid.

Meetings and SMM

From the hospitality perspective, there is no better time than now to implement strategic meeting management principles, reduce the overall number of suppliers in your program and create long-term partnerships with preferred suppliers to increase cost savings this year and for the years to come.

Layoffs and downsizing mean less people doing more work; SMM will reduce the duplication of effort by aligning all meeting business into professional planning teams and formalizing outsourced relationships. One of the biggest liabilities in meeting planning is inexperience. Professional meeting planning skills ensure consistency and quality across the entire meeting planning enterprise. Automating some of the processes by using a variety of technological tools available improves efficiency and maximizes productivity.

New Questions

Strategic meeting management varies in scope for every corporation. Specific objectives are different depending on the type of business the corporation is in, the overall meeting spend, the types of events planned and — a new category — the amount of assistance taken from government interventions.

With meeting spend being scrutinized not only by corporate accounting departments and CEOs, but by government agencies and the media, migration toward strategic meeting management is gaining momentum. To begin the process, your first question should be "Where is my organization today? "

There are companies that have already integrated best practices and strategic initiatives into their travel and meeting spend; there are companies that have no policy, no technology and no plans in place and there are companies that fall somewhere between these two extremes. By understanding where your company fits on the strategic meetings path, you can more effectively identify opportunities to drive greater value either internally or with the help of experts in the field.

There are five universal objectives, says Dierickx, that every company should look at to truly embrace SMM in this new economic reality:

• Identify, analyze and increase visibility of meeting spend for procurement decision criteria that supports corporate objectives.

• Identify and direct vendor usage to increase buying leverage.

• Establish an enterprise-wide meeting policy to limit financial and legal liability.

• Develop standard operating procedures that support corporate objectives and increase efficiency, allowing more focus on strategic and long-term business objectives while reducing operating costs over time.

• Implement a company-specific tactical plan to build a strategic business process that can deliver between 6 percent and 20 percent savings on logistical expenditures.

Delayed Payback

In terms of savings, Dierickx points out that actual savings will vary by customer, depending on the degree of existing consolidation, meeting policy and compliance and corporate structure. In many cases, the first year may not yield as great a savings due to the inability to renegotiate contracts for both group business and transient travel already in place. "A mature SMM model will scale to the higher end of the savings spectrum because the corporation has instituted best practices to ensure maximum savings and drive compliance."

The most successful strategic meeting management initiatives are built on a strong foundation; centralized sourcing, a technology platform and a means to aggregate data. This foundation is established to support a long term vision for meetings management.

Once the foundation is laid, additional supports can be added to channel and control meeting spend, consolidate logistics providers and create preferred supplier programs for hotel, ground transportation, audio-visual equipment and other meeting procurement needs. This approach drives quantifiable results and makes adoption of the policies more palatable to the corporation's stakeholders.

"An internal assessment is a smart first step," says Pruitt. "By conducting surveys and interviews and mining the general ledger, companies can gather valuable information about their current meeting management landscape. The more organizations can do to gather and analyze this information, the better positioned they will be to identify a game plan for getting control of spending and delivering savings."

Matching Corporate Culture

Meeting policies are highly customized to each organization and must reflect a corporation's culture, values, standards and standard business practices. There have been several highly publicized faux pas of late where corporate culture clashed with public and media expectations.

By aligning meeting policy with the corporation's image, this type of embarrassment and negative publicity can be avoided. Dierickx outlines some practical considerations when working to establish best practices in meeting policy.

First, decide whether the policies developed will be mandated or simply encouraged. This is one of the first questions a hotel company will ask as it helps to help predict actual future usage and pick up. Having a policy is one thing, having the means to mandate usage and track compliance gives the program more credibility and thus, more leverage in negotiations, is another.

Second, have an idea of the typical types of meetings the corporation plans. This doesn't mean that each meeting must fall into a certain category; the information gives the meeting planning department the opportunity to choose the best venues to partner with and drive the best prices. For instance, if the vast majority of your meetings are regional sales meetings that must be held in a large hotel close to an airport, then the meeting planner can clearly define the best choices nationwide and bid the business appropriately to only the hotels or hotel chains that can meet these needs.

The hotel can evaluate the entire meeting package and will offer rates commensurate with the volume presented.

In addition to knowing what types of meetings, you should develop clear contracting requirements. If your corporation is in a volatile industry and is prone to last minute cancellations or big drops in attendance due to business demand, then corporate contracting requirements should address these issues to avoid attrition or cancellation penalties that eat up revenue with no return on investment.

Finally, Dierickx advocates creating a marketing plan for educating the end users, the internal and external stakeholders in the newly developed strategic meeting management initiatives. The biggest challenge to a new meetings management program often is resistance to change and the organization's willingness to enforce the new policies developed. A formal plan to present the new strategic meeting management process helps ease the way to greater compliance. >On the supplier side, the challenge lies in balancing the new meeting policy while still satisfying the needs and requests of the meeting planners and attendees. These days, their staffs and resources may be more scarce than before but the question remains:

Can you afford not to integrate strategic meeting management into your enterprise?