The fundamentals of strategic meetings management have been around since 2004, and the concept goes back even further. But while its value to the corporate bottom line is proven, actually getting organizations to adopt an SMM program is a different matter.

In a nutshell SMM turns each meeting into its own corporate entity that aligns the event’s purpose, procurement, best practices and policies across all departments and stakeholders. The goal is to streamline spend and optimized return on investment for each event. Not surprisingly, creating such a far-reaching policy framework and putting it into action can be daunting. But for those who stay the course, the rewards can be substantial.

“This discipline of SMM has been around for nearly15 years,” says Kari Wendel, vice president, global SMM strategy and solutions at CWT Meetings & Events. “The focus was on visibility and savings – one of the last areas of spend that was not under control. And these are still core.”

Meetings and SMM

Dick Zeller, SMM practice lead at Maritz Travel Company, has been involved with the concept for some three decades, dating back to what was originally labeled Meeting Consolidation in the 1980s. In part, the idea came about from the lingering suspicion that meetings costs could be better controlled.

“I have never worked with a company that underestimated their meeting and event spend,” Zeller notes. “Meetings management has always been a very large area of corporate spend because it has to be purchased in a thousand pieces, difficult to quantify because it buried pieces in multiple budget categories. Centralizing this practice enables risk management, transparency and the introduction of standardized best practices.”

An effective SMM solution focuses on leveraged procurement practices and enhanced service delivery. “The goals of reducing costs and driving effective meetings are not mutually exclusive,” he says.

Right Time, Right Place
Indeed, SMM casts a wide net, aiming to create enterprise-wide meeting-related processes on spend, volumes, standards and suppliers to achieve cost-savings, risk mitigation and superior service. To the companies who wade in, says Wendel, “the return on SMM done well is always significant – 1,500 percent to 3,000 percent returns. So it is never too expensive.”

Studies show that about 15 percent of an organization’s collective time is spent in meetings. But the cost goes beyond the time spent. Approximately 3 percent of an organization’s revenue also goes into meetings and events. If an organization invests that much time and treasure in meetings and events, what is it doing to ensure that both expenditures are worthwhile?

An average enterprise generally spends one half to one percent of its annual sales on meetings and events. That translates to approximately 25 to 30 percent of total T&E spend, 60 percent of air volume, or 2 to 3 percent of revenue. Starting up an SMM program has to begin with discovering where the organization’s numbers fall in these categories, finding out how departments involved align on budgets and goals, and whether results are coming in on target.

“Quantitative and qualitative goals have to be set in advance whether you are looking at sales or client ‘stickiness’ – you can measure anything – as long as you set those goals up front. Doing it after the fact won’t prove anything. And it all must tie in to greater corporate objectives,” Wendel advises.

No two corporations are alike; in fact, no two meetings are alike. So there is no one-size-fits-all for SMM. But there are questions, approaches, templates that can uncover the keys to creating a strategy that will make sense. Companies such as Carlson Wagonlit, Cvent, BCD and Maritz, among others, can manage these processes since it is often much more than one person, one department or one team can take on.

Mind the Gaps 
Zeller believes SMM requires organizations to understand and address the gaps between current state of meetings and the desired future state. “If you are in a fragmented state of meetings and events – using multiple third-party providers, having admins and other unmanaged internal resources signing contracts and planning meetings, have no meeting policy and allow meeting practices to vary from one department to another – you are not going to fix everything immediately,” he advises.

Building an SMM solution can take a year to 18 months, so patience is the most important ingredient. Pulling together a consistent and transparent solution, getting departments, stakeholders and owners on board and developing policy that keeps meetings large and small on track is a long road with few short cuts.

“It is important that companies build a realistic timeline for implementing the solution,” says Zeller. “Programs often falter when they launch before they are fully developed and the meeting owners have not bought into the change.”

However, he warns, doing nothing is not an option. “Implementing an SMM solution seems overwhelming, so nothing happens. That’s a mistake. If you don’t do anything you will be in the same place you are today a year from now.”

The process starts with gaining alignment across the organization from the top down and bottom up, Zeller says. Maritz works with clients to help them phase in programs, integrating people, process and technology at an appropriate pace based on organizational readiness. While there are similarities, how these pieces fit together is dictated by the current state of each customer.

“The essential first step is establishing the plan with specific goals and defining what success looks like,” Zeller says, noting each of Maritz’s SMM customer solutions is unique, addressing varying levels of maturity. Those customers skew toward the pharmaceuticals, healthcare, technology and financial services – businesses where transparency and process consistency are critical.

Likewise, there is no standard checklist for SMM, no Chinese menu of solutions. As a consequence there may be limited or zero systems to track and analyze the meetings activity across an organization, says Shauna Whitehead, global account management VP at BCD Meetings & Events.

Some areas where Whitehead sees opportunities for optimizing SMM:
• Technology – While tools may be purchased, there are gaps in configuring and leveraging everything these products have to offer. That leaves lots of opportunity to better streamline and apply technology.
• Attendee Safety & Security – Risk is typically more tightly managed in travel. However, in the meetings world it has gaps, especially in attendee registration and the security of captured data.
• Measuring ROI. While measuring specific meeting results is still more art than science, CRM integration with attendee registration and on-site technology tools are giving meeting owners more insight into the return on their investment.
• Scalability – SMM programs face the dual challenges of having the resources to scale up quickly at the start and being able to supplement staff when meetings are at a peak period.

Keep It Simple
Naturally, technology is enabling the evolution of SMM toward embracing a wider swath of the organization’s events – especially less complex ones which usually constitute the bulk of meetings activities. The idea is to streamline policy, enhance visibility and cut down on needless spend. Companies such as Groupize, Bizly, HRS and CWT’s RoomIT are creating solutions that translate to process enhancements and time savings, whether for gatherings of all sizes.

Bizly, for instance, allows planners to view rich content on meeting venues throughout the US with costs and availabilities posted. Planners can book online or through messaging and have compliance elements automated within their SMMP profile.

Similarly, HRS provides a hefty booking site of 300,000 hotels in 190 countries and more than 400,000 holiday homes and apartments in Europe, with negotiated rates and best price guarantees. This can be especially helpful for SMM programs growing into regions of Europe and beyond where they can encounter rough patches in language, culture and practices, and cost.

“We looked into the behaviors and movements of our customer base and there was a natural progression into meetings and groups,” says Abbie Michaelson, vice president of meetings solutions for HRS. “We looked at the time planners and executive assistants were spending on arranging meetings and found a way to make hotels do that work.”

Similarly, Groupize, which integrates with Concur, subscribes to a concept of “simple” – rather than “small” – meetings. It started as a solution for hotel chains looking for appropriate group matches but found TMCs were interested in its applications for corporate markets with larger meetings. The solution allows planners to book the venues and hotel room blocks, and do much of the procurement sourcing and comparisons through one platform.

“Those smaller meetings were still being done by executive administrators and there was no control in this area,” says Charles de Gaspe Beaubien, Groupize CEO. “Here were easy tools for them to use to aggregate their work and do it with all the compliances and policies in place.”

He notes that traditional SMM was built with a top down approach, starting with high profile events being managed by professional planners. For smaller or simpler meetings, which make up some 80 percent of the meetings market, the ability to scale the meeting team is a challenge.

Further, he points out many SMM programs are funded via hotel commissions paid as a percentage of the sleeping room spend. Smaller meetings or local gatherings may not require sleeping rooms and do not earn commissions, yet the sourcing process is the same. “So, the company begins to draw arbitrary lines based on how well they can staff the process rather than the actual need,” says de Gaspe Beaubien.

The primary function for most SMM programs is sourcing, so once the vendors are selected, many meetings are then “managed” by the meeting owner. This means any changes to requirements now fall outside the SMM program and the actual, final numbers might not make their way back into the system.

In addition, Duty of Care compliance is challenged when meetings are “handed back” to the owner, and the company loses visibility into where the attendees are during these meetings. “This is a huge gap in most programs,” he emphasizes.

And then there is the time factor. Any “typical” meeting – defined as “10-10-10,” meaning any meeting with greater than 10 attendees, 10 sleeping rooms, or estimated budget of $10,000 – needs to be registered. This registration can kick off a series of SMM processes that, according to Groupize, can take more than eight days on average before a “simple” meeting is booked; some 40 hours to set up a registration website; 45 minutes per hotel to respond to an RFP at a 2 percent conversion rate; and an additional 10 percent of meeting spend to manage logistics and operations.

“SMM is stalled,” maintains de Gaspe Beaubien. “Occasional planners and admins don’t want to fill out long forms. They go rogue and call the hotel directly because it’s faster.” He says Groupize is set up to serve as a middle man to offer more of the speed and control of direct booking, but with back-end procedures to ensure compliance with policies and transparent reporting.

“We believe that ‘simple’ meetings should be self-service or perhaps a hybrid self-enabled model that leverages the strengths of professional support, without requiring so many resources,” he says. “The company still needs the data for supplier optimization, still needs controls for contract risk mitigation, and all attendee data for Duty of Care. We see startups trying to build first from a technology standpoint – and that might be sexy, but it’s not how industry works.”