Size does matter. With most organizations, large meetings command maximum attention from planners, meeting owners and other managers. And why not? An event attracting hundreds or even thousands of participants mandates a major investment of both human and financial resources.

But at the other end of the spectrum, small and medium-sized meetings may garner much less focus when it comes to careful management. Yet according to some estimates, smaller meetings can account for as much as 80 percent of a company’s overall meeting spend. Since small incremental costs can add up to large aggregate spend, getting a handle on these expenditures, as well as related risk management and data collection issues, may be in the best interest of meeting owners, meeting managers, meeting planners and travel managers.

Carolyn Maloney, meeting and events global program director for Carlson Wagonlit Travel defines small meetings as those with 25 or fewer attendees. She says paying attention to the success of such meetings, as well as mid-sized events, can bring several positive results.

Duty of Care and Risk Management

“Visibility around small meetings can help an organization design faster contracting processes, leverage overall supplier volume and deliver custom concessions at the event level,” Maloney says.

At the same time, planners must cope with the reality that even though the scope may be narrower, there are still plenty of details to be considered with any size event.

“Small and mid does not always equate to less complexity,” says Shauna Whitehead, VP global account management for BCD Meetings & Events. She says these meetings are likely to be susceptible to the same types of risks as larger meetings, whether around cost containment, duty of care and risk mitigation, or regulatory issues, such as compliance with the Federal Corrupt Practices Act or industry-specific codes.

At the same time, smaller regional or location-specific meetings seem to be growing in popularity compared to larger national or global meetings. So more attention to small and mid-size meetings may become increasingly important for meeting planners.

One way to regard the resultant challenges is to embrace the term "simple meetings" rather than referring to size, according to Charles de Gaspe Beaubien, CEO of Groupize, a Boston-based provider of meeting solutions.

"It's not about size, but about complexity," he says. He notes that a simple meeting can be one attracting 250 people, but with minimal complexity if they are all staying at the same hotel block, following the same agenda and booking their own air with a self-booking tool. On the other hand, a board meeting of five people can be very “high touch” and need to be handled by professional planners.

Better Handle
Regardless of terminology, awareness of the full scope of resources dedicated to small and medium meetings may be lacking, even though they represent the lion’s share of meetings-related transactions in corporate travel programs, according to Oliver May, global lead, MICE for HRS.

“The majority of corporations have neither control nor transparency about this category,” he says. For the most part, procurement related to small meetings bypasses standard processes and standards. Unlike other travel categories, there is mostly no visibility when it comes to meetings and groups.

Small meetings can be very costly because of the potential to waste small amounts of money in a high-volume system, according to Michele Hutchinson, vice president of meetings and incentives for Morley, a Saginaw, MI, company focusing on business process outsourcing (BPO), meetings and incentives, and exhibits and displays. She notes that if you waste $100,000 on a single meeting, it gets noticed. But if you waste $1,000 on a hundred meetings, it is likely to remain invisible. The same is true for wasting internal labor resources, such as the time an administrator or event manager spends on a smaller event.
“The best way to avoid this is to have a highly defined and documented meeting process that you follow for every meeting,” Hutchinson says. “This guarantees that best practices – like proper location search, registration website development, communication, collateral production and other program elements – are executed professionally and cost effectively.”

To gain more control of the travel spend associated with small meetings, Maloney advises registering or tracking all meetings of 10 or more attendees regardless of group size. Capturing key information gives visibility into the accommodations, meeting space and food and beverage spend, she says. The same is true of asking hotel partners to provide key information on events they’re booking directly, and keeping an eye on volume trends and what you are purchasing.

In fact it’s important to have a standard procedure for managing meetings regardless of size, according to Hutchinson. “Be able to verify that you are following your best practices and prove it with proper documentation,” she says.

Starting early is also advisable, Hutchinson says. “The earlier you can contract your hotels, the better rates and concessions you can negotiate,” she explains. “You also might have the opportunity to book several small meetings throughout the year at the same property and negotiate a multi-meeting contract.” The same thinking applies to air travel; early booking is more likely to bring better flight selection and price options.

Keep It Simple
With new registration and booking tool technologies, it has become easier to manage travel and attendance to all types of meetings including those on the smaller side. Solutions offer the ability to give attendees integrated experiences that combine meeting registration, selection of accommodations and travel booking in a single transaction. The result can improve outcomes for attendees as well as support duty of care considerations.

Whitehead emphasizes the importance of staying on top of risk management while considering any special challenges posed by smaller meetings. Those responsible for managed meetings programs that include small meetings should consider and assess risk against each of these areas when building guidelines for meeting stakeholders, she says. Then once parameters are agreed upon, education is a key.

“Don’t over-complicate the policies around small or simple meetings,” Whitehead cautions. “In many cases these meetings are not being handled by career M&E professionals, so you want to invite those who plan meetings only occasionally into a process that will not overwhelm them.” This means making the information available and establishing prescriptive and regular engagement with them in a way that will allow you to reinforce positive behaviors. The result should be a greater likelihood of mutual success with positive outcomes for meeting owners, attendees and the organization.

Hutchinson stresses the need for well-developed processes. “Great process management eliminates errors, saves money and improves customer service,” she says. “Extensive use of a technology-leveraged, defined process gives you the best opportunity to execute every detail flawlessly.”

Simplicity is a plus. “Keep it simple,” Hutchinson says. “Design a process that standardizes key issues such as the registration process, hotel selection and client branding, while at the same time fully using information technology to drive down costs.”

Maloney suggests implementing a small meetings contract template with preferred hotels. It can also pay off to enable self-service small meetings modules in meetings technology tools, and to co-develop flexible cancellation and attrition clauses for frequent-use hotels receiving steady business.

The most vital factor, some feel, is integration. Connecting the travel and meeting accommodation components not only drives a seamless attendee registration experience, but is imperative for both cost containment and duty of care, according to Whitehead.

“Ensuring your attendees’ travel and accommodations are tracked in the event of an unforeseen situation in their meeting location allows for a quick level of awareness and action by your team to be able to make contact or extract attendees where necessary,” she says.

May advises integration of the procurement process for small meetings into the company’s online booking engine such as Amadeus or Sabre’s GetThere. As one example, HRS’s Meetago is fully integrated into cytric. This allows meeting planners to procure small meetings and events based on general terms and conditions (GTCs) for meetings and groups. Such integration includes cancellation and deposit policies and replicates booking data for each participant into the travel itinerary of the online booking engine.

Beaubien says that procurement and agencies need to recognize that there are three tiers of meetings with corresponding levels of complexity. Tier 1 Meetings need to be handled by professional meeting planners, while Tier 2 and Tier 3 will be a hybrid of occasional planners working with their travel agencies and in-house planning department. With this structure in mind, he proposes a decentralized approach.

“To capture all your meetings, the strategy needs to be focused on decentralizing some of the meeting planning,” he says. “The occasional planners, for example, are already doing this anyway, and in many cases, they enjoy it and feel it is part of their job description.” For this to work, he argues, procurement should give them the flexibility to do their own sourcing, while making sure they have enough visibility and controls in place.

Exposing your pre-negotiated transient and meeting rates to these occasional planners and pre-attaching a standard hotel addendum with your solution are two simple ways to deliver some control without having to manage the individual meeting, Beaubien says.

Increased Attention
If nothing else, elevating the attention level given to small and medium-sized meetings is a start. “Just because a meeting is small doesn’t mean that it’s unimportant,” Hutchinson says. “Don’t rush. There is always time to check a small handful of venues. There is always time to properly account for all defined meeting elements and verify that you have accounted for everything. There is always time to get a second pair of eyes on your communication, and there is always time to review your budget before you say yes.”

Of course along with the challenges common to all event planning, small and medium-sized meetings may come with their own special requirements. But gaining more control of them can have substantial impact on the bottom line.

Whitehead notes that meeting managers who are most successful proactively establish a solid foundation up front, put in necessary safeguards, provide reasonable oversight and commit t­­o marketing engagement.

“Small meetings management is like dieting,” she says. “Everyone is looking for the magic pill that makes it easy, but this rarely leads to lasting results.”