Meetings management is going strategic in a way that will reshape the job of every professional planner as it moves more fully into the model of how corporate travel is managed and enforced through company policy.
And that means every professional planner needs to understand the basics of Strategic Meetings Management Programs (SMMP), which seek to bring to meetings the kind of consistency and oversight that have long been associated with corporate travel.
SMMP has a strong booster in Louann Cashill, who previously led meetings services for Toyota and other major corporations and currently heads up Special Projects for StarCite, the meetings technology company.
Cashill shared her perspective on the evolution, status and outlook for SMMP with Travel Market Report meetings editor Harvey Chipkin.
The Beginning: Meetings came to be considered a strategic segment of the corporate travel spend less than a decade ago, when technology developments made it possible to centralize the meetings function in a single department, Cashill said. Prior to that, “It was believed that anybody could plan a meeting, and some companies simply rotated the responsibility from department to department. With the technology came the realization that the meetings piece was similar to the travel piece, although it is a very different discipline.”
Early SMMP: The first initiatives toward managing meetings through technology involved online registration. “That gave birth to increased consolidation in all meeting areas,” Cashill said. “This was increasingly driven by meeting spend. If you look at a company the size of Toyota – which was spending $40 million a year on meetings – that was a lot of spend that was not being managed. Meetings began to get the attention of the CFO, if not the CEO.”
Beyond logistics: Having a strategic meetings program in place “is not about tactical aspects like booking hotel rooms or planning meals,” she told Travel Market Report. “SMMP is all about the planning process – whether in-house or outsourced – that insures meetings are operated in a consistent way where data is captured and where you are reporting out on everything to do with the meeting.”
ROI reckoning: Ascertaining a meeting’s ROI, “will certainly be one of the biggest initiatives in the near future. ROI is starting to get a lot of attention because corporations want to know if a meeting is valuable,” Cashill noted. “When Cisco recently took a major meeting virtual there was a lot of interest in comparing its ROI to a physical meeting. You have to be able to measure tangibles, as well as intangibles like employee satisfaction.”
Where SMMP stands now: Sophisticated planners “are well aware of SMMP – and attempts to replicate the travel management model,” Cashill said. However, “I have met planners unfamiliar with SMMP; they are traditionally employees with multiple roles who might handle travel and procurement, as well as meetings. This is still a grey area where I am regularly asked questions like, ‘What is SMMP? Where do I start? How does it apply to my business?’ But it is at least on everyone’s mind.”
Getting started: Planners must recognize that technology is the cornerstone of SMMP. Concurrently, they must begin to understand the management tools available to them. And they should be prepared for those who are resistant to change. “When you start telling your marketing department they have to deal with preferred hotels for meetings – just as they do for travel – there might be resistance,” she noted. “They have to be educated in how this supports business goals. That’s the shift the meetings industry is making; we’re there to support the company’s overall objectives through meetings.”
Is SMMP for every planner? SMMP is appropriate for a company or association whose meetings spend is significant enough to warrant an investment in technology, according to Cashill. However, independent planners can work with the technology tools also, if their clients are of sufficient size.
Looking Ahead: Technology “will be the cornerstone of any SMMP, we can’t do any of this without those tools,” Cashill said. “In heavily regulated industries like pharmaceutical and financial – where they have to justify their meetings expenditures to the government – that is even more urgent. In addition, those industries have strong ethics policies, which can be supported by SMMP. The challenge for planners going forward is that, “Suppliers will be in a much stronger position in 2011 and 2012. That’s another reason for companies to have SMMP in place; they will be in a better position to negotiate.”