August 01, 1999
Meetings & Conventions SEE YOU IN COURT August 1999 Current Issue
August 1999

Educating your own

Without Planning guidelines, how can everyone get on the same page? These innovators decided to write the book

By Maria Lenhart Photograph by Chris Buck

Carol Muldoon, director of meeting services for KPMG in Montvale, N.J., gets an anguished telephone call at least once a month from someone in the firm who signed a bad meeting contract with a hotel and needs to be rescued. "We have problems all the time stemming from contracts that are signed by people who aren't knowledgeable," she sighs. To make these calls a thing of the past, Muldoon has been developing ways to educate and assist people throughout the professional services firm, which has 30,000 employees at more than 100 locations in the United States. KPMG has a central meetings department, one that includes 14 full-time planners who handle all meetings for the company on a national scale. Smaller meetings usually are handled by administrative assistants working in offices throughout the company. "We recognize that we can't do it all," says Muldoon. "We don't want to take over the small local meetings. Many of these have a short lead time and should be planned by the local offices involved."

To improve the quality of meetings handled outside the department, Muldoon and her staff have developed a 50-page manual that has been distributed to 5,000 employees throughout the firm. After its publication, Muldoon and other planners went on a "road show" to various offices to promote its use. While the manual is primarily a planning primer that includes checklists, forms to use for comparing hotels, site selection tips and other basic logistical information, it also outlines the company's meeting policy and promotes the services of the meetings department.

At the same time, the company is hiring additional meeting planners who will be stationed at each of six U.S. regional locations. By Sept. 1, each office will have a full-time planner and a registrar who will handle housing registration and provide data on each meeting booked to the meetings department.

Although administrative assistants still will be allowed to plan meetings, only the full-time meeting planners stationed at each office will be able to sign contracts. "The idea is not to take meeting planning away from the admins, but to provide them with a resource," says Muldoon. "We'll also be lessening our risk by making sure that each contract is reviewed by a full-time planner."

Another intended benefit is to enable the company to capture more data pertaining to meetings, information that can be used to improve leverage with hotels, airlines and other suppliers. "We don't yet know just how many meetings are out there, but we will," says Muldoon.


Gather data. Identify how many events are being planned outside the meetings department and who is planning them. Ask that all meetings be registered with the meetings department and that pertinent data (location, room nights booked) be provided.

Write a book. Publish a how-to manual that includes basic meeting-planning practices and contact information, and distribute it to those in the company who plan meetings.

Spread the news. Publish a quarterly newsletter that features tips for effective meeting planning, success stories on recent company meetings and educational columns from outside consultants and suppliers.

Use the intranet. Set up a meetings-management site on the company intranet. The site can include areas for meetings registration, planning tips, preferred vendors, contact information, feedback from planners, and sample budgets and contracts.

Hold classes. Hold training seminars for those who plan meetings on a part-time basis. The classes can be taught either by full-time meeting planners within the company or by outside consultants familiar with company policies and goals.

Get organized. Encourage people to join industry organizations such as Meeting Professionals International. Convince the company to give employees time off to attend educational conferences and chapter meetings.

Put on a show. Meetings and travel managers can join forces to stage an annual trade fair geared to company employees who are frequent travelers and/or involved with occasional meeting planning. Booths can feature representatives from hotels, car rental companies and other suppliers with which the company does frequent business.


Order from chaos
Another meetings manager who is tackling the job of companywide meetings education is Richard Del Colle, who in 1994 signed on as the first-ever meetings program manager at Hewlett-Packard, headquartered in Palo Alto, Calif. For Del Colle, the past few years have been about creating order out of chaos. Despite the obstacles, he has helped the computer- and office equipment-manufacturing giant build an information system that helps people throughout the organization plan better meetings.

With some 120,000 employees in more than 500 locations, Hewlett-Packard never has had a central meetings department. Five years ago, no one even knew how many people in the company planned meetings, who they were or how well they did their jobs. And, despite the fact Hewlett-Packard was spending an estimated $200 million a year on meetings-related travel, no one knew how or where that money was being spent.

Through means that range from the company intranet to a quarterly newsletter, Del Colle, who works in Burlington, Mass., with one assistant, has found a way to bring a sense of cohesion and community to an estimated 1,400 employees throughout the firm who plan meetings. Although he would prefer to see the creation of a central meetings department, he accepts the fact that this is not the way Hewlett-Packard does business.

"[Hewlett-Packard] is highly decentralized. We're a collection of business units, each with autonomy," he explains. "As a computer company, we have to be able to develop new products quickly and get them to the market quickly. We can't be bogged down in a lot of bureaucratic hierarchy."

Decentralization makes sense in the competitive computer business, but it can be problematic for meetings. "It makes it hard for a company to track its meetings volume and to use that information for leverage with suppliers," says Del Colle. "A few years ago we began to realize that we were losing a lot of money on the meetings side by not knowing what was going on."

Playing detective
To find out, Del Colle did some sleuthing to determine which employees were involved in meeting planning and what they needed from the company. By consulting with major hotel companies that do frequent business with Hewlett-Packard, Del Colle was able to begin compiling a list of employees who book meetings. He then asked one of the hotel firms to conduct a series of focus groups that would get some candid answers from Hewlett-Packard planners about their needs and how much support they were getting on the job.

"Through the focus groups, we learned that what people most wanted was more education on meeting planning and the chance to network with each other," says Del Colle. "We also learned that the planners felt [Hewlett-Packard] was not giving them the tools they need to do their jobs."

Further research found that only 10 percent of the people booking meetings at the company are full-time meeting planners. About 70 percent are administrative assistants, while marketing executives comprise the remaining 20 percent. "From that, we realized that most of the people we needed to reach had only limited meeting-planning knowledge," says Del Colle. "We needed to find a way to give them instruction and a network of support."

Because most employees have access to computers and the Web, Del Colle determined that the best way to serve the far-flung work force was to develop a meetings management site on the company intranet that would provide educational material and enable planners to communicate with each other. Among the key features of the site is a form that enables planners to register their meetings and enter such information as location, hotels used and feedback on the experience. As a result, the company can keep track of meetings, and planners can learn from each other. "For example, if you're holding a meeting in San Diego, you can click onto a record of all recent meetings held there," says Del Colle. "You can read the planners' feedback about the location and the hotels, or you can contact the planner directly for advice."

Along with sharing experiences, meetings registration is designed to enable planners to negotiate better hotel rates. "Our goal is to gain better leverage at individual hotels," says Del Colle. "Through the registration system, planners can learn how many of our meetings have been booked at the same hotel. They can use that knowledge for better buying power."

Among the educational features of the site is an online copy of the Convention Liaison Council's manual for the Certified Meeting Professional exam. The site also includes samples of hotel contracts as well as guidelines for dealing with attrition clauses and other issues.

Another area of the site is designed to minimize losses from cancellations: It lists hotels where the company has credit for room nights that were not used because of a canceled meeting.

Push and pull
Del Colle also edits a quarterly newsletter on meetings management that is distributed throughout the company. The newsletter features case studies and how-to articles. "Along with articles by planners, we also ask hotel people and other suppliers to contribute," says Del Colle. "They're not sales pitches but tips on things like food and beverage management or recommended attire for resort meetings."

Del Colle considers the newsletter to be a valuable companion piece to the intranet site. "It's a push-and-pull situation," he explains. "The intranet is the pull; it's where people can pull down the information they need. The newsletter, however, enables us to push the information that we want people to receive."

The newsletter and the intranet site both emphasize the importance of using hotels, airlines and other suppliers with which Hewlett-Packard's travel department has established negotiated rates. "The company has no mandate that forces people to use these preferred suppliers, so we try to influence through education," says Del Colle. "We don't just emphasize the cost savings but the fact that we have formed relationships with these suppliers because they consistently deliver a certain standard of quality."

To provide further educational support, Del Colle travels to various Hewlett-Packard locations to conduct meeting-planning training sessions. Additionally, company business units are encouraged to ask meetings-management companies to conduct seminars for employees.

How successful has the effort been to educate? Del Colle says nearly all the company's large or top-end meetings are being registered on the intranet, enabling the company to capture information about them. As for the bottom line, he estimates that 5 to 10 percent is being saved on meetings-related travel, which translates to as much as $10 million a year. "We can't pinpoint the exact savings, but we know more people are using our preferred suppliers and hotel credits from canceled meetings," he says.

Taking control

In the battle to minimize costs and improve quality across the board, KPMG and Hewlett-Packard are far from alone, although they might have more comprehensive programs than many companies. "Many more companies are setting guidelines for meetings these days," says Jean Baier Swaffer, a meetings management consultant with Meeting/Event Management in Half Moon Bay, Calif. "They want each meeting to have a certain look, to be consistent in quality. They want each meeting to uphold the company image."

Along with improving quality, some companies see education and the implementation of standard procedures as a way to reduce risk and liability. "In many companies, you've got people signing hotel contracts with draconian attrition clauses who don't understand what they're agreeing to," says Beth Truitt, vice president for global business solutions at McGettigan Partners, a meetings management company based in Philadelphia. "When we ask people about this, they often say it does happen in their companies."

Swaffer believes it is critical that meetings managers retain control over contracts. "It might make sense for others outside the meetings department to handle logistics, but contracts should be overseen by those who deal with meetings full time," she says. "This has become more crucial as hotels have become sticklers for things they once overlooked. There is less room for error."

Among those grappling with this situation is Lynn Lewis, meeting planner with the accounting firm Ernst & Young in Dallas. Lewis and other members of the meetings department recently completed a meeting-planning guide to be distributed to administrative assistants throughout the firm. The manual encourages users to call on the meetings department for assistance in sensitive areas, such as negotiation with suppliers and contracts. It also includes checklists of planning basics, sample contracts and advice on what to watch out for in contract clauses.

Lewis, who has concerns about people outside the department signing contracts, says it was a difficult decision to include a section on contracts in the manual. "All administrative assistants are encouraged to send us contracts for review, but we know that this isn't always going to happen," she says. "So we decided to provide the information."

The next step at Ernst & Young will be to require that all meetings be registered with the department to allow it to track costs and volume. "We see a lot of room for improvement in educating people," says Lewis. "Perhaps the biggest and most challenging problem is to get people to realize what they can do and what they should turn over to us."

Also wrestling with this problem is George Jenkins, global event manager for Mobil Corp. in Dallas. Ideally, he would like to see his nine-member department expanded to the point where it could oversee most of the meetings at the oil company, which has more than 40,000 employees around the world. For now, he says, he will settle for getting more meetings registered with the department and for persuading people outside the department to use Mobil's preferred suppliers and to submit contracts for review.

"An administrative assistant who plans just a couple of meetings a year is not in a position to sign contracts on behalf of the firm, yet it happens all the time," Jenkins says. "I realize this is a sensitive issue. They view meeting planning as a perk of the job. Our message is that we don't want all of your meetings, but we do want to be able to standardize and track them."

Toward this end, Jenkins is developing an event-planning site on Mobil's intranet that will promote the services of the meetings department and enable users to register their meetings. The site also will include a Hot Dates section that will list hotel credits available from canceled meetings.

Another strategy is to market the services of the meetings department to business-unit managers throughout the company. "We're sitting down with people and letting them know why they should register their meetings with us and how we can save them time and money," says Jenkins. "We can't force people to do things our way, but we can educate them on why they should."

Mobil currently provides no meetings training for administrative assistants, but, Jenkins says, a training program is under consideration.

A dangerous thing?
Although some companies are implementing meetings education throughout their organizations, not all meetings managers are convinced it is the right thing to do. "The flip side of educating people is that once they have a little knowledge, they may be tempted to take on something they can't handle," says David Kassel, senior meeting manager for Deloitte & Touche LLP, a consulting firm based in Wilton, Conn. "Someone who has successfully planned a meeting for seven people might think that they can handle a much larger event."

At Deloitte & Touche almost all meetings that require sleeping rooms are orchestrated by the 22-person Global Conference Group. According to Kassel, one of the key advantages of this approach is that meetings are more likely to achieve a consistent level of quality. "There are certain details attendees know will be taken care of," he says. "The table setups will allow space for laptop computers, the transportation to the airport will be arranged, the information packets will contain what they need. If others outside the department are planning meetings, there's no guarantee these details will be adhered to, even if we offer guidelines."

Like Jenkins at Mobil, Kassel and others in the Global Conference Group market their services to managers throughout the company. "We distribute copies of our meeting guidelines and objectives, with the message being that they should work through us," he says.

At Ralston Purina Co., where meetings and travel have been consolidated into one department, there is a similarly strong campaign to discourage people outside the department from handling meetings. According to Annette Morris, manager of meeting and travel services for the St. Louis-based pet-food company, the department has succeeded in taking control of at least 95 percent of all the company's meetings.

To promote itself, Morris says, the department includes information about its services in all information kits given to new employees. It also sponsors an annual trade fair at which employees can meet with department staff, as well as representatives from hotels and other suppliers that have preferred relationships with Ralston Purina.

Free range
For other companies, setting standard practices and procedures for meetings, whether through a central department or through companywide education, is not in the picture at all. At Oracle Corp., a database software firm in Redwood Shores, Calif., meetings are handled by employees, primarily administrative assistants, in various divisions, says marketing manager Dena Brady McNulty.

Although the company offers occasional planning seminars for employees, and all contracts must be cleared through the purchasing department, meeting planning at Oracle is largely an ad hoc process. According to McNulty, who plans meetings for her department, the laissez-faire approach has some advantages.

"We're not sandbagged in any way," she says. "We can create our own relationships with hotels and aren't limited to those mandated by the company. We get quick turnaround, and we retain control."

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