Meetings & Conventions Inner Strength July 1999
Team Cisco: From left: Cisco System Inc.’s corporate meeting and
event managers Linda Brown, David Janssen and Michele Snock; Ralph
Colunga, manager, travel, metro, meetings and events; Laura Mann,
manager, corporate meetings and events; and corporate meeting and
event managers Kathy Corrigan and Michelle Carlson.
For these companies, insourcing, not
outsourcing, gets the job done
By Maria Lenhart Photograph by Jason M. Grow - Saba
I n many parts of Corporate America, the in-house meeting
planner has become a rare species, made scarce by rampant
outsourcing. But some companies are bucking conventional wisdom by
building up, not diminishing, their meetings departments. Rather
than increasing their reliance on third parties, these companies
stand firm in the belief that no one can do the job better than
their own people.
"There may be some value in outsourcing, but no third party
could know our fellow employees the way we do," says Laura Mann,
manager of corporate meetings and events for Cisco Systems Inc., a
San Jose, Calif.-based Internet technology firm whose meeting
department has grown during the past two years. "We know the
corporate culture and how to provide a meeting environment that
A continent away, that same view is heartily endorsed by Anthony
Pastor, site and contract specialist for McKinsey & Co., a New
York City-based management consulting firm that also is bringing
more meeting planners on board. "We have a unique culture here, and
our people understand it," he says. "A third party won't have that
At Pacific Life Insurance Co. in Newport Beach, Calif., where
the meetings and recognition department has grown in six years from
one full-time planner to seven, a strong in-house team of meeting
managers is regarded as an essential tool to help the company meet
its goals. "We're concerned with how meetings serve the overall
business plan," says assistant vice president and department head
Jaimee Niles. "Outsiders, as good as they may be, can't intimately
know our company as we do."
Are these three companies signaling a reversal in the
outsourcing trend, or are they exceptions to the rule? The latter
is more likely the case, according to those who specialize in job
placement for meeting planners.
"For the most part, companies are not adding more planners,
although they are replacing those who leave," says Dawn Penfold,
president of The Meeting Candidate Network in New York City.
"Things have reached a stabilization point."
Placement expert Ellen Sandler, owner of ESP Meeting Minders in
San Mateo, Calif., believes companies increasing their meetings
departments are anomalies. "Meetings departments continue to shrink
and in many cases are being folded into the
marketing-communications departments," she says. "There will still
be one or two planners in place, but most logistical work will be
outsourced. It is with third parties that the bulk of growth is
So why have Cisco Systems, McKinsey & Co. and Pacific Life
Insurance chosen to strengthen their own ranks? According to
Sandler, the fact that they are all large, growing companies has a
lot to do with it. "For companies above a certain size, it makes
financial sense to have people on board," she says. "In some large
companies, the meetings department is regarded as a service
provider for the entire company. Others within the company are
viewed by the meeting planners as clients."
Another characteristic shared by the three companies spotlighted
here is the presence of forward-thinking meeting managers who have
made it their mission to demonstrate how they can provide greater
value and service than outsiders. Impressed by their efforts,
senior management has given them the green light to expand their
Cisco Systems Inc.
For young, fast-growing technology companies, getting a grip on
burgeoning meetings requirements can be as difficult as competing
with Microsoft. Few have been more challenged by their own meteoric
success than Cisco, a leading manufacturer of computer network
products that doubled its work force to more than 17,000 employees
in less than two years. In addition to its Silicon Valley
headquarters, Cisco Systems maintains sizable operations in
Chelmsford, Mass., and Raleigh, N.C., and has a growing network of
branch offices throughout Europe, Asia and Latin America.
When Ralph Colunga, Cisco's manager of travel, metro, meetings
and events, joined the company in October 1997, most meetings were
handled by administrative assistants and other employees scattered
throughout the company. The challenge was to create a central
department that could manage meetings and business travel in an
efficient, cost-effective way for the entire company. He began by
bringing three departments, travel, metro (the company's
expense-reimbursement arm), and meetings and events, under one
Laura Mann, whose background includes 17 years as a meeting
manager for an airline automation company, came on board in March
1998 to oversee the new meetings and events division. In little
more than a year, the division has grown to include six full-time
planners in San Jose and two in Raleigh. Meeting planners based in
Europe and Asia soon might be added, and, "as the need arises,
we'll be adding more here in the U.S. as well," says Mann.
Novices need not apply. "Each person here has 10 to 20 years of
experience, and it's great overall experience," says Mann. "They
all know how to negotiate with hotels, airlines and caterers. While
I assign meetings to people based on their strengths and
preferences, I know that everyone is equipped to do anything."
For Colunga and Mann, a major priority has been to establish the
meetings and events division as a recognized resource for the rest
of the company. "It's been a kind of Field of Dreams
scenario — you build it and they will come," says Colunga. "We
built ourselves to manage meetings for the company, and it
happened." Although small conferences still are planned by
administrative assistants in various departments, the division has
taken over most of Cisco's large and midsize business meetings,
including training seminars, educational symposia, sales meetings
and employee celebrations.
Having handled more than 400 meetings in the past year, Mann
estimates the meetings and events division could be asked to handle
twice that number in the year to come. Far from daunted by the
growth, Mann and Colunga view it as the fulfillment of their goal
to build a strong, reputable department. "We actively market our
services to everyone else in the company," says Mann. "We want
everyone to call on us."
Among new services created by the department is a program of
guidelines and templates called Meetings Express that is designed
to aid administrative assistants who are planning small meetings,
usually for 15 or fewer attendees. By accessing the meetings
division's site on Cisco's intranet, users can find tips on
negotiating hotel rates and a list of preferred vendors. The
department also created a meetings registration tool for employees
that enables them to book air tickets and hotel rooms online.
To promote cost savings for meetings, the department's key
strategy has been to establish a network of vendors that offer the
company favorable rates in return for volume business. For savings
on air travel, the division takes advantage of meeting zone fares
and other deals offered by airlines to attract group business. The
use of preferred vendors is one of several reasons why Colunga
believes it makes economic sense for Cisco to rely on internal
meeting planners rather than third parties.
Colunga also views reliance on in-house planners as the best way
to safeguard the confidential nature of many Cisco meetings.
"Security is a very important issue in the high-tech world, and a
lot of very sensitive information gets exchanged at our meetings,"
he says. "Our objective is to provide an atmosphere at meetings
where creative ideas can flow, but where people don't have to worry
about those ideas being stolen or overheard by the wrong
Although top management at Cisco has been receptive to the
continued growth of the meetings and events division, Colunga has
never taken this support for granted and goes to great lengths to
communicate why such growth is justified. "Managers don't always
understand the role planners play, and it's important to showcase
the value that you bring to the company," he says. "They need to
appreciate your ability to negotiate, to provide good service and
to create procedures that save money and yet don't stifle
To document value, the division draws up a final budget for each
meeting that includes a section detailing the cost savings involved
by using preferred vendors. Colunga also asks the meeting and
travel managers within his department to provide evidence of cost
savings to others within the company, including those who manage
finance, sales and human resources. "While people don't always
understand the nature of the meetings business, they do understand
the bottom line," he says.
McKinsey & Co.
In many respects, McKinsey & Co. is not a likely place for a
large internal meetings department to take root. One of the world's
leading management consulting firms, it employs more than 4,000
consultants in 70 offices scattered around the globe. "We're very
decentralized, very much like a large law firm rather than a
traditional company governed by a CEO and a central executive
committee," says McKinsey's Anthony Pastor.
Nevertheless, a centralized meeting planning operation steadily
has been taking shape at McKinsey, splintering off the company's
worldwide training department in New York City. "Meeting planning
began just as an offshoot of the training department, but we've
grown into a service provider for the entire company," says Pastor,
who oversees meeting planning for McKinsey and has recently hired
planners to fill three new positions. They have become part of the
30-plus member training department, which includes a half-dozen
full-time planners and a dozen or so other employees who handle
meetings as part of their jobs.
The planners handle all company meetings that involve employees
from more than one McKinsey office. According to Pastor, that
translates into "hundreds" of meetings per year, ranging from
conferences for fewer than 10 to regional and international
meetings for 700 or more. Most are education- or
Beyond that, the department has established itself as a
help-and-information resource for others at McKinsey who plan
meetings. Some of the larger McKinsey offices employ full-time
meeting planners to handle their own internal needs, while smaller
offices include a staff member whose job includes arranging
Referring to the various McKinsey offices as "clients," Pastor
says his department takes a service attitude toward working with
others in the company and encourages them to call or send e-mail
"We market our services and expertise throughout the company,"
he says. "Our pitch is that if you need help, give us a call."
How much help is provided? According to Pastor, the idea is not
to take over the whole job, but rather to assist with site
selection and vendor choices, review contracts, and answer
questions. "We'll help with the groundwork, but then it's up to you
to invite the people and handle the other logistics," he says.
Site selection is among the most crucial services that the
department provides to off-site planners. "When people are looking
for a hotel, we try to keep them aware of the big picture," says
Pastor. "Someone may say, 'Why not go to the Ritz-Carlton? It's
only $20 more than this other hotel.' Of course, when that's
multiplied by 400, it does make a difference. We clue them in to
what costs savings can mean companywide."
At the same time, the department strives to provide off-site
planners with a comprehensive list of hotel choices in any given
city. "Being able to show someone a good alternative to an
expensive hotel is often the key," says Pastor. "Maybe they only
know of one or two hotels in a certain town, whereas we may know
others that are as good, or better."
Although a goal of the department is to strengthen its influence
throughout the company, Pastor says it is careful to tread lightly.
"There is no company mandate that requires people to work with us,"
he says. "We let people know who we are and what we can and cannot
do for them, but we never force-feed anyone."
Pastor views every call for assistance as an opportunity to
build a relationship and to further demonstrate the department's
value for the rest of the company. "As an example, I recently got a
call from one of our offices in Germany that needed some help with
finding a meeting site in the United States," he says.
"I was able to supply the office with a number of choices and,
in doing so, helped establish our credibility. The success of our
department hinges on creating a reputation for good service."
For Pastor, one of the rewards of establishing such a reputation
is being able to bring additional meeting planners on board. In
candidates, he seeks experience and the ability to thrive in
McKinsey's intellectual environment. "This is a firm comprised of
very bright people, where consultants are drawn from the top
graduate schools," says Pastor. "Whomever I hire must feel
comfortable here. If we're going to be a good resource for the
company, then we have to have a good understanding of the
Pacific Life Insurance Co.
When assistant vice president Jaimee Niles was brought in to head
the meetings and recognition department at Pacific Life Insurance
Co., the department consisted of Niles and an administrative
assistant. Six years later, Niles oversees a team of seven meeting
planners who handle educational symposia and incentive programs as
well as a wide range of business meetings for the company.
To some degree, the growth of Pacific Life's meetings department
can be attributed to the growth experienced by the entire company,
now one of the country's largest providers of insurance and
financial management services. The company employs about 800 people
at its headquarters and branch offices but relies on a large,
growing national network of independent brokers to sell its
products and services. "Virtually every department has grown
rapidly during the past five years," says Niles. "And the number of
meetings we do is increasing by at least 15 percent each year."
But another driver for the expansion of the meetings department
has been Niles' determination to build a staff that is involved
with the content of meetings and understands their relationship to
"We've not just expanded the department but have upgraded the
job requirements as well," she says. "We want to attract people who
can see the big picture and aren't just concerned with
The result, says Niles, is a "team of high-level people who are
truly meeting managers. They know our products, our services, what
speakers to hire for each meeting. They know how to make the best
use of their time." Each person in the department has a specialty,
including two planners who handle business meetings and others who
specialize in areas such as continuing education and
In building the department, Niles, whose 15 years with Pacific
Life also have included jobs in areas such as client relations and
training, has taken care to see that it does not operate in
isolation. To stay in contact with the rest of the company, she
created the operational executive group, a forum for middle
managers to exchange information and share ideas on accomplishing
business goals. "The more you can learn about other areas of the
company and its business concepts, the better job you can do as a
meeting planner," she says.
Chief among the meetings overseen by the department are an
incentive meeting and an educational symposium, scheduled during
alternate years, each of which is attended by more than 500 top
sales producers. The incentive is a traditional rewards program
held in a glamorous overseas location; the symposium gets down to
business with sessions on new products, tax laws and other issues.
Along with these, the department handles more than 50 smaller
business meetings a year.
The audience for most meetings are not employees but brokers and
sales representatives who handle Pacific Life products. Because of
this, Niles believes it is crucial that meetings be planned by
people who not only understand their purpose, but how to
communicate the intended message. "We want the brokers and
representatives to focus on selling our products, and meetings are
an important way to accomplish this," she says. "They introduce the
brokers to our products and give us the opportunity to build
relationships with them."
John Jarboe, Pacific Life's executive vice president of
marketing–individual insurance, to whom Niles reports, adds, "In
many ways, [the] meetings and recognition [department] operates as
a sales vehicle for the company. They know that meetings are one of
the key ways that we attract and keep people working on our
Although some meetings' logistical details are outsourced,
Jarboe and Niles prefer that the important decisions and most
details be handled in-house. "Personal attention is very important,
especially for incentive meetings, and I don't think you can get
that by farming things out," says Jarboe. "Some third parties might
be very good, but I don't see how they can have the same commitment
our own people do."
With a growing number of third parties
available to handle everything from meetings registration to site
selection, why should a company maintain a strong, centralized
Because it might make economic sense, says
Rolfe Schellenberger, a consultant for Rochester, Wis.-based
Runzheimer International, which advises corporations on travel- and
meetings-management issues. Schellenberger says by consolidating
their meetings operations into one department, companies can better
track expenditures, gain negotiating clout with hotels and other
suppliers for preferred rates, and save an average of 15 percent.
“If meeting planning isn’t centralized, if meetings are handled by
secretaries in various departments or by third parties, then it’s
hard to get a handle on what the overall expenditures are,” he
“It’s important that companies have a strong,
centralized structure for meetings that can oversee
spending and establish relationships with vendors,” adds Penny
Perlman, a travel- and meetings-management consultant with John
Caldwell & Associates in Washington, D.C.
Schellenberger also believes in-house planners
are more likely than third parties to act in the best interest of
the company. “The independent planner may have certain vendor
loyalties that go against those of the company.”
How large should a meetings department be?
Schellenberger recommends companies hire as many full-time planners
as their meetings volume justifies. “If there’s enough work to keep
a full-time planner occupied, then it’s worth it to keep that
position filled rather than to outsource or to have several people
doing the work part-time,” he says. “It’s better than having to
educate and re-educate people who don’t do it full-time and
therefore can’t keep up with the changing environment.”
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