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July 01, 1999
Meetings & Conventions Inner Strength July 1999 Current Issue
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.

Inner Strength

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 works."

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 inside knowledge."

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 taking place."

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 teams.

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 umbrella.

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 people."

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 employees."

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 training-oriented.

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 meetings.

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 for assistance.

"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 culture."

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 company goals.

"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 logistics."

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 incentives.

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 behalf."

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."

SHOULD COMPANIES INSOURCE? 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 meetings department?

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 says.

“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.”

M.L.

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