Meetings & Conventions: Searle's Solution December
How a pharmaceuticals giant with just two meeting planners
pulled off a nationwide consolidation in six months
BY CARLA BENINI
Leading the charge: Searle's new meetings team includes (left
to right) Mary Gignilliat, Mary Dews, Vigdis Tonne, David Betke and
McGettigan employee Charlene Russell.
Photograph by Gregory Gaymont
It's hard to believe a company that employs 8,500 people had
never before tracked its meetings. Yet until this past summer,
Searle, with 34 offices worldwide, had no idea how many were being
planned, who was planning them or how much money was being
The Skokie, Ill.-based pharmaceutical giant's sheer size is
exactly why consolidating meetings management seemed too daunting a
task, according to Vigdis Tonne, newly named associate director of
global meeting and convention services, who was half of the firm's
former two-person planning department. But in late 1996 when the
call to cut costs came from above -- from parent company Monsanto
Life Sciences in St. Louis -- Searle could no longer afford the
What followed was a nationwide consolidation at breakneck pace.
In just six months, Searle plotted and launched a central meetings
department. And Tonne, who has six years of experience at Searle,
witnessed dramatic change. In its first two months, her office
signed up 150 meetings. Within one year of operation, cost savings
are projected to be in the millions.
Monsanto's directive was a wake-up call. "It forced us to look
at how we were doing business," says Tonne, 48, who was previously
the U.S. manager of meeting services in Searle's two-person
Meetings was identified as a cost-cutting area, and upper
management recruited a dream team to figure out how it would be
done. Its members were from strategic planning, communications and
procurement, along with an employee from Monsanto (a customer
service expert and liaison to the parent company). Tonne was
brought in as the meeting planning expert.
The group had only six months to find a workable solution
because of Searle's "rich pipeline" -- that's pharmaceutical
industry lingo for when products are being studied for potential
drug approval. This pipeline translates to a packed meetings
schedule of research powwows, medical education meetings and
To meet the strict deadline, team members were told to put most
other job responsibilities aside -- at least during conventional
work hours. Days were spent researching the consolidation; evenings
and weekends were spent trying to keep pace with the "other" job,
according to Tonne.
How did the team keep sane? They agreed to maintain a sense of
humor. Members took turns bringing breakfast to so-called "blob
meetings," held every Monday morning. And to attract attention to
memos, the meetings management -- or "M&M" team, as they called
themselves -- sent M&M's along with any correspondence to top
Some inherent problems in the meetings process were uncovered
early on: Too many vendors were being hired by too many employees
who lacked a trained planner's understanding of the meeting
planning process. In addition, Tonne estimates that 15 different
independent planning firms were being used among 20
Knowledge is power, and Tonne realized how ill-prepared
employees were in meeting negotiations when an employee mentioned
that the independent firm she had contracted sent five planners to
a meeting two days early, which seemed unnecessary. When Tonne
explained that that could be negotiated out of the contract, the
employee seemed shocked. "That's when I realized that this was our
business, not theirs," says Tonne.
"Those hiring the vendors weren't comfortable looking at
proposals or signing contracts," she adds. "They didn't know which
prices were realistic and which ones to challenge." In unfamiliar
territory, employees had to lean on their suppliers for advice, not
knowing if it was sage or not. "They just wanted to get the
business done. This wasn't their real job," says Tonne.
And, while Searle did have a planning department for its U.S.
operations, the workload was tremendous. The two-person team was
doing up to $4 million annually in meetings business, says Tonne.
Even if she could have taken on more, her domain was limited to
sales meetings. Unless another division solicited her help, her
hands were tied. "I would see proposals come over the fax and
think, 'this is not a good proposal,'" says Tonne. "But it was out
of my jurisdiction."
Aside from fat contracts, also costly was the fact that agencies
were booking meetings under their own names, not Searle's. The
pharmaceutical company may have been doing $1 million in business
at a particular hotel chain, but neither Searle nor the chain knew
about it, undermining Searle's ability to negotiate long-term or
multiple meetings contracts.
Learning From the Experts
Research revealed that several industry competitors had recently
consolidated their meetings departments. The Searle team pinpointed
three pharmaceutical companies and an insurance company that had
either completed or were in the midst of a consolidation, and spent
time at each of their offices.
Field trips to Bristol-Meyers Squibb in Princeton, N.J.; Glaxo
Wellcome in Research Triangle Park, N.C.; Parke-Davis in Morris
Plains, N.J., and Chicago-based CNA Insurance Companies revealed
vastly different approaches. (CNA was chosen as a benchmark because
it had consolidated with one of the travel agencies Searle was
considering.) At Bristol-Meyers Squibb, for example, 90 percent of
the new department was in-house. At other companies, internal
departments were being charged for meeting services, but that
apparently resulted in a lower compliance rate, says Tonne. And
some companies opted to maintain contracts with several vendors
rather than just one.
There was one common denominator, however: A committed
information services department was crucial in determining and
enforcing priorities and deadlines that would result in increased
efficiency and, ultimately, save dollars.
All Systems Go
The group got the go-ahead for the consolidation on June 1. The
department was open for business July 15, with the help of
McGettigan Corporate Planning Services. The Philadelphia-based firm
provided eight full-time planners, plus training programs for
Searle staff members and advice on designing a new department.
The process involved consolidating all U.S. meetings, as well as
international meetings for U.S.-based departments. To drum up
business, Tonne went on a promotional blitz, sending out memos
about the new department and its policies and touting the new
services at departmental staff meetings. Once the department was up
and running, Tonne and her staff held an open house.
Today, the workload is divvied up among a staff of 12, four of
whom are Searle employees. At the helm is Tonne. She has one
planner specializing in international meetings; the rest focus on
either sales or research and development meetings.
The company hasn't mandated that the young department must plan
all of Searle's gatherings. However, Tonne does insist that initial
hotel research and contracts are filtered through her office. Once
a contract is signed, the internal client can decide whether to use
the meeting department's services.
Why spend money on an outside vendor when the job can be done
in-house for free? Tonne's department charges only for expenses,
such as mailings or printing, but not for services. "They would be
spending money that they could be using elsewhere," she says.
Searle employees seem to agree. "We never anticipated the volume
or the success ratio," says Tonne. Searle estimates that if the
company spends $15 million on meetings, the new department will
save $2 million in its first year of operation and $4 million the
following year. Savings will come from savvy negotiations, higher
productivity levels and fewer commission fees, says Tonne.
Eventually, Searle executives want to tackle a global
consolidation, where the Skokie-based department would plan
meetings for its worldwide offices. "Our president wants us to do
this globally, but we don't have the relationships over there," she
says. "I don't know that we can bring the expertise at a
The department is already looking ahead to the future with an
eye on developing an express meeting service, where Tonne would
contract with local hotels for the company's small day meetings.
There's also talk of expanding the current department, says Tonne.
"We have to see how consistent the business is," she says. "Was it
a fluke that all these people signed up or is this really the
amount of business that's out there?"
Time -- and a lot of hard work -- will tell. *
Back to Current Issue indexM&C
| Events Calendar
| Incentive News
| Meetings Market
| CVB Links
| Reader Survey
| Hot Dates
| Contact M&C