December 01, 1997
Meetings & Conventions: Searle's Solution December 1997 Current Issue
December 1997
Searle's Solution

How a pharmaceuticals giant with just two meeting planners pulled off a nationwide consolidation in six months


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 spent.

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 status quo.

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.

Bottom-Line Motives

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 planning department.

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 product launches.

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 executives.

Meetings Amok

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 departments.

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 value."

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. *


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