by Tom Isler | December 01, 2005

"Meetings are the Wild West of corporate spend, typically uncontrolled," says Michael Boult, CEO of StarCite Inc., a Philadelphia-based provider of end-to-end meetings management tools. Increasingly, however, new kinds of charge cards, virtual accounts and other tools are coming into play to help companies and planners manage meetings-related expenses, raising hopes that what is commonly referred to as the “last frontier” of corporate cost management will soon be tamed.
    The emergence of the dedicated meeting card is perhaps the most important of these new developments. “The cards in and of themselves are not much different than other credit cards,” notes Marcie Verdin, vice president of large markets, corporate payment solutions, for Purchase, N.Y.-based MasterCard International. “Their value is in making data available and streamlining the business process.”
    Indeed, a great advantage of meeting cards is that they serve as accounting tools that provide detailed reporting on each event’s expenses. Companies can then accurately calculate total meetings spend numbers that can be used as leverage in future negotiations with venues and suppliers. For some planners, this ability would be nothing short of revolutionary.

Tracking elusive costs
Many companies, including some that pay for meetings with traditional corporate cards, have but a rough idea of how much they spend on meetings; consequently, they might well be leaving money on the negotiation table, notes Shelle Santana, vice president of corporate card product management for New York City-based American Express. “Very few companies in the neighborhood of 5 percent have a dedicated line item that says ‘meetings,’” she adds.
    Collecting aggregate data on meetings spend traditionally has been daunting, especially for companies that plan events in a decentralized environment, meaning different employees or departments are responsible for organizing meetings. But the imperative to track spend is greater than ever, thanks to procurement’s increasing shadow over the planning process.
    “Bottom line: If a planner isn’t doing this, they need to start,” says Mickey Schaefer, president of Tucson, Ariz.-based Mickey Schaefer & Associates. Every dollar planners can account for is critical, she adds, because they can use that data to prove a meeting’s value to their own organizations, as well as to a hotel or supplier during negotiations.
    A 2005 American Express study of 105 companies in the United States and Europe, conducted by Chicago-based A.T. Kearney, concluded that firms could save up to 10 to 15 percent on meetings spend by reducing fragmentation of the planning process, adopting a dedicated payment mechanism and mandating its use, along with increasing visibility of overall meetings spend. Meeting cards can effectively support those initiatives, building on the success companies have achieved in curbing travel and entertainment expenses with T&E cards. 
    Savings isn’t the only reason to implement a meeting card program, according to Chicago-based John Ohaver, vice president of Management Alternatives Inc., a travel management consulting company. “I recommend the cards because they are a whole heck of a lot easier for everyone involved,” he says.