At BlueCross and BlueShield of Florida, Kathleen Zwart,
CMP (center), aims to train some 1,000 assistants who plan
meetings. Among those who appreciate her efforts: Judy McCray
(left) and Katrina Jones.
Kathleen Zwart, CMP, is one of a handful of
dedicated meeting planners at health-care giant BlueCross and
BlueShield of Florida. But she estimates there are at least 1,000
administrative assistants involved with planning meetings at the
organization’s sprawling Jacksonville campus. Her goal, she says,
is to find them and teach them as much as she can, in the interest
of controlling meeting costs.
“I used to work in hotel sales,” says Zwart, “and my best calls
were the ones where an assistant would call up and say, ‘Hi, I’ve
got $5,000 to spend on this meeting for 100 people. Can you help
me?’ You bet I helped them I helped them spend it all. I want to
arm our admins with the right terminology and knowledge before they
make that call.”
BlueCross and BlueShield of Florida is not an anomaly.
Corporate vigilance, which demands adherence to the Sarbanes-Oxley
Act of July 2002 and the continued emphasis on controlling all
areas of spend, has drawn attention to meetings. In some cases, it
has even fueled the creation of a formal meetings policy.
A recent study by Northcross, Ga.-based Windward Marketing
Group of 20 U.S. firms with an average annual meeting spend of $19
million found 42 percent intend to create a meetings policy, with
20 percent citing “reduced exposure to financial and security risk”
as the reason.
In many companies today, administrative assistants have evolved
into de facto meeting planners for their immediate bosses. A quick
sales meeting here, an employee-of-the-month awards dinner there, a
client pitch they have become convenient go-tos for managers who
already rely on them for daily administrative support.
There is no question they provide a valuable service, says
Zwart, particularly for companies such as BlueCross and BlueShield
of Florida, where she acknowledges the meetings department is
“definitely understaffed.” But they also can be an obstacle that
cannot be ignored when it comes to creating a realistic meetings
policy, company-enforced or not.
“When admins plan meetings, there really aren’t any guidelines.
They only need approval to get the final invoices paid,” notes
Zwart. “We want to control costs and show savings. To make any kind
of policy work, I need the assistants to want the same things. And
I’m going to have to show them why.”
To get admin buy-in, the first step is to find the assistants
who are planning meetings; the second is to convince them why they
have to do things differently. And if there is no company-enforced
meetings policy, be prepared for opposition. “Basically, you have
to build a business case and present it just like you would to a
potential customer,” says Michele Snock, CMM, manager of global
meeting services for San Jose, Calif.-based Cisco Systems.
Effective steps for bringing these important players into the
fold include the following.
Find and teach
In January 2005, Tenet Healthcare Corp. moved its headquarters from
Santa Barbara, Calif., to Dallas. Many employees chose not to
relocate, including several members of the in-house meeting
planning team. Peg Wolschon, CMP, manager of meeting services, and
her team of two saw the move as an opportunity to start fresh and
set about creating a meetings policy.
To find out which administrative assistants were involved in
the process, they turned to the company’s in-house travel
department, which proved a valuable resource.
“Whenever a call comes in requesting air travel to a meeting,
they alert us as to who placed the call,” says Wolschon. “We then
call that person and tell him or her about our meetings policy and
ask how we can help.”
Wolschon estimates there are at least 150 administrative
assistants in her building alone. Considering that Tenet has 70
additional offices around the country, an awful lot of
unaccounted-for assistants are planning meetings.
The human resources department at BlueCross and BlueShield of
Florida was Zwart’s first contact, and it likewise proved a
tremendous agent of support. After putting together a series of
educational sessions on planning, drawn from her 20 years of
experience, Zwart approached the HR department and pitched her
idea. HR then packaged and posted the courses on the company’s
learning and development website, and then directly targeted those
assistants who had been identified in the company’s records as
having involvement in meetings, alerting them by e-mail of the new
To kick off her educational program, Zwart created a mini trade
show on company premises, featuring representatives from 25 local
hotels, meeting venues and convention and visitor bureaus,
including Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville and St. Augustine, as
“I learned that very few people know what a CVB is and what
they can do for you without cost,” says Zwart, who for the past
four years has hosted classes on topics such as site inspection,
menu planning and negotiating with suppliers. Today, at least 15
assistants attend the monthly sessions, which often fill to
“By offering these classes, I have been able to reach the
admins,” says Zwart. “From the attendance, I have created a
database of admins to whom I now regularly reach out.”