by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | March 01, 2006

Kathleen Zwart, Judy McCray, Katrina Jones

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 educational offerings. 
    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 exhibitors.
    “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 standing-room-only capacity.
    “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.”