by Michael J. Shapiro | June 01, 2013
Defining SMM

In 2009, the National Business Travel Association and Meeting Professionals International, in an attempt to get everyone in the industry on the same page, agreed on the following definition: "Strategic meetings management (SMM) is a disciplined approach to managing enterprise-wide meeting and event activities, processes, suppliers and data in order to achieve measurable business objectives aligned with the organization's strategic goals and vision, and deliver value in the form of quantitative savings, risk mitigation and service quality."

Misuse and misunderstanding of the term was frustrating to its creators and champions, among them Kari Kesler Wendel, SMMC, now senior director of SMM Strategy + Solutions for CWT Meetings & Events. Outside of NBTA, SMM sessions at conferences often focused only on planning a strategic meeting, rather than the concept of developing an enterprise-wide strategy for all meeting activity.

"Today, the discipline is becoming more inclusive and broad-based," says Kesler Wendel, "and I think that's good."

Some have said the 2009 definition isn't inclusive enough. "Then the definition needs to change," Kesler Wendel says. "It's a discipline that should continue to evolve. Evolution is critical to it getting more traction and allowing more companies to achieve the benefits. We have to be open to it not being what we thought it was five years ago." -- M.J.S.  

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"I think the industry itself is still a little bit befuddled by the concept of strategic meetings management programs," admits Steve O'Malley, senior vice president of St. Louis-based Maritz Travel. When he speaks about SMMP at industry gatherings, generally only about a quarter of the participants report that they have such a program in place, and just a handful describe their programs as mature. "Everybody in the audience wants one," O'Malley says, "but they don't know where to start."

Part of the problem: "We, as an industry, have made this too complex," says O'Malley. "We have said that you have to have all of these different puzzle pieces to constitute a complete SMMP, and that is just not a comfortable place for clients who are just beginning their journey to even know where to step in."

In response, Maritz and other suppliers of SMM services have taken a step back to reassess their approach to a confused client base. Here's a look at key factors driving the evolution of strategic meetings management.

Beyond Maxvantage Several years ago, SMM experts led a movement to shine a light on the discipline, and to ramp up education efforts. The National (now Global) Business Travel Association, from which the first SMMP white paper originated, teamed up with Meeting Professionals International to publish an official definition of the term. The definition, like the practice itself, was far-reaching and somewhat driven by procurement terminology. SMM involved managing the processes, suppliers and data for meetings across an entire enterprise, and aligning those efforts with business objectives (see related sidebar, "Defining SMM," left).

Issa Jouaneh of AmExAround that time, Maritz Travel and New York City-based American Express Meetings & Events joined to launch Maxvantage, an alliance offering strategic meetings management services. Maxvantage's aim was "to serve clients who were largely focused on end-to-end strategic meetings management," explains Issa Jouaneh, vice president and general manager of American Express Meetings & Events. As a growing number of people in the industry learned about the benefits of SMM, Maxvantage was marketed as a company that could provide any and all of the services required to implement and maintain an SMM program.

This past May, however, Maxvantage was discontinued. The reason, in part, was due to organizational changes within the two founding companies since 2009. American Express Meetings & Events has since consolidated its global business, and Maritz acquired the meetings management company Experient last year and, with it, additional SMM accounts and expertise. But an evolving SMM marketplace also played a significant role in the decision, according to both companies. Simply put, there isn't much of a demand for end-to-end solutions, and there is a clear need for simplification and accessibility.

According to Jouaneh, who had served as a Maxvantage's vice president, "Today, our customers want more options to buy solutions tailored to their individual needs across the full meetings management spectrum, from sourcing only to end-to-end programs."

Finding a reasonable way to begin an SMM program was sometimes difficult -- even overwhelming -- for Maxvantage clients, according to Maritz's Steve O'Malley, a former Maxvantage general manager. "We ran into multiple situations where it became untenable to find the right starting point for clients," he acknowledges. "Maxvantage was a construct that was not as flexible as what the marketplace now needs. Now we're going to come up with the right starting point for any client, regardless of where they are in their journey." Maritz will provide a flexible and scalable approach, O'Malley stresses.

The intimidation of launching an SMMP was a huge hurdle for companies just starting out, affirms Cindy D'Aoust, chief operating officer of Meeting Professionals International in Dallas (also a former Maxvantage vice president). "They felt it was for other companies, for companies bigger than theirs, or that they had to have a technology product or they needed a third-party supplier -- when in fact, none of those things is really true. You can implement basic, fundamental elements to take your program to the next level regardless of where you are and what your objectives are."