by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | July 01, 2004

Marsha Willett

Marsha Willett, director of corporate events
with 14 years of service at Ingram Metro,
doesn’t wait for management to ask for
greater efficiency and cost savings.

The past several years have been challenging to say the least for corporate meeting planners. In some companies, operational cutbacks and sweeping layoffs have decimated entire planning departments. At the same time, a growing movement by in-house procurement specialists to contain costs has marginalized the responsibilities of some in the meetings arena.
     So why do some planners survive, even thrive, year after year with the same company in such a difficult milieu? To find out what skills it takes to have staying power in today’s volatile business world, M&C spoke with seven very senior corporate meeting planners, who together have more than 125 years of experience. Their companies employ thousands globally, generate billions in revenue annually and span the spectrum of American industry from health care and food services to technology and electronics.
     These veterans agree that business acumen and unwavering standards are a must for staying in, and ahead of, the game. So, too, are a willingness to embrace and implement change and a cutthroat approach to driving cost savings.

Taking the initiative
Four years ago, Marsha Willett, CMP, decided her company stood to benefit greatly in cost savings and data analysis if it moved to an online meetings registration system. Nobody had asked her to undertake the task, but “we had to keep up with the growing number of meetings we were doing,” says Willet, who for the past 14 years has served as director of corporate events for Santa Ana, Calif.-based Ingram Metro, a $23 billion worldwide technology distributor.
     In fact, Willett and her staff of 15 found themselves arranging 500-plus meetings and events a year often as many as seven per day. So she looked at third-party providers and benchmarked Ingram Micro’s needs against online registration systems in place at other companies. Nothing fit well enough, so Willett and the company’s IT experts put together the specifications for a system that was customized to meet their needs.
     “The program includes specialized reporting to more easily customize requirements for special events, a scheduling function to manage multiple meetings that run concurrently, and assigned seating for dinners or programs for five nights in a row,” says Willett. “Controlling the seating arrangements promotes more networking and, for VIPs in attendance, encourages more strategic interaction.”
      Finally, a broad range of training sessions was devised, put into the system and rolled out to Ingram Micro’s 11,000 employees. “It was imperative they understood how important the system was to the company in managing meetings,” Willett notes.
     The system has indeed proved important to the tech firm. Aside from enjoying the functional improvements noted above, says Willett, “We benefit from a sizeable cost and time savings. Automating our planning process also lightens our workload, so we can concentrate on more important things like negotiating hotel contracts and meeting content. We are very pleased with the results.”
     Stepping forward to demonstrate expertise and devise solutions, rather than waiting on a directive from senior management to implement change, highlights an employee’s vested interest in his or her company, Willett says. And as a result of her efforts, she adds, “My company sees my department as instrumental in driving the corporation’s objectives and controlling costs that help achieve their goals.”
     And it doesn’t end there. Every year Willett and several IT gurus analyze new technology developments. “If we find something we think will be beneficial, we incorporate it,” she says.
     Beyond being on the cutting edge of technological solutions, Willett also has turned her department into a profit center. “We have executives who bring us business. They will talk to a customer, and then the customer will ask us for help in planning an event which we will do and we charge them for it.”