by Alan Tyson | May 01, 2011

Meeting spend is notoriously difficult to track, but expense-reporting software can do a lot to help. That's of particular interest considering the new codes and regulations in some industries that require a lot more attention be paid to the spend details, often down to the attendee level. If those attendees are filing expense reports for their travel, your organization likely has the data already, and in many cases it has been separated out for lodging, air, car rental and the like.   

Different Strokes Determining spend categories  can be challenging. The budget your accounting department maintains may be at a higher level than works for you. In many cases an accounting system may have a single line-item budget for meetings, or it might break costs down by organizational unit. It might not even recognize "meetings" and instead distribute meeting costs across categories such as "meals," "client entertainment" and "equipment rentals."
What's more, accounting budgets tend to have overlap and ambiguities with respect to meetings. For example, there might be a budget for marketing and promotion in addition to a meetings budget. Based on our experiences with implementing expense-reporting solutions, you can count on accounting having its own, unique perspective.  As a result, as planners and meetings managers you'll likely have to create your own budget categories.

Some expense-reporting tools offer multilevel budgeting capability.  If yours doesn't, you can use a spreadsheet. In any event, your reporting tool should at least let you associate costs with your budget categories; this means you need to be able to create within the tool a template of spend categories for each meeting. The template can be standardized across meetings, or you can create multiple templates that correspond to the different kinds of meetings you want to track. A quarterly regional managers meeting probably doesn't need as extensive a template as an annual membership conference.  

How does this work in practice? Employees who are attendees fill out expense reports, distributing their expenses according to the template break-down. Mapping the expenses to the budget categories might not always be obvious, so provide a "cheat sheet," training or a help line. For general meeting expenses, such as speaker fees or equipment rentals, one or more organizer IDs should be set up in the expense-reporting system to distinguish these costs from individual expenses. In other words, an employee should not be allowed to rent a ballroom for personal use, but one in the role of organizer certainly must be able to do this.  

Spreading the News Once you have collected the categorized expenses, you have to report them. Your expense-reporting tool should include a flexible report writer that can display the full financial picture of direct expenditures by meeting. Cross-meeting comparisons are facilitated by a shared template, so keep this in mind when you are designing your breakouts. If your tool has budgeting capabilities, you can get invaluable variance reports. Otherwise you should be able to export the data to a spreadsheet for budget vs. actual spend comparisons.