Europe is starting to adopt strategic meetings management programmes but Kevin Iwamoto, Starcite's vp enterprise strategy, warns that managing meetings is not the same as managing travel
If in the past business travel was all about getting on a plane, it is now more widely seen as being about meetings. The style and aim of these meetings may differ, but the purpose of them is getting face to face with customers, colleagues or business partners.
But despite years of talk, this switch in emphasis is only now taking place. There is some important evidence to back this. IKEA's travel policy is now focused on meetings rather than travel while the UK travel managers' association has recently re-named itself the Institute of Travel and Meetings.
But if these are at the forefront, Kevin Iwamoto, the vp enterprise strategy for Starcite, a meetings management company, said companies in America were now going "crazy" to install a strategic meetings management programme (SMMP). Even in Europe, which is lagging behind the States in terms of meetings technology, there is movement.
"It is all about change management. It has reached a point where companies have found that it is the thing to do," he said.
The current recession has helped with meetings being seen as an area where savings can be made if managed properly. But there are also advances in technology which make an SMMP easier to execute. For example, Starcite, whose clients are among some of the biggest companies in the world, is now marketing what it says is the only end to end solution for meetings management.
Blanka Michalski, Starcite's marketing and communications manager said that while there are similarities between travel management and meetings management, many companies do not see it that way. "We still talk a lot about travel and how to manage travel but not about meetings in the same sentence. But we should be," she said.
"Demand is growing and we can help them do something about the costs."
Mr Iwamoto remembers when there was no little if any technology for meetings. "Strategy? Policy compliance? The answer was to put in a tool. There were these different disciplines which purchasing professionals liked to deploy.
"But it is different for meetings. What was a meeting for? Was it training, customer facing, product launching, customer engagement, internal? When you look at it, think about it, there was no way we could manage that five or six years ago.
"But technology has matured. We have software to help you through this," he said.
With the new technology, Ms Michalski said there was no need even to change the old processes. "The secretary can still book her hotel around the corner for her boss's meeting and deal with the same flower suppliers. The technology allows de-centralisation.
"Before there was that need to get travel cost under control. But we now see that travel is meetings related and travel policies are so mature that you can't cut costs much.
"There is now only meetings left on the table where a company could put together a programme. It is the last frontier that has not been tackled in terms of cost control," she said.
But it is in this desire to cut to save that companies may come unstuck if they have no SMMP. "Companies are still cutting things which suggest that they do not know how to manage them. They are even cutting sales teams which suggests that they don't know how to manage.
"Only companies which have an SMMP have the ability to say ‘This is essential, this is not essential. This will be cut, this will continue'. You can't do that without oversight.
"Companies which have not invested their time in this will be at a disadvantage. They will not be able to travel to meetings because they don't know what they are doing. When the economic downturn ends, companies which have a strategic meetings management programme will be in a far better position than their competitors who do not," he said.
He argued that there has been a lot of "knee jerk reactions by some companies who were "just cutting." This was not long term thinking. "Companies need to travel, to do business eye to eye with their customers. There is only so much you can do with a virtual meeting. You have to meet.
"But you have to put a value on what you decide you want to continue with and what you want to postpone. But you need a management programme and the ability to impact on it."
But there was also the need to audit spend and get the best value from it. Companies need a "solid audit process" but there were not a lot which had one," he said. Without such auditing, Mr Iwamoto questioned whether companies could ever be sure they were getting the best price and the most leverage out of their suppliers.
He gave as an example a company which held five or six meetings each year in the same hotel but never tried to negotiate a price. "So who benefits? The hotel," he said. But he pointed out that meetings were a multi-million dollar business and that 40% of T&E was meetings related.
"I don't know of any company which will let any employee go and buy a laptop of choice and then ask for it to be synchronised with the company system. But there are companies with no centralised process for meetings. We are now getting this message across," he said.
"It is easy to blame the people but it is the system which allows anyone to sign. People would like to follow policy but there isn't one. If you set up a formalised policy, people will be happy to follow it. They don't want to negotiate contracts.
"Look at the secretary who used her own personal credit card to book the hotel. There was no policy around that and her job did not entitle her to a company credit card. This is really the company's fault. There was no correct authority for her."