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WHILE NEARLY 80 PER CENT of procurement professionals dealing with meetings put cost reduction and return on investment (ROI) at the top of their agenda, the 2011 Grass Roots Meeting Industry Report also reveals that nearly one fifth (17.94 per cent) of respondents' companies do not calculate ROI on meetings spend. And Grass Roots believes the real figure is probably double this. According to the report the average number of delegates attending meetings in the past 12 months is 345 (for a main event) and 129 (other events), but there are plenty of smaller gatherings happening every day and these often slip under the radar.
Divisional director of events and communications management for Grass Roots, Amanda Litzow, says: "People think that because a meeting is small, they are easy [to manage] but that is not necessarily true. With a large conference - with, for example, 15,000 people - a company is spending an awful lot of money, the objective is under the spotlight and the ROI or ROO [return on objective] is measured, but a small meeting still needs an objective," she says.
If the average budgeted day delegate rate is £59.80 and a company is holding, say, 10 meetings of around 15 people a year, that is just under £10,000 a year that is unmanaged, without even considering travel and other ancillary costs. So why do we tend to ignore small meetings? One of the reasons is that meetings are often still booked by disparate people throughout an organisation, with no one overseeing the whole process.
"Even when [a company] has a preferred agent, they still might get someone booking through another agent, and when accommodation is required, that adds to the invoice," says director of events for the Lancaster London, Craig Roberts.
And where companies do not put in central controls, PAs can be subject to pressures from venues to put business their way. "I find hotels' sales teams are so used to entertaining secretaries and keeping them sweet, they think that is how to generate business," says consultant to the travel industry and managing director of Inform Logistics, Ian Flint.
"We make it clear that our client negotiations are central, through procurement," he says. "We went to one company that wanted to put together a hotel programme and there were two receptionists on the desk who were using two hotels locally. We saw trends of volumes going up and down and when we spoke to the hotels, it became apparent that volumes went up when they had given tickets for the theatre or other events."
Managing director of Inntel and chair of the meetings and events working party for the Institute of Travel & Meetings (ITM), Douglas O'Neill, also highlights internal communications as sometimes being a problem: "Some companies just say they want a certain type of event but don't share the reason they want it, and that could be because they have not been told what the purpose of the meeting is."
Craig Roberts agrees: "The problem is not always lack of expertise, it could be bad internal communication," he says. "We will prompt a PA to tell us what kind of projector the meeting requires but often she has not been told."
Even with small meetings, it can be difficult to get your head above the parapet and ensure that the logistics of setting it up doesn't get in the way of communicating the message for the meeting. If a company has a series of similar meetings across a country or continent, then someone in-house could manage them as a template and then outsource the venue finding.
"If you have trainees coming in to learn the latest sales strategy, then you can have a cookie-cutter event across the world and you can manage the meeting yourself, if not the venues," says Grass Roots' Amanda Litzow. "But if you had 20 managing directors from around the world coming in, you would certainly want to have a professional communications agency manage that for you."
Director of global sales, meetings and events, UK and Ireland, for Sol Meliá, John Kelly, says: "All small meetings are absolutely worth managing. Some organisers think a meeting of 10 people is too small for a global sales team to worry about, but we would prefer to know about everything. We work with the agency so that they can see the whole picture and consolidate spend."
The temptation to dismiss a meeting as being "only 10 people" suggests companies or agencies are seeing only part of the picture. Smaller gatherings often comprise the most senior in an organisation, with managing directors or CEOs getting together to plan world domination.
This is surely when it is key that a meeting goes smoothly. Companies often do not marry up their transient spend with their meetings spend to bring greater power to wield at negotiations.
And taking into account the whole meetings picture - travel, accommodation, catering and so on - can make an enormous difference to the final bill. The experience of one telecommunications company illustrates the point. Its original plan was to hold a series of training courses for groups of 10 around the UK to communicate its new branding. The budget for the courses was £1.5 million.
"It was important to them to create a culture or environment that was conducive to educating the individuals attending. They broke down the branding and explained each element in the different spaces we created and, by the end, delegates had the complete picture. Having it managed worked completely for them," says Douglas O'Neill. "We looked into how much it would cost to do it and how much it was to rent space in London [through MWB] and brand the event completely, and that saved the client £850,000.
"The event was cheaper because we could block book the venue for the year and when they were not using it for training, they filtered it back into the [MWB] system so that it could be used for other purposes. Because we linked in the cost of people travelling to London and catering, the accumulative price was lower than going around the country on a roadshow."
Inntel is encouraging clients to manage meetings and travel, so that they place a meeting and manage that according to where people are travelling from. "I think of a meeting as the focal point of everything you travel for," says O'Neill. "If you get the meeting right, a lot of the by-products of that will follow."
And suppliers should work with you to put as much effort into small gatherings as an all-singing, all-dancing event - partly out of professional integrity; partly because smaller meetings tend to be booked at short notice, so they can be used to fill potentially distressed space; and partly because three meetings for 10 people, three times a year, could quickly become 13 meetings for 100 people.
"Trader Media Group has been a client for two-and-a-half years," says chief executive of Venues Event Management, Anita Lowe. "It started with very small accommodation, and now meetings business is a very big account, not just for training venues but for conferences and large international events."
She points out that access to LateMeetings.com, the company's distressed-venue database, offers great advantages. "There are new venues coming on to the market, a lot of distressed room stock and late availability, and clients with small meetings can work online to see what is available. They also have the benefit of our purchasing power," she says.
Small meetings are often organised locally and there is mutual advantage to that for buyer and supplier, who get the chance to build up a local relationship. In addition, the buyer gets to take people out of their familiar environment without involving a time-consuming journey.
Matching the venue to the event is another important detail that can get overlooked. It is crucial that the brand messages of the event - luxury, cutting-edge technology, creative thinking - are reflected in the venue.
"We find that smaller meetings tend to be for more senior staff members," says sales manager, conferencing and catering for Chicheley Hall, Rebecca Harris. Chicheley is a Grade I Listed country house with 80 acres of grounds, two lecture halls, three meeting rooms for up to 25 people and high-end service.
Barceló UK focuses on the small meetings market. Regional director of Barceló UK, Paul Harnedy, says: "The personal touch and attention to detail are very important when dealing with small groups, to ensure that they feel they are the centre of attention. In many large venues, the smaller meetings become lost, but through meetbarcelo.co.uk you can book meetings for up to 25 people online."
Whether you have 10 small meetings or 50 small meetings a year, if you don't have a policy in place, or someone to manage them, and you can't show a clear ROI, it will cost you. Grass Roots' Amanda Litzow says it is important to ask: "Why are 20 people sitting in a room? At an hourly rate, that amounts to a lot. People don't know how effective small meetings are - that is the biggest mistake people make."
Not managing small meetings may have big consequences. Is it really worth the risk?