Much has been written about the combining of transient travel spend with that of meetings and events, to help companies to negotiate better rates with hotels and venues, but it is still more common in the US than in Europe.
Strategic meetings management programmes (SMMP) and ensuing leverage of spend were born in the States in the 1990s, when the pharmaceuticals industry came under the microscope on account of its lavish spending on events and entertainment. These laudable efficiencies have, however, taken a while to cross the Pond, partly because the US has a relatively homogeneous culture with one language, which patently cannot be said for Europe. And US companies with big budgets largely deploy these with the major hotel chains, making better deals easier to negotiate.
Another factor, says Hotel Booking Agents Association chairman Chris Parnham, is that “pharma companies have very sophisticated programmes that are centrally controlled. But programmes are not as successful where a company has lots of sales meetings – because the engagement is not part of the sales process, nobody is driving the programme.”
Data is paramount and, whereas buyers assiduously gather information from all corners of travel and expenses (T&E) spend through central booking and payment systems, meetings data is often scattered, with space booked by PAs, marketing and sales, either direct with the venue, through a hotel booking agency (HBA) or a travel management company (TMC).
“Buyers lack understanding of the spend they have in the company and often feel they do not have the time or resource to write a meetings policy and ensure adoption,” says ATPI events manager Anitra Elliott. “It can be quite daunting for them.”
TMCs which offer meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE) services not surprisingly say outside expertise can prove valuable when setting up a programme. “Centralised programme management of the component parts can be effected by one team from the start to the finish of the event, with consistent quality of service across the board and better communication with suppliers and clients,” says Chambers Travel Events’ Christopher Wells. “Because we are essentially a TMC, everyone here connected with the programme would understand the travel policy, ensuring compliance with suppliers.”
Where to start
First, get buy-in from the top: make sure the board and their PAs subscribe to the need for a meetings management programme. There may be resistance for a variety of reasons: people do not want to relinquish a task they enjoy; PAs’ relationships with local hotels may include rewards, such as free weekends or spa treatments; and bookers may not want to be told where to hold events.
“Communicate as widely as possible with all users,” says Sam Welch, head of accommodation and meetings product for BSI. “A programme needs to cater for one-off meetings, training and development, and big events.”
Last year, Kimberly-Clark combined its transient and meetings spend across Europe to achieve better rates. “We have a corporate strategy in place that encompasses both, but it does not work in every location or market,” says the company’s European senior buyer Sandra Dvorak. “There are cities where I cannot negotiate the two together because I don’t have too many events going through that location.” She adds that for events, such as a product launches and other sensitive functions, which are possibly not agreed until the last minute, negotiating a rate is more difficult.
“To be able to do this, a company has to have a robust expense management tool, so they can see where their spend is going,” she says. “In some cities, I have very good relationships with hotels and can make really good deals because we are important to them – but you need the data to understand that.”
Dvorak uses venue finder Helms Briscoe. “They do the majority of our negotiations because they have global coverage, have a lot of expertise and are usually very fair in offering three choices of venue for an event,” she says.
Having gathered the necessary data, put together a calendar of events to get a clear picture of how much business you have, what it is worth and where it is best placed. “Then negotiate a programme of chosen venues and event suppliers, and promote your preferred suppliers list on a travel or meetings portal,” says BSI’s Welch.
In the first round of negotiations, companies may not get the best rates until venues are confident they will bring the additional business to justify a better deal. Generally, however, “properties and airlines are happy to grow their business and are, therefore, receptive to negotiation”, says director of Atlas Travel Consulting Natacha Gaskin.
But where ad-hoc meetings and training sessions lend themselves to consolidation, large events benefit a dedicated programme because the hotel might need to be glamorous, quirky or conveniently placed enough for all delegates.
“Where the property is the key feature, you have to work in a way that will give organisers some leeway as to where they go, but within the parameters of preferred chains,” Gaskin says. “It’s all in the planning, including early discussions with the relevant department and with hotel chains. A department with a big budget for big events is not necessarily going to be cost conscious: it’s up to procurement to negotiate with the property before it knows the deal is in the bag.”
Gaskin has been working with a manufacturing company to consolidate its meetings and events (M&E) spend with that of T&E. “I don’t think it’s perfect even now, three or four years down the line. It’s a living thing,” she says.
Nonetheless, results are measurable. “Overall, in the first year, we saved 10 per cent to 12 per cent, and that is conservative,” she says. “And subject to inflation, savings of a further 10 per cent to 15 per cent in the second year are realistic.”
Managing director of Conference Care, Andrew Deakin, throws this rogue thought into the mix: “When event planners ask us to source a venue, we will go to preferred partners, but alternative venues will often offer added value, upgrades or better rates to entice the event to take place there and get future business.”
And Mervyn Williamson, joint managing director of Statesman Travel, adds: “Not all transient hotels provide a high level of service for meetings and events. It’s not their core business focus.”
The nature of an event can also be tricky: a broadcasting client of Conference Care needs a property for sales training sessions that will allow delegates to put ladders against the hotel and drill a satellite dish into it – activity that does not always elicit a sanguine response.