Collecting and understanding information from meetings can save time and money says Catherine Chetwynd
The importance of controlling information applies as much to meetings programmes as it does to travel and entertainment (T&E).
But gathering meetings data is difficult because meetings bookers are scattered throughout a company. They could be secretaries, PAs or in sales, marketing or logistics. And the reasons meetings are called are often equally disparate, from a few off-site gatherings to an annual programme ending with a major event.
In addition, bookings may be made through numerous channels, such as travel management companies (TMCs), direct with a hotel, via an event or venue specialist, or in-house. Plus an event could come under training, marketing or business development, and consolidating spend from regional offices in the UK, for example, can be difficult. The data may be there but financial systems can't always identify where to allocate the spend.
However, harnessing this information can provide big rewards. Over the last seven years, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) has moved from around 20 per cent compliance to its meeting programme to 80 per cent. This is no mean achievement: some 3,000 people in the organisation book meetings and many of them are not doing so regularly, so they are difficult to identify.
With all these challenges in mind, PwC has created an environment for bookers - a portal shows them how to book and directs them through the right buying channels. Once buyers are doing this, a company can manage the data gathered. Data includes use of preferred suppliers, internal space versus external, transport to and from meetings, and so on.
PwC head of business services, Mark Avery, says: "We built a bookers' network to communicate with those who are booking regularly, and give them specific useful information rather than items that go out as a general message to the business. We can also target opportunities such as distressed inventory and cancellations coming up."
Avery expects any agency PwC uses to negotiate savings on top of anything he negotiates annually. "When we put a programme in place, we are not doing it around seasonality," he says. "We look to our agent to improve on that and drive better value and prices."
For example, although meetings and hotel spend are often viewed separately if you are spending £1 million or more with one of the big chains, you can bring the two together to leverage the total and be in a better position to understand the business and its value to the hotelier or venue provider.
However, ancillary event management costs - for example, speakers, flowers, audio-visual and so on - are more difficult to track and can result in numerous bills from different sources, making it difficult to see how much is being spent with any one supplier.
Des Maclaughlin, managing director, venue procurement, for international meetings and events agency Grass Roots, says: "These can account for the cost of the conference again: 50 per cent on the venue and 50 per cent on the associated services. I think this is the next big thing to go after."
Companies are starting to look at information on regional and global spend, too. "We are trying to track spend in major markets, so that when we are going for deals, we are looking at bigger figures," says Maclaughlin.
And while keeping an eye on global spend is paramount, it's also important not to forget what is going down on your own doorstep.
Managing internal space should be part of any data gathering but many companies have been slow realising its value. PwC marries up use of internal and external space and uses this information to reduce cost.
"We measure savings on a quarterly basis to see how we are doing against benchmark rates," says PwC's Avery. "It varies per quarter, but our programme savings over the year to date are £5.5 million, based on quarterly savings from July 2010 to the end of March 2011."
Developments in technology are turning heads in every sector, and are playing a major role in data gathering and keeping information in one place. For example, a virtual invitation can guide delegates to a website for registration, where registration fees, live travel bookings and hotel requirements are also processed. The same tool can be used to distribute post event online surveys.
Events, meetings and accommodation agency Zibrant and its clients collect data and MI via meetings management software and its own technology. Its director of business development, Hannah Wilkinson, says: "With one of our key clients, the data is collected by the client but it is our responsibility, as the agent, to enter and update the system."
Important areas to watch and analyse are supplier spend, changes year-on-year, adherence to preferred venue programmes, and management of cancelled and released space. But, warns Wilkinson: "The MI output is only as good as the data input."
Sales director for Key Travel, Paul Green, adds: "The goal of an account manager is to build up knowledge of each event, noting patterns of buying behaviour, and to use this insight to create a programme of best-practice buying to meet agreed cost targets."
Grass Roots decided to create a more dynamic measurement package to offer to clients after it saw increasing demands for information into the effectiveness of events. Head of commercial finance for Grass Roots, Warren Hillier, says: "Ordinarily, event measurement is quite academic and mathematical. We are not capturing the imagination, energy and engagement in an event through analysis of it."
Grass Roots has piloted its new methodology with two companies, one in financial services and the other in IT. The first phase is to look at the data from the operational aspect. This means analysing delegates in terms of geography, job title, area of expertise. Then there is data such as the proportion of directors, department heads, managers, and operatives, plus the number of people invited, who accepted/ declined and how that relates to fee-paying and free events. "It is an opportunity to see what the spend is and how it is changing," Hillier says.
The next stage is data analysis. This involves getting a clear view of the delegate mix and how it is changing, as well as event booking timelines. It also looks as peaks and troughs in registrations to find out what has caused them.
"It gets a bit more exciting when we find out what is driving attendee satisfaction and dissatisfaction," says Hillier. "This gives clients a clear understanding of their event. We may look to segment the audience because the chief information officer will have a different set of priorities from developers, and the feedback will help clients address that in the future."
Again, technology plays an important role. Delegates can have a microchip in their badges, which can show where they went in the venue and what they were interested in, and programmable personal data assistants (PDAs) for them to register their views on the information presented to them at an event. It gives the opportunity for meeting and events managers to look at the data and work out if their event was worth it. To establish the relationship between cost and value, you need to be clear on what you want to achieve from an event and how you propose to measure it.
"There is nothing new about ROI [return on investment] but we are trying to inject a fresh, new feel around event measurement," says Hillier. "We will make phase one, the operational matrix analysis, an intrinsic part of any event we do. After that, clients can choose [what they want next]. This will allow them to see what the event cost and its value - and whether it is justifiable."
MAKE MEETINGS WORK
Key Travel is working with a UK not-for-profit organisation to develop a programme that better collates activity, with a view to achieving better buying practices and attendant cost savings.
"We worked across their 12 regional offices and the London-based HQ," says Key Travel sales director Paul Green. "A spreadsheet was supplied that collated dates, event types, venue preferences, evidence of historic costs and specific organiser needs. For the first time, this allowed an overview of past and current activity levels. We agreed first to measure and then manage the activity."
The organisation developed a monthly event planner that was used to track spend and buying behaviour. A three-step programme was developed:
- Plan in advance and negotiate flexibility from early booking to avoid cancellation and amendment costs.
- If there are no workable alternatives to the event (for example, video-conference, webinars and so on), be clear on numbers and requirements for each event, and work to a set budget.
- Track spend and give feedback on examples of best practice across the organisation to encourage best practice buying-behaviour throughout.
Key Travel also developed a management information (MI) pack that tracked savings across the organisation, whose budget was just over £250,000, with a savings target of 20 per cent - £50,000 per year.
This project is a work-in-progress, but an initial result has been a ready acceptance to better use the funds raised to support the organisation's activities. The insight gained through data collection proved invaluable in negotiating a structured delegate rate with a UK hotel chain.
This will continue to improve capture of MI and will fix costs per head for each proposed event. The budgeting and planning improvements have resulted in estimated cost savings just ahead of the 20 per cent target.