If you’re implementing Strategic Meetings Management, you’re attempting to bring order to relative chaos. You’re taming the Wild West of meeting planning. To get a handle on the situation, you need a meetings policy. Once written and adopted, your organization’s meetings policy will make clear how things should work with regard to meetings. It will spell out processes and expectations, and make clear who is responsible for doing what. There’s no one-size-fits-all policy, though. How simple or complex your policy is will depend on your organization, as will the question of what is mandated as opposed to what is recommended. Companies that are process- and policy-driven will have a more comprehensive policy, while others may adopt a simpler set of guidelines.
Establishing Purpose and Scope
Within every organization, large or small, every new initiative or policy is launched for a reason. Someone knows what that reason is, but oftentimes, a lot of people don’t. In fact, it isn’t uncommon for there to be fundamental misunderstandings of the purpose, even among the core group of people who gather regularly to make it all happen. The result is a lot of back-and-forth, repeated conversations and wasted time.
If the steering committee isn’t all on the same page, how can you ever expect to get effective buy-in across the organization? That’s why the purpose statement is so important. It may seem like a no-brainer, but it isn’t.
The first thing to do in creating the meeting policy is put the purpose statement into words. The purpose is up to you to decide, based on your company’s objectives, but here’s an example of what the statement might look like:
The purpose of this policy is to minimize financial risk to the company and reduce overall meeting expenses. This policy will provide clearly defined guidelines for procuring meeting services; proper budgeting, accounting, and reporting of meeting expenditures; and facilitating meeting payments.
Another vital fact to establish right from the start is the scope. Who does this policy apply to? What exactly will it cover? Will the scope definition change over time? These are questions that key stakeholders are going to ask, so they need to be answered clearly, upfront.
How the scope is defined will be specific to your organization and its objectives, but here is an example of how it might read:
This policy currently applies to all associates and contractors. The scope may expand in the future to include other geographic regions. This policy applies to all meetings or events which satisfy one or more of the following criteria . . .
- Meetings or events with X or more (employees or attendees) flying to the same destination
- Meetings or events with X or more (employees or attendees) requiring overnight accommodations
- Meetings or events requiring a hotel or venue contract
- Meetings or events with a spend exceeding $_____
- Meetings or events conducted off company premises
- Meetings or events requiring support services, such as meeting planning, production or audio-visual services, ground transportation, security, or other support
Naming Roles and Responsibilities
Any policy would be remiss if it didn’t make clear who’s in charge of what. The “Roles and Responsibilities” section of your meetings policy is next in line. Here’s an example of how the preamble of that section might read:
This policy establishes the roles and responsibilities of the various stakeholders with an interest in company-sponsored meetings and events. It is the responsibility of all company associates, contractors, and third-party suppliers to read, understand, and comply with this policy.
Here are some of the general areas of responsibility for which your policy will assign roles. If you already have a central sourcing or meeting management department, many of these responsibilities will be handled by people in those areas. If someone else handles these things, make that clear. If it’s a third party to which these responsibilities are to be outsourced, this is the place to state that. Consider including these areas in your policy:
- Procurement of meeting/event venues and overnight accommodations: This responsibility includes site research, negotiation, preparation and execution of hotel contracts, and also maintaining relationships with suppliers.
- Management and execution: This includes meeting project management, coordination, budgeting, logistical planning, and execution of the onsite operations.
- Meeting owner: This is the person who ensures that all expenses are accurate, reasonable, necessary, and aligned with business objectives.
- Meeting planner: This person manages the overall logistics planning and project management for the meeting or event. That includes coordinating the responsibilities of the meeting owner as well as other service providers or departments. It may be an internal meeting-planning professional, an internal person who plans meetings now and then, or an external supplier. There’s plenty of hands-on work here, including identifying the requirements of the meeting or event, creating and managing the project plan, maintaining the budget, and complying with all corporate policies. This is the person who gets all the documents signed, and he or she may handle such things as attendee management, onsite execution, budget reconciliation, and payment reconciliation.
- Meeting requestor: This is the person who submits the original meeting request form, and it may be the same person who serves as meeting owner or meeting planner.
- Group air provider: This responsibility often goes to a travel or meeting management company that provides group air services. Responsibilities include conducting airfare analyses, negotiating and contracting with airlines, making reservations, handling ticketing, and putting together the arrival and departure manifests.
Making a Statement
Here’s where the meetings policy may get more detailed, particularly if your company is accustomed to establishing and following specific processes and policies. This part of the policy sets forth the criteria when in-person meetings are appropriate. Then it gets into specifics about how the process should work. If following the policy is mandatory, it’ll say so here (but again, whether these are mandates or guidelines is based on your organization’s culture).
If it’s a mandatory policy, the preamble of this section might sound something like this:
Live (face-to-face) meetings and events should only occur when there is a significant value added that cannot be derived from teleconferencing, videoconferencing, or other methods. Whenever possible, live meetings should be held at company-leased or -owned facilities or venues where no additional charges will be incurred. When this is not possible, a meeting request form must be submitted to engage the meeting management department, initiate the site-selection and sourcing process, and ensure proper payment of meeting-related invoices.
From there, a more comprehensive policy will add specifics. It may include details on how your meeting is registered in the system, how venues and suppliers are chosen, how payments are handled, what kind of lead time is needed, what has to happen to ensure compliance, what security and risk management matters must be dealt with, and how to navigate the pertinent ethics responsibilities.
Outlining the Meeting Registration Procedure
Submitting a meeting request form kicks off the planning process. Requesters provide meeting details, costs, and business objectives, which route the form through an approval process. Once approved, the sourcing department, meetings management groups, or external planning agency are brought in to complete a variety of tasks, such as:
- Identifying cost-effective locations
- Sourcing potential venues and suppliers, including hotel accommodations
- Engaging a group air travel provider, if air travel is required
- Passing along info to the meeting owner, planner, or requestor, so that he or she can pick the venue and suppliers
- Negotiating contract terms and conditions
- Getting the contracts signed
- Preparing a preliminary budget or cost estimate
- Initiating an application for a corporate meeting card
This part of your meeting policy will make all that clear. And then it will continue spelling out the process and the responsibilities of the various parties.
For example, the meeting owner or designated meeting planner may be instructed to ensure that all of the project and budgetary approvals have been granted. Once the total estimated cost has been determined, the meeting owner gets the expenditure approved. A comprehensive policy will likely specify that all of these approvals should be gathered in writing before any contracts are signed for venues, hotel accommodations, or air travel.
Selecting the Suppliers and Venue
Here’s an excellent example of why an SMM program is so important. Imagine that some other part of your organization arranged a meeting, and then for some reason had to cancel. That action may have incurred a cancellation fee, but in many cases that fee can be applied as a credit to a future event involving that venue or supplier. If you didn’t have a centralized meeting program, how would you even know that credit is out there, waiting to be spent?
With SMM, that data is all in the system. To ensure that the organization gets good use of these credits, as well as any other deals that have been negotiated in advance, your policy should include language such as what’s in this example (but it’s for you to decide how mandatory the language should sound, based on your company culture and goals):
Priority will be given to any suppliers for which the company has paid a cancellation fee that may be available as a credit towards a future program. Company-preferred transient (business travel) hotels or group preferred hotels are to be used whenever possible. The sourcing department (or meeting management department) will identify the company’s preferred hotels and suppliers with outstanding cancellation credits when compiling site-selection results.
Picking venues and suppliers that have available discounts or credits is a key consideration, but not the only one, of course. It may be stating the obvious, but your policy should make clear that your people should pick a site that minimizes travel and hotel expenses when most attendees are coming from the same location. First choice is always company-owned or company-leased facilities, and if that’s not a possibility, then preferred venues.
Not only should the right people be making the arrangements, but they must follow the right sourcing procedures. Your company’s procurement practice may be a guide to how formal the process that you spell out here will be. A process-driven organization may call for formal requests for proposals and an objective bid comparison process, and it may spell out exactly who signs the contracts. If your company has created a contract addendum for risk mitigation (and you definitely should consider doing so), that addendum must be attached to the hotel agreement.
Spelling Out the Lead Times
Who hasn’t dealt with a request made so late in the game that it’s hard to get the job done right? The old proverb states that “haste makes waste,” and one of the points of implementing an SMM program is getting waste out of the system. It logically follows that you need to get haste out of the system, too.
It definitely makes sense, from a travel planning perspective. The more lead time your planners have, the better the odds of finding the right accommodations and negotiating the best deal. The same is true for airfare.
Planning for Payments
Without an SMM program, the bills might get paid, but it’s tough to keep tabs on the big picture of spending. However, with your new program, every meeting will get its own ID number.
This part of your policy lets your team know what to do with that number. It should show up on all invoices, including prepayments to suppliers, and all contracts involving the company and its suppliers. In addition, the policy should specify who is responsible for ensuring that payments are made in a timely manner (most likely the meeting owner or designated planner).
It’s important to practice budgeting within the meeting, so that you’re keeping all budgetary items, including payments, in the same place. Payments will reside within the designated payment program.
Staying in Compliance
If yours is a company strongly driven by policies and codes of conduct, one of the benefits of an SMM program is the ability to ensure compliance with those rules. In such organizations, responsibility should be spelled out in the meetings policy. Here’s an example of the kind of language you might adopt if you’re operating in a mandate culture:
Meeting owners and/or designated meeting planners are responsible for complying with the company code of ethics or conduct, general procurement policies, and any applicable laws regarding the management of meeting-related expenditures. [Name] will monitor compliance with this policy, and instances of non-compliance will be reported to senior management.
As you know if you’re working in a mandate culture, it’s also vital to spell out what happens when rules are violated and compliance doesn’t happen. Be specific, to ensure everyone is on the same page in this all-important area. Here’s a sample of the language that you might choose:
Any attempts to circumvent this policy are prohibited and will be considered a violation of company policy. Compliance reports are provided to the compliance officer on a monthly basis, and notifications are distributed to associates and contractors found to be non-compliant. After the second notification, appropriate disciplinary action in accordance with company policies and applicable law will be taken against associates or contractors found in violation of this policy. Such action may include termination of employment or contract.
Assigning Responsibility for Security and Risk Management
An SMM program is tremendous for getting a handle on riskmanagement concerns, but that won’t happen unless someone is put in charge. This section of the policy identifies that person.
Consider giving meeting owners or their designated meeting planners who pick offsite locations the responsibility for assessing security or risk factors. It’s their job to document what they find and what security measures will be needed to ensure the safety of attendees. Give your risk management officials the final approval of offsite events, just to be safe.
If there are recreational activities beyond the usual meeting business, additional insurance or other risk mitigation measures may be needed, so that should be in the policy. Also be sure to stipulate that the risk management department must review any requests for individual releases, waivers of liability, or indemnification.
Spelling Out Ethics Responsibilities
Meeting planning can create a variety of ethical quandaries. Supplies may offer personal incentive points, tickets, credits, gifts, or other rewards. Your policy should spell out what is or is not permitted. If your company has a gift policy and code of ethics, it will likely apply to these incentives and rewards.
You should also consider prohibiting complimentary familiarization trips that may be offered by suppliers in exchange for company business. That’s not to say familiarization trips or site inspections are a bad idea. But your team needs to pay the bill.
As for reward points awarded by hotels or airlines, many policies will credit those to the event’s master bill, or otherwise return them to the company. Whatever the rule is, it must be spelled out.
Filling in the Details
The sections above make reference to a variety of corporate policies and processes above and beyond the meetings policy. Here’s where you specifically identify what those policies are (if your company has them). Make a list and include policy numbers. If your policy is online, consider including hyperlinks. Here are some examples of policies to reference:
- Corporate travel and expense policy
- General procurement and finance policies
- Code of ethics or compliance policies
- Use of company name and branding guidelines
- Risk management and security policy
- Meeting risk assessment tools
This is also a good place to include contact names of various key personnel, in case there are questions to be answered. These key personnel may include those in charge of policies and policy exceptions, compliance contacts, security and risk management personnel, financial analysts, travel liaisons, and representatives of the meeting council.
Excerpted from Strategic Meetings Management for Dummies © 2019 a custom published product produced with John Wiley & Sons, Inc.