Lindsay Martin-Bilbrey, CMP
Lindsay is the CEO of Nifty Method Marketing & Events. A lively event professional armed with a very diverse background in the events industry and specializes in topics such as inbound and event marketing, attendee engagement, and so much more.
Strategic Meetings Management (SMM) has gotten a lot of buzz the past few years and doesn't seem to show any signs of slowing down. What is SMM? In short, Strategic Meetings Management (SMM) programs help companies manage their meetings and events through streamlined planning processes, preferred vendors, and meetings data. Here's why you should consider changing up your event management strategy and ten tips on how to get started.
What is Strategic Meetings Management?
When you’re producing hundreds events each year, you need a way to manage and organize your events to maximize the outcomes of these shows, whether they're conferences, tradeshows, events, or meetings.
SMM programs help brands align their meetings and business goals to deliver value by saving on operational costs, mitigating risks and improving how events are managed. Companies streamline meetings management by centralizing visibility into planning, sourcing, contracting and reporting functions. Meetings management programs can be introduced in phases or deployed company-wide.
Why should the savvy event planner implement Strategic Meetings Management?
Aside from the obvious benefits of cost savings and operations improvement, in today's day and age of "we're all experts", implementing a strategic meetings management program transforms event planners into event strategists.
SMM programs help brands align their meetings and business goals to deliver value by saving on operational costs, mitigating risks and improving how events are managed.
The title "event planner" can get a bad rap from leadership or others in the enterprise organization equating the title with the same person who recently planned a birthday party. And this is not us disparaging birthday party planners. This is us recognizing that there is a big difference between that person and the person who manages a multi-million dollar events budget and oversees more than 50 events a year.
You're already doing the work. Now, you're giving all that work a title and demonstrating by showing your work that your SMM program has as much credibility for those who do meetings and events for a living as Bob in Finance.
Meetings mean business and the events and hospitality profession is taking a big step forward in getting event professionals recognized at the leadership table.
So what does this mean for you, the event planner or events team?
You have an opportunity to really harness and gain more than the historic lateral authority that you have traditionally had to operate from. Which is GREAT news because it no longer means you're just there to order the chicken or push papers for the committee that decides what happens at your event.
You can now direct and impact the change you want to see (sorry folks, primary season is really getting going and this girl is excited!)
What makes up a Strategic Meetings Management Program?
Meetings management programs generally feature the following:
- Planning/Execution: More than a strategic plan, your SMM program creates consistency and accountability in planning, promoting, and delivering meetings and events through technology and automation.
- Sourcing/Procurement: By looking at your overall meetings and events strategy and spend holistically, your SMM program enables you to better-negotiate rates and take advantage of preferred, global sales, and enterprise level suppliers.
- Meeting/Event Registration: Instead of judging success by "butts in seats" on a meeting by meeting basis, you can provide visibility across all tradeshows, meetings, or events planned throughout an organization or department.
- Approval: Using your RASCI, you can implement and manage an audit trail that helps your sanity an complies with corporate policies.
- Payment/Expense Reconciliation: Track spending against meetings budgets and allows integration with financial systems.
- Data Analysis/Reporting: Offers a central reporting database and dashboard for real-time visibility enterprise-wide.
Here are 10 tips for driving your SMM program to success
1) Be a bridge between old and new
Strategy means big picture and you, my friend, are at the center of it all. Shifting (code word: change) to an enterprise-wide model of meetings where the events strategist takes control, even perceived control, away from Betty Sue, who always did that one thing that seemed so exotic because it was meeting related? Well, let's just say you'll need to ensure you're not trying to do it Stalin hostile takeover style, because there's enough tears when it's done collaboratively.
Good strategic meetings management means all internal and external stakeholders gots to be brought along and included (think RASCI). You will get to develop or hone your facilitation skills, your negotiation tactics, your listening ears, your patient face, a tough hide, and might I suggest finding and stocking a plentiful candy dish?
You're not always going to make people happy, but you must try to make people feel like they were part of the change rather than out of the loop.
2) There has to be a formal, common understanding around what SMM is inside your organization and the WIIFM factor
The best and worst part of change management is that people only really care how it's going to affect them (what's in it for me?). So, most important rule of SMM? Thou shalt figure how your ideal SMM program will be thought of by everyone else in the organization (this includes both internal and external stakeholders).
YOU'RE the meetings expert, so you should set the understanding and help others "get" how it's going to make a difference for the bottom line and the greater organizational mission.
Take the initiative, get your research together (here's a great white paper by GBTA and another great white paper from MPI on how to get started), write up a plan with your policies you recommend, and then figure out how to position it to all those other people who give you the really helpful advice about what coffee per gallon costs in a pretend world.
And a side note: many meeting planners don't feel empowered to make or advocate these kind of strategic changes, but then we all end up at the same complaining sessions at events complaining about how little control it sometimes feels like we have. This is your chance to outline the value of your job, with data AND pictures (I prefer the really awesome stick figures, but that's me)
3) And you, your boss and the top decision-maker in your department has to evangelize that common understanding
At all times. Don't be annoying, but do be consistent. Even when you think it feels like a small movement or that no one is listening.
Like Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference“ author says: "That is the paradox of the epidemic: that in order to create one contagious movement, you often have to create many small movements first.”
"That is the paradox of the epidemic: that in order to create one contagious movement, you often have to create many small movements first.”
4) All stakeholders must agree on common definitions of long term and short term for events and program in your organization
Definitions seem so silly sometimes. I mean, the definition of a word is what is it is, right?
Yeah, sometimes. You'd be surprised (or maybe you wouldn't) how many misunderstandings stem from a common misconception of a definition. Which is important because without a baseline, you can't start to assess and measure success and failures.
Which is why we encourage you to define what short term and long term means for all your stakeholders. This gives everyone working with the SMM program the same understanding of time, and underscores exactly what is and isn't historical spend and/or historical success/failures.
For example, even when you're in the same city and venue, the event or program will never be exactly the same as it was the last time you were there. An event held during an economic downturn will be different than one held in year of plenty.
A SMM program helps provide context to historical analysis as well as pad and adjust short and long term financial impacts because you've got an enterprise approach rather than the financials from just one event. All stakeholders need to be aware of and have some adjustment for in their conversations around these definitions of short and long term, because if you use "usual" business metrics, it's not usually going to align very well.
To give people perspective around the big picture and influences outside economics can have on the meetings world short and long term, tie their big picture to yours by using those "usual" business metrics to make analogies for the realities of meetings and events.
Usually an annual, quarterly, or monthly forecasted P&L and historical budget to actuals spreadsheet can show impact of increasing or diminishing returns for nearly any stakeholder you work with. I also like to use scary statistics of hotel coffee inflation or peak rates for room rates when I feel I want to make a point about costs, lack of planning, and risk management. (Seriously, why must we continue to pay that much for a gallon of coffee!)
4) AND then all stakeholders must use those definitions to clearly outline what success and failure is at each of the major short and long term milestones
Since you're planning long term and enterprise wide: success and failure becomes more malleable. Now obviously, if one big meeting loses a tremendous amount of money or incurs a tremendous expense you'll have to adjust overall, but be realistic about the big picture.
Mostly, you can count forward movement, static movement, and backwards movement in relation to those goals look like over year by year, month by month, week by week milestone wise and estimate success and failure against your big key performance indicators.
5) AND then all stakeholders must agree to what it means when success or failure (or somewhere in between) happens
When you change things and it goes well, everyone wants credit. However, when you change things, and it goes poorly...well, then you better make sure you have extremely good notes for what success and failure was imagined to look like when you first start and get approval for your SMM journey.
You're not always going to hit every milestone and/or goal out of the park, but the great thing about SMM, is that you should have forecasted trends and those should match up with actuals if you've done your research correctly. And helping people remember that it can take time to see big results.
It also allows you to react more proactively if say the real estate bubble pops or economy takes a nosedive. Economic cycles cycle through just like anything else. Being strategic allows you to more accurately use data to predict and prepare people for the seven years of plenty and seven years of famine.
6) You must have succession planning and documentation
Event planning and meetings management looks like a lot of fun on the outside. Many people don't see the ridiculous hours, the endless hotel rooms, and listen in on the crazy planning calls. They see your social media posts from that party where you're out to dinner and drinks in a fancy locale, paid for by the people trying to get your business.
I say these things because if you decide to leave your job, many times your amazing SMM department progress can be abruptly disrupted if no one planned to continue to the lead the charge. Obey rule number 1, build a deep bench, and make sure you're keeping excellent and up to date documentation so that your SMM department flows smoothly no matter the changes in the team.
8) Make data is your best friend
Quantitative data supports and sells the stories you need to tell. As a SMM evangelist, you must collect, analyze, and disseminate data. Use it when you're evangelizing the SMM program, when you're writing your board or department results, when you prepare your budgets, etc. The fact that you have statistics and can trace where and how dollars are being spent and seen in the overall organization scheme is priceless.
A note about data: Measure the whole experience. Yes, you need to track the P&L, but your job is also dependent on experience, engagement, and emotion. It's not just did you hit your registration numbers; you should also care about whether or not people also choosing to come back year after year, or continue in the program? Or are they abandoning it after one go round? Are they referring it? Are they evangelizing for you?
Measure the whole experience, not just your spend, or rooms on peak, or some other singular quantitative data point. Yes, you need to track the P&L, but your job is also dependent on experience, engagement, and emotion.
Why measure the whole enchilada? As you transition to SMM, you may incur more costs as you start to make those tweaks that realign your programs and events to the organization strategic plan. You might have to pay higher salaries or vendor fees to meet your success benchmarks.
You need to be able to show WHY you're incurring those costs and what the long term payoff is for the organization.
9) Practice collaboration, not consensus, strategic meetings management
Going enterprise wide means having organization wide effects. There's more money and reputation at stake. Additionally, meetings are seen as sexy, they're fun, and they're easily visible. Add these all up and you have catnip for big decision makers, high achievers or those that want to be seen as high achievers. And those types of people don't tend to be without opinions. Which is both good and bad.
Many times you're just going to have to agree to disagree and keep your eye on the ball. Make the decision that is best for your long term objectives and goals, keep those at the center of every discussion you have, and use the data you've curated to support what you're doing. And if that fails, there's always candy in your candy bowl, right?
10) Choose your hills to die on wisely
For your sanity and for the SMM success. Working big picture and strategic means while the details matter, it's not necessarily the story that will further the organization's overall strategic objectives.
Create consistent results and pick the big precedents you want to set as the hills to die on, rather than tussling over something that is easy enough to give as a win for a future potential partner in scaling your SMM program to new heights.
Want to get started with your SMM program? Contact us for a complimentary events and marketing assessment today.