Maybe your budget was slashed. Maybe your organization is looking to add three new meetings in the next three years. It could be that you want to launch an app, or retool your registration process. If you’re not outsourcing meeting services yet, you’ve probably considered it, either to save time or money, or to gain access to specialized talent like hybrid-event producers or social-media marketers.
The long-tailed recession that began in 2009 left many planners scrambling to get more bang for their buck, oftentimes with a smaller staff. “I think that several years ago, the layoffs in the meeting-planning arena were so dramatic that planners themselves didn’t want to rebuild their meetings staff to its former size,” said Greg Malark, COO of HelmsBriscoe, the Scottsdale-headquartered meetings-procurement company, “so planners are working with an entire stable of outside vendors.”
Nancy DeBrosse, CMP, Arlington, Virginia–based senior vice president of sales at Experient, another major meetings-services player, sees more and more customers contracting out hotel sourcing — an always time-consuming and often frustrating process. “It’s difficult for some smaller organizations that don’t have the bandwidth in their meetings department to find the time to go through the process of comparing all the city and hotel proposals they receive,” DeBrosse said.
“We have had clients walk in and tell us that they’ve lost one or two of their staff,” said Carol McGury, executive vice president of event and education services at third-party firm SmithBucklin. “We’re brought in at that point in time to lend support, and we wind up becoming a longer-term solution for them.”
The need for greater flexibility also has planners clamoring for outside help. “The days of having a meeting calendar published two or three years in advance are over for the vast majority of corporations. Even associations are getting more dynamic,” Malark said. “To respond to that, meeting-planning organizations and departments need to be able to increase their capacity in high-demand periods and decrease the cost during low-demand periods.”
Whatever your pain point may be, we’ve got you covered. Here’s how to decide what to outsource, find the right partner, get buy-in from stakeholders within your organization, and then efficiently and effectively manage outsourcing relationships.
WHAT TO OUTSOURCE
There are two basic approaches to outsourcing meeting services: retaining full meeting management or contracting out à la carte services as needed. “I believe that in today’s world,” DeBrosse said, “many meeting-planning professionals realize that if they outsource their hotel contracting to a third party, the commissions collected by that company can help offset fees that the organization would have otherwise paid for to cover the costs of services such as registration, housing, and meeting planning. These savings will go directly to the organization’s bottom line.”
HelmsBriscoe is also finding more planners interested in function-specific solutions. “We saw a big push four or five years ago for RFP-driven solutions,” Malark said. “An organization or association would submit RFPs for all of their meeting-planning needs, and they would try to go through a process and end up with one major supplier that would then, in theory, support all the outsourced needs of that organization. We’ve seen that start to wane a bit, and customers are now going with more of an à la carte process. The RFP process that was largely procurement-driven turned out to be pretty expensive and pretty time-consuming for all parties. Let’s face it, nobody’s best in class at everything, right?”
Leslie Thornton, vice president of outsourced services at SmithBucklin, is also seeing a shift toward the contracting out of individual services. “As we started getting the word out that we’re actively searching for outsourced business, which we haven’t done until this year,” Thornton said, “we’re finding not only turnkey opportunities but a lot of à la carte opportunities.”
Earlier this year, SmithBucklin collaborated with Ipsos, an independent market-research firm, to take the temperature of the outsourcing market. Eighty-one percent of the 360 senior-level U.S. association and professional-society executives who participated in the Outsourced Services Study are outsourcing at least one service. The most popular services to outsource are graphic design and multimedia production (52 percent), editorial and publishing services (27 percent), advertising sales (27 percent), and membership technology (26 percent).
Because you can outsource anything from event marketing to trade-show sales to data collection, narrowing your focus can be daunting. Start by scoping out the challenges your planning team is facing, rather than concentrating only on the end results you hope to achieve. “I wouldn’t just say outsource to outsource,” McGury said. “Ask yourself, is this something that the association is comfortable with? Does it fit with the needs of the internal staff team, augmenting their skills?”
Ask yourself, is this something that the association is comfortable with? Does it fit with the needs of the internal staff team, augmenting their skills?
Malark stresses that clients should begin by evaluating internal needs, both must-haves and nice-to-haves. “Start by asking, what’s your capacity?” he said. “What are the timeframes? Times of year? What are the types of meetings that are the biggest challenge for your internal resources? Then find those things that allow you as a planner to stay in control of the meeting and manage the experience, and work with credible vendors who can support you.”
FINDING THE RIGHT PROVIDER
Once you’ve made the decision to outsource, it’s time to narrow the field of suitors. This process can seem overhelming when there are any number of companies that, on the face of it, offer the same services. Whether you’re looking to outsource several components of your annual meeting to a few different providers or to hand over the keys of a major trade show, it’s crucial to find a partner with the relevant experience and the flexibility to align the services they’ll provide with your organization’s goals.
Walk into the first meeting with a potential supplier ready to be open about your organization’s challenges and priorities — and open-minded about solutions. “Sometimes people come and say, ‘Here’s what I want you to do,’ and that’s fine,” Malark said. “Sometimes they’ll say, ‘Here’s what I’m struggling with,’ or ‘Here are some of the things that we’re dealing with as an organization.’ We can be more creative and solution-generated than when it’s just, ‘Here’s specifically what I want you to do.’”
McGury suggests that planners educate potential partners about their organizational culture and long-term goals even before meeting in person. “Do a primer on the organization as you would for a new staff person coming on board,” she said, “so that the team is set up to execute on behalf of a mission-based organization or to achieve specific goals and objectives, not to just check a box.”
Your first sit-down meeting with a potential supplier should be a getting-to-know-you strategy session where you share your expectations and determine whether a partnership makes sense. “It’s more like discovery,” McGury said. “There have been times where we have said no to business because it’s not the right fit.”
The most advantageous outsourcing partnerships can be the ones with room to grow. “Sometimes planners will say, ‘Here’s the nitty-gritty assignment, do that,’ and then that’s the way that the supplier can build confidence and then start to go into a bigger overall strategic discussion,” Malark said. “Somebody comes to us with a specific sourcing challenge. Perhaps they’re sourcing a market they’ve never worked in before. Perhaps with a short-term lead time they don’t have the resources to meet the demand internally. Frequently, how the relationship evolves is that somebody comes to us with a short-term or unique need, and then through working with us on that, they realize how we can buy you that value across all meetings.”
After your team has collaborated to determine which aspects of a meeting will be the most time- and cost-efficient to outsource, you may need to make the case to your board or the C-suite. One approach? Ask your provider for talking points. “There are times when planners really could benefit from outsourcing, and the company that they’re working for could really benefit from that outsourced experience,” Malark said. “Planners are uncomfortable doing it because they’ll say, ‘Gosh, that’s my job. Aren’t I supposed to be doing that?,’ and we help them become able to articulate internally why it’s a benefit for the organization to use an outsourced supplier.”
Focus on the reasons that outsourcing will benefit your association. “I think it’s important for a planner to have a good sense of why they’re outsourcing,” Malark said, “what they expect to get from that outsource experience — so that’d be cost savings, time savings, ability to focus on other issues, etc. — and be able to articulate that internally.”
You may also be called on to make the case for engaging a particular service provider. “I think that is where a planner can say, ‘Hey I don’t have the expertise,’” Thornton said. “‘Our team will be involved in the vision and from a strategic standpoint, but we don’t have the expertise or the partnerships and connections on the ground that we need to make this successful.’”
The first step in establishing a solid relationship with your outsourcing provider is to iron out who will be doing what — and when. “The key is really understanding what role you want your provider to play,” Thornton said. “Who is responsible and accountable for what? Who is the interface?” She added: “Transparency is huge with us. Not every marriage works, right? If we run into a snag, we need to have the ability to ask, even before it happens, ‘How do we resolve that, where does it go?’”
Transparency is huge with us. Not every marriage works, right? If we run into a snag, we need to have the ability to ask, even before it happens, ‘How do we resolve that, where does it go?’
Malark agrees. “Outsourcing works best when the planner is open to collaboration with the supplier,” he said, “and the supplier has a clear understanding of the objectives of the stakeholders involved in the meeting.”
McGury added: “The more clarity there is on who is calling what shots and who is making what decisions, the better. When it comes down to financial decision-making, who has the authority? So many times that can be put into a contract, but talking it through is important as well. For example, if we are going to be going over budget because we have to replace coffee, or we have to add something that’s going to cost the organization money, who is authorized to make that decision?”
Once a hierarchy is in place, establish communication protocols. “It’s been our idea, particularly at the meetings with longer lead times, to set milestones and have times to check in to see what’s been done and where we’re at,” McGury said. “It’s a little bit of a supplier-management concept. Understanding clearly and, if necessary, putting in writing what’s expected of the individual [service being] outsourced, what the compensation terms are, and then making sure that there’s significant communication and clear lines of approval.”
Thinking of your outsourcing partner as an extension of your in-house team will help keep the planning process on track. “You want to on-board these folks and help them understand about the organization,” McGury said. “Spend the time that you need to make sure that that provider is engaged, understands protocol, and understands culture.”
BE AS FLEXIBLE AS POSSIBLE. “If you have the ability to shift your pattern by even a day, it can mean a lot in terms of being able to get better rates or concessions from a hotel,” said Experient’s Nancy DeBrosse, CMP. “If you’re inflexible, then it may be a little more difficult in today’s market.”
OUTLINE YOUR BIGGEST CHALLENGES. HelmsBriscoe’s Greg Malark encourages planners to be upfront with suppliers about the issues creating the biggest strain on internal resources.
BE OPEN-MINDED. A third-party supplier brings a fresh perspective to your planning team. “Planners need to make sure they’re treating the provider like a partner,” said SmithBucklin’s Carol McGury, “and not ‘You’re a gopher, you’re a go-to.’”
SHARE DATA FROM PAST MEETINGS. “History is very important,” DeBrosse said, “so that we have the ability to block rooms and secure the necessary number of rooms that a show’s really going to need.”
DEFINE ROLES EARLY. For maximum efficiency, Malark encourages planners to decide who on their team is involved in each step of the planning process as well as who will have the final authority over decisions.
SHOW THEM THE MONEY. “Everybody should know what the budget is,” Malark said. “Everybody should know what the budget rules are, and what happens if there are situations where prices are going up.”
FEAR CHANGE. “We spend a lot of time on how to be engaged as a team and how to get by in this new situation,” said SmithBucklin’s Leslie Thornton, “because change isn’t easy and we know that.”
NEGLECT TO CHECK REFERENCES. It may seem like a no-brainer, but be sure you find out who you’re working with and what their track record is. “Make sure that you understand when you’re working with individual entities that come highly recommended,” Malark said, “so you actually know the individuals that are involved.”
BE TERRITORIAL. Thornton stresses the importance of giving your third-party supplier a seat at the table. “In no way, shape, or form are we trying to take anyone’s job,” she said. “We are trying to assist to make the event successful.”
KEEP OUTSOURCING PARTNERS IN THE DARK. Open and honest relationships between planners and suppliers are crucial. “One of the things that we see that can be challenging is when there isn’t a clear understanding of the mutual objectives,” Malark said, “and when there isn’t transparency in the relationship.”
FORGET FACE TIME. Thornton suggests scheduling video calls with outsourcing suppliers instead of relying on email or phone calls. She said: “We all know face-to-face is the best way to create that trust and confidence.”
WAIT TOO LONG. “Early on,” Malark said, “we can ask questions that would allow for greater flexibility and potential out-of-the-box sourcing options that could make the meeting better.”
Earn one hour of CEU credit. Once you finish reading this CMP Series article, read the following material:
› “Floor Management,” a PCMA News article about trade-show-management outsourcing by Sue Fern, CEO and founder of Fern Management Services.
To earn CEU credit, visit pcma.org/convenecmp to answer questions about information contained in this CMP Series article and the additional material.
The Certified Meeting Professional (CMP) is a registered trademark of the Convention Industry Council.