Who Owns the Meeting?

Clear lines of communication and accountability produce greater impact and a better ROI
By: Harvey Chipkin

Robert Sanders, general manager, meetings and events for Ovation Corporate Travel, recently ran a meeting in Atlantic City for 1,000 people. "I was dealing with the creative team, the content team, the F&B team and others," Sanders says. "But what I needed to know was: who makes the decisions? I have to know and sometimes it takes a while to get there. People will say, 'Robert, you are dealing with me' and that's fine, but I have to know: Who will sign the contract? Who will approve the budget? It's a $2 million meeting but I may never interact with the person who makes the decisions so that when I get the opportunity to represent them I want to know where the decisions came from."

Meeting planners and suppliers agree that in too many cases there may be too many cooks involved in preparing the meeting broth - leading to unfocused leadership and the absence of a meeting "owner." However, they also believe that with the proper organization and execution, ownership can be streamlined and efficient - maximizing the outcome of the event.

Leaders on both sides of the negotiating table agree on two primary ground rules for creating any event: It's crucial for every meeting to have a purpose and for that purpose to be clear from the outset - before any planning is done. And a meeting should be treated like any other project - with a system in place that facilitates clear decision making and accountability.

As obvious as those goals might be, many meetings are far from achieving that ideal. According to a recent Global Business Travel Association study, "Challenges identified among those currently collaborating on meetings across departments include lack of communication (43 percent), control issues between departments (42 percent) and budget constraints (41 percent)."

Sanders, whose team plans 200 meetings a year, sees clear-cut boundaries for the meeting manager. "There is sometimes arm wrestling among stakeholders," he says. "One person may say it should be fun and interactive while a different person wants it cerebral and focused. We can't get into the middle of that but we have to facilitate an outcome. There may not be a winner of the arm wrestling match but there will be an outcome. What we can do is provide information. If you want to go this way we can do that for you. Front ending the purpose of the meeting is always best," Sanders adds.

"The ownership of a meeting gets sticky," notes Joan Eisenstodt, who heads up consultancy Eisenstodt Associates. "Let's say there is an originator of the meeting, a C-level person. Then it's delegated and the question becomes 'Who calls the rest of the shots?' The first court case I ever testified in as an expert witness was on behalf of a hotel against a corporation. The company booked and cancelled the same meeting three times because the planner never checked the CEO's schedule. So they booked and canceled because the CEO was not able to be there." Ownership, she maintains, would have made a big difference.

"Egos get involved," says Eisenstodt. "If somebody's ego is invested into a piece of a meeting they will argue for that piece regardless of whether or not it makes sense. Egos are fragile. If somebody thinks it was a brilliant idea, regardless of the big picture, they may say 'we're going ahead with it anyway.'"

Often the problem, says Mary Craig, director of Balboa Meeting & Event Solutions, is what she calls a lack of "internal definition and clarity," which she ascribes to ownership by committee. "Meeting stakeholders have to know internally what their meeting objectives are and either own it or assign the appropriate staff to do so on their behalf," Craig says.

An example cited by Tony Wagner, vice president-CWT Meetings & Events, Americas came up in a company with multiple divisions. Wagner says one business unit leader wanted separate sales meetings for each division while a procurement officer had a totally opposite view and thought there should be a single meeting for all divisions. "That is an internal strategy conflict where we can't necessarily intercede but can come up with options that might offer a compromise," Wagner says.

Who's on First?
It's unrealistic for somebody to singlehandedly own a meeting, insiders say. Rather, the most productive route is to have a process that owns the meeting in a way that encourages accountability. "I must admit that I get a bit uncomfortable when peers refer to their organization's event as 'my' meeting rather than 'our,'" says William Reed, senior director of meetings and community engagement for the American Society of Hematology. "One person alone should not own any significant meeting because it would be an indicator that good meetings can be created in a vacuum."

Reed argues, "Even when one has organizational purview, you can make room for input and feedback without surrendering that purview. It can be a smart business practice to seek input from other perspectives so that you can make better, more inclusive decisions. It can be important to clarify the intention on who will decide from the beginning in one's communications."

As Craig puts it, "Each meeting is going to have a primary stakeholder, which is the logical place to start. With a clear picture of the desired outcome and hopefully an idea of budget to work within; choosing individuals with the experience and skill set to accomplish should be the next step."

Sometimes leadership may depend on the structure of the meeting; for instance: is a third-party planner ultimately responsible? "From a third party professional meeting management perspective, there absolutely is an owner assigned," Craig says. "Ideally, there should be collaboration between the primary meeting owner/ stakeholder and the meeting planning/execution owner, whether internal or external."

When things go wrong and there is a lack of meeting ownership, accountability becomes an issue. "Sadly, I think planners get blamed no matter how it worked. It's always 'the meeting planner forgot something' or sometimes the hotel becomes responsible," says Eisenstodt.

In a worst case scenario, she says, there could be a lawsuit. "Things could get costly if you make changes and somebody didn't pay attention," she notes.

"Often, the actual purpose and effectiveness of a meeting can get compromised without clear decision making," says Craig. "Money gets left on the table; expenses can go unchecked and in the end kill the potential overall ROI."

How Should Ownership Work?
Planners surveyed for the GBTA study shared best practices to tackle challenges such as identifying one person from each department to serve as a main point of contact and formalizing a partnership between departments with buy-in from leadership. "There ought to be one good strong person with oversight who knows the issues around everything," explains Eisenstodt. "You can't separate content from logistics. Content has to be delivered within the logistical framework so somebody has to see the big picture. People at the C-level without meeting or travel background might not understand the pieces of the meeting. They may have read about it but may not understand the impact."

Collaboration is the key, says Reed. "It takes effort by many stakeholders to make our annual meeting successful - members, volunteers, speakers, committees, departments, vendors, abstract submitters, attendees...everyone. That is not to say that all decisions are made by committees, but there are norms on what requires member input and what does not. We are fortunate because our volunteer leaders support the staff, and staff supports the volunteers. It is a mutual collaboration. I would assert the same may be true for any exceptional organization," he says.

"Today, successful business event strategists are more inclined and prepared to be the ringleader of ideas," said Reed. "They are more consultative in approach to draw out input from others where it would be helpful. They are listening for opportunities to link the business event to an organizational objective or goal. They are less concerned with sole ownership and more focused on collective results, impact and experience."

For large or more complex meetings, more detailed information is needed. Wagner says CWT actually 'maps out' all of the participating stakeholders - showing who is in charge of what: content, budget, etc. That helps clarify the line of authority. It usually starts with a two-step process, he says - "first a meeting where we try to truly clarify what is expected to happen at the meeting. The second step will involve setting up our project team that will include people from the customer side and will establish who is in charge."

Finally, there's the schedule. "We will also put up timelines and say these things have to be decided by these dates," Wagner says. "We will have steering calls where all stakeholders are on the call to ensure we are all on the same page."

Collaboration and Consistency
A growing number of travel managers are doubling as meeting planners, and even when they're not, say analysts, they should have a voice in planning the meeting. "If the travel manager is doing the travel portion of a meeting, they can't do that piece until they understand all the other pieces. So many things play into a meeting and people don't talk to one another," Eisenstodt advises.

"We definitely see travel managers getting more involved in meetings," Wagner notes. "Because of our travel management background as a company we always encourage someone from the travel team to be involved. There are good reasons. We just had a meeting where the client wanted to drive more online registration for meetings. We did an analysis and found that they did not take into consideration the meeting's start and end times, which would have made transportation difficult. Similarly, we did an incentive for a company that chose a destination that turned out not to have enough airlift for their needs. Those are examples of the central role of the travel manager."

According to Kate Vasiloff, GBTA Foundation director of research, "While there is no single roadmap to successful collaboration, establishing clear lines of communication, demonstrating an openness to fresh ideas and accounting for time and money spent is a good place to start."

And many see strategic meetings management as the key to proper 'ownership.' Anil Punyapu, vice president of sales for Cvent, a meeting technology company, says, "From an ownership point of view, running a meeting as a project is important so that there is a project leader who owns it. That is where strategic meetings management comes in. It enables the parties to have a strategy to manage every type of meeting and event."

Cvent itself, says Punyapu, has aimed at facilitating collaboration in two ways:

  • Creating tools that allow every department to do its own job better.
  • Helping to integrate all these tools - as well as non-Cvent tools - so that there is an effective flow of data.

Shifts are underway that might reshape the concept of meeting ownership. As Wagner notes, "There are now marketing people who have data that may give them a more prominent place at the table. Marketing used to be involved in the content and creative, but now they are more about data that enables them to better target and engage with attendees."

"It's like baseball," says Wagner. "That sport has been overtaken by data and analysis and the same thing will happen in meetings."

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