Focused on Financials

Pamela Wynne, Manager of Corporate Meeting Planning at Princeton, N.J. — based Educational Testing Service, can't remember the last time she actually planned a meeting.

That's because the 12-year meeting industry veteran spends most of her time on the financials — dozens of reports every week — and procurement issues. Five years ago, “my job was 85 percent planning meetings,” Wynne says. “Now I spend at least 50 percent of my time doing reports and other financial stuff and another 25 percent creating and enforcing policies and procedures. And I spend the other 25 percent managing people.”

For Wynne and her boss, Chief Financial Officer Frank Gatti, those percentages work out just right. For the past six years, 60-year-old ETS has been going through a major transformation. A big part of the change has been on the financial side, instituting strategic forecasting and planning tools and holding managers more accountable.

Gatti, who joined the company seven years ago after serving as vice president of financial management at The New York Times, did not ignore meetings when he came on board. He saw how fragmented ETS' approach to meeting and travel procurement was, and soon had a plan to centralize meetings, creating a structure that focused on financials, with the manager of meetings reporting up through procurement to the finance department and Gatti himself.

Follow the Money

“One of the first interactions I had with Frank Gatti was at a group dinner when we started talking about meetings,” Wynne recalls. “I remember him saying, ‘Tell me what you need to do your job most effectively.’ I was so impressed with that.

“In all the interactions I've had with people in so many different companies,” she continues, “all I ever hear is how difficult it is for upper-level management to understand the value of meetings.”

Not Gatti. He soon moved everything — meeting planning, travel, and procurement — under his domain.

“It's important that all of those functions report to finance because that's the flow of money,” says Wynne. “And the flow of money — in and out — needs to be in one area.” For example, being under the same umbrella as accounts receivable makes it easier for Wynne and her staff to identify when people do not use the meeting department because that is reflected in their invoices.

“The flow of money” is not an idea Wynne was throwing around five years ago. Like many meeting pros these days, she has had to raise her game as her company's interest in tracking and controlling meeting spending has evolved. And for all her success over the past few years, the financial side did not come naturally.

“My degree was not in meeting planning; it was in education and history,” she says. She's now halfway through a mini-MBA program offered on the ETS campus by nearby Rutgers University, but a course offered by ETS itself, Finance for Non-Financial Employees, was especially helpful after the reorganization. “It gave me a great view of the way that things operate. People really need to understand how cash flows through their organization and how departments are interconnected.”

Bring in the Analyst

Wynne was the company's only planner when Gatti joined the company. First he allowed her to hire two staffers, and then gradually to expand her staff to six people.

Wynne, a financial analyst, and two ground transportation coordinators report to the director of travel and meetings. “She oversees the overall travel program at ETS,” Wynne explains. Since there is no corporate travel manager, she and her boss share those responsibilities. “She is the primary negotiator on automobile rentals and manages the master agreement with our preferred corporate travel agency, which is not on site. I negotiate all the transient hotels across the company, maintain the travel Web site, and update corporate travel policies.”

An unusual step by Gatti was to add the full-time financial analyst to the department to focus on analyzing reports for meetings and travel. “We had someone in auditing who wanted to move there and provide support,” Gatti explains. “Given her dexterity with financial information and spreadsheets, she could off load that burden from our meeting planners and enhance their understanding. We got lucky.”

Primarily, the analyst deals with the huge task of reconciliation, coding bills with internal clients' billing information, making sure that charges go to the correct cost centers, and checking bills against credit card reports. Having her is “a huge time savings,” according to Wynne. “Our meeting planners used to spend a great deal of time doing cost-savings reports, and now she handles them all. She also does a myriad of individual reports that department heads throughout the company request when they're doing budgeting and forecasting.

“She also helps me with cost-analysis reports, for example, on how much was spent the year before,” Wynne adds. “She'll provide reports where I can analyze our average airline rate, or our average domestic and international hotel rates. Then we can create better contracts with our vendors based on our actual usage.”

Another bonus: Someone with a financial background also knows how to “speak the language,” Wynne says. “They know what the financial people are looking for, such as bulleted items that stick out on a page. We want to provide information that will effect change. Clear, concise information makes our lives so much easier.”

Huge Growth in Meetings

The department's meeting volume is busting out. When it was first formed in 2001, the department planned 150 meetings; in 2004, 600; in 2006, it expects to reach 725. These meetings break down into two broad categories. First are operational meetings for internal ETS divisions. Second, accounting for more than half of its activity, are meetings organized on behalf of ETS clients that the clients then pay for.

“For example, the College Board hires us to manage, operate, and maintain the AP exam,” Wynne says. “We do a ton of meetings under that contract, and they reimburse us. It adds another level of stakeholder; we're not just serving the ETS internal client.”

Wynne's role in these many events has clearly turned from planning to managing. She relies heavily on her senior meeting planner for many of the hands-on administrative tasks that she used to do. The senior planner “has a big job overseeing the meeting planner activity of our office,” Wynne explains. “She is the first person to call when there's a problem. She is also responsible for overseeing our online RFP process. She conducts and manages our online training sessions. And she conducts the weekly staff meetings and is responsible for the distribution of work among the staff.”

With a senior meeting planner she can count on, Wynne is freed up to spend time on financial reporting, communicating with internal clients, and enforcing ETS procedures. “Either it's educating a new employee as to our policies, or a veteran employee who doesn't see the big picture. I teach them how we can both benefit by following policy.”

Wynne works with Gatti on quarterly cost avoidance and quarterly cost-savings reports, among other analyses. She also gets various reports from the corporate credit cards used for buying goods and services for meetings, which might range from how much was spent at a particular hotel chain to group ground transportation costs. “It helps me direct where I'm setting up our agreements,” Wynne says.

Wynne has to approach Gatti to sign off on all exceptions to meeting policy, such as the use of a nonpreferred hotel with a higher rate. “Knowing that exceptions go directly to the CFO for approval or denial gives us more control,” says Wynne. “And more control equals greater cost savings.”

Gatti is also the enforcer when it comes to people not following the rules, either with their corporate travel or their meetings. “Misbehaving,” he calls it, in plain English. “Like when we have individuals going to a particular conference or event, and they knew about it months earlier but only went to the travel group to book travel five days before. When I get those reports, I share them with my colleagues and they have a conversation with the individual.”

Wynne's role is also to minimize risk for the company, and with meetings being part of supply chain management, ETS' meeting professionals can more easily call on colleagues with greater expertise in structuring contracts. “Pam is a part of that organization and she can tap into that expertise at any moment in time,” Gatti says.

Two Sets of Skills

Reporting might not be the direction in which every meeting professional wants to take his or her career, but a growing knowledge of the financial side is showing up on the bottom line and in Wynne's visibility in the organization. “You need to look at your role in the organization if you want to move ahead,” she says.

“I think finance is a very black-and-white area,” she continues. “Meeting planning, by contrast, is very gray. There are many emotions involved. You have decisions to make that aren't based on financial information. It's much more of a social skill.”

That said, she believes that a single individual can be competent in both skills. One is a learned skill, one is not, she says. “If you're math-oriented, that is your core competency, but meeting planning is more of a learned skill.”

If anyone appreciates his meeting planners' skills, it's Gatti. “What they do really matters on a day-in, day-out basis,” he says. “From a companywide perspective, comparing 2004-05 with 2005-06, volume in terms of the number of meetings is up 10 percent, but the cost is basically flat with the volume because we've maximized savings.”

“It's the responsibility of any meeting-planning department to focus on reporting tools that show their value to the organization,” Wynne adds. “Otherwise, how would upper-level management know what you do?

“There are individuals who still think we count the danishes and order the coffee. That's not what we do here.”

When to Centralize

According to Educational Testing Service's Chief Financial Officer Frank Gatti, his company's decision to centralize meeting planning was the right one — just 10 years late.

“Organizations of different sizes have different needs. ETS' annual revenue in 2005 was $800 million. If you're $3 billion and above, this whole idea of developing centers of excellence throughout the company is a bit more common. As you drop down in revenue, companies have a more fragmented approach. Maybe it's OK if everyone does his or her own travel. In my view, once you pass $300 million in revenue, you get into a category where things are highly fragmented, and you need to centralize. ETS was 10 years past where it should have centralized.”

Put another way, Gatti believes that ETS was in a do or die situation five years ago. “We were at a critical point as an organization,” he says. “If we didn't do certain things, this organization might not be here. Or it might be marginalized in our industry.”

In Her Spare Time

In addition to the financial side, here are some of the other tasks that fill Pamela Wynne's days:

  • Some corporate travel responsibilities, such as managing transient agreements with hotels and updating travel policies.

  • Communicating with preferred vendors and suppliers. “We have national reps from the big chains assigned to us, and I'm the one who deals directly with them.”

  • Mentoring her staff on the company's two largest meetings.

  • Organizing all meetings requested by the president of ETS. “I delegate some responsibility for these meetings, but the overall responsibility is mine.”

  • Conducting the monthly staff meeting.

  • Managing staff issues, such as mentoring, time slips, time off, vacation calendars, and so on.

  • Training. “I present to areas of ETS on cost savings, international etiquette, and business protocol.”

  • Maintaining the travel and meeting Web sites.

Measuring Up

Educational Testing Service evaluates its meeting department — and Pamela Wynne, manager of corporate meeting planning — on a variety of metrics. Among them:

  • How much cost savings did she or her department contribute?

  • How did the department — based on data collected largely in meeting planner surveys — measure up on internal and external customer service and quality?

  • Did the department contribute to ETS' social mission?

  • Did the department go above and beyond its goals and objectives in any way?

  • Was Wynne an agent of positive change in the organization?

Wynne is empowered as to how she rewards her staff. “As a manager,” she says, “I find out what my staff wants: Some prefer money; others want public recognition.”

Personally, her biggest reward isn't money — it's job satisfaction. “I love what I do,” Wynne says. “I feel that the support I've been given and the freedom to make changes and improvements have made my personal satisfaction go way up.”

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