TMCs’ expanding MICE services reflect growing integration with travel, finds Catherine Chetwynd
Around ten years ago, TMCs were the poor relation of meetings management. They used their ability to get people from A to B as a hook for bolting on a MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions) service, but did not have the expertise to do the job to the level of dedicated MICE companies.
Over the years, this has changed. TMCs have either brought in expert individuals or bought companies to shore up their MICE credentials. Capita acquired BSI and in April, NYS Corporate; BCD M&E bought Universal Meetings Management and last year, Zibrant; and American Express GBT snapped up Banks Sadler in summer 2017.
The increasing number of travel buyers with responsibility for meetings and the desire for global corporations to have all their MI (management information) under one roof have had an influence.
Former travel buyer Vanessa Ancill-Griffiths is travel and events procurement director for Rok Consulting. She says: “TMCs are offering a joined-up service across markets and that is what clients are looking for. This is essential because where a meeting is being organised is not necessarily where it is taking place.”
She adds: “There is a strong emphasis on immersive events, especially where organisations are mixing generations and breaking down barriers. This involves accommodation and different types of venues, where it is important to have local market intelligence. TMCs have experienced, extensive offices globally that provide a joined-up service.” As she points out, event management companies provide local intelligence through ground handlers and that comes at a cost.
While members of the HBAA (Hotel Booking Agents’ Association) may have formerly described themselves as HBAs, very few now do solely hotel booking. Inntel describes itself as a meetings and travel management company, with meetings at the heart of what it does and travel management to support that.
Five years ago, it would not have seen traditional TMCs as rivals in meetings services. Inntel CEO and owner Douglas O’Neill says: “We have two types of competitor: TMCs, who now have very credible meetings management expertise and are larger organisations that maybe have larger clients, who have a requirement for meetings management; our other competitors tend to be small agencies, who have only two or three clients and fiercely guard those.”
He adds: “We sit in the middle. We deliver the flexibility of service of small agencies but we have the technology that large agencies can offer.” Inntel’s meetings management portal comprises bespoke software, designed to give an end-to-end service – from diary management, venue sourcing and early engagement with delegates, through event management to post-event engagement.
“It allows one tool to be used for collection of data across the entire remit of a meeting,” O’Neill says. “We built it because there is nothing available in the market and the uptake we have had has been tremendous.”
Technology was also a feature in Capita’s acquisition of NYS Corporate, whose Meetings Pro tool handles venue finding, website creation, delegate management and spend management for self-managed small meetings. Clients are able to find and book internal meeting rooms alongside external inventory with direct availability, allowing them to prioritise company space. Large events are managed through Cvent and Capita technology combined.
“New generation technology that searches for a meeting room has been accelerated because organisations like ours have made that investment and made the user experience very simple,” says Trevor Elswood, Capita Travel & Events chief commercial officer. “Some organisations will be doing up to 80 per cent of small meetings finding through an online booking tool. That is a real shift.”
This investment is attracting the attention of buyers. “I see more and more specific sourcing technologies emerging in the marketplace,” says Stephanie Rothman, global travel manager at software firm Canonical. “And it will be interesting to see how many TMCs sign up for them because it will certainly help them be quicker and more efficient in sourcing.”
A one-stop shop
Proof of the pudding is in the relationship between Clarity and John Lewis Partnership (JLP) – business the TMC won last year.
“We use Clarity for travel because that is our main spend, but meetings spend was untapped, with people doing their own thing. I wanted to catch all of it and was keen to use Clarity as a one-stop shop,” says JLP travel buyer Sarah Plummer. “They handle big events plus standard hotel requirements, and we have visibility and better rates via agency negotiation.”
Requirements range from leisure benefits for staff, such as hiring Thorpe Park for the day for partners and their families, to store openings, training, interviews and conferences. “We could be taking over hotels for weeks on end for hundreds of people,” she says. AGMs are next to be brought into the TMC fold.
Despite having travel and meetings under one umbrella, capturing and marrying up attendant MI is not a breeze. “One of the challenges for TMCs is that the MI from meetings does not always flow into travel because they require different fields and data capture. But from a travel management point of view, we want to see it all in one place and when looking at reporting tools, we want to pull all our data down; Clarity is working on that,” she explains.
“In some TMCs, I believe MI data for meetings is separate from other travel data, which you want, but you want an overview as well. There is an opportunity for improvement in the industry,” she says.
Clarity’s head of MICE, Claire Conboy, explains the TMC’s aims. “JLP gets the general meetings report, which gives them numbers, values, areas, venues and, in some cases, items such as theatre tickets or afternoon tea, but that doesn’t mould well with traditional TMC data. My team takes both lots of data and combines them – very nicely, actually – so that they read better and JLP can get total people travel, total savings, etc,” she says.
“For JLP’s benefit, we keep the reports separate for procurement and for the different departments because it gives more information than the top level final figure,” she adds.
Mergers versus creativity
The considerable M&A activity indicates a passion for TMCs to bring in further meetings & events clout, although how small companies fare as part of a large corporation is open to debate. “The challenge TMCs have is they end up stifling all that creativity,” says Inntel’s O’Neill. He has seen clients become dissatisfied as a result, causing them to move back to a traditional meetings management company.
“Global meetings management comes at a compromise” says Trevor Elswood. “The simplicity of managing meetings globally nine times out of ten drives data visibility and policy consistency across regions, but large organisations continue to buy local because specialist functions do stand out. There is a trade-off.”
Canonical is a case in point. It has fewer than 1,000 people in 32 countries and 400 cities worldwide. The company holds around 130 internal events a year. “We try to select a location that minimises travelling time and customs queues, so we stay away from premium cities, and we use all sorts of venues,” says Stephanie Rothman. The person who calls the meeting is the event organiser and a central internal team of event managers undertakes sourcing and logistics. The company has a number of TMCs worldwide and only occasionally asks a TMC for MICE services.
Although meetings and travel are often seen to be inseparable, with travel at the forefront, O’Neill thinks otherwise: “If you get the meeting bit right, the benefit gained from maximising the output of the meeting will be far greater than whether they are flying economy or business class to New York. Traditionally, travel is the tail that wags the dog, whereas the meeting should be dictating the day, with everything else fitted around that,” he says.
The last word goes to Clarity’s Conboy: “It’s like setting up an orchestra – it’s not one instrument or the conductor; we have to have everything together to make the best sound and produce the best performance. It’s all about the end result and making sure the customer’s happy.” Exit left on a perfect cadence.
Fay Sharpe, vice-president, BCD Meetings & Events Group
BCD Meetings & Events (BCD M&E) is a wholly owned subsidiary of BCD Travel and has 1,100 employees across the Americas, Europe, Middle East & Africa and Asia Pacific. Fay Sharpe says its premise is to “design solutions and experiences where people, passion and purpose come together to drive results”.
The division was formed in 2015, when the group integrated two organisations “to create a global operating unit”, branded as BCD Meetings & Events. “The integration was in response to clients’ needs to manage their total travel and meetings spend on a local, regional and global basis,” says Sharpe.
The company offers five key ‘business specialisms’: events, strategic meetings management, life sciences, technology and the sports sector.
“BCD M&E provides technology solutions through use of third party partners, bespoke products, systems integration and data warehousing and aggregation,” says Sharpe. “Investment in proprietary products and data aggregation allows the organisation to solve clients’ challenges that aren’t addressed by existing market solutions.”
In 2016, BCD M&E acquired events agency Zibrant – to strengthen and diversify its events business in the European market, says Sharpe. It also incorporated LIVE!, a creative live events company that was originally a division of Zibrant.
Sharpe says the acquisition offers clients “additional capabilities such as creative communications, full-scale production services and venue sourcing expertise”.
She says elements like this are key to differentiating from traditional TMC competitors, adding: “This year, the drive has been on further developing and engaging with new and existing customers with LIVE!, which has become a creative hub comprising film team, design studio, live production and communications services working across EMEA.”