When Brett Barrowman was planning his upcoming program for 420 attendees in Monaco, a young qualifier gave him a suggestion for a post-conference offering: How about a Eurail Pass?

“Our older qualifiers would never think of taking off with a backpack,” says Barrowman, vice president, director, conference and travel management, at American Fidelity Group in Oklahoma City. “They want to know, ‘Who's picking us up at the airport?’”

There's your new challenge: Can you deliver an incentive program with enough flash and flexibility to keep Generations X and Y (who represent your future) paying attention? And can that same program give Baby Boomers (who probably still mean the most to your bottom line) the respect and recognition they require?

Fast Track

“This topic is touching a nerve right now,” says Cheryl Cran, a presenter and writer based in Vancouver, British Columbia, who spoke at the FICP Canadian chapter meeting in August. “Gen Y is pushing the envelope in terms of what they want from employers. They don't look at their jobs as a career. Their loyalty is not to the company, it's to their family and friends.” Meanwhile, she adds, “a lot of Baby Boomers have chips on their shoulders because the younger workers aren't having to go through what they went through. They see Gen X and Gen Y colleagues getting promotions after two years where it took them 10 years.”

Indeed, some Gen X and Y producers are climbing the ladder fast at Allstate, meeting educational and financial criteria to buy exclusive franchises and turning up at Mark Mosley's incentive conferences. “The harder you work, the more you can make, and that's very appealing to Gen X and Y,” says Mosley, division manager, Irving, Texas. “Gen X is the microwave and drive-through generation. They want fast results.”

Variety Show

LIMRA International puts the average age of a life insurance producer at 56. The Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers Association's average member is 54. While younger producers are entering the ranks, that average will keep rising for a few more years, since insurance producers tend to work past typical retirement age. That sets up the situation many meeting planners find themselves in: They've got conference attendees whose ages span four decades.

“I do believe our qualifiers are getting younger, and it seems the last few years we have been challenged with a broader range of ages,” says Lynn Averill, second vice president, travel and conferences, National Life of Vermont. “We have some top producers who are hitting 70, and some of these younger producers are their children just coming into the business.”

Getting those young ones hooked is a particular concern to insurance and financial services companies, where retention is a priority. “We've been looking at this for several years,” says Barrowman. “We know that for the Millennials, entitlement is part of the deal. They are not loyal to a certain company. They are likely to change careers seven times. So how do we dangle a carrot to keep them year after year? It takes a lot of money in recruiting, hiring, training, and benefits for a new producer, and maybe two or three years to recoup that. How do we keep them so we get the return on our investment?”

His answer for incentive conferences involves careful site selection and lots of options, because, as he also notes, “we still have older folks with older tastes.” In fact, Barrowman's top-level incentive program is split right down the middle, with half the qualifiers in their mid-40s to late 50s and the other half in their mid-20s to mid-30s.

A recent successful site choice was Bermuda. “Bermuda is great because you can offer shopping and bus tours as well as kayaking and Wave Runners,” he says. One night during the program, the younger crowd had dinner at a pub while the older crowd went to a restaurant by the ocean where the atmosphere was quiet and more upscale.

Allstate's Mosley also finds that his Gen X and Gen Y attendees prefer a casual atmosphere, “so if I'm planning a dinner event, I might go with a Tommy Bahama theme rather than black-tie,” he says.

Grant Snider, president of JPdL Destination Management in Toronto, has noted a shift in requests for evening events. “My impression is that planners today want to touch their participants with something emotional rather than a story line theme,” he says. “They want to create an experience, an ambience, a mood. They want people to say, ‘What an elegant evening,’ or ‘What a cool look.’”

And when you get these younger qualifiers into their general session seats, Cran advises, watch out for boredom and BS. The younger attendees in the audience are looking for “passion and authenticity” from senior executives on stage, she says, not corporate catchphrases. Which does not mean you should skip the glitz. “They need flash and dazzle,” she adds. “They're so used to audio and visual stimulation.”

But how to choose an inspiring presenter? Lisa Carnemolla, vice president, Goodman Speakers Bureau, believes it is possible to find those who can reach multiple generations. She recalls a diverse audience listening to Susan and Phil Ershler, the first married couple to climb the Seven Summits (the highest peak on each of the seven continents). Susan trained while holding down a job as national sales manager running a multimillion-dollar division of a company. Asked how she fit the training into her schedule, she explained that at lunchtime she would strap on a backpack filled with kitty litter and climb flights of stairs in her office building. “The Boomers' reaction was, ‘Wow, that's crazy,’” Carnemolla recalls. “And the Gen Xers' reaction was, ‘Wow, that's cool!’”

I Can't Dance to That!

Ken Juel got a quick education in the preferences of younger qualifiers when he joined TD Ameritrade in early 2006: The average age of a producer in the company's 600-person field force is only 29. “We hire a lot of kids just out of college,” explains Juel, who came to the company after 21 years with Mutual of Omaha, where the average producer was decidedly older and more traditional. Now he's got infants and girlfriends coming to conferences.

“I've had to rethink everything,” he says. “And it's been a good thing. I just did a program in Banff where the optional activities included white-water rafting and ATV tours. The average age of the TD Ameritrade attendee allows me to plan more aggressive activities.”

Of course, along with the cooler activities are some new challenges. “Now I have babies and two-year-olds I'm trying to accommodate,” he laughs. “We don't have the budget yet to build a full kids' program, so we just try to give them as much information as we can. For example, the concierge can arrange baby-sitting, [you can] bring the kids to breakfast because it's a buffet, that kind of thing.”

At MetLife in Boston, Lindsay Maloni, conference planner, finds qualifiers getting younger in certain areas. “More and more producers are younger on our life insurance side,” says Maloni, a Gen Y planner herself. “The early 30s age bracket is growing.” Those producers are filling spots in the company's second-tier incentive conferences alongside producers who have been at it for three decades. With all qualifiers becoming more well-traveled and adventuresome, MetLife has had to look offshore — Puerto Rico and the Caribbean — for the second-tier conferences, which traditionally were booked only domestically.

As for the hotels and resorts themselves, Maloni notes that at 800 attendees, her Tier Two group is too big for boutique hotels. Her priorities, after size, are service level and reputation. “We look for properties like Ritz-Carlton, Four Seasons, and Fairmont that are classic and tasteful, not trendy.” Then again, she points out, “attendees do notice if a hotel feels outdated.”

Breakout sessions at the conferences target different ages and experience levels, and longtime agents are often tapped as presenters at workshops for newer agents. After the required morning business sessions, attendees choose afternoon activities from bus tours to bike tours: Maloni and the conference planning team ensure that there are options for all ages and ability levels.

But it may be that the toughest crowd-pleasing choice meeting planners have to make is the band. “That's a big one,” Maloni says. “We really have to look at set lists and listen to demos to get dance bands that play music for all the generations.”

Dan Young, CMP, LLIF feels her pain. “It's harder to hire a dance band. Usually we do rock and R&B but there is a challenge there,” says Young, director, event planning and field recognition at Thrivent Financial in Minneapolis. A successful choice for Young, whose qualifiers are 52 percent Baby Boomers, 34 percent Gen X, 9 percent Gen Y, and 5 percent older than the Boomers, has been Michael Cavanaugh: “He's a guy with a repertoire of hundreds of songs who can really read a crowd.”

Grant Snider of JPdL Destination Management sometimes advises booking a DJ when the crowd is diverse. “More and more it seems that a DJ is an easier way to go,” he says. “They've got everything. They can give you the full range from the Rat Pack to Beyoncé.” (But keep the volume down at evening functions regardless of the age range, Snider says. “Hey, I'm not hard of hearing or anything, but you can't interrupt the networking.”)

Forever Young

Then again, maybe age isn't about a number. For a recent board of directors program in Toronto, Snider was surprised at the high level of interest in a Centre Island cycling tour. “You can't safely assume what people in a given age range want,” he says. “For example, today's Baby Boomers are more active and health-conscious than previous generations.”

Cheryl Cran puts it this way: “Baby Boomers refuse to age.” And they don't want to — or can't afford to — leave the workforce. “Within two years,” she says, “retirement will be an antiquated notion.”

Thrivent's Dan Young notes, “A lot of people are younger by attitude. They're healthier than they used to be, they want to be involved in more physical activity.” As a result, he's offering more high-energy options to attendees, such as kayaking and rock climbing.

Watch out for making gender assumptions, too. Young says, “We have more men spending a day at the spa with their spouses, and cooking classes are popular thanks to the Food Network. A lot of women are choosing them, but some men are, too.”

During a program at the Four Seasons Hotel George V Paris this past spring, Janice Matoi planned a cooking class at the Hotel Ritz and found it more popular with the men than with the women. “It was surprising to me that the men enjoyed it most,” says Matoi, vice president, Transamerica Insurance & Investment Group, in Los Angeles. “They really raved about it.”

As attendees become more knowledgeable about food, even the buffet is getting more active, with the usual carving station expanding to several stations where dishes are made fresh by hotel chefs. Young held a program at the JW Marriott Starr Pass in Tucson, where chefs created “action stations” and prepared everything from barbecue to sushi to Mexican specialties. “They took it to a whole different level,” says Young. “People have higher food standards now. And they want to talk to the chef, to know how it's made.”

Text Me

Nowhere does the generation gap seem wider than in the area of technology. “Gen Y is a totally different beast. They want gadgets, pageantry, Wiis, TiVo,” says Mosley of Allstate. “We're in an era where your personal equipment is more sophisticated than your work equipment. Gen Y is total technology. So if you want to hit Gen Y you've got to spend more money to catch up to their personal tastes and what they think the norm is. They want results at the push of a button. They expect things immediately.”

The upside, Mosley says, is that they prefer electronic communication such as e-mail, text messages, and IMs, which are also cheaper and easier for planners. “When we take people on trips, we get their cell numbers in case of emergencies,” Mosley notes. “But eventually I can see sending mass text messages to attendees” — to remind them, for example, of the start time for an evening event. “And I can also see, somewhere down the road, when a room drop — departure notices, for example — is a text message.”

One of Mosley's latest meeting innovations spurred by technology is the “BlackBerry break,” something he heard about at an industry roundtable meeting. Label them BlackBerry breaks, the thinking goes, and attendees will turn off their gadgets during a presentation, since they know an e-mail and text-ing break is coming.

And you can forget presentation handouts. Younger producers would rather have a flash drive or a URL. At TD Ameritrade, says Ken Juel, the training department is looking into creating podcasts of training sessions and product updates, “so guys can listen on their iPods on the way to work.”

Incentive Conferences: It's All Good

Does the group travel experience motivate younger producers? “Absolutely!” says Kim DeVillers of Countrywide Financial, echoing the opinion of her planning peers. TD Ameritrade's Ken Juel says, “They're young. They don't have a lot of discretionary income. They've never had a chance to do these kinds of trips.”

MetLife's Maloni agrees. “Because they are first-time qualifiers, the excitement level is really high. They are thrilled to be there and appreciate the conference elements.”

Indeed, a recent LIMRA study looked at producer attitudes toward sales contests, finding that 75 percent of respondents saw them as motivating. Agreeing to the greatest degree that a sales contest is “an incentive” were the youngest respondents, those between 31 and 45, essentially Gen Xers.

For insurance and financial services companies, the key point is that if you do it right, once you get them to the conference, you'll keep them in the business. “We retain 97 percent of our conference-level producers,” says Young.

“Regardless of age,” concludes National Life of Vermont's Lynn Averill, “the expectation is always to go to a five-star resort. Fortunately, National Life recognizes that the quality of a property is critical to any success we expect to achieve.”

And Gen Y, in fact, may be just the generation to breathe new life into incentive conferences. “One cool thing about them is that they are very team-oriented,” says Cheryl Cran. “A lot of Baby Boomers are lone-wolfers. They need individual recognition. But Gen Y wants the team to succeed. They're group-oriented.”

Young sees that as the future. “Team development is huge,” he says. “They will work together, produce together, and go to conferences together.”

And if you bring them there together, wow them there together, then together they'll be back.

  1. Ask your DMC what gets the best response from younger attendees

    “Unless the property offers gads of activities on its own, a broad range of activities in the area is important, therefore a great DMC is important,” says Lynn Averill, National Life of Vermont.

  2. Gather information from sites and fams

    “Take time to look around and see what others are doing to cater to those in their 20s and 30s,” says Brett Barrowman, American Fidelity.

  3. Check with your speakers bureau

    “The younger generations want to be stimulated,” says Diane Goodman, Goodman Speakers Bureau. “You have to captivate them and keep things moving.”

  4. Are there 20-somethings in your office?

    “Listen to what is being said in both formal and informal settings,” Barrowman suggests. “I pay attention to what the younger generation is wearing around the office, eating, and talking about.”

  5. Keep tabs on technology

    You have producers who prefer flash drives to presentation handouts and wouldn't mind a registration confirmation by text message.

  6. Learn the lingo

    Go to www.webopedia.com and click on “quick reference” for a dictionary of abbreviations used in text messages and chat rooms that you might sprinkle into promotions or e-mail blasts. (The site is also a great resource for definitions of terms and products in all areas of computer technology and personal electronics.)

Conference Playlist: Music Bridges the Gap

WHAT'S ON YOUR IPOD? ABBA? THE BEATLES? That's cool. But you might try some Maroon 5, too. Tuning in to what younger producers are listening to can help you reach out to them at conferences. “I've got a lot of my daughters' music on my iPod,” says Mark Mosley, division manager at Allstate in Irving, Texas. He also notes that some bands from his teenage years are newly hip after being introduced to Gen Y through TV shows, movies, and video games such as the wildly popular “Guitar Hero,” which features songs from Queen, Cream, and Cheap Trick. “They're listening to old music that they don't know is old,” Mosley laughs.

After Journey's 1981 hit “Don't Stop Believin'” was featured in the season finale of “The Sopranos,“ it was briefly the No. 1 downloaded song at iTunes. Instead of dividing the generations as it once did, music may be bridging today's generation gaps.

Mosley and his colleagues on the Allstate recognition team all have iPods and spend a good chunk of time listening to options for the music that will be played during introductions, breaks, lunch, etc. “We try for vibrant, catchy, feel-good songs,” Mosley says.

Mosley also works in movie clips to inspire or set the tone for a meeting: for example, the scene from Apollo 13 where Gene Kranz, played by Ed Harris, states, “Failure is not an option.”

Greg Jenkins, partner of Bravo Productions in Long Beach, Calif., has spoken on the topic of events for Generations X and Y at The Special Event, ISES Eventworld, and Meeting Professionals International. Here are some of his tips for getting and keeping their attention:

  • Make invitations funky and keep the copy brief.

  • Use strong visuals and bright colors in décor.

  • Encourage participation. Attendees with a MySpace mentality prefer to act instead of observe.

  • Include a post-party activity for a demographic that likes to socialize.

  • Expect whatever you present to be Googled.

  • Don't use the phrases “Gen X” or “Gen Y” — they'll view it as contrived.

Source: Special Events magazine, June 2007