Earlier this year, Chris Levy, marketing manager for Houston-based NCI Building Systems, was looking for an incentive company to help him plan next year's annual sales meeting for an NCI divisional group, Metallic Building Co. Levy, in discussion with several companies, accepted an invitation from one — Maritz Travel Co. of St. Louis — to attend its latest installment of Maritz Educational Invitation University at the Phoenician Resort in Scottsdale, Ariz., in March.

The Maritz event, which combined an educational component with a high-end incentive experience for the attendees (current and prospective Maritz clients), “was first-class,” he says. “It was well-executed … almost flawlessly.” If Levy had had any doubts about the direction he wanted to go in contracting with an incentive company, the Arizona experience assuaged them.

“It sealed the deal for us,” he says.

MEI University is what Marion Joppe, PhD, director of the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at the University of Guelph in Guelph, Ontario, calls an “incentivized meeting.” It's not a meeting in the strict sense, and it's not a pure incentive. “The people there didn't win participation, they were there because of the function they serve within their companies,” she explains.

A Growing Trend

These kinds of events are a growing phenomenon, Joppe says, particularly in Europe. Haymarket, a UK-based publishing company, publishes dozens of business titles, 15 of which hold forums to bring together key players in the magazines' marketing niches. One of those forums, being organized for a publication that covers the meeting industry, will be held in September at the Westin Turnberry Resort in Ayrshire, England. About 50 planners are expected to attend the three-day event, along with 25 suppliers — some advertisers and others prospective advertisers. Helen Thomas, an event manager for Haymarket, classifies the forum as a “three-day networking event.” With six workshops, it is “very much a learning environment.”

But it is clearly also a chance to extend the magazine's brand recognition, Thomas says, as well as attract subscribers and cement or create bonds with suppliers looking for a logical place to spend their advertising money. And the Turnberry, a newly refurbished incentive-caliber property, was selected with that audience in mind.

New York-based Ernst & Young also chose an incentive destination, the Maroma Resort & Spa, a small Orient-Express property in Mexico's Mayan Riviera, for its April meeting of prospective clients from some of the world's largest corporations. The firm's partners selected the attendees with the hope that a relationship could be cultivated and result in more business for the company, says Kaisa Kokkonen, associate director of marketing, Ernst & Young.

The three-day meeting had 90 attendees and combined morning workshops on international tax issues with fun activities in the afternoons, including snorkeling, golfing, spa treatments, and sightseeing in Tulum. “The attendees loved it,” says Kokkonen. “And the beach was fantastic.”

The value of this meeting, according to her, was for Ernst & Young to showcase its best professionals in specialized areas such as mergers and acquisitions and corporate tax risk issues. It also provided attendees with the important opportunity to network with executives from other firms — all in a beautiful environment that, as Kokkonen puts it, helps to forge personal relationships.

Does It Work?

MEI University came about in response to the industry downturn after 9/11, according to Terry Purcell, a Maritz account executive who coordinates the program. Maritz has tremendous industry knowledge, Purcell says, and the educational component of MEI University events helps to “cover the gaps between the knowledge we possess and our clients and prospective clients who want access to that information.”

The topic at hand in Scottsdale was how to determine the return on investment for incentive programs — a timely one for attendees.

“It was very valuable,” says Ann Marie Bermudez, marketing operations manager for Sankyo Pharma in Parsippany, N.J. Corporate executives often “see meetings as costs, and don't see the benefits,” she says, adding that coming up with successful models for determining ROI can only help those executives better understand the value of meetings.

These educational components also serve another purpose, believes Joppe, who has attended the event. “We have lost our sense of just having leisure time,” she observes. “Our leisure time must be productive. We want to walk away [from an event] feeling that we have accomplished something. When there is a learning component, people have that feeling.”

But it was the extracurricular activities that provided the memories. Whether it was being fitted for cowboy hats for a “cowboy and chandelier” evening in the desert or flying over the Grand Canyon, attendees also saw firsthand what Maritz and its associated suppliers could provide.

Maritz representatives tried to minimize any sense that there was a sales pitch going on during the event. “We kept it pretty clean,” Purcell says.

Did it work? It convinced NCI's Levy, who says the weekend showed him that Maritz and its partners “knew what it took to put together a world-class event.” Of the 17 companies represented at the event, 14 were prospective clients; four have since entered into contracts with Maritz. “That's a tremendous result,” says Purcell.

MEI University: A snapshot

DATE: March 19-21, 2004

NUMBER OF ATTENDEES: 71, including 17 current and prospective clients

LOCATION: Phoenician Resort, Scottsdale, Ariz.

PREVIOUS LOCATIONS: South Africa, the Bahamas, Orlando, Chicago

2005 DESTINATION: Switzerland

NUMBER OF YEARS DOING IT: 2

SEMINAR TOPICS: How to run an effective incentive promotional campaign; How to identify up-and-coming international destinations; How to calculate ROI.

BUSINESS BOOKED: Four of 14 prospective clients have signed contracts