The biggest merger of technology giants in history, Hewlett-Packard and Compaq, made a lot of noise last spring. So it follows that the new HP's four-day Americas Field Conference — the first meeting of the now 6,000-member-strong combined sales force — got pretty loud, too.
Slot machines loud.
John Mellencamp loud.
Live lion cubs loud.
The goal of the four-day AFC, held in Las Vegas this past November, was to bring together, under one massive roof, two sales forces with two very different cultures. Until then, both were used to meeting in different ways. The Compaq sales force had been meeting annually, having last gathered in Hawaii at a splashy event at the Honolulu Convention Center. By contrast, nobody could remember the last time HP had brought its entire sales force together.
“A lot can be accomplished electronically,” Karen Davis, director of marketing communications for HP's Enterprise Systems Group Americas, based in Littleton, Mass., says of those days.
Not any more. “Part of what we established with this event is that nobody works for the same company anymore. The goal of the meeting was to get these two groups together, to learn, to build confidence, to bond as one team. And to leave with a sense of excitement and pride about the new company — not where they came from.”
Passion and Partnership
HP's message for the meeting, “Passion for Customers,” was a prime focus for CEO and Chairman Carleton S. “Carly” Fiorina when she launched the new company in May 2002. It became the mantra for the 6,000-person meeting.
“The content for the meeting started with the customer,” says Davis. “Solution sessions” focused on four key vertical industries: financial services, network and service providers, manufacturing, and the public sector. Each attendee created an individual training curriculum from more than 100 sessions, in tracks that covered a range of subjects. By the end of the meeting, everyone had taken 11 different 90-minute classes.
Four subthemes were developed, one for each day. “The first day was an acknowledgement of where we were,” says Bob Lynch, HP's director of content integration and communication at ESG Americas. “It was no longer about ‘The New HP,’ it was about ‘The Power of HP.’” The second day focused on relationship-building skills. (As Davis puts it, “People buy from people, not companies.”) Innovative products and ideas were the subject of day three's classes, while the final day was a call to action for the HP sales force.
Attendees extended beyond the sales force. HP invited chief information officers from its various corporate and enterprise accounts to speak, such as Travelers Insurance, Cisco Systems, and the U.S. Postal Service, and brought in 50 of its largest tech partners, including Intel, Oracle, Microsoft, and system integrators such as Accenture and BearingPoint. Other attendees included the new company's channel partners, resellers, and distributors.
Old Think vs. New Think
A major goal of the meeting was to eliminate what Lynch calls “old think” behaviors and attitudes. Each company came into the new HP with a distinct “this is the way we've always done this” perspective. By bringing the two groups together, organizers were pretty much assured that 50 percent would be unfamiliar with what they were trying to accomplish.
“As they say in the military,” Lynch quips, “the troops can only move as fast as the slowest soldier.”
The company's goals since the merger have been to keep the lines of communication open, and to offer many opportunities for the combined sales force to mingle, share information, and ask questions.
The timing of the Vegas meeting was precise: six months after the May 7 merger was completed and two weeks into the new company's fiscal year. “It was a very strategic decision,” Davis says. Last summer, after the merger, people were still getting the lay of the land, many learning new or changed jobs. “Six months later,” Davis says, “the dust had settled, and we could roll forward.”
“On May 7, when we were first allowed to bring people together, we had satellite downlinks of the merger announcement at five major venues, such as the Long Beach Convention Center,” says Lynch. “We brought together the sales teams in places where there was critical mass. We ran management mixers after the broadcast that offered Q&A's with the new management team, and a cookies-and-milk reception so everybody could talk.” Then last summer, executives did a multicity road show, the focus of which was cross-product training.
The AFC was the first opportunity for the customers and salespeople to mingle, and there were many opportunities to do so: a welcome reception on the first evening (Sunday), and regional team dinners Monday night. Since fire laws prevented HP from having all 6,000 attendees at the eveningat one time, half the group attended one night, and the other half the next. For those who weren't at the trade show, it was yet another chance for a night out to socialize.
As Big as It Gets
Why choose Las Vegas for this meeting? “With a single group of this size, the places to do this were limited,” Lynch says. “One of the attractive elements of Vegas and the MGM Grand, the headquarters hotel, were the convention facilities. There are not many venues that can offer you an arena-style setting for a general session of 6,500 people. Or that offer enough conference rooms and meeting room space so that we could run 6,000 people through 26 concurrent training sessions and still have 30,000 square feet for a trade show.”
For the meeting, which used both the MGM Grand's 380,000-square-foot conference center and its 13,500-seat Grand Garden Arena, hotel management laid out a half-mile pathway from the hotel elevators that wound only briefly through the casino before ending up in the convention center.
“Frankly, it was just too far for attendees to walk back, so we got them for the whole day,” Lynch jokes about the massive property, adding that this was the largest single-company meeting the property had ever hosted.
“People came for the day as we wanted; they stayed, and they were focused during the day,” says Davis. “At night, those people who wanted the attractions, shows, or casino could go. That was fine. And for people who didn't, that was fine, too.”
Davis and Lynch, who came to HP as a team from Compaq, had never planned anything as challenging — or as big. Despite some major logistical challenges, including an Aerosmith rock concert planned smack in the middle of their trade show (see box, below), they are convinced that their AFC meeting accomplished just what they set out to do.
“We knew the goals we set for the meeting were pretty high,” Davis says. “Then there were the logistics of managing 6,000 people, the employees, the vendors, the support staff — 6,500 people were on-site on any given day. But they came, they experienced. They had no idea what to expect. And they went away jeeped.”
Rock On, HP!
The next time you hire an event producer, ask if he or she has ever set up for a show in an arena. Then ask if they have ever torn everything down because a rock concert was inconveniently scheduled in the middle of the contractual load-in, and then set everything back up again less than 24 hours later.
That's what Dave Lawson's crew from Houston-based Staging Solutions had to do for Hewlett-Packard's Americas Field Conference at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
“There was an Aerosmith concert in the middle of our load-in,” explains Lawson, executive producer. “Aerosmith's road crew came in, did their 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. rock concert load-in and load-out. They even used our stage. At 2 a.m., after the concert, we came in, loaded all our stuff back in, and had to be show-ready in 12 hours.”
Aside from that logistical nightmare, Lawson raves about the experience of staging the AFC meeting. A few highlights:
A state-of-the-art video produced by Jupiter Productions, LLC, based in North Chelmsford, Mass. Plasma monitors enhanced the look and feel.
Forty-four breakout rooms, each accommodating from 80 to 1,000 people
A huge video screen measuring 30 feet tall and a full 90 feet wide that served as the centerpiece of the meeting's general session
A Las Vegas-style magic act that included a 1-year-old lion cub.
Staging Solutions produces eight to 20 events a year for HP, ranging from small road shows and 400-person meetings to the AFC meeting. “They don't want the same boring meeting, which I call ‘Death by PowerPoint,’” Lawson says. “They want some theatrics, something that will punch the crowd and get them excited from the get-go.”
The highlight of the AFC meeting was a surprise 70-minute concert by John Mellencamp.
“One of the things that we've found in terms of providing entertainment for a sales organization is to have some music that they know and can sing along to,” says Bob Lynch, HP's director of content integration and communication at the Enterprise Systems Group in Littleton, Mass.
“There are a number of wonderful performers of today's generation but our audience wouldn't know their songs. Not John Mellencamp.”
“This is an audience that likes to rock,” adds Karen Davis, director of marketing communications for the ESG Group. “By the closing night, they were ready to party.
“We always keep the performer's identity a big secret,” she adds. “We didn't publicize it. It got kind of electric by the last night. Someone said to me after the show, ‘There wasn't one of his songs that wasn't a hit.’”