AVAYA IS A SURVIVOR. The Basking Ridge, N.J. company, which designs, builds, and manages corporate networks, has outsmarted the competition, outlasted the dot.com implosion, and outmaneuvered the field.

Not that it's been easy.

Communicating is a strength of Avaya, and it was the goal of the meeting that won the company MPI's 2003 Global Paragon Award for meetings with budgets exceeding $1,000 per attendee. Held last November at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin resorts, the meeting trumpeted the fact that Avaya had changed leadership in midstream and remade itself.

A Rough 2002

What Avaya needed was an awe-inspiring event for its dispirited troops. The bottom had fallen out of its stock, and the future was uncertain.

That's the shape the company was in when Evan Chapman came on as director of field communications in September 2002 — just eight weeks before the meeting.

Among the objectives as they were presented to Chapman during his third day on the job were: to outline the state of the company and communicate Avaya's long-term strategy and vision; to communicate the resources available to sales and services teams; to outline the new organizational structure and the rationale behind it; and, perhaps most tricky, to instill belief in the long-term strength and health of Avaya during troubled times in the telecommunications industry.

The event had changed, Chapman recalls, from what had originally been planned. “The hotel contracting had been done in 2000 when this meeting had been planned as an incentive event. In the time between, many things had changed at Avaya and in the world in general — 9/11, changes in technology, changes in the economy … . Many people were questioning the viability of the technology sector. Customers questioned our viability with the low stock price; employees were impacted by the low stock price. Those were challenging times for everybody.”

To address those challenges, Avaya's new leaders implemented wide-ranging organizational changes and a new “go-to-market” model.

“We had an organization that was challenged, and a company in a challenged market,” he says. “For the selling engine to go forward, we had to galvanize the sales force at this meeting.”

The six-day Orlando meeting became known as EventWeek because there was so much going on, including a sales kickoff meeting, a sales training meeting, and a business partner conference for resellers. The incentive was bolted onto the end of the meeting as promised, but it was now more of an afterthought than a centerpiece.

The top goal of EventWeek became inspiring a sales force of 2,500 (at an average per-person cost of $1,200) and building confidence in the company's new leadership. At the same time, Chapman was given responsibility for making people understand the company's new business model, its market opportunity, and its future vision. Finally, he was instructed to get the sales force motivated about the company's new opportunities.

How They Did It

A core team of half a dozen people was inextricably linked to every moment of every day in Orlando, with Chapman at the lead. “I'm used to aggressive time frames in technology companies,” Chapman says. “But I can't say I had ever pulled together something of this nature before.”

He called in ProActive, which had not worked with Avaya before, but had worked with Chapman. They knew each other's shorthand, an important factor with so little time for planning.

“ProActive had a dual role. We used them as a production company, for staging, for creative content, for general sessions, for the plenary sessions, for anywhere the group was assembled. In addition, we engaged them to do program management and logistics, working as an agent of the other providers.”

As a first step, ProActive conducted intensive pre-event surveying within the Avaya population, an approach that was supported by the company's new leaders. The surveys asked about people's confidence in the company and in the economy, as well as the factors that were influencing them internally and externally. Chapman and ProActive even pulled some employee survey comments for a live, onstage Q&A.

“We had done surveying with Evan before on many occasions,” says Tony Lorenzo, president of ProActive. “He knew our approach and wanted to take it into the stakeholder audience. It was important information that we used to drive the experience.”

Pre-event surveys went to 1,200 people by e-mail; approximately 500 responded. “It was a pretty valid sampling,” says Chapman. “It validated what we surmised about the general state of mind of Avaya's people. It also drove topics we might examine in general session, breakouts, or exhibit areas.”

Constant Change

The biggest challenge facing the team, in addition to employee attitudes, was the sense of change working its way through the company. “As the assessment went out, a buzz started to reverberate through the company as to what this meeting was about,” Lorenzo says. “The meeting was viewed as a critical point in the history of Avaya.”

The size of the meeting also grew during the 50 planning days — from 1,700 attendees to 2,500. “When you grow an event by 40 percent within three weeks of its occurrence, it does present challenges,” says Lorenzo. One was finding an overflow hotel, which they did at a nearby Hilton.

Another was the decision, made just a month before the start of EventWeek, that attendees would have to share rooms. “It was a message to the audience that the high-flying times of yesteryear have been suspended,” Lorenzo says. “It sent the message that this is a pull-up-your-bootstraps time.”

Roommate profiles were established with smoking and nonsmoking preferences, arrival and departure dates, and gender among the variables. Any discrepancies or challenges were handled on-site. Lorenzo describes the process as “painstakingly tedious.”

A final element of the meeting that contributed to its winning the Global Paragon was the post-event survey. Conducted in the same manner as the pre-event query, it drew a solid response from nearly 500 employees.

“It was exciting to see the impact of the meeting was enormous,” Chapman says. “Going in, attendees didn't have a lot of understanding. Afterward, they had tremendous understanding. We delivered to the group well. Their excitement about the space we're in was impacted in a positive way.”

Proving ROI

One of the main reasons Meeting Professionals International awarded the Golden Paragon Award to ProActive and Avaya was their ability to quantify the ROI. MPI judges noted that the meeting not only “achieved success, which aligns with the company's overall mission, the winners articulated to company management the percentage increase, which supports MPI's strategic plan of communicating to senior decision-makers the value and ROI for meetings.”

Here is how ProActive quantified EventWeek's ROI to MPI — based on post-event surveying and other measures:

  • Knowledge of where to find resources to assist them with their jobs (66% increase)
  • Understanding of the organization structure (55% increase)
  • Understanding of the go-to-market strategy (90% increase)
  • Commitment to the go-to-market strategy (30% increase)
  • Understanding of the company's strategy and long-term plans (112% increase)
  • Belief in the company's long-term strength and health (83% increase)
  • Overall, 92% indicated the meeting was valuable, and 85% said they would use the training immediately upon returning to their home offices
  • Additionally, Avaya's share price has increased in value approximately 500% since the November event.