If you're confident that you know what your qualifiers want in an incentive program, you can skip this article.

But if you suspect that your conferences could be more competitive, attract more qualifiers, and drive more sales, keep reading.

In late 2005, Brian Lauber, CMO, OneAmerica Financial Partners, undertook a total review of the company's incentive programs, a multiphase process that lasted a year and, in at least one way, is ongoing. “We evaluated our meeting planning vendors,” he explains. “Then we reviewed the different incentive programs we were running for each of our companies. Finally, we surveyed producers and sales reps and assessed their preferences for future meetings.” He wanted to find ways to boost consistency, save money, and get the answer to that age-old question: Are our incentive conferences worth the investment?

He got all that — and more.

Your Customers' Money

OneAmerica is a network of five companies offering products in the areas of life insurance, retirement services, and employee benefits. Based in Indianapolis, OneAmerica is a mutual insurance company, meaning that executives are answerable to customers. Lauber says that he began with that premise as he and other senior executives considered the company's investment in incentive programs. “Every dollar we spend is our customers' money,” he says. “We have to spend it wisely.”

At the same time, Lauber notes that OneAmerica is “a distribution-driven company.” As President and CEO Dayton Molendorp said in his 2006 letter to policy-holders, in order to grow “we will aggressively market and promote our products and people, and we will continue to hone our operations to be as efficient and productive as possible.”

To hit those goals — increasing market share and reining in costs — the company's first order of business for meetings was to consolidate its incentive programs and share management of them with one incentive company. As companies had joined the OneAmerica family, they had brought with them various travel vendors and employees who did pieces of meeting management. “They were all doing their own thing,” Lauber says. “We needed a better way to manage meetings. We needed to raise the standard.”

Some of the employees became part of an expanded meeting team at OneAmerica, led by Kathy Wampler, manager, meetings and events services. As Lauber oversaw the process of combining the disparate conferences, Wampler began researching incentive houses.

In the end, OneAmerica streamlined its trips into two incentive programs, each run on an 18-month qualification schedule and each rewarding a different level of distribution partner. The “entry level” trip has 600 to 700 attendees (including spouses and guests), while the program for top performers involves 40 qualifiers and guests.

Wampler's research, along with the experience OneAmerica had running a program with St. Louis-based Maritz in October 2005, led to the selection of the incentive giant in early 2006 as OneAmerica's meeting management partner.

Working with Maritz

Wampler and her five-person meeting management team handle more than just incentives. On the company's annual roster of 150 to 200 meetings are business conferences, divisional meetings, and events connected to OneAmerica's title sponsorship of the Indianapolis Mini-Marathon and the Andretti Green IndyCar Series racing team.

Wampler is the primary liaison with Maritz for the company's two incentive programs and its national education conference. Diane Dikeman, assistant vice president, strategic marketing, oversees the department. “We have a dedicated Maritz team that works with us,” Dikeman explains, both in the planning stages and on site at conferences.

“We partner on site selection. Maritz suggests key sites that have worked well for other companies, we come up with some suggestions, and then Maritz comes back with three finalists.” Dikeman appreciates that the company's huge presence in the industry gives it great negotiating leverage. “Maritz has strong relationships and a strong reputation,” she says. “Not only do they have a lot of knowledge but buying power as well, which equates to greater value for us.” Ultimately, the site selection decision is OneAmerica's. “They secure the contracts with our approval,” Dikeman says.

The decision to hire Maritz was based on “the level of support we needed,” according to Lauber. “We wanted to find a partner who could add value, and who could help us make better business decisions in terms of working with our producers.” Relationship-building with producers is a primary business goal, he says. “If we are doing the best for our producers, our policyholders benefit.”

Fingers on the Pulse

The decision to hire Maritz was based on “the level of support we needed,” according to Lauber. “We wanted to find a partner who could add value, and who could help us make better business decisions in terms of working with our producers.” Relationship-building with producers is a primary business goal, he says. “If we are doing the best for our producers, our policyholders benefit.”

And it's tough out there. “We are competing with other companies that are recruiting and retaining producers,” Dikeman notes. “One thing that Maritz brings to the table is the ability to look at industry standards and changes taking place industry-wide. That's a very high value, to know what you are competing with and what other companies are doing.”

With the programs consolidated and a partner chosen, OneAmerica was on its way to meeting the goals of consistency and cost-savings. But what about measuring the success of the programs? Were they doing the best possible job of motivating production?

To answer those questions, OneAmerica used a research tool, Travel Insight, that Maritz had recently launched. “With incentive travel, we heard consistently that companies wanted to know how to justify their investment and how to improve their programs,” says Chris Gaia, vice president of marketing at Maritz Travel, who worked closely with Lauber throughout the process. So Maritz developed a survey methodology to help clients “keep their investment fresh” — in other words, look to the future and find ways to align the company's business goals with the desires of potential qualifiers so that incentive programs are truly motivating.

“The issues meeting planners face are very real,” Gaia says. “They need to wow attendees, keep things fresh and compelling, and, at the same time, show that they are saving money.” Digging deeper into producer preferences, he believes, can meet both goals. But it's no small job. “You've got to have buy-in,” he says. “This is a big, strategic discussion.”

OneAmerica took the tool and ran with it, discovering that old assumptions about what incentive trips should look like were no longer relevant, and that if they could match up their programs with what target participants wanted, they could motivate more producers to go for the goal.

The Big Difference

It wasn't that OneAmerica had never surveyed attendees. But they had never used the sophisticated survey design of Travel Insight. Through a comprehensive set of questions, respondents are presented with a wide array of conference elements in different combinations and are asked to weigh their relative importance. (See sidebar, page 22.) An analysis of the results brings into focus a picture of the most motivating program.

Importantly, the Maritz tool is designed to survey all previous and potential attendees. “Our approach is based on predictive modeling,” Gaia explains, “which is a type of analysis based on how people make decisions. We survey the entire channel, not just the people who have already earned a trip.”

Understanding their needs adds a critical voice to traditional incentive-conference discussions, says Gaia. “You have the execs in a room, you have a budget, you have lots of different ways you can spend it,” he says. “What's missing are all the people who are going to decide whether or not to try to achieve your goal.”

Of course, as with any survey, there is no guarantee that they'll respond. However, Gaia says response rates in the financial services sector have been a healthy 30 percent to 60 percent. “A good response rate depends on the client survey population but must be high enough to deem the results statistically valid,” he acknowledges. “But the response rates we have seen on these surveys have been excellent, from both past qualifiers and those who have not qualified. These people really appreciate the opportunity to tell their company what is important to them.”

The Web-based research tool is customized with any number of conference attributes — length of trip, whether guests are hosted, location, etc. Respondents click on a link and go through a series of screens choosing the incentive travel program design they prefer, and weighing them against other program designs.

Survey results can be segmented, so you can see, for example, what scores highest with producers who have never attended your company's trip. As Diane Dikeman says, “They can slice and dice it any way you need it sliced and diced. The Travel Insight tool is very in-depth.”

And when all the numbers are crunched, the “ideal” overall program emerges. “For example, you might find that most people want a seven-night program at the beach with kids invited and all activities paid for,” Gaia says. “Then the client faces a question. Do I do all that and leave the rule structure alone? Or can I boost qualification requirements if I'm offering the optimal program?”

Occasionally the optimal program actually cuts money from an incentive conference budget. “Leisure activities often score high against planned events,” Gaia notes. “People are happy as clams to sit by the pool. So you can take that bucket of money out of the program or reallocate it.”

Landing Area

In fact, that was just one result that surprised Lauber. “The message was, ‘Give me choices, but I might decide to do none of them,’” Lauber says. “These people work really hard. They want downtime. They want a landing area but they don't want an agenda forced on them.”

Conventional wisdom (excuse the pun) when it comes to incentive conferences also says that a slew of senior executives must attend, in order to mingle and bond with producers.

OneAmerica's research turned that wisdom on its head. More than time with senior executives, with whom they interact throughout the year, “the high-end producers want time with the CEO,” Lauber says. “That was a change. So we now give producers intimate time with Dayton Molendorp. They have breakfast with him, we move him around during dine-arounds, and we have town-hall meetings. Part of the package is face time with the CEO.”

Lauber points out that for OneAmerica it works especially well, given that Molendorp “is very approachable. He tells our story better than anyone.”

Being Neutral

Getting the straight dope on producer opinions liberated OneAmerica's decision-making. “We used to assume and debate about what people wanted,” Lauber says. “Now we have hard data on which to base our decisions. I can go to the CEO with facts — I am now neutral. That's important in mergers where people may be stuck in traditional programs.”

Use of the tool is ongoing. “Right now the younger generation wants family-focused conferences while the older generation wants to go with their spouses to Europe and stay in a five-star hotel,” Lauber says. “We'll have to keep surveying them because things change. Information from the Travel Insight program will allow us to continually evaluate and make decisions on destinations and agendas.”

Decisions currently on the table include possibly shortening the qualification period for the company's two incentives, and including families more often.

An End in Itself

OneAmerica's most recent annual report opens with one page devoted to a single quotation: “A relationship is more than a means to an end. It's the whole point.” Meant as a reference to OneAmerica's relationships with its producers and customers, it's apt commentary on the concept of incentive conferences as well. “We want to build relationships with producers,” Lauber says. “An incentive program lets us get to know them, and we want them to know us.”

And more of them will get to know OneAmerica if, as seems likely, the number of qualifiers continues to increase. “We have seen record sales overall, which are driven, in part, by the top producers who qualify for our incentive programs,” Lauber notes. “Because these changes are so recent, we are still in the process of measuring the sales for attendees of our incentive programs. But what makes this success so remarkable is that we can look at raising the qualifying levels for our incentive programs to better meet the needs of the business and our producers, based on the data we have received.”

Producers Weigh In

A sample page from Maritz's Travel Insight survey: Respondents weigh different incentive program designs, giving senior management and meeting planners hard data to back up program decisions.

Tomorrow's Incentive: Are You Ready to Be This Family-Friendly?

“One conflict we see bubbling up in companies is the question of whether incentive conferences should be viewed as reward and recognition trips or family vacations,” says Chris Gaia, vice president, marketing, at Maritz Travel. “These are very different things. Folks under 40 really see these more as vacation opportunities.”

Gaia has two clients taking that trend seriously: Their qualifiers are happily booked into condos instead of hotel rooms. “These companies are saying, ‘If I can provide them a family vacation they can't do on their own and I'll get higher achievement from them, I might as well embrace it.”