Like many insurance organizations, Aid Association for Lutherans (AAL), based in Appleton, WI, has been talking about incorporating a community service project into an agent conference for a long time. And, like many of those that have turned that talk into action, once AAL's meeting staffers took the plunge, they found their agents ready, willing, and delighted to spend a day doing good for others.

"Normally [our qualifiers] see the Field Conference as a time to relax and share with their peers," says Sally Klapper-Randa, field recognition and events manager for AAL. "And they all do a lot of volunteer work on their own. So we were a little afraid that [a community service project] would be the last thing they'd want to do on their vacation. We were pleasantly surprised by the response."

Some 160 agents, spouses, and kids over 16 years old packed up work clothes and turned out for the Executive ConferenceEast in Washington, DC a day early. AAL hosted a kickoff banquet and gave out assignments for projects with Jubilee Ministries and Habitat for Humanity.

"Each work site-there were about 16-had a director. All of them said they'd never had volunteers come in and work so hard," says Vicki Mai, AAL's fraternal promotions specialist, who traveled the sites throughout the day. "Each director planned six hours of work at each site, but our people worked so hard, some sites ran out of things to do."

Among the projects: putting up aluminum siding on a Habitat for Humanity home; preparing meals at a soup kitchen; serving a barbecue for residents of Sarah's Circle, an apartment building for low-income seniors; landscaping and cleaning Jubilee shelters; and helping out at a day-care center for Jubilee Housing kids.

But the AAL volunteers might be most proud of the work they did at the Jubilee Jobs office, where they made cold calls and placed three Jubilee residents in jobs. (The Jubilee Ministries-nine missions in Adams-Morgan, a DC neighborhood-help with housing, health care, employment, and education for low-income and homeless families and individuals.)

"People talked about it all week," says Klapper-Randa of the work day. "Everyone who participated mentioned it as a highlight of the conference." And those who didn't participate looked at the high spirits-and the T-shirts and hats-of those who did and realized they'd missed out on something special.

An Ongoing Effort And while the agent-to-agent camaraderie was an important aspect of the volunteer event, an even more elusive bond was strengthened-the one between the home office and the field. "The most common positive comment we got [was one such as]: 'It was nice to spend the day with the senior vice president, and get to know him as a person,'" Klapper-Randa notes. "We made it optional for the home office, but we had a 98 percent response rate. In the end, their reaction was just as positive as the field's. They want to do it again."

Klapper-Randa and Mai do, too, and are busy making plans for the next event. For now, a community service project will rotate among AAL's four annual incentive events. Mai is already working to find a project for a 1997 Executive Conference in Lake Tahoe. She's started by calling the hotel, the United Way, and other national organizations and charities.

"I've been a very active volunteer and I have never been moved the way I was moved by [the Washington, DC projects]," Mai says. "I'd walk onto these sites and get goose bumps. What was special was the bonding between our people and those in need, many working right alongside them. I saw people hugging each other at the end of the day."

Small Travel Cost Hike Predicted for 1997 Good news for next year's meeting budget: Travel costs are expected to rise only 4.7 percent over this year, according to a recent report from Runzheimer International. The Rochester, WIbased management consulting firm came up with the figure using the weighted average of five major business travel expenses: airfare, lodging, meals, car rental, and ground transportation.

Relatively low projected increases in airfare (up four percent) and meals (up five percent) are balanced with bigger projected increases in car rental (8.5 percent) and lodging (7.5 percent). The greatest projected increase? Taxi fares, expected to rise ten percent as a result of municipalities imposing greater costs on taxi operators.

Insurance Planners Get First Look at Ajenis The Insurance Conference Planners Association (ICPA) Forum, held in June at the Renaissance Chicago, provided a stage for the first complete unveiling of the nearly released Ajenis software product and the PlanSoft Network, designed to revolutionize the way meeting planners and hoteliers communicate.

As Tony Stanfar, director of development for the PlanSoft Ajenis Limited Partnership (a union of industry groups including Hyatt, Sheraton, Marriott, Meeting Professionals International, and the American Society of Association Executives) took the 45 planner attendees through various screens of the demo, questions came fast and furious.

Basically, this is what Ajenis promises: Meeting managers and hoteliers will be able to create and amend documents, such as resumes, banquet event orders, and (in the next release) rooming lists, electronically. In essence, they will work on the same "document," which will reside in a server, accessible by both parties. When one side makes a change, that change will show up the next time the other side pulls up the document. And Ajenis automatically creates a history file, listing every change to every document, including who made the change and when.

Nimble and intuitive, the Windows-based software allows planners to jump from a broad view of the year's conferences to a detailed look at the audiovisual setup for one breakout room in a few clicks of the mouse.

The official product launch, which continues to be pushed later, is now scheduled for first-quarter 1997. One cause for the delay is the lengthy process of all the hotels in the participating chains entering their specifications (rooms, audiovisual equipment, services) and pricing into the database on the PlanSoft Network server.

Where do future releases of PlanSoft hope to take you? To real-time videoconferencing for two or more meeting professionals, perhaps. For example, if you requested additional information on a property, you might have the option to connect with a hotel representative immediately.