JUST BECAUSE A MEETING IS AN AWARD WINNER doesn't mean that it can't get better. Last year, Washington Mutual's annual State of the Group management meeting won Meeting Professionals International's Golden Paragon Award of Excellence for best themed event. But as planning began for the 2004 event and the organizers analyzed the attendee research, they realized that they still needed to make some pretty big changes.

“Some scores were high, some lower. We wanted consistently higher scores,” says Rob Hallam, senior vice president, internal communication. “But we needed to hear from the audience. What should we keep? What should go?”

Research is something that Seattle-based Washington Mutual does often — and does well. The company even has its own internal research czar, Ron Gailey (his formal title is manager of customer insight), who uses a combination of focus groups, ethnographic studies, one-on-one interviews, and telephone and Web surveys, among other tools. Gailey would be brought in later in the meeting-design process; to start, Hallam worked with third-party communications expert Beth Aleridge, who took a fresh look at the results and compiled them into buckets of data. Hallam and his SOG team studied the better-organized feedback from the meeting and suggested areas of improvement and renewed focus for the February 2004 meeting, which was held in Anaheim, Calif.

One problem: The more strategic speakers got high marks from mid- to senior-level audience members but were a turnoff to frontline managers who couldn't relate to the content. He also found that attendees wanted sessions to be more engaging and to have more interaction with the speakers. The presentations that were not custom-designed for WaMu got the lowest marks; as one attendee put it: “Kill the career development sessions!” Finally, the most important speech of all, the CEO's keynote address, had been scheduled at the end of the meeting, so the company lost the chance to set the business direction for the meeting at the start.

The meeting also had included vendor exhibits for the first time, to complement a small number of internal department exhibits. Although 90 percent of attendees approved of this move, they complained that they didn't have enough time to visit all the booths between sessions. Finally, they said that they didn't have enough time to spend with their peers.

Reality Check

Clearly, Hallam had his work cut out for him. But after spending 13 years at The Home Depot before joining Washington Mutual a few years ago, he knew that if something wasn't working, it needed to be fixed — and fast.

With the research analysis in hand, he and his SOG team identified a number of critical targets for improvement, including logistics, pre-event communication, general session content, business unit content, and the vendor exposition. They also created a “reality check” team for the meeting — a small group of senior-level field and back-office managers called upon regularly to comment on event design, theme, and content. “Before we could recommend a theme and messaging to our senior executives, we had to know that this group could enthusiastically carry the theme and messaging out to the field,” says Hallam.

They then turned to Gailey to find out “what the employees needed and wanted to know,” he says. Hallam asked Gailey for a thorough communications audit of everything that the internal communications group (which includes the meeting planners) was doing as well as a report on employee and executive thoughts.

“SOG was an important part of the communications audit,” Gailey explains. “We had focus groups of eight to 10 people tell us what they liked and didn't like about how they were communicated with in the company. We'd say, ‘What do you like most, what would you like done differently?’ Then we'd start a roundtable discussion.”

The 2002 SOG was universally applauded. It was one of the most effective communications tools that the company had. But there were negatives: Some thought it was too overdone, too slick, too Hollywood. They thought it could be more personal and honest. Similar reporting about the 2003 meeting gave Hallam the ammo he needed to make changes. “To their credit,” Gailey says, “Rob and his staff tried to give people more of what they needed and less of what they didn't.”

What Changed?

How did they rewrite the upcoming meeting's script? They started by re-naming a one-day meeting that piggybacks onto SOG the Senior Leaders' Meeting, instead of Leadership Day, because only senior execs were invited.

They took the feedback about too many speeches by too many managers seriously, acknowledging that “half the field folks didn't want the down and dirty business information. More senior folks — that's all they wanted,” says Sara Moorehead, first vice president, senior communications relationship manager. “We realized the best way to do this was to split SOG into two meetings. The general session was the inspiration for everyone, but we saved the business portion for the senior leaders only. The general session presentations were compressed and presented by three key executives. The rest were on hand, just not on stage.”

Hallam and his team compressed SOG from three days to two, reducing the meeting's cost without removing the substance. That was enough time to communicate the company message, yet allow for an enlarged vendor exhibit and more valuable socializing opportunities.

What they ended up with was a very different meeting from the one the year before. And although all the 2004 attendee results hadn't been analyzed when this story went to press, Hallam was clearly pleased with the results. “The most important message I got from this experience is that if you go through a strategic alignment process, front-end research is so important,” he says. “Ron's team did such an incredible job for us, helping us to understand our audience, what they wanted from SOG, and what wasn't necessary.” He also credits the in-house “reality check team” with keeping SOG on track. “These were hard-nosed field people who were not going to cut us any slack,” he says. “They gave us very honest feedback, and we made a number of adjustments as a result.”

That said, the one thing that Hallam and his staff didn't test on the reality checkers was — naturally — where they took a hit.

“We didn't run the scripts for OpEx [a high-tech, participatory “Operational Excellence” session] by the reality team,” he admits. “The moderators over-explained things and went too long. The reality check team would have caught that. One of the ‘a-ha!'s of this experience was that when we do these special, one-time deals where we have no history, we're going to run them past the reality team in the future. They would have provided push-back.”