When agents and brokers were asked by this magazine in past surveys what motivated them to qualify for incentive conferences, the No. 1 answer, year after year, was “an all-expenses paid vacation.” It follows that the prevailing wisdom about sales incentive meetings has typically been to give top producers a unique trip that they couldn't reproduce on their own — emphasizing the “vacation” part of the component by offering a slew of outside-of-the-box recreational activities and dazzling special events.

Insurance and financial services planners became experts at orchestrating these one-of-a-kind experiences. Even the most jaded producer would be hard-pressed to forget a reception at the Great Wall in China or a private tour of the Sistine Chapel in Rome.

Creating itineraries with motivational muscle was — and still is — the purview of planners in this industry. But for some, there's been a shift in what that motivational muscle is made of. For a variety of reasons — among them increased regulatory focus on noncash compensation; the ability of qualifiers to take tax write-offs on meetings, but not pure incentives; and a new pool of younger agents with different demographic and psychographic profiles — the focus of producer conferences at some companies is shifting away from the vacation component and toward the education component.

I believe that this shift is important. It could be the tip of a very big iceberg that sees increasing numbers of financial services and insurance companies offering fewer traditional travel incentive programs and more educational conferences. Observing the language coming out of their corporate communications departments these days gives us some clues. “Luxury” is out, “education” is in. “Incentive trip” is out; “recognition program” is in. “Sales contest” — a red-flag term for NASD regulators investigating compliance issues — is definitely out.

The new breed of agent meeting I'm referring to is not a bare-bones training seminar, but rather, an off-site conference of at least a few nights, held at a high-end property, rich in educational content, and attended by home-office execs who network with the producers. What makes the content compelling is not the bells and whistles of high-tech production or big-name speakers, but peer-to-peer and producer-to-executive interaction about the issues attendees care about.

At some companies, such as Berkshire Life Insurance Company of America, based in Pittsfield, Mass., and featured in this issue's cover story by Alison Hall, agents even have to qualify to attend this new breed of meeting. Despite the educational focus, says Berkshire Life's Sharon Chapman, CMP, CMM, travel and corporate events planner (and president-elect of FICP), “They consider it an incentive. We create an atmosphere of family, of learning, of caring. They get to meet home office people and network with each other.”

Which brings us full circle to the idea that learning can constitute motivational muscle — and the idea of meeting planner as educator. Even if you're not responsible for educational content at your meetings, you can create the environment in which learning can take place. To find out how Berkshire Life does it, please turn to page 26.

Enjoy the issue.