Some were industry experts, some were experienced planners, and some were relatively new to the field. But everyone who participated in this year's ICPA Educational Forum, held July 17 to 19 at the Ritz-Carlton, New Orleans, had something to contribute. Here's a roundup of their collective wisdom and best practices, large and small.

Staff Management: Before the Event

Assign all staff duties before you leave for the meeting, and make sure everyone is aware of what his or her assignments entail. Assign one staff person to be in charge of each area (food and beverage, entertainment, etc.) • A week before going on site, hold a meeting for everyone — including execs and home office staff who will be attending — to do a run-through of the entire meeting, from soup to nuts. This is a good time to emphasize that staffers' spouses are also there to work, not as guests. • Give your executives a complete itinerary that includes who's in charge of each aspect of the meeting, with complete contact information for each person. • Put together emergency kits, both medical and office supplies, to handle those small crises that crop up. • Develop and distribute small cards with the cellphone and room number for all of the planner crew members that people can stash in their badge holders and have handy at all times. • If possible, prepare a separate medical room that can be used to handle small medical problems. Staff the room with internal doctors and nurses, if possible, or look into contracting medical staff. • For international meetings, provide staff with tips on the local culture, holidays, tipping practices, etc.

Staff Management: On Site

Develop a color-coded grid for staff assignments, with each person having a designated color, and post the grid in the war room, so it's easy to see at a glance what each person has to do and when. At the least, have a large communication board in the room with the timelines and everyone's phone numbers. Don't erase tasks as they're completed — cross them off instead. It'll give you a feeling of accomplishment. • Give each staffer a small spiral notebook to stash in a pocket to take notes on the fly. • Give staffers a checklist for each item they're charged with handling. For example, give your banquet event order to the person handling the banquet so she can make sure everything that was contracted for actually happens. • Give staffers a zip-up plastic pencil case to snap into a three-ring binder for keys and other small items they'll need throughout the day. • Have a message box in the war room for each team member. They can check the box regularly during the day to pick up messages if you can't reach them. • Develop a credit-card-sized schedule-at-a-glance, with summaries of the key times and activities, to give to executives to carry with them so they'll know where they need to be, and when. Provide a similar card to qualifiers. • Share your hospitality desk with your destination management companies.

Gift Management

Instead of shipping awards to the home office for mailing, mail them directly to winners from the meeting site. Or hand winners a nicely framed certificate on site, and let them know their award will be waiting for them at home when they return. • If a gift has any potential to be considered dangerous by the airlines — say, a nice crystal piece that could conceivably be used as a weapon — be sure to tell participants to pack it in their suitcases, not their carry-on bags. • If an award isn't going to be announced until that evening, emphasize to the hotel that related deliveries to winners' rooms should not be made early. • Provide winners with a checklist of what airlines will permit as carry-ons. • Double-check to make sure all price tags are taken off room amenities. • To make sure everyone receives the room amenities, provide notes the bell captain can slide under doors with “Do not Disturb” signs that explain how guests can pick their amenity up at the front desk. • At the pre-con, make sure the hotel has scheduled enough staff to be able to deliver amenities on time.

Ground Transportation

Make sure drivers have directions to where they're going, as well as alternate routes in case of heavy traffic. • Define a pickup point for both drivers and attendees. • Provide a central contact phone number to drivers; provide driver cellphone numbers to the central ground transportation point person.

Entertainment/Activities

Know your audience! • To save costs, use people you know. Do you have employees or producers who have a talent? Does someone's spouse sing well? Ask her to sing the national anthem. • Arrange and coordinate rehearsal schedules for the band. • Find out what the band's “drinking philosophy” is, and if it differs from yours, let them know what is and is not acceptable. • Make sure there's an understanding between you and the entertainer concerning breaks, dressing rooms, and food and beverage. • If one of your top qualifiers doesn't like the activities you have available, ask the DMC if it will provide a limo to take him or her around for the afternoon on a personalized itinerary. • Ask your CSM how they work with DMCs. Do they have a good, reciprocal relationship, or are there territorial issues they need to work out? Be sure to balance in- and out-of-house activities so they each can complement the other.

Do More for Less

Extend your meeting's message on the cheap with logo-imprinted pillowcases and tablecloths. • Upscale the food presentation if you can't upscale the food. For example, get some bricks and slate from a home improvement store, build a little table with them, and put a warmer under the slate. Top with cookies or brownies. • Carry through on your theme. For example, use citrus scent in the air and put a picture of a lime on the screen to go with a citrus-themed break. • Serve champagne and dry snacks instead of heavy hors d'oeuvres before a dinner. • Use the white table overlays for the meeting, then take them off to reveal a new color for dinner. • If other groups are in-house, see if you can piggyback on production or menus so the hotel can save money by buying in bulk. • Have takeaway centerpieces that go with your theme, say a hat filled with related items that attendees can take with them after the meal. • Ask the CSM how you can help get rid of their inventory of dead stock wine. If there are just single bottles of certain vintages, you can use them for wine tastings or an around-the-world wine event. • Ask about getting a police escort for your group when they're on the move. In New Orleans during Mardi Gras, you need one anyway, and it'll cost very little, if anything. • Singing waiters are inexpensive but fun. • Know what's going on in town. If another group is planning a big fireworks display, you can put your group in a prime viewing spot. • If you have extra tickets to a hot-ticket event, see if you can give them to a celebrity in return for a little mingling with attendees. • See what's available locally. If there's a zoo, see if it would be possible to have an animal and handler come to your event. • On cruises, ask if you can have the onboard entertainers do a private show for your group, or provide some color to your meeting using cruise staff singers and dancers. Since they're already on staff, it could cost as little as the cost of the technician to run the equipment.

Fun Themes

Have a color-theme night, like “pretty in pink” or “ebony and ivory.” Attendees will come up with their own costumes, or you can provide some materials the previous evening. • Hold a “tuxedos and tennis shoes” event on the facility's tennis courts. • Try a symphony on the green, where the orchestra is hidden behind latticework on the lawn during the dinner, then is lifted for the performance.

Managing the Pecking Order

Have people pre-register their seating for the gala. Executives can extend invitations to those they want at their table; those not invited can register ahead of time or on site at the start of the program. • If you assign rooms with the best going to the highest producer, carry a list with you of who was placed where so producers can't complain too much about their rooms. • Meet with key producers over the phone or lunch to find out what's most important to them. Then make sure they get it.

Add Spice to Corporate Meetings

Since these often are sans spouse, they also are mainly male-centric. Though there usually is little free time in corporate meetings, some activities to consider include video games and sports. • Add small amenities that don't cost much, like turn-down service. • Arrange concierge service for your top 20 executives. • Contract dynamic speakers. If your executives are your speakers, have the better speakers or an outside person coach them to improve their speaking style.

E-mail Marketing

Use an easy-to-read font, such as Arial. • Use the BCC feature for group e-mails to avoid exposing attendees' e-mail addresses to others. • Don't send attachments; instead, include a link to the info on your Web site. • Keep it short — no more than 25 lines, or one screen's worth of information. • For maximum impact, schedule broadcast e-mails for Tuesday through Thursday at 10 a.m. Central Time. • Provide an “opt out” option for those who prefer not to receive further messages from your organization.

Vendor Control

Meet vendors in the lobby and have a stand-up meeting instead of a sit-down one. It'll go much faster. • Attend showcase events so you can meet with several suppliers at one time. Go to them instead of having them come to you. Develop relationships so they won't have to call you because they know you'll call them. • Use your profile page at ICPAnet.com. Vendors use this area to target your needs, so the more complete your profile is, the more productive your calls and meetings will be. • Be honest: If you know you'll never use that particular vendor, tell them so right away. • Have whoever answers the first call from a particular supplier be the point person for that supplier so they don't continue to cold call everyone in your office.

Coping with Understaffed Departments

Use other corporate resources that may have some downtime to help out, such as asking the people in the warehouses to stuff mailers. • Work with a local church or school group to handle some of the mundane tasks, and thank them with a donation. • Use online registration. • Separate items into should, could, and must lists. Get the musts done first, then the shoulds. Coulds can wait until you have the time to do them, if ever. • Develop a list of questions to ask vendors so you get all the vital information up front to eliminate time-wasting back-and-forth. • Keep a log of all calls, noting action items and deadlines.