I'm pleased to announce ICP's first annual recognition of our industry's “rising stars”: meeting planners who are guiding their departments through challenging times with skill, ingenuity, and a whole lot of hard work.

Choosing these five exceptional individuals was a daunting task. The e-mails flew back and forth between me and writer Alison Hall — ICP's former editor and now a regular contributor to these pages — about potential candidates. Our goal was to identify meeting professionals at insurance and financial services companies who were quickly rising to the top because they brought innovative thinking and creative problem-solving to their workplaces.

Our choices for this year — John Touchette, John Hancock Financial Services; Karyn Evans, Allianz Life; Leanne Acton, Penn Mutual; Michael Burke, Allmerica; and Patricia Kerr, Manulife Financial — face different challenges. But they all go outside the box to find solutions, whether that involves training a home office crew of on-site volunteers to help run reward and recognition programs at the Olympic Games, or building an entirely new meeting department to efficiently manage four major incentives and more than 800 small workshops annually.

Not surprisingly, there's also a common thread weaving through our interviews: how to crunch the budget without sacrificing program quality. Doing more with less has become the mantra of our times, and no one does it better than our rising stars.

Karyn Evans' department at Allianz Life, for example, trimmed costs by $300,000 through supplier negotiations last year, and she documents those savings by having the planners in her department keep a monthly log of the money they save. John Touchette's department at John Hancock now pays for one day of golf at an incentive meeting rather than the two they paid for in the past — but will still hire big-name entertainers for a final banquet to impress incentive attendees. An innovative cost-cutting strategy initiated by Michael Burke's department is a sponsorship program that allows money managers to get in front of the company's life insurance agents at their annual incentive meeting, which offsets 30 percent of the expense budget for the meeting. And Patricia Kerr's department surmounted a $1 million budget cut by implementing measures at Manulife Financial's annual incentive meeting that range from serving leftover breakfast pastries for coffee breaks, to giving attendees an afternoon at leisure — which they consider a perk — instead of offering company-sponsored activities.

Get behind the scenes with our rising stars, beginning on page 20. And please call or e-mail me with your recommendations for next year!