Top insurance sales professionals have a choice of conferences. We want them to attend ours.

We know that producers weigh the personal value of each meeting before deciding which invitation to accept. And we believe that the draw needs to be more than just an appealing location and a top-rated property--hallmarks of successful Canada Life conferences to be sure. So for the 1999 Canada Life Leaders Conference, we took the business program, always an important part of our agenda, and stepped it up a notch or two. We feel strongly that the real added value to our attendees is excellent business content. This year's conference, held in May at the Westin Mission Hills Resort in Rancho Mirage, Calif., proved us right.

It's About Time Time is a precious commodity today. We know that when we invite our top sales producers to take time away from business and family (Canada Life conferences are for delegates and spouses only), we must demonstrate a return on their time investment. This is one of the key objectives of our sales conference.

In addition to helping them better serve their customers, our high level of educational content also helps delegates meet continuing education credit requirements for their professional designations. Participants at this year's conference program earned nine continuing education credits from CAIFA (Canadian Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors) for the four-day program and six credits for the three-day program. In both cases this is more credits than our conference programs have ever offered before.

As the senior consultant of our meetings and incentives team, my role is to drive the conference. With the support of my excellent team, we exceeded everyone's expectations this year--including our own!

A New World In the insurance industry today, the onus is on the sales professional to learn, grow, and develop. The days when companies accepted that responsibility are pretty well gone. We no longer train agents to sell insurance. At Canada Life we help our sales professionals understand how our products and services provide solutions for insurance consumers.

Canada Life also understands the value of spending quality time with our top people, and we maximize it. The executive host team is kept very busy during our conferences, with specific responsibilities at specific functions in addition to the obligatory mingling.

Finding Facilitators The business program at this year's conference included general sessions and four concurrent workshops on two separate days. Finding the right workshop topics and credible facilitators is quite possibly the single greatest deterrent to run- ning workshops. It is often a lot easier to find a series of key- note speakers to address the general session.

So I went to Stefanie Van Valkenburg, our new marketing director, for advice. Because she had recently solicited feedback from our managing directors about what issues and topics producers wanted more information on, my timing was perfect.

She then met with her estate and tax planning team to develop these interest areas into workshops that they would facilitate. Her team was keenly interested in participating, because it meant traveling to the conference and networking with our top producers: a real win-win situation.

The workshops were extremely well-attended. The topics were specific to Canada Life and Canada Life products. That's what made the difference. You need to know what's important to your salespeople and then demonstrate how your products and services can respond to those needs.

Each workshop presenter was required to build his presentation on a PowerPoint template we created. This helped us maintain a consistent look with our general sessions and the conference theme: Put Some Life into It.

For each workshop, we wanted to provide handouts with room to make notes beside each slide. (PowerPoint has a built-in facility for doing this.) With more than 440 attendees, that meant a lot of paper and expensive shipping costs from Canada. Kinko's Palm Springs to the rescue! When my team and I arrived in California on a Friday afternoon, we went straight to Kinko's armed with our originals. By Monday morning the copies were delivered to the War Room at the Westin Mission Hills Resort. This worked so well that we will never ship handouts again. (You can save even more time by sending Kinko's a file via e-mail along with instructions. Your handouts will be waiting for you at the hotel.)

Feedback is Critical Because we had made significant changes to our program for this conference, it was important to know if we had met attendees' needs. So our evaluation form asked pointed questions about the business program.

Our response rate was an excellent 40 percent, which meant we could comfortably rely on the results. An overwhelming number of respondents (87 percent) said they would like the same business content or more! When asked about the combination of general session and concurrent workshops, 85 percent said this was an effective format.

Having led the conference team for 10 years, I know that attendees come away from our programs with a positive feeling. But the old cliche is that if you leave a meeting with one good idea, the time was well spent.

So we also asked how many business ideas or marketing concepts they gained from the conference. Although only 63 percent of respondents gave us a number, it was gratifying that 84 percent of those took away more than one idea--some as many as four!

"Double-duty" meetings, meetings that have a strong business program in addition to being reward- oriented, generate great response. The key is to understand producers and their needs. What will make them sit up and take notice of your invitation? Sure, we go to fantastic places--usually a warm destination when it's still on the cool side in Canada. That helps, but it doesn't set us apart. The business program can make the difference.

Our next program is set for The Ritz-Carlton, Naples, in April 2000, and this time our new marketing team will be in charge of the workshops. A double-duty meeting yields double benefits--but you don't necessarily have to be a double-duty planner!