For the fifth summer, Lynette Owens & Associates (LOA), a hotel marketing firm based in Rancho La Costa, CA, brought together a group of senior insurance executives and hoteliers for the annual LOA Insurance Advisory Board Meeting.

In an always luxurious setting, these top guns come together in no-holds-barred meetings to discuss issues of common interest related to insurance incentive conferences and events.

This year's LOA Insurance Advisory Board Meeting convened at The Greenbrier, the grand, 218-year-old resort in White Sulphur Springs, WV, that has variously served as a health retreat, a military hospital, and a holding station for European and Japanese nationals stuck in the United States when World War II began-not to mention a Congressional fallout shelter (see story, page 64).

In this historic and relaxing setting, advisory board participants shared marketing and motivational strategies while building relationships-and getting in a few rounds of golf as well.

Senior Executives and the Meeting Planning Process How do they fit together? The CEO's role in meeting planning can be everything or nothing. It depends on the CEO. Your job as a marketing officer or meeting planner is to keep the CEO involved at the level he or she wants. But you should always look for the CEO's buy-in."

So said Paul Amato, a guest attendee at the 1996 Lynette Owens & Associates Insurance Advisory Board meeting.

Amato, president and CEO of Columbus Life Insurance Company, took to the lectern during a morning session to discuss his own involvement in the planning and development of incentive meetings, as well as his perspective on keeping the lines of communication open within the meeting planning team.

Later, back at the office in Columbus, OH, Amato sat down with Mark Wilkerson, the company's chief marketing officer, and Wanda Bowling, convention and meeting planner, for a conference call to get down to the specifics of working as a team on two of the company's most important regular meeting planning projects: the yearly President's Club and the National Convention, held every other year. In a conversation peppered with humor and philosophy, these three key players, each on a different rung of the Columbus Life ladder, demonstrated how mutual trust and respect creates the cooperation that is critical to the incentive planning process.

Masses, Not the Classes First decision? The site. "The President's Club is usually at a five-star resort. This is for 80 to 100 qualifiers and their spouses," Amato explained. "The National Convention is a family convention. This is also always held at a resort, but it's a different experience because we invite kids. We need a bigger resort and a unique resort. We want the children in particular to see what goes along with the hard work their parents do."

Bowling generally does the site inspections, often at properties either Amato or Wilkerson has seen and recommended.

It sounds like a setup for a conflict that many meeting planners say they have faced in their careers-a CEO or senior executive choosing a site based on his or her preferences or relationships rather than one that fits the group's profile.

Amato dismissed that possibility in his company-not because he wouldn't love to select his favorite sites for the meetings (they'd all be in the mountains, so he could get a big dose of mountain-biking), but because the negative long-term effects would be so damaging. "It's a self-serving attitude that spells the demise of a good convention," he said. "You've got to select a flexible property. One that satisfies the masses, not the classes."

Wilkerson backed him up. "We're very unselfish people," he said. "One thing that's an advantage is that Paul comes from the field. He's come through the company, and he knows the makeup of our people."

Getting Down to Business Amato's "satisfy the masses, not the classes" message doesn't mean a meeting planner should bypass the CEO in incentive conference decision-making, however. "When a meeting planner says, 'I don't need CEO approval,' that's trouble," Amato told members of the Lynette Owens Advisory Board. "If the CEO has never been involved, at least give them the opportunity to be involved. Let them choose: In or out!" When meeting planners resist involving the CEO, he suggested, "they might be planning career suicide."

New advisory board member Dave Dwyer, second vice president, agency services division at The Travelers in Hartford, said that if meeting planners are concerned about job security in today's corporate environment, they need to position themselves as critical to the process.

"Which they can be," he said, "as long as they understand how meetings and incentives fit into the company's marketing strategy and budget considerations. Meetings must have a meaningful business purpose. And meeting planners have to demonstrate to senior management that they understand what the business purpose is and that they are part of the team working to achieve the desired results."

Dave Hill, vice president of marketing and chief marketing officer at Americo in Kansas City, MO, expanded on Dwyer's point. "The roles of the meeting planner, the chief marketing officer, and the CEO have changed," he said. "We're part of a strategic business unit. We're all profit-center managers now. Because of this change, the CMO and the CEO must be involved [in meeting planning]."

Creating the "Wow" Back in his office, Amato explained that he is invited to all the conference planning meetings that Bowling holds with Wilkerson, and he attends as many as he can. "I am involved from the get-go," he said.

And he stays involved-from site selection to speaker selection to theme party planning. "Paul usually selects the outside speakers-often it's someone he's seen at MDRT, LIMRA, or some other industry meeting," Bowling said. "We also have a relationship with a speaker's bureau: There's a person there who knows us and our group."

That's for the National Convention. Speakers at the President's Club meeting usually come from the field force and are chosen by CMO Wilkerson. Once in a while, he'll take to an outside speaker. "Mark comes up with the topics and personally calls these guys to ask them to do the presentations," Bowling noted.

Once the outside speakers are chosen, Bowling gets involved in working out the contracts. Once the field speakers are chosen, she calls them all to talk about scheduling, rehearsing, what they should wear. Working with the agents is a part of the job she seems to love. "I know almost every one of our convention qualifiers personally," she said.

Even when it comes to social functions, Amato wants to lend his creative flair. But sometimes he has to be enticed to go out on a theme party limb. For example, the President's Club always wraps up with a final night theme party, but the National Convention never has-mainly because, at 600 attendees, it's a pretty big crowd.

But when Bowling did her site inspection at the Yacht and Beach Clubs Resort at Walt Disney World in Orlando, they showed her a Lion King theme party "that just knocked me out," she said.

"I went to Paul and he said, 'Give me a cost figure.'"

She did.

He said, "We've never done it."

She said, "I've seen it."

He told her if she could cut down the cost, he'd consider it.

She shaved a bit off the price and reallocated some money from elsewhere in the program and finally got Amato to agree on the plan.

It worked. "It was the most magnificent party we've ever had," she said. And it serves to illustrate the trust and communication that is the foundation of Amato's working relationship with his meeting and convention planner.

For Bowling, Amato's involvement doesn't add another layer of work, she said, "it adds a layer of security."

Added Wilkerson, in agreement: "Planning these meetings is very much a cooperative effort, from the time it starts to the time it ends."

Where Credit Is Due Wanda Bowling gets more than just support from the senior executives on her meeting team-she gets some sincere pats on the back.

"After we pick the site and plan the business and social functions, we just show up," Amato said. "Wanda makes it happen. All the 'wow' comes from Wanda. That's the meeting planner's job-to kick off a meeting in a way that will wow [the qualifiers]."

He isn't the only one who appreciates her work, either. "When we introduce the home office people at the meeting," Amato pointed out, "she gets the greatest applause."

Top Secret Strategy Meeting? Has Lynette Owens Found a Venue for You . . . The Greenbrier's secret is out. In the event of a nuclear attack, the vice president of the United States, members of Congress, and some of their aides will hightail it to White Sulphur Springs, WV and a 112,000-square-foot bunker built under The Greenbrier's West Virginia Wing.

Well, that's what they would have done until a few years ago when a newspaper reporter exposed the plan-and the bunker-to public view.

After the story was published, the Federal Government decided to move out of the 35-year-old facility, and once the last box of freeze-dried beef stroganoff was removed (it took 100 tractor-trailer loads to clear the place out), ownership of the bunker was handed over to the Greenbrier. (Actually, there are still some freeze-dried-food boxes left in floor-to-ceiling stacks. The tour guides tell you they're empty.)

Stranger than Fiction The so-called Emergency Relocation Facility (code named "Greek Island") was built between 1958 and 1960, when a visitor to The Greenbrier would have been told that the hotel was building a new wing. Indeed it was-but that was only part of the story. The emergency facility's 153 underground rooms were designed to hold 1,000 people for 60 days. Those 1,000 people would be Congress, the vice president, and their aides-without family members. Spouses and children would check in above ground, at the Greenbrier.

Lots of people knew about the bunker-locals, a coterie of hotel staff who helped to maintain it-but most people didn't, including Ted Kleisner, who joined the hotel as president and managing director in 1987. After coming on board, Kleisner found himself the subject of an oddly thorough security check. At the same time, he looked into the hotel's books and noticed discrepancies. "I worried that I was part of something that wasn't above board," Kleisner told Stone Phillips of NBC's "Dateline" news program last fall.

Then he was told about the bunker and about Forsythe Associates. To the uninitiated, Forsythe was a television-repair company with a very conscientious chief technician, Paul E. "Fritz" Bugas, and an office across the street from the hotel. In fact, Forsythe Associates was a cover for the government and Bugas was the man in charge of bunker maintenance.

What did that maintenance include? Among other things, holding subscriptions to magazines like Time and Newsweek and changing them in the spartan bunk room "lounges" every week for 35 years.

It was members of Congress who were tired of spending their constituents' money on a project that seemed to have outlived its usefulness who supposedly leaked the bunker information, including blueprints, to the reporter who broke the story four years ago.

Hidden in Plain View If you've ever held a meeting at the Greenbrier, you've probably already been in the bunker. You just didn't know it. The exhibit hall and two meeting rooms (Governor's Hall and the Mountaineer Room) are part of the emergency facility, and can be closed off from the rest of the West Virginia Wing and the hotel by three-and-a-half-foot-thick, 25-ton blast doors. Governor's Hall, the intended meeting room for the House of Representatives, has precisely 435 seats.

The bunker also contains:

* nuclear/biological/chemical filters for the air being drawn in from the woods,

* a Halon fire-fighting system,

* three generators,

* three, 24,000-gallon water storage tanks,

* three 15,000-gallon fuel oil tanks,

* an incinerator that can burn 500 pounds of trash per hour (and double as a crematorium),

* gas masks, straitjackets, riot control gear in case of a bunker mutiny, filing cabinets full of blueprints of the bunker, file upon file of maintenance and operations manuals, 800 phone lines, a dentist's chair, an operating room, even a photo backdrop for Congressional briefings broadcast to those above (the photo is of the Capitol, complete with cherry tree branch).

For the Hotel That Has Everything So, what do you do when the government gives you a giant underground burrow?

For now, the Greenbrier is giving guided tours, to which meeting planners can add breakfast, lunch, or dinner in the cafeteria. (No freeze-dried fare, of course.) Doomsday theme parties have also gone over big. But what Greenbrier management really wants down there is a casino.

"It would be Monte Carlo-style gaming," explains Randy Wilcott, the hotel's director of sales. "You'd have to be a guest of the hotel, and the casino would be open limited hours. We'd operate it strictly as an added amenity."

To that end, the Greenbrier is attempting to get a bill passed in the West Virginia legislature that would allow the property, as an individual entity, to run a casino. Wilcott predicts gaming could be a reality by 1998. But even if slots and tables don't arrive at the bunker any time soon, no meeting planner booking the property should fail to build in a tour of the facility. Especially now, while you can still be admitted through the blast door in the woods by a guy named Harlan-one of those who kept the bunker secret for 30 years.

You probably won't hear from point man Fritz Bugas, however. "He's having a hard time talking about it," says tour guide John Combs of Bugas, his boss, "after keeping it a secret for so long."

Progress Report Lynette Owens & Associates (LOA) is a hotel marketing and representation firm that specializes in promoting luxury resorts to the life insurance industry. Now in its eighth year, LOA has added some top properties to its roster over the past 12 months. New LOA members are The Breakers in Palm Beach, FL; El Conquistador in Las Croabas, PR; Grand Traverse Resort in Grand Traverse, MI; and Keystone Resort in Keystone, CO.

Owens promises "exciting developments" for her firm in the coming year. Meanwhile, she can be reached in Rancho La Costa, CA at (619) 759-0510; Pam Ferguson, vice president of sales and marketing, is in Monett, MO at (417) 235-0404; and Carol Silverthorn, director of sales, can be reached in Temple City, CA at (818) 292-1271.

The Breakers-Palm Beach, FL Dave Burke, VP, Marketing Jim Mostad, Director of Sales

This year was the 100th anniversary for this classic resort-a resort that is still family-owned. Guests are now enjoying the results of last year's $75 million renovation, which enlarged all guest rooms. A $42 million soft-goods renovation began this summer. Next comes a renovation of the golf course. Then, in 1998, the hotel will break ground on new meeting space including a 20,000-square-foot ballroom plus a spa and nightclub.

The Broadmoor-Colorado Springs Dennis Lesko, VP, Marketing Chris Gilbert, Dir. of Insurance Sales

This 78-year-old resort has undergone many refurbishings and expansions over the past several years. To expand its appeal beyond the golf crowd, the Broadmoor has added tennis, a spa, a children's program, and hot-air ballooning to its growing list of activities. One popular new addition: the walkway across Cheyenne Lake, which has helped the property's separate buildings cohere and makes group movements easier.

Lana'i Resort Partners-Island of Lana'i; Christine Chusano, Director of Sales, Eastern Region

The big news for Lana'i's Lodge at Koele and Manele Bay Hotel is that guests can now take care of Hawaii's required agricultural inspection of luggage on Lana'i, and check their bags through to the mainland. Also new: "sporting clays," the latest in simulated hunting experiences. The Lodge offers 102 rooms; Manele Bay has 240 rooms; while the Lana'i Conference Center holds up to 250 attendees.

La Quinta Resort & Club-La Quinta, CA; Laura Gydesen, Dir. of Insurance Sales

La Quinta's 640 casitas are complemented by a new ballroom, the Salon de Flores, with 16,000 square feet of space, bringing total meeting space to 66,000 square feet. The 18-hole Mountain Golf Course has joined the PGA West TPC Stadium Golf Course, the Jack Nicklaus Tournament Course, and the Dunes Course. Next up: The tennis clubhouse will be reborn next fall as a 6,000-square-foot spa.

Monterey Plaza Hotel-Monterey, CA Mike Boyer, Dir., Sales & Marketing

The 285-room Monterey Plaza Hotel has made a concerted effort to establish itself as a meeting destination, with 60 percent of its business now coming from groups. The hotel tripled its meeting space to a total of 16,000 square feet, added a business center, and expanded its catering/convention services department. The hotel's location on Cannery Row, halfway between Fisherman's Wharf and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, is one of its prime attractions.

The Registry Resort-Naples, FL Jeff Hewitt, Director of Sales

The 474-room Registry Resort is on three miles of natural beach on the west coast of the Sunshine State. The property's Tower guest rooms are undergoing a complete soft-goods renovation. Resort guests have three country clubs with five championship golf courses to choose from, plus 15 tennis courts and three pools. In addition, the resort has 38,000 square feet of meeting space. The Registry Hotel Corporation recently announced the addition of a Fort Lauderdale property, to open next January.

Villas of Grand Cypress-Orlando, FL; Jack Talmage, Director of Sales and Marketing

If you're looking for an oasis in bustling Orlando, Talmage says, this is it. With just 146 villa-style rooms, the Villas of Grand Cypress makes small groups the center of attention. Besides, Talmage points out, the property's 45 holes of golf mean that the room-to-hole ratio is three-to-one. The property has 7,000 square feet of meeting space and recently renovated all rooms.

Ritz-Carlton, Rancho Mirage (CA) Stan Hershenow, National Sales Manager

Nestled in the mountains, the 239-room Ritz-Carlton, Rancho Mirage this year opened a full-service health spa, a first for Ritz-Carlton. A proposal for constructing a golf course on a wildlife sanctuary next to the resort goes up for public vote this month. Anticipating approval of the plan, Hershenow says the Tom Fazio-designed championship course could open next November. The property is currently undergoing a soft- goods renovation.

The Greenbrier-White Sulphur Springs, WV; Randy Wilcott, Dir. of Sales Kevin Rosa, National Sales Mgr., Insurance

This historic, 640-room property is making a concerted effort to be a modern meeting venue while retaining the charm and grandeur of its past. Some changes: The Modified American Meal Plan will now include the Golf Club restaurant, giving guests a casual venue choice. With groups getting younger, Wilcott says, the property is adding a nightclub next year. And gaming may arrive at the Greenbrier by 1998. After $1 million in renovations last year, the resort is putting an additional $4 million into the golf club during 1997.

Paul Amato, President, Columbus Life Insurance, Columbus, OH

David Bourgeois, Senior Vice President/CMO, Annuities, Royal Maccabees Life, Southfield, MI

Robert Dube, Senior Vice President, Group, Lafayette Life Insurance, Lafayette, IN

David Dwyer, Second Vice President, Agency Support Division, The Travelers Companies, Hartford

James Ewing, Vice President, Sales, The Mutual Group, Brookfield, WI

Jack Hardin, President, The Source Group, Knoxville, TN

Jack Hayes, Senior Vice President, Marketing, Kansas City Life Insurance, Kansas City, MO

Jim Henson, President, Occidental Life of North Carolina, Raleigh, NC

William Hess, Senior VP, Marketing & Sales, F&T Life Insurance, Syracuse, NY

David Hill, Vice President of Marketing/CMO, Americo, Kansas City, MO

Richard Hollar, Senior Executive Vice President, Marketing, Old Line Life Insurance, Milwaukee, WI

Patrick Kenney, Vice President/Director of Agencies, Security Mutual Life, Lincoln, NE

Jerry Stillwell, Vice President, Sales, Columbus Life Insurance, Columbus, OH

"We were the worst airline in the sky," Linda Ferguson, sales manager for conventions, meetings and incentives at Continental Airlines, bluntly told the Lynette Owens Insurance Advisory Board Group in August.

But over the past year, new CEO Gordon Bethune and new COO Greg Brenneman have turned Continental's fortunes around in a most dramatic way. Perennially last in U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) rankings of on-time performance and baggage handling, and first in customer complaints, Continental this year did what no airline has ever done. The carrier moved up from last to first in the independent J.D. Power/Frequent Flyer survey of airline passengers in the long-haul (500 miles or more) category.

"Gordon made the company aware of the team concept," Ferguson said, attributing the airline's success in part to the incentive programs the new management instituted. To start off, all Continental employees were given $65 every month Continental made the top three in the DOT's on-time ranking. Now, employees get $100 every time the airline makes it to number one in the rankings.