Quick history: Insurance planners who have been around a while will remember the Marriott Insurance Planners Seminar, held annually for 14 years, through 1993. Those who haven't been around as long might remember being invited to Marriott's Meeting Master's customer event, along with planners from other industries, in 1994 and 1995. Or the return of the IPS for one year, 1996.

Now comes a new animal entirely: Marriott's Insurance and Financial Services Customer Forum, held for the first time December 16 to 19 at the JW Marriott Hotel in Washington, D.C. "We're pleased to bring some emphasis back to your sector, a very important market segment to us," said Rich Hanks, executive vice president, Marriott Lodging Sales, to open the forum.

Face Time With the nation's capital as a glittering holiday backdrop, 30 of Marriott's best insurance customers joined an equal number of salespeople and executives for a weekend of networking, education, and considerable holiday cheer. Besides hearing about Marriott's future growth, attendees got a unique inside look at the family company's history from Steve Marriott, vice president, labor market positioning. They also trooped through Marriott headquarters in Bethesda, Md., straight up to the executive offices for an impromptu chat with President and COO Bill Shaw. "These are exciting times," Shaw said in his modest office. The challenge with rapid growth is leadership development. Marriott's current focus, he said, is on its people.

The comment is telling in the age of the Internet. Planners in attendance at the forum appreciated the opportunity to meet the people behind the company and continue to develop relationships, even though technology is allowing them to research meeting properties on their own more thoroughly and easily than ever.

"While the Internet is a tremendous tool to expedite the site search process, when it comes down to selecting the right meeting site and negotiating contracts, personal relationships are vital," says Debbie Boschee, CMP, director of meeting management for Prudential in Minneapolis. "I am a true believer in one-on-one relationships."

Bill Wulff, CMP, director, event services, at MetLife, adds, "The future of the relationship will be matching strategic objectives to products offered. It will go far beyond checking rates and dates."

Jeff Calmus, assistant vice president, travel and recognition, for New England Financial in Boston, called the Forum "one of the best ever. With Marriott playing ownership and management roles in so many of the brands that we use for our meetings and incentives, it is critical to meet the company's decision-makers."

The spirit of the weekend was captured at the holiday dinner party given by Marriott Senior Vice President and General Sales Manager Roger Dow. Long a fixture at the IPS, Dow graciously welcomed two busloads of insurance planners and Marriott colleagues into his home.

Renaissance Minute John Kalinski, vice president of marketing for Renaissance, slid in at the end of the agenda with a catch phrase about what a Renaissance offers: "the body of a full-service hotel with the soul of a boutique hotel." New Renaissance hotels are in Hollywood and Sonoma; 18 properties will open in the next 18 months.

Benchmarking Meeting Planning Practices With the help of a wireless audience response keypad system provided by Meridia Interactive Information Services, Plymouth Meeting, Pa., attendees at Marriott's Insurance and Financial Services Customer Forum created a picture of meeting management at the turn of the century.

Below is a sampling of the questions asked during the session. Participants entered their answers via keypads and instantly saw the results displayed in graph form; they also left the meeting with printouts of all the charts.

The lightest moment came when hoteliers were asked if they mail out "hot dates" announcements to planners (83 percent said yes) and then planners were asked if they find such announcements valuable (90 percent said no).

In the past 12 months, has your department been downsized?

* Yes: 26 percent

* No: 74 percent

What is your total annual meeting budget?

* $1 to $3 million: 22 percent

* $7.1 to $10 million: 17 percent

* $3.1 to $5 million: 33 percent

* More than $10 million: 11 percent

* $5.1 to $7 million: 17 percent

Do you use hotel chains' national sales offices?

* Yes: 100 percent

* No: 0 percent

How many incentive travel programs do you handle in a year?

* 1 to 4: 64 percent

* 5 or more: 36 percent

Do you use the Web for site searches?

* Yes: 70 percent

* No: 30 percent

Do you use third parties for site searches?

* Yes: 38 percent

* No: 62 percent

Are there employees outside your department who plan meetings?

* Yes: 81 percent

* No: 19 percent

Is your department centralized?

* Yes: 71 percent

* No: 29 percent

Do you hold incentive meetings outside the U.S.?

* Yes: 89 percent

* No: 11 percent

Do you pay all qualifier expenses on incentive trips?

* Yes: 71 percent

* No: 29 percent