Imagine wrapping up your final site visit at a resort, confident that every detail of your upcoming incentive conference has been checked and double-checked. You're headed out of the lobby when your cellphone rings and you're told that twice as many attendees are showing up for the program. Not only that, until recently these additional guests have been your direct competitors in the marketplace.

That's the challenge Dan Young, CMP, LLIF, faced back in October 2001, when he turned around to walk back into the Grand Wailea Resort & Spa on the Big Island of Hawaii and asked his salesperson to find him 120 additional rooms. Then director of field administration at Lutheran Brother-hood, Minneapolis, Young had been planning his company's Field Leadership Conference, set for March 2002. But LB and its former competitor, Aid Association for Lutherans in Appleton, Wis., had announced merger plans, and executives apparently decided Grand Wailea would be a good spot to gather some of the troops together for the first time.

At that point the merged organization had no name and employees throughout had little idea what was in store for them. Somehow the LB conference had to become an AAL/LB conference, projecting a tone of inclusiveness and making attendees from each of the former companies feel that they were starting out on equal footing. It was no easy task.

Mixing It Up

Flash forward one year: AAL/LB has become Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, the largest fraternal benefit society in the country and a $57 billion company with a new spot on the Fortune 500 list (No. 302 in 2003; AAL had been No. 475 on the 2002 list). Its corporate headquarters is in Minneapolis; its operations center is in Appleton. And its Event Planning Department is new, created from scratch, beginning with the hiring of Dan Young to the position of director of event planning in late December 2001.

Young was in the thick of reworking the Grand Wailea meeting at that time. He held regular conference calls with Lynn Schwandt, CMP, then AAL's field conference manager, to discuss ways to ease the inevitable tension on site, especially for the group from AAL who, Schwandt acknowledges, “were feeling like they were walking into someone else's conference.”

It might seem that a merger between two companies with the same mission at the outset — to serve the Lutheran population — would go more smoothly than most. “In terms of values, there are very few differences. These people went to the same churches, grew up in the same types of families,” Young says. “But there were cultural differences — how things got done, structures, processes, technology, products. It was a marriage of equals; still, it was a difficult process.”

Schwandt is the one who suggested what became one of the most successful activities at Grand Wailea to help that process along: the boat-building competition. AAL had done it before, so she knew it was a great way to break down barriers and develop relationships. Attendees were divided into 15 teams, each of which had to design, build, and then race a boat. It worked so well that, from Young's perspective, “at the end of the event it was like we were one company.”

As critical as it was to get the attendees together, it also made sense to keep some of their traditions intact for this conference — for example, their respective awards programs. Separate AAL and LB recognition banquets were held, then all the guests came together afterward for “desserts and dancing.” Overall, says Schwandt, “we started the week with two separate audiences and by the end you saw people coming together. It was exciting to see relationships building.”

Schwandt, now Thrivent's financial associates event manager, calls the meeting “very successful,” and Young says attendees gave it the highest marks ever. The location helped: Hawaii usually gets people talking in superlatives.

Creating a New Team

At the same time that he was finessing that meeting, Young was working on creating the Event Planning Department's structure and writing job descriptions for the positions he would be filling over the next few months.

“The decision had been made to create a centralized department,” he says, “primarily to fulfill our stewardship promise.” Translation: centralized planning means volume buying which means cost savings that Thrivent's members (i.e., customers) would see as evidence of the company's efficiency, its “wise use of resources.” Centralized planning also assures consistency of meeting quality, as specific objectives are set for all meetings and formal evaluations show whether those objectives are met.

“Neither company had a meeting department that did all meetings” before the merger, Young says, though AAL's department did do all meetings that involved hotel sleeping rooms and had been leveraging its total volume with hoteliers. AAL's meeting department also booked meeting travel, a function that in the new structure falls to a dedicated travel agency working with Thrivent's Corporate Travel Department. The Corporate Travel Department reports to the Finance Division, and is separate from Event Planning.

The new 11-person department is split between Appleton and Minneapolis. (See sidebar, page 36.) Young is proudest of the creation of the event resources function, which lifts a burden from the planners in the area of communications. The two-person event resources team is a liaison between planners, communications, and creative services, and also handles everything that's done online, from meeting registration to tracking conference costs.

To fill the position of event re-sources manager, Young hired Barbara Stemson, who had worked in the Media Relations department of Lutheran Brotherhood before the merger. “I think that background has helped boost the credibility of our department's promotional capabilities and other communications efforts,” says Stemson, who likens her role to that of “brand manager,” keeping “a consistent look and experience across all events.”

It's also Stemson's job to promote the department itself. “We want event sponsors to place their trust in us, to know that we're professionals,” she says. “There's sometimes a thought that planners just make a few phone calls and choose a menu. But it's really an art and a profession that requires a great deal of skill in negotiation and customer service.” The event resources team maintains a Web site, the focus of which is to get the word out about the Event Planning Department.

Indeed, Young says that his initial challenge as head of event planning was “selling the concept to event sponsors. With smaller meetings they were used to doing things on their own. We went to them to say that we were experts and could do things more efficiently and more cost-effectively.” To drive the point home, Young is requiring each member of the department to earn a Certified Meeting Professional or Certified Special Event Professional designation, as appropriate. The department has more than 200 events on its calendar for this year — a number Young expects to grow.

What's in a Name

The department's first big assignment was a series of training meetings in the fall of 2002 geared toward the “immense task of pulling two field forces together,” Young says. About 3,000 sales reps came into each office, Appleton and Minneapolis, along with some of their staffers to get briefed on products and software.

Next up was the 2003 Field Leadership Conference, held in early March at La Quinta Resort & Spa in La Quinta, Calif. Unlike at Grand Wailea, Young says, “there were no merger issues to deal with. The group has moved far beyond that. This was a Thrivent conference.”

And in late March, qualifiers checked into the first combined incentive conferences, held at The Ritz-Carlton Golf & Spa Resort, Rose Hall, in Montego Bay, Jamaica. (See sidebar, page 38). “We've changed the whole incentive conference structure,” Lynn Schwandt explains. “And we really tried to be conscious of coming up with new meeting terminology.” For example, both AAL and LB had several conference tiers before the merger. Thrivent now has four: Pinnacle Council, Summit Circle, Vista Circle, and Venture Club — all names that are new to former AAL and LB qualifiers. Even the events held during the incentive conferences have been reworked so as not to exactly resemble either company's previous agenda. For example, AAL's Recognition Breakfast and LB's Recognition Banquet were re-introduced as the Honors Gala.

The Road Ahead

For employees, a merger is never easy. “It's an exciting experience because you're looking at what two organizations can do for their members. The vision of the organization is incredible,” Young says. “But the last year and a half was the most difficult year and a half of my life — and I was one of the people selected. You need to keep your focus on what the organization is going to be at the end of the road, and we're starting to see that ahead of us now.”

Lynn Schwandt recalls a similar swing of emotions: “At first there was a lot of excitement, knowing you were part of history in the making,” she says. “But then as things progressed, there was some anxiety because I didn't know what would happen to me and to other people. Once I found out Event Planning was going to be based in Minneapolis, I had to face the possibility of not having a job.”

The period of uncertainty isn't quite over yet. With the economy continuing to lag, the new company is still working on streamlining its operations and workforce. Just before Young headed to La Quinta, Thrivent announced it would cut 500 jobs in the next 12 months. Young says it's too soon to know whether or not the Event Planning Department will take a hit, but the team's focus on “stewardship” has never been more critical.

A New Department for a New COMPANY

Here's how members of the Event Planning Department break down responsibility for the 200-plus events and conferences Thrivent sponsors every year:

Dan Young, CMP, LLIF, director of event planning, Minneapolis

Denise Johnson, administrative assistant, Minneapolis

CORPORATE EVENTS (meetings held in Appleton or Minneapolis for executives, employees, customers, or the public)

  • Kate Touhey, corporate event manager, Minneapolis

  • Denise Schumacher, corporate event specialist, Appleton

    FINANCIAL ASSOCIATES EVENTS (meetings for the company's nationwide sales staff)

  • Lynn Schwandt, CMP, financial associates event manager, Appleton

  • Sandy Broughton, financial associates event planner, Minneapolis

  • Donna Melody, CMP, financial associates event planner, Minneapolis

    FIELD LEADERSHIP EVENTS (meetings for the heads of Thrivent's regional financial offices)

  • Karen Anderson, lead field leadership event planner, Minneapolis

  • Joette Zembal, field leadership event planner, Minneapolis

    EVENT RESOURCES (communications and online support for events)

  • Barbara Stemson, event resources manager, Minneapolis

  • Marna Gisvold, event resources specialist, Minneapolis


How merging companies can keep existing contracts

When the merger between Aid Association for Lutherans and Lutheran Brotherhood was announced, meeting planners for each of the companies — without knowing how or if their departments would survive the merger — got together to look at their meeting contracts. “We looked at what was ahead and decided to try to use all existing contracts,” says Lynn Schwandt, CMP, financial associates event manager. Some examples:

  • A 12-night LB program booked at La Quinta Resort & Spa in La Quinta, Calif., for March 2003 was canceled, but most of the cancellation penalty was put toward two new meetings: the recent five-day 2003 Field Leadership Conference and a six-night program in 2005.

  • AAL had a big contract at The Ritz-Carlton Rose Hall in Montego Bay, Jamaica, so Thrivent booked its two top tiers into that resort this year even though in the future the two tiers will meet at different locations.

  • A five-night AAL meeting booked at the Hyatt Regency Lake Las Vegas in Henderson, Nev., was canceled but most of the penalties were avoided when Thrivent booked a bigger meeting there: the 2004 Vista Circle Conference.

“The hotels were so cooperative,” Schwandt says. Adds Dan Young, CMP, LLIF, director of event planning, “They worked with us because they know we'll be booking in the future. We have a lot of programs.”

Together in JAMAICA

As if it weren't enough that Thrivent Financial's event planners faced hosting a pair of incentive programs where the cream of the crop from former competitors Aid Association for Lutherans and Lutheran Brotherhood came together for the first time as conference qualifiers, they had to do it with the U.S. on the brink of war with Iraq.

“We left for Jamaica on March 23 and the first bomb had been dropped on March 20,” says Dan Young, CMP, LLIF, director of event planning. “There was a lot of nervousness.” In the runup to the meetings, the Event Planning Department eased qualifiers' anxiety by first of all stating confidently that the show would go on, no matter what. “We didn't feel it would have an impact in Jamaica,” says Young, who had experience with Lutheran Brotherhood meetings being held without incident during the Kosovo crisis and the 1991 Gulf War.

The department also put together a two-page document about traveling safely in Jamaica, including standard tips, such as packing a copy of your passport, along with advice on things like driving in Jamaica (don't). “We do this for all international travel, but this time in particular it made people feel secure that we were on top of it,” Young comments. Planners also worked with the hotel on emergency procedures, including what would happen if the group couldn't leave the island as planned. (They'd get reduced rates.)

In the end all but one couple checked in to their rooms at The Ritz-Carlton Golf & Spa Resort, Rose Hall in Montego Bay — 400 attendees for the five-day Summit Circle program, followed by 250 attendees for the highest-tier, six-day Pinnacle Council program. Young gives the hotel and staff the highest marks and says that qualifiers “fell in love with the people of Jamaica.”

Both Aid Association for Lutherans and Lutheran Brotherhood had histories of outstanding incentive programs, so there was a lot for the new planning team to live up to, along with a need to put an original spin on things. “We didn't want the conference to look like one or the other company's conference,” Young says. Still, they decided against forcing the camaraderie issue, preferring to “let relationships build naturally,” Young says. The agenda helped those relationships along by being heavy on humor, he adds. The comedic theme also pulled producers away from the stresses of the year since the merger, as they worked with new systems, new technologies, and new products.

“Our focus was on letting them enjoy themselves and just laugh,” he says. Also critical for the new field force was a presentation by Thrivent's executive management team about the company's future.

Take Control of the CALENDAR

A big score for Dan Young, CMP, LLIF, when he built the Event Planning Department for the new Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, was taking on management of the corporate events calendar. “Now when someone comes to us with an event, we help them fit it in to the calendar,” he says. That means he can take into consideration planners' schedules and the seasonality of the hotel and travel business, thus creating another way for the department to save money and demonstrate its value. The calendar is on the corporate intranet, accessible to employees throughout the company.