When Bob Wilgus took over planning meetings at Lafayette Life Insurance Company four years ago, he was faced with an annual sales seminar that was as tired and listless, in meeting terms, as attendees get when they sit and listen to speech after speech.
So Wilgus, director of corporate communications and travel services for the Lafayette, Ind.-based insurer, decided to get creative. By reconsidering everything the company had been doing, he turned the routine into the inspiring, the required into the motivational. What emerged out of the formerly nondescript seminar was Frontrunners, a meeting with an identity--and, after four years, a reputation.
"Frontrunners is now one of our most popular and well-attended meetings," says Michael Donate, Lafayette Life's vice president, marketing. "I saw the transformation, and it's like night and day. There is an overall look and feel of professionalism with a smattering of showmanship, and that combination seems to have really struck a positive vein with our field force."
Diamond in the Rough "When I was handed the meeting, it was called the Sales Seekers Seminar, and was pretty bare-boned," Wilgus says. "I knew it had more potential."
His first step toward mining that potential was to meet with the company's chief marketing officer and clarify the meeting's objectives. He discovered three: to share important company and product information, to build closer relationships with field agents, and to recognize agents for their sales achievements during the previous year.
At that time, only the first objective was being emphasized. The seminar, held every January for the company's top 150 qualifying agents, was a basic affair. Attendees sat in a classroom for most of the Sunday-to-Tuesday gathering, and about the snazziest effects the company had thus far mustered were overhead projection and slide shows.
When Wilgus arrived, he took the meeting apart, element by element. His first idea: Give the meeting an identity. "The meeting's original name was Sales Seekers, but after consulting with management, I knew that it was about much more than sales," he explains. "So I hired a local ad agency to come up with a new name, logo, and tag line that would capture the three objectives of the meeting. That's how Frontrunners was born.
"I put the logo on everything, from special letterhead to reminders and promotions in our weekly newsletter, from the registration brochure to signage at the meeting itself," Wilgus continues. By the time attendees left that first meeting, in Indianapolis in 1995, Frontrunners had an identity.
Getting to Know You A more dramatic change for attendees: Wilgus decided to bring them in a day earlier, on Saturday. With this extra, nonbusiness day, the company had a chance to build relationships between home office executives and agents, and among the agents themselves.
It was also a great way to save a bundle on airfare. Part of that savings is used for the series of recreational events Wilgus plans for agents during the day and a half before the official start of the meeting Sunday evening. Attendees are given a choice of several options. At the first Frontrunners meeting, for example, agents chose between a hockey game and an Indiana Pacers game. In Los Angeles in 1996, some attendees toured Universal Studios, some went to Disneyland, and others played golf; in Dallas this past January, attendees picked an NBA game or a rodeo.
"These kinds of events establish relationships in a nonthreatening way," Wilgus says. "In the PPGA distribution system, agents choose to do business with us. Frontrunners gives us a competitive advantage when it comes to keeping a dedicated field force in place. How our agents feel about doing business with us is crucial."
The next step in the transformation was the meeting itself. While the schedule of business sessions remained the same, the setting of sessions got a real face-lift. "Working with the new logo and theme, I built a stage with rear-screen projection, signage, and stage decor for the ballroom where we held our general sessions," Wilgus says. "I wanted the room setup to be visually appealing while keeping the focus on the main stage and whoever was speaking."
He made an in-house tech staff member part of his planning team to ensure that the sessions are polished, professional, and sophisticated. "Having an in-house AV support person makes a big difference. You have to have someone behind the scenes who not only knows the program, but the players as well," he says.
"There are some who believe that you can just hire on-site staff for the meeting, and they can follow the script. I disagree. At every meeting there have been last-minute changes in slides, additions or deletions of videos, or other technical challenges that can make or break a presentation. Having a staff person who is dedicated to working with the hotel AV vendor, and more important, to those making major presentations, helps ensure that management's expectations are met."
From the upbeat music before and after general sessions, to graphically appealing slides with every speaker's name and title, also incorporating a Frontrunners logo, agents saw a totally new look for Lafayette Life's January meeting.
Wilgus has also made agent input part of the planning process. "I circulate a brief survey to the field several months before the meeting, asking agents to list the top three issues or topics they would like to see at the Frontrunners meeting," he says. The top three topics become part of the program.
Forget the Catering Menu The meeting's third objective--agent recognition--is met at the final night dinner. Lafayette Life, Wilgus notes, "is one of a handful of companies able to determine within five days of the close of business on December 31 who its top agents are." Taking advantage of that capability, Wilgus initiated an awards ceremony at the Frontrunners final night dinner. "We thank our agents in front of their peers within the first two or three weeks after the end of the year," Wilgus says. "The agents have completed their business, they've qualified to receive an award, they're at Frontrunners and, bang, they're recognized."
It's a big change, since Lafayette Life, like most insurance companies, used to hand out awards at its major incentive meeting, when spouses are on hand. Now, between 80 and 120 awards are handed out in January. (The award winners are recognized again at the biennial convention, but no actual awards are given out.)
The final night dinner itself was part of the meeting's renaissance. Swapping the usual for the extraordinary, Wilgus always challenges the host hotel's chef to produce something special. "Every time I meet with a chef I tell him or her to throw out the catering menu, and come up with something creative," he says. "I give them a per-plate amount and they come back with two or three complete dinner menus--I can see the excitement in their eyes as they go through each one."
The result might be quail or venison, pheasant or duck, served with a variety of wines that Wilgus personally selects and often goes from table to table serving to the agents himself. This reinforces the message that they are special and also gives Wilgus a chance to find out how they're enjoying the dinner. It all takes place in elegant surroundings, with different room decor and candlelit tables--and in most cases, white-glove service.
Getting approval for all of these major changes was fairly straightforward, Wilgus notes. "I've been lucky in that all of the people I've worked for directly have been open to change," he says. Having established their expectations, Wilgus was free to innovate, keeping his direct reports updated on his plans.
Wilgus is aware that he's set up attendees' expectations now, and it's his challenge to continue to meet them. "I've designed the Frontrunners meeting to be self-improving," he notes. "I have a basic skeleton of a meeting that doesn't change much from year to year, but by getting field input, by using the creativity of the given hotel staff, and by moving the meeting each year to a different geographic location, each Frontrunners has its own look and feel."