Gold Medal Service
As the official life insurance sponsor of the Olympic Games, John Hancock Financial Services has a unique opportunity to build reward and recognition programs around the most celebrated sporting events in the world. John Touchette, director, meeting management, at the 140-year-old Boston-based company, spends 12 months intensely preparing for those programs and four weeks on site executing them. (That's after all the preliminary work, of course. Before the torch at Salt Lake City's 2002 Winter Games was even lit, for example, Touchette had made two trips to Greece, laying groundwork for the 2004 Summer Games in Athens.)
John Hancock hosted a total of 550 guests in four waves at the 2002 Games in Utah. “It was more than expected,” Touchette says, adding that there were no cancellations due to the September 11 tragedy. Nevertheless, the general mood of wariness in the country contributed to the “low expectations” of people this year, he says. “But then everything was so great — the service, the weather, the sports.”
Of course, guests of sponsors inevitably have an Olympic experience that is a cut above. “Being a sponsor allows us privileges such as VIP parking lots, high-end and conveniently located hospitality areas, athlete appearances, and preferred seating,” Touchette explains. “So even if you were to go to the Olympics on your own, you would not get the same treatment.” Hancock's guests clearly recognize that fact: Touchette says that the company gets comments like “once-in-a-lifetime experience” and “dream come true.”
Getting Out of the Home Office
Touchette's biggest and most-rewarding Olympics-related task is training and managing a crew of 24 volunteers from Hancock's home office. Up to 100 employees are nominated and go through an interview process before being selected as part of the elite group that spends three weeks on site at the Games. “This is a great opportunity to provide high-level service without. It also gives marketing reps a chance to learn what home-office people do,” Touchette notes. Volunteers come from all areas of the company. “What makes it most satisfying for me is developing a team of volunteers who start as complete strangers and through and a series of lectures and workshops become a cohesive unit,” he says. “The volunteers contribute to the guest experience by sharing their enthusiasm and knowledge, which is a direct result of the effort that meeting management puts into the program.”
Reining In Costs
Orchestrating those volunteers on site is a massive scheduling puzzle, one that Touchette fits together on his trusty laptop. “I remember when we brought one laptop to a meeting,” he says. “Now everyone brings a laptop. We're e-mailing all the time.” And even laptops are old hat now that Touchette is carrying around a cooler, smaller gadget: the BlackBerry, a personal digital assistant with a mini-keyboard that allows him to send and receive e-mail on the road (and also allows him to pack light).
The BlackBerry is on the cutting edge, but Hancock's meeting registration still forms a paper trail. “Our programs are small, so it's OK to manually enter the information,” Touchette explains. “We send a full-color fact book with registration forms that attendees fax back. It affects only a few hundred people per year, so it's a lower priority for the company.”
Higher on Hancock's priority list is saving money. The meeting management department had 11 coordinators at its peak; now there are seven. “The whole company is shrinking and getting more efficient,” Touchette says. “Our distribution channels have changed: We're doing more with bankers, independent brokers, and the Internet.” Agent numbers have thus fallen dramatically. “We have a lot fewer people selling but they're selling more product.”
Touchette and his department have made a number of changes to incentive meetings in order to rein in costs while maintaining a high level of service for qualifiers. For example, the company pays for one day of golf rather than two; enhanced continental breakfasts are served instead of full buffet breakfasts; attendees fly coach instead of business class. But the objective is still to impress, so some areas are not cut back: The Monkees played a recent final-night banquet, for example.
In some cases, entire meetings have changed. The company's lowest-level incentive conference is now a two-day training meeting at a less exotic location.
Luck, Timing… and Hard Work
Like many of his peers, Touchette never saw meeting planning in his future. While working toward a degree in business administration at Boston College, he helped out part time at the campus events office. When he graduated, the events manager hired him. She left, he got promoted, and was soon piling up the planning experience that would catch the eye of the folks at John Hancock. “It was a lot of luck and good timing,” he says. “Fred McManus [Hancock's general director, conferences and travel] mentored me a lot along the way. He's been in the industry for more than 30 years and has been very supportive of my career.”
Name: John Touchette
Title: Director, Meeting Management
Company: John Hancock Financial Services, Boston
Planner since: 1992
Number of people in my department: 7
My department reports to: Senior Vice President of Corporate Communications
Incentive meetings per year: 4
Non-incentive meetings per year: About 20
Annual meeting budget: $4 million to $5 million
Best part of planning meetings: Being creative and seeing ideas come to life
Biggest meeting planning challenge: Not having enough staff or hours in a day
What I can't live without on site: Cell phone
My favorite Web site: www.kazaa.com (for music)
On my nightstand: Brand Warfare by David D'Alessandro (John Hancock's CEO)
Travel survival tip: I keep a full set of toiletries in my gym bag during the week and then when I travel, I just throw it in my suitcase. Also, e-tickets are great: You never have to worry about carrying tickets.
Doyenne of Details
In November 2000, Allianz Life had no meeting department. A year and a half later, nine meeting planners handle hundreds of workshops and four major incentives annually. With Karyn Evans, CMP, CMM, at the helm in Minneapolis, the new meeting and event services crew already is sailing swiftly and efficiently through the rough seas of a cost-conscious industry. In fact, Evans' department might teach some long-established teams a few tricks, most of which stem from one big idea: Formalize things that often are done off-the-cuff. Examples:
RFP Process: Evans created a request-for-proposal form that explains who the company is and what products it specializes in, and emphasizes that the company is known for high-end service to its customers and therefore expects high-end service for its meeting attendees. The RFP is an ever-changing document, with new elements added as needed.
Checklists: Planners use comprehensive questionnaires, covering the smallest of details, when they're doing site inspections and when they're interviewing suppliers such as destination management companies.
Teach-ins: Every month, Evans leads her team in discussing a particular aspect of meeting planning, such asclauses, with handouts and examples.
Best Practices: The team holds a monthly meeting at which individual planners bring up particular challenges they're having and get help and suggestions from teammates who may have faced those challenges in the past.
Key Learnings: Planners on site at the major meetings type up brief notes about what might work better at those meetings the next time around.
Cost-Savings Reports: Planners keep a monthly log of the money they save through.
If all that isn't enough, Evans also put together a hotel RFP for transient business in the Twin Cities, spearheaded the creation of a companywide car-rental contract for transient business, and created an RFP for the consolidation of group and transient travel with one dedicated travel agency. Surely no one was surprised when she was named Employee of the Month last August.
But Evans gives a lot of credit to her department. “I have been very fortunate to work with such a talented group of meeting planners,” she says. “They make coming to work every day worthwhile.”
Evans joined Allianz after nine years with Prudential Insurance in Minneapolis, followed by three years as conference planner for W. W. Grainger in Chicago and a stint at an investment banking firm. She had just begun work toward a Certification in Meeting Management. “One of my CMM projects was to put together a business plan for a meeting department that encompassed everything from marketing to technology to finances,” she explains. “That was a great springboard for me.”
As head of the meeting and event services department, Evans is one of 11 managers who report to the senior vice president, corporate marketing and communications. The teams under the corporate marketing and communications umbrella make up an internal ad agency, Evans explains. “We do everything from public relations to print buying and all the creative work for ads. That makes us unique because we are able to work so closely with each other.” Each meeting, in fact, has a whole creative team working on it, ensuring consistency of design and message.
The creation of Evans' department was part of an overall expansion of the corporate marketing and communications area from 14 employees to 60, and an expansion of its mission from serving one of the businesses that make up Allianz Life to serving all seven — “the enterprise,” in Allianz lingo. Each business is its own profit center and has its own senior management. Evans and her team handle meetings for five of the seven units. That's more than 800 meetings every year, primarily financial workshops, the department's “bread and butter.” Every week, the meeting team is making sure 20 workshops in hotel meeting rooms across the country are going off without a hitch.
Raising the Bar
The primary objective of centralizing meeting planning was to ensure consistency in the workshops. “We've gotten great feedback from the business units,” Evans says. “We've raised the bar.” Allianz puts great faith in the face-to-face interaction that the workshops represent, she notes. “There are individuals in the company who travel every week to do workshops. There is no webcasting. We increased the number of workshops this year by 200.”
Centralizing its meeting planning also should mean serious buying power for Allianz. “Volume buying is a goal that the enterprise has for us,” Evans says. “In 2001 we saved $300,000 through negotiation. But we still need a year's worth of history with the chains to go to their national sales offices and demonstrate our value.” Then again, many national sales offices pass Evans off to catering offices when her workshops don't involve sleeping rooms, so she often finds it better to go to the hotel directly. And when she sent her 2001 enterprise calendar to hotel chains, many responded that they wouldn't book more than 60 days out with no sleeping rooms involved. “We need 90 days,” Evans says. “Hotels that wouldn't book more than 60 days out we just crossed off our list.”
Those who stayed on the list will find themselves working with an industry leader. “It's been very exciting for me, because I laid out what the department would be,” says Evans, adding that she was attracted by the company's “attitude about people” as well as by the challenge of the position. “There's a focus on family and a recognition that people need to be whole people. We work hard and we play hard.”
Name: Karyn L. Evans, CMP, CMM
Title: Manager, Meeting & Event Services, Corporate Marketing & Communications
Company: Allianz Life Insurance Co. of North America, Minneapolis
Planner since: 1989
My department reports to: Senior Vice President, Corporate Marketing & Communications
Number of people in my department: 9
Incentive meetings per year: 4
Non-incentive meetings per year: 800+
Annual meeting budget: $4 million
Best part of planning meetings: Seeing a project through from beginning to end and having the attendees rave about the program, especially when you come in under budget!
Biggest meeting planning challenge: Trying to be all things to all people
What I can't live without on site: Cell phone
My favorite Web site: At the moment, www.GapMaternity.com
On my nightstand: A Pregnancy Journal by A. Christine Harris
Travel survival tip: Carry lots of snacks and a bottle of water
Meeting planning is a perfect fit for Leanne Acton. For one thing, she loves to travel. Her first job found her working for the United Nations in Switzerland, her second for the International Air Transport Association in London. Both jobs involved global event planning. She moved back to the U.S. and started at Penn Mutual in Horsham, Pa., in the fall of 1998. “I fell into meeting planning and I loved it,” she says.
The Personal Touch
Three years before Acton joined Penn Mutual as director of conference planning and travel services, the company began working with a local office of incentive giant Maritz. “Then they decided that they needed a manager to be a liaison between the incentive house and the company,” Acton explains. Penn Mutual wanted to bring back the personal touch. “I know everybody and they know me,” she says. “I know who is a nervous traveler and who likes what amenity. I've increased the comfort level.”
She's done it by making Penn Mutual's meeting planning more structured and by increasing communication within the department and throughout the home office. Now there's a process for everything from invitations to venue selection. “Penn Mutual includes its educational and sales conferences in its overall strategy, called Producer Value Commitment, which positions the producer as the company's primary customer,” Acton explains. “I got everyone to see the big picture, to see how it's all intertwined.”
To get a handle on how the big picture is coming together, she instituted regular progress meetings during the run-up to a major program. The three senior event coordinators on her staff report on their specific areas of responsibility, and representatives from corporate communications, education, and the financial group (which keeps track of the qualifiers), also attend. Acton writes up the minutes for all who were there plus the company's contacts at Maritz. (Penn Mutual works with Maritz to varying degrees on about 10 of its meetings annually.)
A week before departure, Acton also meets with the president and then with all of the home-office staff who will be at the meeting and goes over the entire program, detail by detail.
Call Me at Home
While Acton has increased the comfort level for Penn Mutual's executives, neither she nor the company wants to see meeting planning brought totally in-house. “Then I wouldn't have time to give the personal touch,” she says. “We are very lean in-house: That's our corporate philosophy.”
In fact, rather than feel threatened by the outsiders, Acton considers them teammates. “I get along great with the incentive house,” she says. “They're my extended team. We all have each other's home phone numbers.”
Name: Leanne Acton
Title: Director, Conference Planning and Travel Services
Company: Penn Mutual Life Insurance, Horsham, Pa.
Planner since: 1991
Number of people in my department: 4
My department reports to: Vice President, Sales Operations
Incentive meetings per year: 5
Non-incentive meetings per year: 20
Annual meeting budget: N/A
Best part of planning meetings: It is tangible; it has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Biggest meeting planning challenge: Long hours!
My favorite Web site: www.usairways.com (My husband and I love to travel.)
What I can't live without on site: Chocolate!
On my nightstand: Harry Potter
Travel survival tip: Pack light and with creativity so you can carry everything on board.
Both Sides Now
Having worked on the hotel side for longer than he's been a meeting planner, Michael Burke plays it straight with hoteliers. “I know what's reasonable and what's not,” says Burke, who started at the front desk and moved up to rooms director before jumping the fence to meeting planning seven years ago. “I'm an advocate for the company and for the hotel. That builds credibility with our hotel partners.” In turn, he wants to work with straight-shooting salespeople who have done their homework — so much so that he's had people he's not comfortable with taken off his account. Like most planners, Burke considers his relationships to be the key to his success.
Another critical tool: the Web. “I use it all day long for researching,” he says. “And e-mail is a wonderful thing. You have backup for everything.” But even though Burke and the others in his department spend lots of their time in cyberspace, Allmerica is holding off on registering attendees online. “Our meetings are not large enough to support the expense,” Burke says. “We're in a cost-reduction mode.”
Spending Less to Impress
Two years ago, Allmerica's meeting department got a per-capita spending limit that was significantly lower than what it had been used to spending on incentive qualifiers. The company's meetings have seen several changes as a result. For example, Allmerica used to sponsor activities every day; now there is one day of company-sponsored activities. Three evening events are now two evening events and one evening where attendees are on their own. Still, Burke says, “survey scores have not fallen. What often happens is that a regional vice president will take a group out. It's good for relationship-building.”
Another change is in the two-tier nature of the annual life insurance incentive meeting. Formerly, the Leaders Conference was three nights and four days followed by the more elite President's Conference, which moved on to a new property for another three nights and four days. Now, the President's Conference is two nights and three days, and last year that program continued on at the same property as the Leaders Conference. Allmerica saved the cost of moving the top-tier qualifiers and also was able to negotiate a better deal with the hotel. The status of President's Conference attendees was recognized with special perks such as concierge-level rooms.
The Secret Budget Weapon
But what really saves the company money is its sponsorship program. For the annual incentive meeting on the life insurance side of the business, Allmerica invites approximately 40 money managers and charges them a fee to attend and get in front of the company's agents. The managers can sponsor a golf, a dine-around, or another activity.
They also get some face time at a. Sponsorships on the life side now make up about 30 percent of the company's budget for that incentive meeting.
For the first time this year Allmerica is inviting sponsorships for the annual incentive meeting on the property/casualty side of the business as well.
Name: Michael S. Burke
Title: Senior Specialist, Conference & Travel Services
Company: Allmerica Financial, Worcester, Mass.
Planner since: 1995
Number of people in my department: 4
My department reports to: Corporate Procurement
Incentive meetings per year: 5 to 8
Non-incentive meetings per year: 275+
Annual meeting budget: $3 million+
Best part of planning meetings: Creativity and the fact that every meeting and every day is different; also the relationships that you form throughout the industry
Biggest meeting planning challenge: Doing more with less
My favorite Web site: PlanSoft's Meeting Space Calculator: http://planner.plansoft.com/global/search/space_calculator.ASP
What I can't live without on site: Comfortable shoes and coffee
On my nightstand: Inside the Magic Kingdom by Tom Connellan
Travel survival tip: Pack light, arrive early, and bring your own food.
“We're very collaborative,” says Patricia Kerr of the conference planning and recognition department at Manulife Financial. “We work very much as a team and we're proud of it.” Having started with the Waterloo, Ontario-based company as a meeting specialist seven years ago, Kerr is now manager of the department with five conference consultants reporting to her. “I have exceptional people and I've empowered them even more” since taking over as manager in May 2001, Kerr says.
Kerr is currently overseeing a change in the department's mandate. Rather than handling only the bigger field-force meetings, the department will manage all advisor-focused meetings, even gatherings of only 10 people. The goals are to create consistency and meet increased demand. Kerr sees the change as evidence that the company trusts and values her department. “We have great support at the senior management level,” she says. “I recently met with the executive vice president of the Canadian division and he reconfirmed that the meeting planning area is an asset. That's nice to hear.”
Online All the Way
Kerr also guided the transition from paper registration to online registration in 2001. “The response was excellent,” she says. “Our advisors love the convenience and it's much better for us.” The company created the system in-house, using a Lotus Notes database. The first time, registering online was optional. About 75 percent of attendees gave it a shot. Now, it's mandatory. “An online form comes in, it's one click for us to approve it and it automatically sends a confirmation. Another click and we've got our rooming list,” Kerr says. “Cost savings have been significant.”
Cutting costs at Manulife, as at other insurance companies, is a priority now. As Kerr puts it, “The challenges we're dealing with are industrywide challenges: a poor economy and lower budgets, while still needing to produce quality events to boost sales and meet attendee expectations.”
Faced with cutting $1 million from her large incentive conference budget, Kerr “had to get down to the nuts and bolts. How could we cut without making attendees feel that they'd lost something?” Some cuts were small: Rather than serving new food for morning breaks, the hotel serves pastries that are left over from breakfast. Other changes were major: During the company's large incentive, for example, two tightly packed days of the program were revamped, eliminating one event, combining two others, and adding leisure time, Kerr says. The attendees now get one afternoon on their own, which, she notes, “they've been begging for.”
Name: Patricia Kerr
Title: Manager, Conference Planning & Recognition
Company: Manulife Financial, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada
Planner since: 1995
Number of people in my department: 5
My department reports to: Distribution/Sales
Incentive meetings per year: 1
Non-incentive meetings per year: 30 to 40
Annual meeting budget: N/A
Best part of planning meetings: Change! There is always a new meeting, a new project, a new face in the crowd.
Biggest meeting planning challenge: Difficult clients
What I can't live without on site: My team
On my nightstand: Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone
Travel Survival tip: Learn to sleep on a plane, as it's the only sleep you get during a program!