Monumental Life Insurance Company has weathered many storms during its 142-year history, but none was more formidable than the Baltimore, Md.-based company's June 1997 acquisition of Providian Agency Group, a company three times its size.

Everyone knows what can happen when companies merge. This department is out; that one is in. Tensions can run high as one corporate culture swallows another. Meeting managers have to adapt to new procedures and answer to a new team of senior officers.

What happened at Monumental Life, however, was something very different.

Best Practices "Early on, we made the decision to bring together the best practices of all our companies," says Rosemary Riesett, who heads up Monumental's consolidated meeting planning and communications department as second vice president, marketing communications. Because Providian Agency Group was made up of three distinct life insurance companies (Capital Security Insurance and People's Security Insurance in Durham, N.C., and Commonwealth Life Insurance in Louisville, Ky.), this meant analyzing four different ways of managing incentive travel programs to come up with a single set of awards, one set of qualification guidelines, and one annual incentive conference for top producers.

During 1997 and 1998, Riesett traveled regularly from Monumental Life's home office in Baltimore to Providian headquarters in Louisville for strategic planning sessions with Providian Agency Group's communications and incentive staff. The process of sharing information and learning about each other's cultures took nearly two years. "We had been given a directive by our senior management team to bring together the best of our best," Riesett says.

"Each Providian company had its own personality, traditions, and way of motivating and recognizing its sales force," adds J. Michael Key, CMP. "And of course, so did Monumental." When the organizations merged, Key, one of Providian's meeting planners, was named director of meetings and incentives for Monumental Life.

"In 1997 and 1998 we had separate sales conferences and incentive programs," Key explains, "but we started working together immediately and attended each other's conferences to learn how our programs differed. I've been through three acquisitions, and this was a first."

Once Monumental Life made the decision to keep its home office in Baltimore, that meant the meeting planning and communications operations would be there as well. The consolidated department began functioning as a new team in late 1998 with a staff of seven. Michael Key is based in Durham, N.C., and travels to Baltimore twice a month.

In August 1999, the meeting planning team watched its first big project come to fruition: More than 2,300 attendees traveled to Hawaii for the consolidated company's first joint sales conference. The result was a program that recognized the top achievers in Monumental Life's 11-region, 175-field office sales force, and cemented the idea of a consolidated company with the theme "Together, We're Better."

Hawaii? A No-Brainer The easiest thing about planning Monumental Life's 1999 Chairman's Round Table Conference was selecting the site. In fact, it was a no-brainer. Hawaii, formerly out of budget range for all four companies, was the one place qualifiers consistently requested as a meeting site.

With the new economies of scale and the strategic importance of this conference, budget was less of an issue. "Our challenge," says Key, "was to keep our sales force focused on growth while they were learning new practices and procedures. We did it by having Hawaii as the reward. It was the carrot."

The carrot worked. More than 900 field agents and managers, plus their families, made the trip. "We knew that Hawaii was a great motivator," says Henry Hagan, Monumental Life's president and CEO. "We expected our field force to work hard to qualify for this trip. And they didn't let us down."

The success of the incentive contest sent Key scrambling. The conference hotel, Oahu's Hilton Hawaiian Village, had enough guest rooms for the entire group, but it didn't have enough meeting space. Monumental requires qualifiers and spouses to attend all meetings; that meant 1,900 people at the general sessions and awards banquet, and up to 400 at each workshop. So Key contracted with the Hawaii Convention Center for a ballroom and seven breakout rooms.

All in the Family The 1999 Chairman's Round Table was not just a very big conference, it was a very big part of the company's merger strategy. "We used Hawaii as the catalyst to help us bring Monumental together as one company," Riesett says. That goal influenced everything from workshop topics to seating layouts.

For example, seating at a beachfront luau was sectioned off by regions. "We had just realigned many of our regions to include offices from more than one pre-merger company," Key explains. "We planned seating to let folks see their old buddies but also make new friends from their region."

Seating at the awards banquet also brought together couples from each of the four pre-merger companies with home office executives. Regional vice presidents representing all four companies served as program emcees and moderators, and assisted Henry Hagan in presenting the leadership and special recognition awards. More than 200 agents and managers crossed the stage to be honored in front of their peers.

"It was a thrill recognizing this group of award winners," Hagan says. "They represent a true cross-section of our regions, cultures, and companies. When the entire audience stood to salute our number-one agent, I knew we had taken an important step toward becoming one organization."

As for the workshop topics, some, like "Rapid-fire Laptop Tricks for Writing More Business," covered new sales tools and systems resulting from the consolidation. Others, like "Monumental Perks," gave qualifiers and spouses insights into the benefits of being part of the AEGON Insurance Group, Monumental Life's parent.

Then there was the sheer exhilaration that Key and the meeting team felt when they looked out at the huge sea of people enjoying the opening night luau. "It took my breath away," Key remembers.

"Like us, attendees at the luau finally realized what a big company we had become," adds Riesett.

Both believe that the meeting theme was realized. "When our attendees left Hawaii, they felt like they belonged to one company, and they took the message home," Key says. "We are not four cultures anymore; we're Monumental Life."

Making a Meeting Team The key members of the planning team for the 1999 Chairman's Round Table Conference were Rosemary Riesett, second vice president, marketing communications; J. Michael Key, CMP, director of meetings and incentives; and Carol A. Matthai, manager of publication, advertising and public relations. Riesett was heavily involved with the initial planning, including how to consolidate recognition and awards, and how to communicate the new programs to field offices.

Then Key picked up the ball. For an event this large, that meant coordinating many outside vendors. "I became a manager," he explains, "making sure that all of our outside contractors worked together and with us to reach our meeting goals." Carol Matthai handled the business portion of the meeting and managed both the in-house creative team and the production company.

The trio was assisted on-site by home office executives, regional vice presidents, and their spouses. "It has always been our philosophy at Monumental to use our officers and home office attendees to help deliver our meetings," says Riesett. "By being involved every day, they interact more with our attendees, and vice versa."

Lessons Learned Be Flexible. On arrival day for Monumental Life's 1999 Chairman's Round Table Conference, hundreds of attendees got stranded in Los Angeles due to a canceled flight. It could have been a disaster. But the meeting planning team decided to flip-flop the first two days of the program. In fact, there was such a good response to having the guest speaker and breakouts on day one, and award presentations on day two, that the team decided to schedule future programs that way.

Check Your Timing. The qualifying period for Hawaii didn't end until June 30 and the conference started August 12. (Monumental Life likes to give conference qualifiers immediate recognition and reward.) "It was a challenge just getting airline tickets in that time frame," says Michael Key, CMP, "not to mention staying on budget. We're taking steps to add about three weeks more planning time for future conferences."

Streamline Air Bookings. Future conference air arrangements will be made by an in-house agency from AEGON, Monumental's parent company, instead of an outside vendor. "It will help a lot to have everyone on the same e-mail network so we can do electronic ticketing and confirmation," Rosemary Riesett explains.

Family First. One thing that will stay the same is the emphasis on family. When Monumental pays for spouses, it requires them to attend meetings, recognition events, and social functions. "You can't have a successful career in our business without the support of your family," says Riesett. "We do all we can to help spouses and family members feel that they too are an important part of the Monumental family."

Get Ready for Kids! It was about three weeks out from the conference when Key looked at the reservations coming in and saw that there would be 300 children. "I said, 'Oh, my God, what are we going to do with all these kids?' " he remembers. With the help of a local destination management company, Classic Hawaii, Key quickly put together a kids' program, partially subsidized by Monumental. Children also were allowed to attend some social events, such as the luau.

"Allowing children was a new concept for those of us from Providian," Key says, "and it's been very well received. In fact, our August 2000 conference at the Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin is being heavily promoted as a family conference." And Key will be ready with a full-fledged program for kids.