WHAT IS THE MAJOR CHALLENGE of every modern growth company? To avoid losing connection with what made it great in the first place.
That's what was on the minds of Seattle-based Starbucks Coffee executives planning the company's first Global Leadership Conference, held at Seattle's Key Arena and Washington State Convention Center last March. The event, called “Team Starbucks: Winning Together,” recently earned a Global Paragon Award from Meeting Professionals International.
“When our company started growing, we wanted to grow big and stay small,” says Marty Fisher, director of culture and partner engagement for Starbucks. “Right now, we have over 8,000 stores. I don't know if staying small is the right approach. But staying connected is.”
From 1,700 to 7,000
This particular Starbucks meeting called home every store manager — or “partner,” in corporate-speak — in North America, and many (although not all) from abroad.
“We had never done a global conference where we brought everyone together in one place,” Fisher says. “We previously did a meeting in Seattle for 1,700 directors. And we did regional meetings that were store manager — based; we did more than six of those a year. We would take some of their themes from the Seattle directors' meeting and go on the road. But this was the first time we combined all that and did it in one place.”
This is Fisher's seventh year with Starbucks. He started as director of training for its North American retail stores. Three years ago, he wrote a business plan calling for the creation of a new internal group, Culture and Partner Engagement. Its mission was to take the annual success of the leadership conference and immerse all partners in the Starbucks culture. This became the focus of the meeting.
To get some perspective on how the company has taken off, that first Starbucks Leadership Conference, which was held in 1994, took place in a small hotel conference room and attracted 50 participants. Attendance at this year's meeting topped 7,000.
No Small Task
Bringing several thousand people to downtown Seattle was no small task. Many logistical issues appeared that had not troubled Fisher before, such as getting partners from their disparate hotel rooms to the Key Arena. “This is a difficult town to do a conference in when you're focused on double rooms,” Fisher says. “We took up every double room in the city. But there are not enough double rooms to continue with the growth of this meeting, and as we go forward, we'll have to house people east of Seattle and out near the airport.”
Then he quickly adds, “But it's worth doing it here, because it's our home and it's a showcase.”
Several people preferred not to fly, so the company put them on buses and trains. “We dealt with those one-on-one,” Fisher says. “There were people who don't do a lot of traveling. We had to assure them that they'd not only have a good experience, but that we'd get them there and back safely. We were trying to deliver to them the same kind of experience we deliver to our customers.”
Security was also a new issue for Fisher and the other organizers. “That's one of the biggest changes I've seen,” he says. “A few years ago, our biggest security concern was preventing people from eating off our buffet lines. Now it's terrorism.” Some precautions included limiting the number of partners on any one plane. “The average was no more than 50 partners on a plane,” he says. “We also took precautions beyond what we can talk about [because] we had the entire leadership of the company in one place.”
The meeting's size was also a huge change for Fisher, who had to consider issues such as making the breaks between sessions long enough for 7,000 people to visit rest rooms, make phone calls, smoke a cigarette — and sip coffee. “Sixty percent of our partners are women, so we changed over some rest rooms,” he says. “We mapped out to the minute how long it would take them to go. We made it a science, rather than an art.”
On general session day, they opted for box lunches rather than a buffet because it was faster. “We prayed for good weather that day,” he recalls. “It was the end of February, a time of year that's hard to predict in Seattle. But we had a warm, sunny day — a major bonus in Seattle — and people took their lunches outside.”
A 125,000-square-footon opening day attracted more than 150 exhibitors and included the prototype of a 10,000-square-foot Starbucks “store of the future” — a highlight that left an indelible imprint on many attendees. “We never did anything like that before,” he says. “The goal … was to have people walk through the room and say ‘I didn't know that.’ It showed the depth and breadth of everything Starbucks is involved in, internal and external.”
Another conference highlight was a keynote speech by Erin Brockovich, a fiery environmental law assistant and researcher and the inspiration for the popular movie starring Julia Roberts.
“Erin Brockovich is an everyday hero,” Fisher says. “In her job, she saw something that wasn't right. It was painful for her, but she carried it through her life. She was a real person. When you bring keynote speakers who are larger than life, people don't always relate to them. Erin Brockovich was one of us — down to earth.”
The success of an event of this magnitude can be measured in many ways: feedback surveys, online polls, giddy chatter on the way out the door. But for Fisher, seeing the grins on the faces of his bosses was all he needed to know that his event was a hit.
“The chairman and CEO both came to me and my team on the first night of the conference,” he recalls. “Although they were concerned about the content and logistics pieces coming together, it was way beyond their expectations. And it continued to play out through the week. It was the most successful internal event we've ever held. We got feedback in an unprecedented way. Forty-four percent of the people who came responded and gave feedback. Between our volunteers, vendors, and invited guests, we had over 7,000 people, and we received just over 3,100 electronic responses. The thing that made it interesting was that a lot of people wrote in comments, which took a little longer, but we heard in people's own words what it meant to them.”
Fisher believes the success of the conference boils down to getting one element right over all others: communications. “We communicated and over-communicated with everybody about what we were doing, and where and when they needed to be there.”
The Global Paragon Award was the icing on the cake. “The success or failure of events like these doesn't just reflect on the people doing them,” Fisher says, “it reflects on the whole company. Our goal was to wow our partners, and we did. The recognition we got from meeting professionals around the world left me almost speechless. It was an unexpected and a nice way to close out the effort.”
A Smooth Cup o' Joe
Many corporations planning national and international meetings organize an activity around their business identity. Harley-Davidson, for example, provides motorcycles for attendees and takes them on road trips. The Home Depot sometimes takes a break to build residences for Habit for Humanity.
So would anyone be surprised that every Starbucks business meeting includes a coffee tasting?
The 2004 Global Leadership Conference included a spectacular stunt of Guinness Book of World Records proportions: serving a cup of “Leadership Blend” to 7,000 managers and corporate executives in four minutes and 20 seconds.
“It was the Olympics of meeting planning,” says Mary O'Connor, president of Mary O'Connor & Company of Batavia, Ill., who has worked on Starbucks conferences for the past seven years. Because it was Starbucks, O'Connor and her team — working in conjunction with Aramark — couldn't serve common, lukewarm convention mud. They were expected to provide a true Starbucks experience, hot and delicious.
“We put coffee in cups and timed how long it would stay at the right temperature,” she recalls. “We took flatbeds and ran them around the arena to get them to the right stations. There was an art and science to time and temperature. We needed 375 concession boxes. We had to serve the whole arena in one round. No server could go back twice for another tray of coffee.”
O'Connor and her team dissected the arena, turning it into serving sections. Once they crunched the numbers — 450 servers would simultaneously each serve 15 cups of coffee — they decided to save money by using Starbucks managers as servers. They came in a day early and received training.
When the appointed day and time arrived, the 450 Starbucks volunteers in white T-shirts gathered, grabbed trays, and started up the arena's rows.
“It looked like a Busby Berkeley production,” she says, laughing at the memory. “I was in the front, calling instructions over a walkie-talkie. I was watching the chairman and founder of Starbucks in awe. We believe it to be the largest single coffee tasting ever in the world in one place.”
Starbucks used song parodies and skits to provide a segue between content areas and to raise the event's energy level. “These managers are people whose average age is 28,” says Marty Fisher, director of culture and partner engagement for Starbucks. “They're not used to sitting long, so we had to eliminate as many low points as we could.”
Written and produced by Brian Walter and Ken Boynton of the Extreme Meetings division of the Redmond, Wash. — based Effectiveness Institute (whose other clients include Microsoft and Washington Mutual), the skits featured actors as company bigwigs such as Howard Schultz, and the songs were played by Bob Dylan, Elton John, and Bruce Springsteen imitators, who sang custom lyrics in the distinctive styles of the originals. The words were flashed on a video screen so partners could sing along.
Here's a sample of what Walter and Boynton did to Elton John's “Your Song”:
And you can tell everybody
The answer is yes
Stay with our principles, and you'll find success
I hope you don't mind, I hope you don't mind
When I say that it's true
Our profits keep growing because of you.
They also produced an original, nonparody song for the corporation called “Be the Apron.”
“We looked at this as an event, not a meeting,” Fisher says. “We wanted to reach heads and hearts. It was ‘edutainment.’”