The Chicago-based marketing group VIPAR Heavy Duty has held its annual meeting at the Marco Island Marriott Resort on Florida’s Gulf Coast for six of the past 10 years. For a meeting planner, sounds like nice work if you can get it, right? No exhaustive site visit required, no stressing out over sight lines and setups, no endless waiting for legal to get the contract back to you. Basically, no reinventing the wheel to accommodate a brand-new vehicle.

Then again, if you know the place inside and out, you can bet your attendees do, too. Can you achieve your annual meeting goals and keep people motivated without a fresh, new setting?

Not Bored Yet

VIPAR Heavy Duty’s 650-person annual meeting brings together owners and employees (plus spouses) of around 90 truck-parts distributors, each of which is a VIPAR Heavy Duty stockholder company, along with industry suppliers and other associates. And it’s been Joe Berry’s event to plan for the past 17 years. Even when corporate management went through a complete overhaul several years ago, Berry, vice president at Sanditz Travel Management in Middletown, Conn., stayed put.

Using the same property does make aspects of his job easier, Berry agrees. But the main reason VIPAR Heavy Duty keeps returning to Marco is the attendees. “They said, ‘We love the atmosphere, we love the activities, we love the restaurants. Let’s not change for the sake of change,’” he says. And from Berry’s perspective, “The property is the right size, it has the right meeting space, and 80 percent of its rooms look out onto the Gulf of Mexico. It works. The only negative would be if attendees got bored. It hasn’t happened yet. So far, the advantages outweigh that risk greatly.”

Getting to Know You

Among those advantages are relationships that deepen with every program—if the hotel staff sticks around, that is. Berry sees that as another of the Marco Island Marriott’s strengths. “The people at Marco know the program inside and out. I’ve been going there 20 years and it’s the same bellman,” he says. “The banquet captains are the same. I’ve known them for 10 or 15 years. Every [resort] has a great facility. The real difference is the staff.”

Director of Event Management Laurie Flynn, CMP, says the staff understands and appreciates VIPAR Heavy Duty’s loyalty. “[VIPAR] attendees are always recognized throughout the resort,” she says. “We take care and note all of their likes and dislikes. We even know the individual participants by name, which gives them a sense of being welcomed back, which I think they sincerely appreciate.” And on the other side, too, she notes, “The client appreciates all of the hard work our staff does, and calls them up to the stage at the Chairman’s Luncheon to thank them.”

Flynn herself has stayed with the meeting since the beginning. “When I first started as an event manager, I was assigned to Joe and VIPAR,” she recalls. “We bonded quickly, and after that I wouldn’t let anyone else take their file, even as I was promoted through the years. Now that I am director, I do not take many groups. But I will always take VIPAR. I know them and their needs, and they will always belong to me.”

That sense of ownership and shared responsibility for the success of the program is what keeps the relationship going. Berry sees it as a two-way street. The hotel accepts a certain level of expectation and delivers it, while VIPAR Heavy Duty commits to certain spending and loyalty and follows through on its end as well.

Weeklong Event

Even if this weren’t the age of shortened meetings, the VIPAR Heavy Duty event would stand out. Attendees start arriving on Saturday and don’t check out until Friday morning. But far from being looked at as too long, the program was in fact recently lengthened by a day. “It is business-intensive for the attendee,” Berry says. “It’s also why we can use a property that is 45 minutes away from the airport.”

One of the most important elements of the week is the Annual Shareholders Meeting, which takes place on Monday. Owners and employees of the stockholder companies arrive on Saturday, which is a free day and evening. Registration begins on Sunday, when there is also the annual board meeting. Sunday evening, a stockholders reception is planned. Meanwhile, the suppliers are arriving, and Monday evening is the first reception for the full complement of attendees. Tuesday morning sees the launch of the trade show and one-on-one appointments. Wednesday morning is for additional one-on-one appointments, and Wednesday afternoon is filled with attendees’ choice of networking activities: golf, deep-sea fishing, Everglades tours. Wednesday night, attendees are on their own. On Thursday, the one-on-one appointments continue and the Chairman’s Luncheon—a plated affair, with a guest speaker—is held. Thursday evening is the annual dinner, where many suppliers will announce contests and promotions for distributors for the coming year, as well as winners of the previous year’s contests. The evening wraps up with a band and dancing. Departures for all are on Friday.

“In addition to the stockholder meeting, the most important part for VIPAR Heavy Duty corporate is to communicate what they have as enhancements for the coming year, and how the company has done with programs from previous years,” Berry says. “Results of purchases are announced, and the No. 1 producer is announced.” Executives also give a “state of the union” presentation, including an outline of what’s going on with the competition. And, as with all face-to-face meetings, relationship-building and maintenance is a major goal and outcome.

Brand Loyalty

VIPAR Heavy Duty will be back at Marco for 2012 and 2014. For 2011 and 2013, the meeting is booked at the JW Marriott Starr Pass in Tucson. In fact, since 2001, when it hasn’t been at Marco, it’s been at another resort in the Marriott family, including the Renaissance Esmeralda, Indian Wells, Calif.; JW Marriott Las Vegas; and Harbor Beach Marriott, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Berry didn’t intend that from the outset, but it has been beneficial. “Even though I will source other brands for comparison, we are very comfortable with the consistency of the Marriott product,” he says, and the multiyear bookings offer “huge” negotiation advantages. At the same time, Berry adds, “my partnership with Marriott is two-sided: I have shown loyalty to the Marriott brand because they perform. I have high expectations and if I communicate them correctly, the property usually performs. The leverage comes from [our] performance. Say you are going to do something, whether it be room-night guarantees or F&B spending, and then outperform the resort’s expectations. That kind of history over the years is invaluable to me in my discussions.”

Home, Sweet Home

“Besides the value of a booking such as VIPAR and the revenue that this group provides to the resort, we have developed an incredible relationship that goes beyond hotelier and client,” says Robert Pfeffer, director of sales and marketing at the Marco Island Marriott. “It’s not uncommon during a site inspection with a new client that we conveniently pass by VIPAR’s registration desk, where Joe or his staff will rave about their Marco Island Marriott relationship.”

Flynn says that the resort staff loves hearing that VIPAR Heavy Duty is coming back. “All of the staff are excited about seeing Joe and the VIPAR guests,” she says. “There is a very high level of loyalty to VIPAR from our associates.”

And when Berry shows up to get the ball rolling each time, she says, “it is like a homecoming. When we sit in the pre-convention meeting, everyone knows everyone.” But no one takes the program for granted. “As far as ensuring needs are met year after year, I believe the post-convention meetings are more critical for [repeat] groups,” Pfeffer notes. “The information is documented, then communicated to the entire resort prior to their next meeting.”

As Berry puts it, “Every year we find something to tweak, and we get a little bit better.”

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