Imagine walking into a hotel ballroom to find acrobats performing death-defying acts, BMX bikers riding loops, high-energy drummers, pyrotechnics, and awe-inspiring stage sets and lighting. That's what attendees saw as they entered the opening session of PSS World Medical's national annual conference.
That was two years ago.
The company's 2009 event—held in September at the Gaylord Texan Resort and Convention Center in Dallas—had a few more "budgetary challenges," as Mark Steele, vice president of marketing, puts it. That is, the budget had been cut almost in half.
Save Money, Save Jobs
Every year for the past six years, PSS, a Jacksonville, Fla.–based distributor of medical supplies, medical equipment, and pharmaceuticals, has worked with New York–based event producer inVNT to put on a national conference for roughly 1,500 attendees. And every year Steele and the inVNT team pull out all the stops to truly wow and inspire the group, which consists of PSS sales reps, executive leadership, and vendors.
It's a big deal, says Steele. "It's a chance for us as a company to celebrate our culture and celebrate our people. And it is also when we provide the team with training and outline where we are in the business and where we are going."
The cuts to the 2009 event were part of a larger companywide initiative called the "Save 300 Campaign," an effort spearheaded by PSS to cut costs throughout the company in order to save the jobs of 300 employees.
"We went into [the planning] with the idea that we would need to make some significant cuts, but we still wanted to maintain our commitment to our culture," says Steele.
First up: redesigning the opening event. In the past, "the way we opened up the meeting was similar to a Las Vegas show," says Steele. This year, "the message to the group was that this was going to be a very different meeting," he adds
For the opening session, PSS worked with inVNT to produce a short video where an actor played the role of a PSS marketing intern. The short clip featured the "intern" at his cubicle explaining to the crowd that while other companies were cutting back on jobs, PSS was cutting back on acrobats.
"People immediately got it," says Steele. "It became something we could rally around and feel good about." And production costs—including the actor's fee—came in at a fraction of what PSS would normally spend on the opener.
Another area where the team saved big: The PSS Champion's Event. The event typically involves stellar entertainment in conjunction with the presentation of awards honoring top performers. At inVNT's suggestion, PSS decided instead to focus on the talent of its own employees.
Playing off the television show "America's Got Talent," the company held auditions for its own version, called "PSS's Got Talent," months before the national meeting. The company's six regional vice presidents were given the task of selecting top talent from their area based on videos that the sales reps submitted. "You never really know what you are going to get when you do something like this," says Jerome Baker, executive producer for inVNT. "But as soon as people started rehearsing, we knew it was going to be far better than we could have ever imagined."
The homegrown acts included a rock band, a Jimmy Buffett–style band, a rap group that rapped about the company, a singer, a drummer, and a "land-based water ballet" troupe, says Baker. "It was the funniest thing I've ever seen."
"People said it was the best Champion's Event ever," says Steele, "partly because of the caliber of the talent, and partly because these were our own people, and we had never seen them in this context."
Small Tweaks, Big Bucks
The planning team also made some small changes that resulted in big savings. Each year, PSS purchases two shirts for each attendee to wear during the meeting. This year, Steele and the inVNT team instead asked each attendee to bring a long-sleeved white T-shirt and a black polo shirt and wear them in place of the custom-designed shirts. "We didn't spend a dime, but we still had that show of force among the team," says Steele.
The team also opted to hold all programs on site. One such event was the company's CEO Event, a reception honoring PSS's vendor partners. Typically the CEO Event involves bringing the VIP group to a top-notch restaurant. But this year PSS tried something entirely different. "We held a ‘redneck triathlon' on property," says Steele. The event consisted of a buffet dinner and a chance for attendees to test their skills at watermelon-seed spitting, horseshoes, and a bad-beer tasting contest, among other activities.
The group knew they were taking a bit of a risk, given the caliber of the attendees—top execs who are used to being wined and dined—but the gamble paid off. One such attendee was former Apple CEO John Sculley, who told Steele, "I can tell you guys didn't spend any money on this event, and I have had more fun here than at any of the other events I've been to this year."
Keep It Coming
In the end, PSS's cost-saving measures saved jobs and managed to boost morale in the process. "The qualitative results we got from the [post-event] surveys were equal to, if not better than, years past," says Steele, who mentions specific attendee responses like, "I'm proud to work for an organization that realizes what's important," and "Having fun and getting results aren't mutually exclusive."
Steele says cutting out the annual meeting entirely was never a consideration. "The national meeting is a big part of our overall corporate strategy. It gives us an opportunity to reinforce who we are and what we have accomplished."
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