Spring training has started a little early in corporate America.

After some slow years, U.S. companies are getting back to the business of conducting sales training meetings.

It's been a long time coming. Last year was just the fourth time in 22 years that dollars spent on employee education declined, according to the 2003 U.S. Training Industry Study, sponsored by Training magazine. And for the first time since 1982, money spent on training dropped two years in a row. On the sales front, 45 percent of companies did not provide sales training in 2003, according to the study.

Bill Brooks, founder and chief executive officer of the Brooks Group, a Greensboro, N.C.-based sales training company, says the past two years have been an anomaly. “Traditionally, the sales training area has been relatively recession-proof,” he says. “For the first time ever, it [the economy] has gotten to the point where it's even affected sales training.” His company ran about 100 programs in 2003, down from the normal range of 150-200.

The good news is that things are bouncing back. Business picked up considerably in the last few months of 2003, says Brooks, and he expects that trend to continue in 2004. “Sales training is definitely coming back.”

Michael Fahner, vice president of sales and marketing at ARAMARK Harrison Lodging, also began noticing an uptick in sales training meetings at its conference facilities in October. For 2004, the ARAMARK Harrison staff has already lined up a number of “series” sales training programs, he says.

What a lot of companies did last year was move their sales training sessions in-house as a way to save money, says Barbara Sanfilippo, partner at Romano & Sanfilippo, an Escondido, Calif.-based sales consulting and training firm. She says she was hired to speak and run workshops at corporate offices more often in 2003 than in past years.

She adds that sales managers have a much better chance of selling sales meetings to the top brass if they can show that they are in line with corporate goals and can positively influence the bottom line. “If a [sales training] session is seen as impacting revenue, then there is a better chance that it will get approved.”