Amoco's national dealers and jobbers meetings needed drastic revamping. Held every two to three years, these conferences were long on talk and entertainment, but lacked "hands-on, visible demonstrations of major marketing strategies," says William J. Wilcox, human resources director, results management for the petroleum marketer, ranked as one of the "Big Three" in the continental U.S.

After Amoco's 1994 national meeting in Orlando, FL, customers surveyed said next time they wanted "actionable things that can be taken to the marketplace tomorrow," Wilcox recalls.

The results? This past May at the Sands Convention Center in Las Vegas, dealers and jobbers came, saw, and touched what amounted to an entire "village" filled with options and products for franchise owners to grow their businesses. In the general sessions, they viewed videos of real-life challenges and successes of fellow jobbers and dealers, followed by live commentary.

Amoco outsourced the entire contract--a program worth $6 million--to PGI, a global events, entertainment, exhibitions, and business communications company based in Arlington, VA.

"PGI understood not only our business issues from the company's side, but from the dealers' and jobbers' sides. They were able to look at our competition from the perspective of our strong and weak points. They challenged us. 'You're saying your customers believe this? They don't,' " says John Kleine, regional vice-president, Atlanta region.

PGI also offered single-source accountability throughout every aspect of the event. It used its own production crew to create video for eight hours of general sessions; wrote and produced all bro-chures; sold the exhibit space; used Safaris, its own destination management company (DMC) in Las Vegas, to create 13 individual regional parties and handle all ground logistics; hired the musical talent through its booking agency in New York for the closing night galas; and used Housing On Line, its Las Vegas housing company, to take care of accommodations at The Mirage, Treasure Island, and MGM Grand hotels. It also handled all accounts payable and receivable. PGI then partnered with The Freeman Companies to produce the trade show and subcontracted registration.

Setting Objectives and Design Designed as back-to-back, three-day sessions, the first conference drew 675 jobbers and guests, the second, 1,120 dealers plus guests. The overall event was twice as large as previous ones, says Kleine. Yet its budget was less than what they spent in 1994, according to Jerry McBride, coordinator, dealer channel.

"There are intense pressures on budgets for corporate conferences. This is a buy-in convention, which means that our budget depends on how much we subsidize what our customers don't buy. Companies across America are thinking long and hard about how much they will spend on national convention budgets . . . and we're getting better in how we do it," says McBride.

Greater revenue through outside exhibitor sales and sponsorships is one way to ease budget restrictions, suggests Tom Pellet, PGI'S vice president, expositions. Don Vaughn, executive vice president for The Freeman Companies, says that single-company management without mark-ups saved Amoco 15 to 20 percent. He also believes that the future of more efficient corporate meetings lies in putting together partnerships, like this one, that can handle the entire event.

Winning a Bid Though Amoco has its own meeting planning department, it is used primarily for smaller events. Even before Amoco began national marketing conferences in 1986, it outsourced regional meetings, says McBride.

"There's a significant value in outsourcing meeting and conference planning to a full-service company because we don't possess those skills of meeting production, exhibit production, or coordination of housing, food and beverage, and transportation in-house. We can stick to our core business and focus our attention on the strategies and tactics that have made us what we are," adds Kleine.

To get customer input for its 1997 national marketing meeting, Amoco invited two dealers and two jobbers to join four members of top management on the planning task force. Together, they hammered out a mission statement: "to be the fastest-growing, most-admired convenience retailer by becoming the stop of choice for the convenience-minded motorist." In June 1995, the request for proposal for management of the national meeting went out to seven companies.

To prepare, PGI conducted an informal customer survey categorizing the likes and dislikes of those who had participated in previous Amoco marketing conferences. Then they approached those who had not participated to find out why they stayed home.

Since Amoco had suggested that its customers wanted a change of format, PGI developed strategies based on its findings. Under C.B. Wismar, senior vice president, marketing, and chief creative officer, PGI proposed a series of video segments that would present "A Year in the Life" of various jobbers and dealers, highlighting various business problems and innovative solutions.

These true-life scenarios, such as a dealer who incorporates a fresh-baked goods center into her convenience store, formed the core of the general session videos.

Defining Content and Presentation Wismar says changes in Amoco's corporate culture created the climate for a bigger, more productive meeting.

"It was the first time the event was called a 'marketing meeting' and the first time the company had all brands together as living, breathing functional units in a conference setting," Wismar says.

Using custom-made carpeting that looked like a two-lane highway, authentic even to its gold center stripe and street signs that defined the grid of a contemporary American town, The Freeman Companies created an Amoco village replete with life-size "Split Second" convenience store, "Owner's Pride" car wash, "Certi-Care" car service, McDonald's restaurant, and other franchise opportunities. Booths for the 112 paid suppliers were integrated among Amoco's 15 corporate displays.

On opening night of the respective jobber and dealer events, customers attended a party on the tradeshow floor designed to immediately immerse them in the franchise and product offerings. With lights dimmed and in a setting outlined by neon centerpieces on tables, musical performers and entertainers were scattered throughout the "town center," as participants dined buffet-style on crab legs, cheeses, and hot hors d'oeuvres. There were also many filling stations for libations.

For major parties like opening night and the closing gala held at MGM Grand Garden, the back-to-back sessions produced substantial financial advantages for Amoco since the company didn't have to pay for labor, electrical, freight, and drayage twice.

While opening night set the tone and introduced customers to the tradeshow floor exhibits, Amoco's new philosophy was clearly defined to both audiences at the general sessions. The "Year In the Life" video concept that PGI presented in 1995 during its interviews with Amoco became the cornerstone of those sessions. It was created by the PGI production unit and took a full year to produce.

Managing The Details All financial transactions flowed through the desk of PGI's Pellet. "In terms of the degree of detail, this is the biggest show we've done. We were not only working with the national headquarters office, but eight regions," he says.

While he tended to the financial dealings, Wismar coordinated planning with Amoco. Having financial updates from Pellet kept Wismar up to speed. In the meantime, The Freeman Companies show plans were coordinated with PGI through an account executive in Las Vegas, one in Chicago near Amoco's headquarters, and through Don Vaughn at its Dallas headquarters. As a result, the day-to-day discussions between PGI and Amoco resulted in a remarkable lack of friction over the two-year planning period.

"In terms of our relationship with Amoco, no issue was tense or had a potential for crisis that lasted more than three minutes. We raised it and solved it. We dealt with [Amoco] from the inception as a partnership. As a result, this has been the smoothest relationship we've ever had," says Wismar. *