LET'S FACE IT, we're all overworked. Travel isn't fun anymore. Leisure time and family time are our most precious commodities. So when those of us in the meetings business are asked to take time from our overloaded schedules to attend optional events, our first reaction is to toss the invite.

But sometimes, we're wrong, because nothing — and I mean nothing — beats the benefits of a face-to-face meeting.

Consider the off-the-record response of one high-level insurance planner to being invited to Marriott's Insurance & Financial Services Customer Forum. “I just kept saying no,” she admits, “until this year, when I decided to give it a chance.” Now, after attending the I&FS Forum in May, she's hooked. Why? The F2F interaction with about 100 fellow planners and Marriott, Renaissance, Delta, and Ritz-Carlton suppliers was irreplaceable. She left the meeting feeling energized from frank discussions about industry issues and from new supplier relationships that a month later had already resulted in bookings for future company meetings. What she thought might be a frivolous use of her time turned out to be just the opposite. When I asked her what she found most useful about the event, she instantly answered, “The interaction. I left wanting more.” (For more on the I&FS Forum, go to page 58).

Under the Microscope

One of the hot topics addressed at the I&FS Forum was the strict regulatory environment that seems sure to affect growing numbers of financial services meetings. This is a fluid and ill-defined challenge for planners at NASD-licensed companies — those that sell variable insurance products such as annuities and mutual funds. It's not that the NASD (formerly known as the National Association of Securities Dealers) guidelines are new, but rather that the consumer-protection rules that went into effect four years ago are now being vigorously enforced. The result has been huge fines and devastating press for some financial services companies, and more compliance audits are in the pipeline.

Interpretation of both NASD and SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) guidelines is still evolving, but in general there are four categories of rules that can affect meetings and incentive programs: educational, training, affiliated (meetings related to internal products only), and noncash compensation. In recent months, the focus has been on the noncash compensation category and experts predict this will continue for at least another six months. “They're not finished handing out fines,” said one I&FS Forum meeting planner panelist. “This is barely the tip of the iceberg.”

“The regulatory landscape has changed dramatically,” added another planner. “Incentive trips are all about noncash compensation, and we've shot ourselves in the foot because of noncompliance. The result is that the planner is under the microscope.”

Does this mean a slowdown of insurance and financial services incentive programs? Not necessarily. “There won't be fewer incentive programs, but they will be more broad-based in that they will encompass everything a company sells,” predicted a planner who carefully scrutinizes the legalities of every meeting her department manages. She strongly urged planners to get proactive and set up weekly conference calls with their internal legal and compliance departments.

To learn more about the regulatory puzzle affecting financial services meetings, go to the article on page 19. We can't replace F2F interaction, but our goal is to create a forum for information and ideas in the pages of ICP magazine. Please e-mail me your thoughts, concerns, and feedback.