Berkshire Life's Advanced Disability Meeting is booked into a choice property this year: The Ritz-Carlton Bachelor Gulch, a gracious Beaver Creek, Colo., ski resort.

Of course, there isn't much skiing in September. And Berkshire agents aren't booked for complimentary spa treatments or rounds of golf. Spouses who come along will pay their own way.

Incentive-quality property? Yes. Incentive conference? No. In fact, the ADM is billed as a training meeting. But agents must qualify to get there. So what motivates them to earn their way in?

“They feel like it's an exclusive club,” says Mark Haydon, ACS, Berkshire's director of distribution services. “They all know each other.” (And they all notice if someone doesn't make the cut.)

Despite the educational focus, says Sharon Chapman, CMP, CMM, travel and corporate events planner (and president-elect of FICP), “they consider it an incentive. We create an atmosphere of family, of learning, of caring. They get to meet home office people and network with each other.” And, she adds, “we do keep it at an attractive destination, though we try hard not to get too ‘resorty.’ If we use a resort, we go off-season.”

Go With Your Strengths

In July 2001, 150-year-old Berkshire Life Insurance Co. became Berkshire Life Insurance Company of America, a wholly owned stock subsidiary of The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America. Berkshire now manufactures and administers disability insurance products, which were its strength before the merger, and also develops new insurance products for Guardian, such as long-term-care insurance. Rather than swallow the smaller Berkshire, Guardian left it a separate company with its own board of directors, underwriting its own policies, and keeping its home office in Pittsfield, Mass.

Also retained after the merger was Chapman's position as Berkshire's meeting planner. A one-person department, Chapman handles all Berkshire training meetings (usually hosted at the home office), any meeting with 10 or more people, and all employee events such as the company picnic. In addition, she is Berkshire's corporate travel liaison, managing its relationship with local hotels, car rental companies, and airlines. “Guardian sets the corporate travel policy and manages the contracts on a wider scope, but I tweak it to fit our needs,” she explains. Her two major off-site meetings are the Advanced Disability Meeting (for agents) and the National Disability Insurance Specialist Meeting (for agency-based disability insurance wholesalers).

The National DIS Meeting is two-and-a-half days of solid business held every January. “We lay out our objectives for the year so that they can assemble their business plans,” Haydon says. “It's our yearly kickoff. We want to get them fired up.” Some 140 of 160 managers attend the meeting. “We used to invite all of them but recently we set qualifications,” Chapman explains. The new requirements, which kick in after the first two years of a wholesaler's contract with Berkshire Life, eliminate those few that probably wouldn't end up delivering much business.

Meanwhile, the ADM was created when a pre-merger Guardian meeting called the DI Inner Circle got a dose of the family spirit that had pervaded three Berkshire incentive meetings that were no longer relevant post-merger. As a new meeting in a world of financial services companies keenly aware of increased NASD focus on noncash compensation, the ADM was developed as an educational conference. It's part of Chapman's challenge, however, to give the event a look and feel that is special enough to keep those agents qualifying.

Influencing the Field

“These are the two meetings that get us front and center with key people from our field force,” says Mark Haydon. Parent company Guardian “owns” that field force, he explains, managing the distribution channel that Berkshire Life uses to sell its products. “We don't manage them, so our challenge is to influence them. We do it by having great products, great marketing materials, by having a great relationship with them — by being their partners.”

The three-night ADM is critical to that partnership. “That's the place where we build most of our goodwill,” Haydon says. “I call it fellowship.” It's an inexact goal, to be sure, but one that Haydon takes seriously. Two dozen home office representatives attend the ADM, and they all meet beforehand to set expectations and get their marching orders, which sound simple, but don't necessarily come naturally: “Each of those who attends is charged with being a host,” Haydon says. “They are charged with making sure anybody they interact with at the meeting leaves that interaction with a better sense of the company. I credit one of our former presidents — Jim Zilinski, who was in office before, during, and immediately after the merger — with creating this kind of atmosphere. He and his wife were great at it. They made everyone feel welcome, and made everyone feel great about working with the company.”

Huddles in the Hallway

In addition to mingling with home office executives, qualifying agents spend a lot of time networking and learning from each other at the ADM. “DI is a special kind of insurance. It's a niche,” Chapman says. Facilitating interaction among attendees, Haydon notes, is the most important part of the ADM agenda. (See sidebar, “4 Tips for Educating an Educated Group,” opposite page.)

“One of the great things about the ADM is that we have some who have been going for years,” he says. “I'm always impressed by how generous they are with sharing their experience with younger agents. This is a very competitive business but they're confident enough in themselves to share. Of course, it's also great for their egos.”

Berkshire is pretty confident, too — that agents who spend time at the ADM will work hard enough to come back. “Other companies have similar meetings. About 60 percent of ADM attendees are agents of other companies or independent agents,” Haydon says. “And that's OK with us, because we think they'll like us and our company and want to do business with us.”

He credits Chapman's thoroughness as critical to giving attendees a positive experience — not just on site, but, as he puts it, “from the moment they think they might attend.” The qualification period lasts the calendar year but the meeting doesn't take place until the following September, so there's a lot of time during which Chapman must maintain the excitement of attending and keep up communication with qualifiers. The bottom line, says Haydon: “If the meeting wasn't tastefully done and if the qualifiers weren't comfortable, they'd find some other place to get together.”

Chapman relies heavily on her relationships with hotel chains' national salespeople to deliver the kind of seamless experience she wants. “They understand our needs as far as space and breakouts,” she says. “And they also understand that this is a business meeting, but that creating a friendly, family environment is very important to our success.”

Getting an up-close look at the ADM last September was Judy Parker, director of national accounts, Marriott Global Sales, who traveled to the Marriott Montreal Chateau Champlain to work side by side with Chapman. “I helped out in the office, and worked the registration area on arrival day,” Parker says. “In addition to being a lot of fun, it was great because I met everybody including Sharon's boss, executives, speakers. It was interesting to see how her group interacts, see their dynamics, all the things that tell you what the group is going to be like.” Among her takeaways: “I can now tell our properties that they need a big area for registration because attendees will hang out, and key people will be there the whole time.” The experience also helped her bond with Chapman. “I had a good relationship with Sharon before,” Parker says, “but now I feel even closer to her.”

Hook 'em Quick

Indeed, there's nothing like getting face to face, and a recent initiative dubbed the Next Generation Program is Berkshire's effort to get newer agents to the ADM in hopes of developing that deeper partnership sooner.

Regular qualification requirements for the ADM emphasize quality of business as much as quantity, Haydon explains, using measurements such as persistency and claims history. “These are people who are really contributing to our profitability,” he says. “We would rather invite a person who brings a profitable block of business” than someone who just racks up sales numbers. But some of those quality goals are impossible for new agents to reach.

“This year we opened up another promotion with a different set of criteria for those in their first four years with Guardian,” Haydon says.

It's an effort Haydon says is not atypical, part of insurers' continual quest to balance their investment in new producers against their return on that investment.

What's certain is Berkshire's belief that “goodwill,” “fellowship,” looking someone in the eye, shaking a hand, remembering a name, all pay huge dividends in producer and agency loyalty. Gathering the field force once a year, like family, will always be a critical piece of Berkshire's distribution strategy.

“We've thought long and hard about what these meetings mean to us. This is a huge chunk of our budget,” Haydon says. “It's relationship-building. We are deploying these home-office people for three days to make the other 362 days of the year better.”

There's No Place Like Home

Site selection is the centerpiece of any meeting planner's job. Choosing a destination that motivates, inspires, relaxes, excites — whatever your specific goal — can bring you cheers or jeers.

To her surprise, one of Sharon Chapman's most successful destination choices for Berkshire Life was in the company's own backyard, the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts. For the 2004 Advanced Disability Meeting, Chapman, travel and corporate events planner, booked 280 qualifying agents and spouses into two local properties, the Cranwell Spa and Golf Resort and the Crowne Plaza Pittsfield, for three nights.

One day of meetings was held at the home office, followed by a catered dinner. When attendees entered the building, 400 Berkshire Life employees lined their path, applauding. Yes, you've seen it a thousand times with resort staff. But when has it ever meant so much? “Producers were grinning from ear to ear,” Chapman says. “One cried. It was remarkable.”

4 Tips for Educating an Educated Group

  1. Don't preach to the choir. “Our attendees are very good at sales and they are very knowledgeable about these products,” says Mark Haydon, ACS, director of distribution services at Berkshire Life. “We'd be nuts to attempt to teach them something rudimentary.”

  2. Minimize formal presentations. “We limit the amount of time the home office spends talking at the audience,” Haydon says. “Everyone goes to enough meetings where there are talking heads. It's boring.”

  3. Survey attendees so you can create workshops on issues they care about, and then get attendees to be presenters. It's a logistical challenge, and you might get last-minute cancellations or presenters who cobble together their notes on the plane, but agents want to hear from their peers — especially from those who have more experience.

  4. Facilitate interaction. Two methods that Sharon Chapman, CMP, CMM, travel and corporate events planner, brought to Berkshire Life are audience-response keypads and a round-table forum. The keypads were an immediate hit, notes Haydon, giving each attendee a way to participate with instant results flashed on a screen. It's also a great way for a company to get anonymous input from the field. The round-table discussion process Chapman used was like a version of five-minute dating: A group of three executives would go to each of 12 round tables, posing a situation for discussion. After 10 minutes on the topic, the executives would rotate and present their topic to the next round table, and so on until each table had discussed each topic. “It's like a big fire drill,” Haydon says. “It's a blast.”