Like many insurance organizations, Aid Association for Lutherans (AAL), based in Appleton, WI, has been talking about incorporating a community service project into an agent conference for a long time. And, like many of those that have turned that talk into action, once AAL's meeting staffers took the plunge, they found their agents ready, willing, and delighted to spend a day doing good for others.

"Normally [our qualifiers] see the Field Conference as a time to relax and share with their peers," says Sally Klapper-Randa, field recognition and events manager for AAL. "And they all do a lot of volunteer work on their own. So we were a little afraid that [a community service project] would be the last thing they'd want to do on their vacation. We were pleasantly surprised by the response."

Some 160 agents, spouses, and kids over 16 years old packed up work clothes and turned out for the Executive Conference-East in Washington, DC a day early. AAL hosted a kickoff banquet and gave out assignments for projects with Jubilee Ministries and Habitat for Humanity.

"Each work site-there were about 16-had a director. All of them said they'd never had volunteers come in and work so hard," says Vicki Mai, AAL's fraternal promotions specialist, who traveled the sites throughout the day. "Each director planned six hours of work at each site, but our people worked so hard, some sites ran out of things to do."

Among the projects: putting up aluminum siding on a Habitat for Humanity home; preparing meals at a soup kitchen; serving a barbecue for residents of Sarah's Circle, an apartment building for low-income seniors; landscaping and cleaning Jubilee shelters; and helping out at a day-care center for Jubilee Housing kids.

But the AAL volunteers might be most proud of the work they did at the Jubilee Jobs office, where they made cold calls and placed three Jubilee residents in jobs. (The Jubilee Ministries-nine missions in Adams-Morgan, a DC neighborhood-help with housing, health care, employment, and education for low-income and homeless families and individuals.)

"People talked about it all week," says Klapper-Randa of the work day. "Everyone who participated mentioned it as a highlight of the conference." And those who didn't participate looked at the high spirits-and the T-shirts and hats-of those who did and realized they'd missed out on something special.

An Ongoing Effort And while the agent-to-agent camaraderie was an important aspect of the volunteer event, an even more elusive bond was strengthened-the one between the home office and the field. "The most common positive comment we got [was one such as]: 'It was nice to spend the day with the senior vice president, and get to know him as a person,'" Klapper-Randa notes. "We made it optional for the home office, but we had a 98 percent response rate. In the end, their reaction was just as positive as the field's. They want to do it again."

Klapper-Randa and Mai do, too, and are busy making plans for the next event. For now, a community service project will rotate among AAL's four annual incentive events. Mai is already working to find a project for a 1997 Executive Conference in Lake Tahoe. She's started by calling the hotel, the United Way, and other national organizations and charities.

"I've been a very active volunteer and I have never been moved the way I was moved by [the Washington, DC projects]," Mai says. "I'd walk onto these sites and get goose bumps. What was special was the bonding between our people and those in need, many working right alongside them. I saw people hugging each other at the end of the day."

Small Travel Cost Hike Predicted for 1997 Good news for next year's meeting budget: Travel costs are expected to rise only 4.7 percent over this year, according to a recent report from Runzheimer International. The Rochester, WI-based management consulting firm came up with the figure using the weighted average of five major business travel expenses: airfare, lodging, meals, car rental, and ground transportation.

Relatively low projected increases in airfare (up four percent) and meals (up five percent) are balanced with bigger projected increases in car rental (8.5 percent) and lodging (7.5 percent). The greatest projected increase? Taxi fares, expected to rise ten percent as a result of municipalities imposing greater costs on taxi operators.

Insurance Planners Get First Look at Ajenis The Insurance Conference Planners Association (ICPA) Forum, held in June at the Renaissance Chicago, provided a stage for the first complete unveiling of the nearly released Ajenis software product and the PlanSoft Network, designed to revolutionize the way meeting planners and hoteliers communicate.

As Tony Stanfar, director of development for the PlanSoft Ajenis Limited Partnership (a union of industry groups including Hyatt, Sheraton, Marriott, Meeting Professionals International, and the American Society of Association Executives) took the 45 planner attendees through various screens of the demo, questions came fast and furious.

Basically, this is what Ajenis promises: Meeting managers and hoteliers will be able to create and amend documents, such as resumes, banquet event orders, and (in the next release) rooming lists, electronically. In essence, they will work on the same "document," which will reside in a server, accessible by both parties. When one side makes a change, that change will show up the next time the other side pulls up the document. And Ajeenis automatically creates a history file, listing every change to every document, including who made the change and wheen.

Nimble and intuitive, the Windows-based software allows planners to jump from a broad view of the year's conferences to a detailed look at the audiovisual setup for one breakout room in a few clicks of the mouse.

The official product launch, which continues to be pushed later, is now scheduled for first-quarter 1997. One cause for the delay is the lengthy process of all the hotels in the participating chains entering their specifications (rooms, audiovisual equipment, services) and pricing into the database on the PlanSoft Network server.

Where do future releases of PlanSoft hope to take you? To real-time videoconferencing for two or more meeting professionals, perhaps. For example, if you requested additional information on a property, you might have the option to connect with a hotel representative immediately.

(For more on the Forum, see the ICPA Newsletter, page 53.)

SITE Corporate Board: Incentive Travel Stays the Course

Incentive travel programs remain an important business tool even in companies where sales are sluggish and less-traditional incentives (individual incentives, as well as programs for nonsales employees and teams) are on the rise, according to the members of the Society of Incentive Travel Executives' (SITE) Corporate Advisory Council.

The group held its first panel discussion at SITE's 1996 University of Incentive Travel in Orlando this summer. Here are some highlights of the discussion by members Don A. Duck, John Deere & Co.; Peter Humphries, Westbury Canadian Life; Bobbie Roth, House of Lloyd; Frank James, Kelly-Springfield Tire Co.; Henry Kroesen, NN Financial; and Peggy Domber, Summit Bank.

* Westbury Canadian Life plans to increase its budget for incentive travel programs. "Even when sales dipped and we had to watch expenses, we considered incentive travel an investment," said Humphries. He added that qualifiers expect more of the incentive trip each year. "We still have group movements, but they are now much more tailored to individual needs of people who are increasingly well-traveled."

* NN Financial has gone to a two-tier incentive meeting and conference to provide more relationship-building oppor- tunities, according to Kroesen. He added that today's younger sales force does not have not the same interest in group incentives that the past generation of salespeople had. "They want to do more on an individual basis. We must be flexible with optional tours and award them with what they're looking for."

* Summit Bank is now offering employee incentives, as well as incentives for customers who open new business. Of the latter, said Domber, "You have to get their attention; they are not employees and you have no leverage with them."

* House of Lloyd, a direct sales organization, uses incentive travel to retain its independent contractors, who are not em- ployees. According to Roth, her industry has seen a great deal of cost cutting and dramatic drops in sales, "so we must motivate more now. It would be crazy to say we can't afford incentive travel because sales are down. We have to use it, as well as focus on training and networking to share ideas."

* John Deere is involving more nonsales employees in team incentives, organizing teams to work with dealers, and having dealers organize teams within their dealerships. "There is more emphasis on groups establishing qualifications and winning together," said Duck.

-Connie Goldstein

Continental Turnaround: A J.D. Power First Stuck at the bottom of the customer-satisfaction barrel last year, Continental Airlines has done what no airline in the annual J.D. Power/Frequent Flyer Customer Satisfaction survey has ever done: The carrier jumped from last to first in a single year.

Continental's turnaround began right after last year's survey was released. The carrier cut costs and instituted incentives that resulted in Continental starting to show up at the top of the U.S. Department of Transportation monthly rankings of on-time performance, customer complaints, and baggage handling.

J.D. Power survey respondents ranked airlines flying domestically, considering 12 factors including on-time performance, seat comfort, flight attendants, and food.

Continental ranked first in long flights (500 miles or more), followed by Northwest, American, and a tie between United and TWA. For the short haul, Northwest took the top spot, followed by a tie between Continental, Delta, and TWA, and then a third place tie between America West and Southwest.

Music City + MPI= Business with Pleasure Hosted with charm and enthusiasm by the Opryland Hotel Convention Center staff and the city of Nashville, attendees at the Meeting Professionals International (MPI) World Education Conference in July didn't just learn how to manage meetings better during their three days in town. They learned to love country music.

The Music City meeting drew nearly 2,200 attendees-including a record 830 meeting planners and 550 first-timers. Nashville showcased its favorite venues with some homegrown talent: Diamond Rio at the Ryman Auditorium, original home of the Grand Ole Opry, and Martina McBride at the final night party in Opryland's two-month-old Delta Ballroom. Both brought audiences to their feet.

Downsizing, doing more with less, and technology still reigned as the popular education topics, while MPI's corporate special interest group hosted a well-attended post-conference session on planning golf events, conducted by author and golf tourney organizer Tony Ciabattoni.

MPI is in no danger of losing its place as the world's largest association of meeting professionals, welcoming 4,300 new members in 1996 for a new worldwide total of 14,237 members in 45 countries.

Web Sites Worth Seeing * the Ojai Valley Inn in Ojai, CA launched its Web site earlier this year, the goal was to make it a friendly place. To that end, virtual visitors can e-mail the Inn's general manager, Thad Hyland, who personally responds to all messages.

* Air Lines' Fantastic Flyer magazine has entertained kids on flights for years. Now, magazine characters such as Dusty the Delta Air Lion are waiting with interactive games at this Web site.

CLC Finds New Home For Hall of Leaders The Convention Liaison Council (CLC) will create a Hall of Leaders Wall at Chicago's McCormick Place, announced Craig Smith, CLC chair and the president of AVW Audio Visual, Inc. The Chicago Hall of Leaders will be located in the Grand Concourse that connects three McCormick Place buildings-the North and South Halls and what will be the Lakeside Center (now the East Hall).

The original Hall of Leaders will remain at the Washington, DC Convention Center: All past and future inductees will have a plaque in both cities. The newest inductees will be welcomed into the Hall of Leaders at a McCormick Place banquet next July, in conjunction with the American Society of Association Executives Annual Meeting.

Suppliers Join Forces To Serve Hawaii Mary Charles & Associates (MC&A), a Honolulu-based destination management company, has entered a joint venture with Convention Management Resources, a housing, registration, and travel services company based in San Francisco.

The new entity, Hawaii Convention Connection (HCC), will provide full-service housing, registration, travel, and destination management services to corp- orate meeting planners, incentive and travel companies, and convention, association, and tradeshow organizations. HCC will also organize pre- and post-convention packages to Waikiki and Neighbor Islands-not just for Hawaii meetings and conventions, but as add-ons to West Coast meetings as well. HCC is based in Honolulu.

Hilton CEO Bollenbach Stresses Bigness and Brands With Hilton Hotels Corp.'s acquisition of Bally Entertainment Corp. nearly a done deal, and the reuniting of Hilton with Hilton International apparently just a matter of time, new Hilton President and CEO Stephen Bollenbach offered some insight into his growth strategy at a recent press event in Manhattan.

Consolidation in the fragmented gaming industry is inevitable, Bollenbach said, because growth opportunities are declining. In a consolidating industry, it's survival of the biggest, and "we are now the biggest player." The combined companies have more than 100,000 hotel rooms, 18,000 of them in gaming properties, and 15 casinos worldwide. Planned additions include "Star-Trek: The Experience," a Hilton/Paramount Parks collaboration, and a 22,000-square-foot casino, both opening in mid-1997 at the Las Vegas Hilton; and Bally's Paris Casino-Resort, a 3,000-room facility with 85,000 square feet of casino space, opening in early 1998 adjacent to Bally's Las Vegas on the Strip. "The Bally name will absolutely survive," Bollenbach emphasized. "One of the real values in business today is brand names."

Brand recognition is also the reason for the talks between Hilton and Hilton International. "We own one of the best brands, but we haven't made the best use of it," Bollenbach said. "Our biggest hope is to reunite the two Hilton brands [to] tap the power of those names. It appears overwhelming that it will happen."

Meanwhile, Hilton plans to add 10,000 guest rooms, chiefly by acquiring full-service properties. -Rayna Skolnik

Hotel Briefs * Marriott Hotels, Resorts and Suites recently named its first corporate director of convention and meeting services. He's Sam Bonfe, formerly the senior director of catering standards for Marriott International in Washington, DC. Still based in the nation's capital, Bonfe will direct recruiting, training, development, compensation, and motivation of conference and convention services staff for all Marriott brands. He will also coordinate standardization of contracts, master billing, group resumes, and post-convention reports across properties.

* With Juergen Bartels in the saddle, Westin is growing by leaps and bounds. Shortly after being named CEO of Westin Hotels & Resorts last May, Bartels announced his plan to add one hotel a month to the chain over five years. Instead, he's added nearly two hotels per month, through acquisitions or development. Among the hotels coming soon: The Westin Banyan Tree in Bangkok, The Westin Dragonara Resort in Malta, and The Westin Resort, Giza in Egypt.

* The Ramada Meeting Pledge guarantees you'll get the service you expect for your meeting or receive agreed-upon compensation. The pledge states, for example, "Your audiovisual equipment, contracted by you, will be present and in good working order or you will not be charged for the equipment in question, plus a credit of the meeting room charge or $50, whichever is greater, will be given." For a copy of the entire pledge plus a free copy of Ramada's Meeting Planner Workbook, send a request by fax to (201) 428-0322.

* Sheraton targets small meetings. Customers booking meetings from ten to 100 rooms now can work with dedicated small-meetings staff with a guaranteed turnaround time of 24 hours. Call the Small Meeting Group Sales Office in Chicago at (800) 500-1282 from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. central time, weekdays.

IT&ME Show Highlights The October 15 to 17 Motivation Show-which is made up of the 24th Incentive Travel & Meeting Executives Show (IT&ME) and the 63rd National Premium/Incentive Show-takes over McCormick Place North in Chicago again this fall. For information, call Hall-Erickson at (800) 752-6312.

For the first time this year, the Society of Incentive & Travel Executives (SITE) will host an intra-industry event to unofficially open the show Monday night. Call SITE at (212) 575-0910.

IT&ME's biggest bash happens, as usual, Wednesday night-the Pizza-Thon at the Hangge-Uppe bar. Destination management company Safaris Inc. and its new owner PGI are the co-sponsors of this year's party, now in its 19th year

Coming Up * October 28 to 30, Life Insurance Marketing Research Association (LIMRA) International Annual Meeting, Washington, DC. Call (860) 298-3959.

* November 4 to 8, Insurance Conference Planners Association, El Conquistador Resort & Country Club, Puerto Rico. Call (604) 988-2054.

For the eighth consecutive year, the National Life of Vermont travel and conferences department turned the tables on suppliers, hosting them at Hopkins House, National Life's newly renovated country inn in Montpelier, for a weekend of fun in the sun.

It used to be fun in the snow. The seasonal change drew positive reviews, though one participant was heard to lament, "The weather's no different!" This year, instead of skiing, the 11 supplier attendees and their hosts enjoyed golf at the nearby Stowe Country Club, horseback riding, bicycling, and shopping. As he does every year, National Life Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Fred Bertrand joined in the day's recreation, playing 18 holes (only some of them in the rain).

At the Saturday evening reception, Bertrand also surprised guests by borrowing the guitar of local entertainer Tim Caira and stepping up to the mike to offer his rendition of "Glory, Glory Hallelujah." (The crowd, having just been inspired to sing along with Tim to "Take Me Home, Country Roads" willingly joined in the chorus.)

Newcomers this year included Kim Bradford, director of incentive sales, Charles-ton Place/Orient Express Hotels; Anne Erickson, director of insurance and incentive sales, Boca Raton Resort & Club; Bruce Leet, sales manager, The Breakers; and Alex-is Romer, director of sales, Ritz-Carlton Hotels.

Returning Flatlanders included: Scott Corey, director, group marketing, Sonesta Beach Hotel, Bermuda; Hea-ther Dobbins, vice president of sales, Hotel del Coronado (CA); Francine Liem, director of sales, insurance accounts, Hilton Hotels; Patti Motto-lese, director, insurance market development, Westin Ho- tels & Resorts; Michael Murphy, director of national accounts, Renaissance Hotels; Alison Rakoske, senior editor, Insurance Conference Planner; and Diana Voto, director of national accounts, Omni Hotels.

National Life of Vermont representatives included: Lynn Averill, director, travel and conferences; Patti Brown, travel advisor; Melissa Clark, travel and conferences assistant; Jennifer Davis, conference planning specialist; Tam- my Davis, conference coordinator; Jennifer Rico, travel and conferences assistant; and Scott Uselding, director, incentive programs and special events.

The International Air Transport Association surveyed 45,000 international passengers at airports in Europe, North America, the Middle East, and Asia-Pacific about the airports they enjoy most. Here's what they said:

Top U.S. Airports 1. Orlando

2. Raleigh/Durham

3. Cincinnati

4. Houston-Intercontinental

5. Seattle

Top Non-U.S. Airports 1. Manchester, England

2. Singapore

3. Amsterdam

4. Sydney, Australia

5. Melbourne, Australia

* A Million Dollar Round Table (MDRT) task force met early this month to reassess its membership qualification formula, which is now based on sales commission and the number of lives/cases sold. Under the leadership of John Cruikshank, an agent with Northwestern Mutual who took the helm as MDRT president at the annual meeting in June, the association will examine how factors that reflect agent ethics and customer satisfaction-such as persistency, reputation, recruitment, and quality of training-could be introduced into MDRT's criteria.

* Earlier this year, the Life Communicators Association (LCA) board of directors agreed to develop recommendations for an LCA professional designation for insurance company communications officers.

* Agents want meetings: So says a survey of 284 top agents (first-year commissions of $100,000 or more) conducted by Russ Alan Prince of Prince & Associates in Stratford, CT, and published in a recent issue of National Underwriter. Prince asked agents how they prefer to receive their training: A whopping 93 percent said "in-person presentations." Not only that, a priority for most of these top producers (88 percent) is interaction with presenters outside the session.

* Forget the Internet: You need an intranet. And Inc. can help you create one. The Vero Beach, FL-based company is now beta-testing Elias, Intranet software that allows insurance general agencies, marketing groups, and home offices to share documents and exchange e-mail on a private network. Elias lets users set up document libraries, pull customized data reports (such as commissions earned), and features a module that creates insurance illustrations and can return them to the user as an Excel file, full-color graphic, or table.

* Insurance industry futurist Lawrence G. Brandon, CPCU, has written a new book: Let the Trumpet Resound: The Insurance Industry in the 21st Century discusses the industry's current challenges against the backdrop of changes in the economic, technological, political, and cultural environments. Published by the CPCU Society/Harry J. Loman Foundation, the book is available for $29.95 plus shipping by calling PBD Inc. at (800) 848-0773.

* The American College in Bryn Mawr, PA, has launched a Web site: Primarily an information resource for students and insurance professionals, the site also offers an overview of the college and the designations and degrees it awards.

Meet the meeting trend of the mid-1990s-the cigar. Stogies are burning up the after-dinner circuit these days with a new twist. More and more women are puffing their way onto the smoky patios of America's meeting places, joining the men with their Macanudos and Upmanns. Our take on the trend: Bring back the Electric Slide.

in a Speaker?

Meeting Professionals International and the National Speakers Association recently conducted a survey of meeting planners about their speaker choices.

The three top considerations (excluding price) when choosing a speaker: topic expertise, willingness to customize the presentation, and industry authority.

Those characteristics listed as "not important": that the speaker is an author of books, that the planner knows the speaker personally, and that the speaker has an advanced degree.