I don't know which is more remarkable, the fact that more than one in three respondents to our 1998 Reader Survey said their companies had acquired a company during the past two years, or that they reported a median incentive budget that has nearly doubled (to $950,000) since our last survey, two years ago. Insurance may have started out the 1990s as a lumbering industry in decline, but it's moving to close out the century with a bit of a swagger.

News flash: Insurance is back.

Mutual companies are transforming themselves into stock companies, accepting more bottom-line responsibility in exchange for greater financial nimbleness and the opportunity to acquire other insurers (or to fend off would-be acquirers). The big question about the Internet has been settled for now--yes, it's a valuable additional distribution channel; no, it's not poised to wipe out agents. And competition once dreaded is almost welcomed because it has sharpened insurers' focus on what differentiates them: their producers' knowledge and their experience with managing not just money, but risk.

Meetings in 1999: Your Projections Importantly, meetings make these changes go 'round. All those mergers and acquisitions mean field forces and home offices that have to learn each other's culture and practices--most often through meetings. New products, especially those with stock components, mean more training meetings are being scheduled. (Indeed, 43 percent of respondents will hold more training meetings in 1999 than in 1998.)

Meeting planner salaries show impressive movement as well--perhaps reflecting planners' increased strategic responsibility, perhaps reflecting the booming economy. Two years ago, 17 percent of meeting planners made less than $30,000; that number is now seven percent. And in 1996 eight percent of meeting planners earned between $50,000 and $59,999; that number leapt to 21 percent in 1998. For directors of meetings, in 1996, 30 percent earned more than $70,000; in 1998, almost half (47 percent) earned more than $70,000.

For additional data on salaries, incentive house use, industry association membership, meeting planning responsibilities, and more, keep reading.

Let's take a closer look at the increases in meeting budgets since the last time we surveyed you, in 1996. As mentioned, the median incentive budget showed a remarkable rise, from $555,000 to $950,000. (The median is the mid-point: An equal number of respondents had budgets higher than this figure as had budgets lower than this figure.)

Since we've been stuck squarely in a seller's market for the past two years, the increase is perhaps not all that surprising. And yet the median attendance figure decreased slightly for incentive meetings (from 381 attendees in 1996 to 325 attendees in 1998), so per-person spending soared. Median per-person spending in 1998 was $2,615--nearly double the 1996 spending of $1,455 per person.

If we look at averages instead of mid-points, the incentive budget figure is even more remarkable: In 1998, the average incentive budget among our respondents was $2.26 million--a nice chunk of change, up from the 1996 average of $1.43 million.

To give you an idea of what a few individual respondents' companies spend on meetings: One company held two incentive travel programs, one international and one domestic, with a total budget of $600,000 and total attendance of 242. That's $2,479 per person. Another held four incentive travel programs in Florida and the Caribbean, with a total budget of $2.2 million and total attendance of 2,000, or $1,100 per person. A third company held one incentive travel program in the Carolinas with a total budget of $66,000 and total attendance of 185, spending $357 on each attendee. While a fourth held one overseas incentive travel program with a total budget of $2.5 million and total attendance of 390. That's $6,410 per person.

The story for national sales and training meetings is much the same. The 1998 median national sales meeting budget is $325,000, up from $188,000 in 1996. Training budgets saw a 50 percent increase in 1998, up to $150,000 from $100,000 two years before. Median attendance at national sales meetings jumped up to 300 from 250. The median attendance at training meetings, meanwhile, saw a significant decrease--to 208 from 300. As we saw with incentive meetings, the decrease means per-person spending for training meetings rose dramatically, up to a median of $721 per person from $333 in 1996.

A lot more respondents are predicting more meetings in the coming year than predicted increases the last time we did this survey. Most notable is the projection for training meetings in 1999: A full 43 percent of respondents said their companies will hold more training meetings this year than last year. Is this the result of more new products in development? An increased focus on compliance? Or simply evidence that the industry is rededicating itself to the care and feeding of its producers? It's probably a combination of the three.

Projections are strong for other types of meetings, too--91 percent of respondents said the number of incentive meetings they hold in 1999 will increase or stay the same while 93 percent of respondents said they will hold the same number or more national sales meetings in 1999 as compared to 1998.

Salaries are moving up, especially for meeting planners. In 1996 it was the marketing executives whose salaries took the biggest jumps: Their compensation appears to have leveled off. But meeting planners have almost completely moved out of the "less than $30,000" territory, with exactly half of respondents earning between $40,000 and $59,999. Directors of meetings are being rewarded financially as well, with more than half earning more than $60,000 a year. Across the board, 83 percent of respondents received a salary raise in 1998.

There were some slight shifts in the gender breakdown of respondents this time around, which may indicate larger trends. For example, in the current survey, 16 percent of respondents in the Meeting Planner category are male, up from 11 percent in 1996. And 28 percent of respondents in the Marketing Executives category are female, up from 26 percent in 1996. The split in the Director of Meetings category is identical to what it was in 1996 (58 percent female and 42 percent male).

Salary Meeting planning is clearly a collaborative effort at insurance companies, as the responsibility charts (at right) show. Interestingly, more directors of meetings than marketing executives reported having final approval on a meeting destination (city). An equal number of directors as executives reported having the final say on a meeting site (hotel). As many directors and meeting planners point out, their job is often to manage up--that is, to present the site and destination choices in such a way that there is a clear "winner."

So where the final stamp of approval may come from an executive office, the research that seals that decision often has been ably handled and presented by the person in charge of the meeting.

For what do you have final approval? Is the centralization trend slowing? This year, half of respondents said they work in a centralized meeting department. In 1996, 57 percent of respondents' departments were centralized. Of those whose departments are centralized, about half said there was a companywide mandate to use their services. One in five respondents, whether from centralized meeting departments or not, said they charge back clients for their services.

Gender This is a trend we expect to continue to grow. Look for a feature story in an upcoming issue of Insurance Conference Planner that discusses why--and how--meeting planners are operating with charge-back systems.

For the first time this year, we listed several meeting planning and insurance industry associations and asked respondents which they belonged to. Almost two out of three respondents are members of the Insurance Conference Planner Association, while the next most popular association is Meeting Professionals International, cited by 29 percent of respondents.

How This Survey Was Conducted We mailed 1,000 surveys to a random sampling of our readers--insurance meeting planners and executives--and followed up some of those mailings with a reminder fax.

We received 170 usable responses, for a response rate of 17 percent. The database of responses was analyzed as a whole and by job description (meeting planner, director of meetings, marketing executive) by Royco Mailing Service in Melrose, Mass.

Readers should note that our Agent Preferences Survey, which was analyzed in the January/February 1998 issue of Insurance Conference Planner, will return next year. Look for new results in the January/ February 2000 issue.