When Eric Lake was a kid and asked his mother the meaning of a word, she used to tell him to pull a dictionary off the shelf and look it up. According to Lake, kids these days have it easier than he did. "Now you can do a simple search on Yahoo to find out what a word or a concept means," says Lake, account executive, national accounts at Portland, Maine-based UNUM Enterprise. "When I do research, my first stop is also the Internet. The ability to use a dictionary or an encyclopedia was part of being culturally literate when I was growing up, and now one's ability to use the Internet is going to be."

Lake's literacy, technologically speaking, is on par with the times. He uses a laptop every day, even when he is traveling. "The laptop allows me to stay in touch with the office. I also use the Internet on the road to look up clients' backgrounds, which gives me an advantage when I put my sales presentations together," he says. "The most successful sales representatives are pretty savvy with the Internet and know how to find ways to use technology to help them do their jobs better."

Don't Miss the Boat Likewise, the most successful meeting departments are finding ways to use technology to be more efficient and competitive. UNUM's meeting department, for example, offered online registration for its annual incentive meeting last April. "In mid-1997, we realized that we were missing the boat on a much more timely way of doing things. So we worked with our information technology [IT] department to put together a Web site for our incentive meeting," says Tim Aube, manager, enterprise meeting services. "At a national sales meeting in January, we introduced it to the entire sales force. And to encourage using the new medium, we dangled a carrot--whoever registered online was entered into a raffle for a suite upgrade."

At the January meeting, computers were set up for agents to begin registering online for their flights, hotel rooms, and the annual golf and tennis tournaments. They could also update personal information for the qualifiers' photo book. Available with a few mouse clicks were details about the travel agency, the meeting hotel, recreational activities, business sessions, and other general information.

The Web site served as a promotional tool as well. "We were going to Maui and staying at the Grand Wailea Resort, a hotel that has everything that you could wish for," says Aube. "So to entice the sales force even more, we set up hyperlinks to Grand Wailea's Web site. These links provided photos of the hotel, along with information ranging from the hours of operation of restaurants to the different treatments available at the spa."

According to Aube, the meeting department wanted to keep online options basic the first time around but also hoped that the basics would intrigue sales reps enough to get them using it. From Lake's perspective, that mission was accomplished. "It created more anticipation and excitement than if you were just filling out a form," he says. "The link to the hotel was especially neat. Over the course of a week, I logged on four times to show my wife and friends."

Trinkets to Megabytes Mary Keough-Anderson, manager, conference and meeting management at Boston-based Liberty Mutual Insurance Company, hopes her potential qualifiers get equally excited about finding their meeting information online. For Liberty Leaders 1999--the company's annual incentive meeting, to be held at The Orchid at Mauna Lani on the Big Island of Hawaii in April--Keough-Anderson plans to use the corporate intranet site for marketing purposes. "In the past, we used trinkets to get the sales force motivated for incentive meetings," she says. "This year we are going to use the intranet, including things like graphics of the destination, music, a hyperlink to the hotel, and screen savers with colorful graphics of the hotel and of Hawaii."

Qualifiers will register online, too. "We will provide instructions on how to register, and then qualifiers will go to the site and fill out a questionnaire that includes everything from travel arrangements to recreational activity selection. They'll hit a 'submit' button and all of the information will automatically download onto our database system for the meeting," she says. "It will save us from manually inputting 325 forms."

Given that her department handles some 400 meetings each year, freeing up time is a priority for Keough-Anderson. "We have six meeting planners, one administrative assistant, and me," she says. "Online registration will cut back on paperwork and in turn allow us to focus more on the meeting itself." She predicts that the extra attention focused on the meetings will inevitably improve their quality.

Jaimee Niles, assistant vice president, meetings and professional relations, at Newport Beach, Calif.-based Pacific Life Insurance Company, agrees with Keough-Anderson's prediction. Niles used online registration for an educational symposium in April. "It made us more efficient," she says. "You can't be as creative or as available to producers if you are bogged down with registration and data input. Using online registration gives us much more time to dedicate special attention to attendees and to make the experience exceptional for them."

Niles outsourced the design and implementation of the Web site. "I chose a technologically advanced incentive travel company that is known for its high level of customer service and outsourced to them," she says. On completion, the Web site was available to Pacific Life brokers via the incentive travel company's Internet site.

Developing the site fits in with Niles' "high-tech, high-touch" business philosophy. "I want to be on par with the technology companies. What they do, I do, because technology is the wave of the future," says Niles. "I also look to emulate companies that provide the highest customer service available, because making employees feel important is essential to doing business as well."

Niles credits Pacific Life Insurance with allowing her to be creative. "When you are growing, it's an exciting time," she says. "We're a leader and want to maintain our edge, which technology helps us do."

At UNUM, Aube also considers technology a way to stay a step ahead of other companies. "A lot of insurance companies are not using the Web to register or promote meetings online. When we were brainstorming about what we could do to keep competitive and cutting-edge, using technology fit into the overall theme."

24 and 7 For Pacific Life's next big incentive meeting, the 1999 Leaders Conference in London in April, Niles plans to use computer-based promotions. For starters, a screen saver that alternates the conference dates, the company logo, numbers to call with questions, and photos of the most famous attractions in London, has been sent out to potential qualifiers. And Niles would like to establish Internet hyperlinks to premier destinations and attractions for side trips in the London area.

Aube says that UNUM wants to have interactive promotions online throughout the year that go far beyond what the company has already done. "One idea is to have monthly trivia questions about the incentive destinations, and give a room upgrade to whomever gets the right answer online," he says.

And Keough-Anderson would eventually like registration for all meetings to be online. "Anything paperless is an advantage. The information you receive online is much more accurate than what you get if you are faxing or mailing forms back and forth," she says. "In the past, registration information has sometimes been difficult to process due to things liked smudged faxes and lost mailings."

She also suspects--and hopes--that the number of phone calls to her department during the registration period will decrease once registration goes online. If Liberty Mutual's results mirror those seen at UNUM, the phone frenzy will likely ease up. "Prior to registering online, we were fielding calls left and right from attendees asking basic questions--what the meeting dates were, what the appropriate attire was, and what the hotel address was," says Aube. "This time around, we saw a significant drop in phone calls."

Aube attributes this drop to the fact that the Internet gives access to information 24 hours a day, seven days a week. "Sales reps can get on the site anytime and find the information that they want," he says. "Before, they would forget mailings in the office and consequently didn't share the information as much with their spouses or significant others. And this greatly contributed to phone calls from attendees."

Niles agrees. "It is a very comfortable way to operate. Since most of our sales reps have laptops, they have Internet access at home, in the office, and on the road," she says. "And the data they receive, as well as what we get back, is timely and accurate."

Getting the Word Out But as much as online registration makes meeting planners' lives easier, the number of qualifiers who took advantage of it wasn't what either Niles or Aube had hoped. Niles estimates that only 20 to 25 percent of brokers registered online for the Educational Symposium, while Aube says that 60 out of 260 sales reps used the Internet for UNUM's meeting.

Aube attributes the low number to a difficulty in getting the word out about the new option. "We had originally hoped to get the site up in November 1997, but didn't have it available until the national sales meeting in January," he says. "So by that time we had already sent out documents via hard copy, and for the sales reps it was just as easy to use the paper documents."

He also explains that, due to confidential credit card information, the meeting Web site was a secure one and required two passwords. "It was difficult using two IDs," Aube says. "Especially for the older-school folk who aren't as in touch with technology."

Niles emphasizes that her department was--and continues to be--challenged because Pacific Life works with independents. "At this stage, the brokers are not all on the same level in terms of their hardware and software, or in terms of their experience and comfort with computers," she says. "Some may also have only one computer in the office, which brings up the issue of accessibility. So we have to offer whatever they are most comfortable with and monitor their preferences. In a brokerage community, you need to have more options available to keep everyone happy."

According to Aube, the sales reps at UNUM who did register online commented that the site was slow. "It had to do with the large amount of pictures, icons, and text," he says. "But now that we have a year under our belt, we are working on making the site faster." UNUM will likely cut down on the number of images in order to compensate for older systems that some sales representatives are currently using.

Aube also says that much of the sales force did not have Web access during the registration period. "It is now a top priority to get everyone hooked up to the Internet," he says, "and to have the entire field using laptops for presentations and for staying connected with the office when on the road." Within two years, he adds, the home office and the field will be using the same, faster systems.

Despite what he labels as a "fair" online turnout, Aube stresses that online registration at UNUM will not only continue, but be stepped up. "The Internet is a very, very underutilized tool," he says. "But we love it--the possibilities are limitless. Our exposure to it is fairly limited, but our use of it will grow by leaps and bounds."

Niles says that Pacific Life will also be fine-tuning Internet registration for the upcoming year. "Last year, for example, we didn't build in a confirmation to go back to employees saying that their online registration had been received. And we were getting phone calls from attendees saying, 'I haven't heard anything about my registration.' So this year we will send one," she says. "But in general, it was a breeze--much easier than I thought it would be."

Keough-Anderson believes online registration will be an easy process for Liberty Mutual sales reps once they start using it. "The main obstacle that I foresee will be having people get comfortable with the idea, especially those who are not used to technology," she says. "A couple of years ago not all sales reps used e-mail. But now all of them do, and more and more are also using the Internet."

All three planners found little trouble pushing the Web site cause. "I just went to my boss and told him what we wanted to do," says Niles. "Our department has a great track record for having exceptional meetings, so my boss gives me freedom, and I just have to keep him in the loop."

Keough-Anderson confirms that it was an easy sell for her as well. "I brought the idea of online registration to the table at a recent meeting of a committee of sales department heads. I explained the advantages of doing it, and they thought that it was a great idea," she says. "It saves time and money and just makes perfect sense."

At UNUM, Aube says, "because of the high profile of the Internet in general, and because it made good business sense, it was a fairly easy sell." The fact that Aube's department has a charge-back system also helped. "We explained that we would use the fees we get for planning meetings internally to cover the cost of the Web site," he says. "The money was already there, so this was financially secure."

UNUM's Eric Lake sees the technology investment as critical, especially as the new millennium rushes toward the typically slow-moving insurance industry. "I think that the industry is renowned for not having good systems and for not being technologically advanced," he says. "But technology has helped me stay organized and efficient, and I was delighted that the meeting department did offer registration online. And although I am not surprised that they did--the department is forward-looking and willing to take risks--I think that after a while it would have been an oversight on their part if they hadn't."

In a recent survey conducted by Meeting Professionals International and the American Society of Association Executives, more than one in five corporate meeting planners named "a home page/the Internet" as their number-one communications vehicle for marketing meetings.

* Arrange for confirmations to be e-mailed back to qualifiers who register online.

* Consider the amount of graphics you want on the home page and the modem speed of your Web site's likely visitors. Don't make them wait for interminable downloads!

* Incorporate online registration costs into the yearly budget. Plan for costs in phases--an initial hit to get the site up and running (Pacific Life put out $8,000 for a no-frills online registration form), with a budget strategy for process improvements and redesign projects over a chosen number of years.

* Take advantage of existing Web sites (destination, hotel, weather, . . . whatever) when promoting the meeting online. Create hyperlinks to these sites--it's free!

* If members of your Information Technology (IT) department are creating your Web site, give them registration forms and promotional ads from past programs so they can give your site an appropriate look and feel.

* Meet with IT people on a regular basis (UNUM's meeting department met every two weeks for six months) to discuss the Web site's development. Test IT registration programs and ask them to refine any aspect of online registration that is not user-friendly.

* Offer incentives (room upgrades, entry into a drawing for a first-class air ticket, and so on) for qualifiers who register online.

* If you outsource your site design, involve someone from your company's IT department in negotiating the contract, especially if you're not completely comfortable with tech-speak.

Sure, links to gorgeous golf courses and relaxing spa treatments at the meeting hotel will get sales reps to check out your meeting Web site, but if you also give them ways to boost their productivity, they might become regular visitors.

SalesDoctors, an online sales magazine, recently launched SalesDoctors Private Label editions. Customized for your company and accessed at your own Web site, each Private Label edition includes short articles on motivation, time management, personal growth, closing techniques, and other sales-related topics, plus a longer feature article tailored to your industry, your company's philosophy, or a current corporate strategy. Most of the articles are culled from the SalesDoctors archives.

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Choose your level of customization (you can write some of the content yourself) and the frequency of delivery (weekly, semi-monthly, monthly). SalesDoctors will send the customized edition to your information technology department for posting at your Web site. Or, you can choose to have SalesDoctors be the host site, with the private label edition accessible by password.

After an initial setup fee of $900, each edition costs $1,000. That's less, Siegel points out, than publishing a paper newsletter for your field force. The price includes a summary e-mail sent along with each edition that can be forwarded to the field to remind them to check out your site. Call (561) 997-9345 or visit salesdoctors.com/misc/private.htm.