Valued partnerships with industry suppliers are a hallmark of the financial and insurance meeting planning niche. Now, in the midst of a global recession, shrinking staffs, slashed budgets, and media backlash against business meetings, these partnerships are more crucial then ever. Read on to learn how strategic partners can become extensions of your planning team — and turn doing more with less into doing more with more.
Call Me Brett
Known for his cool head and collaborative approach, Brett Barrowman, vice president, conference and travel management, American Fidelity Assurance in Oklahoma City, is a highly regarded partner in the hotel community. We asked him to share his thoughts on the importance of relationships.
Financial & Insurance Meetings: The economy has dramatically changed to what might be called a buyer's market — except that many planners are also facing challenges. How can partnerships help?
Brett Barrowman: We rely on our partnerships more than ever, and we continue to do business with people we know and trust. We're inundated with calls from suppliers we don't know. But we find ourselves sticking with our tried-and-true partners: They didn't abandon us when times were different, and we aren't abandoning them now.
FIM: How is the perception issue affecting your programs?
Barrowman: We are moving forward as usual: Right now we're planning meetings for 2012. We have always had to build a business case for every meeting, and that hasn't changed. It helps that we are a privately held company, but we are very aware of the perception issue and how our customers relate to what we do and how the media has portrayed the entire industry.
FIM: Who are your important hotel partners when planning a meeting?
Barrowman: Everyone at the property is important to me. I make a sincere attempt to establish personal relationships not only with the sales office but with all the hotel's departments — convention services, rooms, banquet, finance, and so on. If we don't already have a relationship, my first correspondence will start off on a formal basis but quickly become informal and friendly. Before we hit the property for a pre-con, I always make a phone call to the CSM so we can put a voice to a name. Then at the pre-con, I introduce myself to everyone personally — as Brett, not Mr. Barrowman. I like to set the tone that we're partners — to reach out and let the hotel staff know we respect what they do. Establishing an open and honest relationship up front can make the difference if things go south.
FIM: Can you give an example of something going south that was saved by a good relationship?
Barrowman: For one meeting where we did not choose the hotel's internal destination management company, our selectedwent bankrupt just before the conference started. I was making a connecting flight to the conference when I got the call. I spoke briefly with the hotel DMC just before I boarded my flight. He was well aware of what had happened and told me not to worry. He went into action immediately. When I got to the hotel at 11 p.m., he met me at the front door and he didn't say a word about not choosing him at the start. He's now with another property in the same chain that I'm using in 2010.
FIM: What do you look for in the hotel staff that will help ensure your meetings run smoothly?
Barrowman: Good relationships are a two-way street. The hotel needs to have the right people with the right attitude. We also look at how long the staff has worked at the property or with the chain. Within chains, we expect a lot of turnover — and we will see people we've gotten to know at one property working at another. We'll also run into people from one chain who have moved to another chain. The thing to remember is that all these relationships are important. You never know who will show up where, and how you treat someone will follow you — and them — to places you might never imagine.
Sidebar #1: Community Service Can Be A Two-Way Street
When Financial & Insurance Conference Planners vice president, education, Kim Boriin, CMP, identified the Boys and Girls Club of the Pikes Peak Region as charity partner for a give-back program at theEducation Forum in June, he didn't know the kids would end up giving as good as they got. “Our ballroom at The Broadmoor has a full stage, complete with orchestra pit,” says Boriin, specialist, Guardian Investor Services LLC. “But we do not have the budget for an elaborate stage set. So we came up with the idea of a painting contest.” The Boys and Girls Club had 400 children paint their interpretations of the scenic Garden of the Gods area. The kids then voted on 50 finalists whose art will decorate the stage. Half the finalists helped hang the art at an ice-cream social, while the other half will participate in a event at the forum. “We involved the kids in six months of excitement,” says Boriin. Backpacks, given to attendees at registration, will be donated to the Boys and Girls Club.
Sidebar #2: Book A Speaker for $10K or Less
Ruth Levine of SpeakInc Speakers Bureau in San Diego offers her best cost-cutting tips:
is a more accepted practice than it was before the recession. It doesn't hurt to ask.
If the speaker you want won't go below $20K, consider booking a virtual appearance. A webinar or training film not only saves money on travel, but many speakers will also reduce their fees significantly if they can speak to your audience from their living rooms.
Share the Savings
Is there another division that might want to use the same speaker? You'll boost your negotiating leverage by booking more then one presentation.
Many speakers will lower their fees if they do not have to travel far. If your speaker is local, see if he or she will waive the expenses associated with a quick flight or short drive.
Make an Offer
For the first time in more than 20 years in this industry, I am regularly fielding calls from speakers who say, “Bring me an offer.” This likely will not last long but now is the time to do what Priceline.com does so well: Name your price!
Sidebar #3: Your Audiovisual Partner
As meeting teams become smaller, maintaining good relationships with your supplier partners is more important than ever, says Kelly Porter, CMP, manager, meeting and conference management at Manulife Financial in Waterloo, Ontario. “It's like having extra staff you can rely on,” she says. And being in budget-cutting mode means you need suppliers who can get creative about how you spend your meeting dollar. “The right partner wants to work with you to meet your budget and to make your meeting successful,” Porter says.
Next Page: From Sourcing to Messaging
The right partner will also go the extra mile for you, especially when times are tough. One such partner for Porter is Debut Communications Inc., a Toronto-based audiovisual/production company. Manulife has worked with the Debut team on its large incentive and education conferences for more than a decade. (In fact, in all hotelfor these programs, which range from 350 to 1,200 attendees, Manulife stipulates that it will be bringing in its own production and AV company.)
Symbolic of its deep commitment to Manulife, the Debut team often helps out beyond the realm of production. For a conference outside of Canada, for example, the company offered to add a large shipment of meeting materials, room gifts, and office supplies to its own container of production equipment, thereby saving Porter and her team from the costs and complications of an international shipment.
Debut staff also once pitched in to create makeshift name badges when the real ones failed to arrive at a conference in a remote location. “They'll even help us load buses if we need them to,” says Porter. “A partner is someone who does this gladly.”
From Sourcing to Messaging
Porter and her team begin working with Debut staff early in the initial sourcing process — drawing not only on Debut's technical expertise but also on its specialized knowledge of Manulife's needs. “The numbers coming back from the hotel in terms of how many people can be accommodated in a meeting room may not be accurate for our program and required staging needs,” says Porter. ”Debut provides a CAD drawing for us, based on the specs of the space, the staging we bring in, and our specific needs.” For example, Debut knows that Manulife needs a simultaneous translation setup for its French-speaking attendees, and they know Manulife's requirements for gala award evenings and other events. They meet these requirements “with a flexible stage which we can easily add to or take away from, with the least amount of setup and teardown time as possible. This also saves us money,” Porter notes.
About a year before the conference, members of the Debut and Manulife teams make an on-site visit to “walk the property and meet all of the hotel staff and the destination management company staff,” says Porter. It is during this visit that Debut begins discussing cost-effective ways to work together with the hotel's AV staff. They learn what on-site equipment is available and identify local vendors to retain, if needed. “They're part of our bigger planning team,” Porter says. “They sit in on our discussions with the hotel and the DMC, and together everyone makes sure we're getting the best savings.”
When the focus turns to program details, Porter says, “we work closely with Debut to help weave a consistent message through everything. We create a theme and a conference logo, always with a Manulife look and feel, that is reflected in every aspect of the program: the stage design, the awards presentations, even the music that accompanies the speaker walk-ons.”
The Debut team even visits Manulife headquarters for a rehearsal day, when senior management runs through the conference presentations. This relationship with management, says Porter, is a big plus: “Our senior execs know and trust everyone on the Debut team. There is a high level of comfort and everyone knows they will do a good job for us.”
Strategic Partnership = Economic Advantage
When a client is a strategic partner, says Ben Moorsom, president of Debut Communications Inc., Toronto, “we are willing to go beyond the budget and share our expertise as an extension of your team.” Here are his suggestions for getting the most value from your audiovisual partner and others:
Including supplier partners in your initial planning process saves time and money down the road. We may have firsthand experience at a selected venue. We can offer insight into specifics such as space limitations, union costs, setup times, and equipment and power availability. We also have an established network of resources available to call on during the planning process that could help you with a variety of specialized needs.
Ask for suggestions. As a strategic partner, we can offer cost-saving alternatives based on our experience with other clients (not to mention the wealth of knowledge that each individual in our company holds on his or her own). Call on us for ideas.
Share Your budget
Many clients are reluctant to share a budget because they feel a vendor may take advantage of that information. This is not the case. As strategic partners, we are inclined to actually give more value for your budget, based on our relationship. One thing we will never do is become complacent.
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