With companies going out of business, peers out of work, qualifier numbers down, and meeting scrutiny up, plenty of planners have found their jobs becoming a last- minute scramble. Executive-level decisions are often made and changed on a dime.
However, that doesn’t describe the working style of Prudential Financial’s Debbie Boschee, based in Minneapolis, and Sharon Kelly, based in Newark, N.J., whose partnership on the company’s annual President’s Club incentive conference, for which they are both responsible, depends on communicating early and often.
“I know that every decision I make has an effect,” says Kelly, vice president, field programs and recognition. “The more I let Debbie know what I’m thinking and expecting, the better. Neither of us likes to be reactive. We would rather be proactive.”
Here’s an inside look at how they build the large program, which draws between 850 and 900 attendees, handling curveballs and always moving toward their goal of agent satisfaction in excess of 90 percent.
24 MONTHS OUT
Preliminary Site Discussion
Sharon Kelly: We talk about the site requirements, and whether anything is different this year. For example, are there more or fewer qualifiers? Is there a significant difference in the budget?
Debbie Boschee: This conference is focused on family, so that’s a priority. I always look at what there is to do in the area, because many attendees will extend the trip. It’s also meeting-intensive, with six workshops every day, so that means it’s space-intensive. Also important is the ease of getting in and out of the location, the flow of function space, and service. It needs to be what our attendees have come to expect. These are the people who bring in revenue for Prudential. The experience is very important to them and to their families. This year the conference will be held in Hawaii, and we are trying to add in things that the attendees perceive as special—but that are not expensive.
23 MONTHS OUT
Sending Initial RFPs
Debbie Boschee: I send initial RFPs to national salespeople for hotel chains and hotel rep companies to check availability. I request specific properties, but they might call me and suggest others as well—for example, a hotel that is about to be renovated and will be completed by the time of the meeting. Then I create a comparison grid for Sharon and the senior management team with the property names, dates, initial concessions, and my comments about issues they should think about. If there’s only one ballroom, that’s a challenge because we’ll need it as a weather backup. Or I might point out that most attendees will have to take connecting flights to get there. The grid could have up to 20 properties on it, but I will have identified my top three. When the management team chooses its top three, I will schedule site visits.
Sharon Kelly: Debbie’s grid is key, highlighting the main comparison criteria. The grid makes it very easy for our executive management to make a decision.
21 MONTHS OUT
Visiting the Final Three
Debbie Boschee: When I visit the properties I am also working on final negotiations. I’ll explain to each what’s most important to us, and try to get the best deal. All other things being equal, money plays a big role. When I return, I discuss the pros and cons of each site and give my recommendation.
Sharon Kelly: Once the site visits are completed, George Fleck, Debbie’s boss, meets with me, Bob Wasky (my boss), and John Greene, the president of agency distribution. After some discussion, the final decision is made. We truly value Debbie’s and George’s experience.
Debbie Boschee: Our site for 2010 has meeting and function space that met our requirements and is flexible. But its primary selling point was location, location, location! It is on the ocean, with many family-oriented amenities (great pool, outstanding kids’ program and activities, golf, spa, a variety of food outlets). And the hotel is the right size relative to the size of our group—small enough that qualifiers and their family members will run into each other during nonbusiness hours, resulting in lots of networking opportunities.
12 MONTHS OUT, THEN MONTHLY
Reviewing the Numbers
Sharon Kelly: I keep Debbie updated on qualifier numbers so she can be proactive with room blocks and breakout rooms.
NINE MONTHS OUT
Initial Team Meeting
Debbie Boschee: Luz Brown, the project manager from Sharon’s group uses last year’s project plan as a template, plugging in new dates for the current conference. She shares that with everyone, we adjust the dates as necessary, then the revised schedule becomes the final project plan. That’s the bible we live by. So, for example, if I need text from the communications department to create the online invitations, the project manager makes sure that text is approved and sent to me by the agreed-upon date.
Sharon Kelly: Our project plan is very specific, and we all know our roles and responsibilities. I don’t try to do Debbie’s job and Debbie doesn’t try to do my job, but I count on her experience and expertise.
EIGHT MONTHS OUT, THEN WEEKLY
Team Planning Meetings
Debbie Boschee: We have regular planning meetings where we may invite someone from communications, recruiting, professional development, production/AV, or other departments. We hear about all the pieces. We are also always reviewing what we’ve learned in previous years and how we might make the attendee experience better.
EIGHT MONTHS OUT
Managing the Unexpected
Sharon Kelly: At the end of 2009, I was considering extending the qualification period for eight weeks into the new year. But before I even went down that path with management, I went to Debbie to ask if we would we be able to accommodate additional qualifiers.
Debbie Boschee: I put additional rooms on hold, but did notthem until we knew the actual number of qualifiers. Sharon kept me updated weekly so I could monitor the rooming situation and take appropriate action. At this point, I anticipate that there will be more than 80 additional attendees [including the agents’ family members] this year. The conference is in July, so registration is under way right now.
Debbie Boschee: There are always changes. When I go in to contract , I focus on our most important needs and where we can we get value added. When we make changes, we are always asking where we will get the greater return. Will it be from having the reception and cutting the décor? We are constantly tweaking and asking what will have the greatest impact on the qualifiers. For one meeting, the number of attendees grew significantly over what was originally budgeted for. Rather than plan group dinners each evening, we gave attendees two nights on their own with a maximum amount that they could spend.
Sharon Kelly: We go over the budget every day, every week. We know that as things get added, we have to take that money from somewhere else. Debbie will say, “Here is the budget, and here are the decision points.”
FOUR MONTHS OUT, THEN WEEKLY
Team Planning Meetings
Debbie Boschee: We walk through the project plan, look at our deliverables for the week, and discuss issues that have come up. For example, our recruiting and professional development department may say they want to do two additional workshops, so we have to find space. That might involve the production team, because if we decide to use the ballroom we’ll have to be sure it doesn’t affect the general-session setup.
FOUR DAYS OUT
Arrival on Site
Debbie Boschee: Another team member and I will arrive one day before Sharon and her team so that we can open the office and ensure that our materials have arrived and the Internet is working. Then when Sharon arrives, she can hit the ground running.
THREE DAYS OUT
Debbie Boschee: Sharon attends the first part of the meeting. I want the key hotel managers to meet her. I talk about the importance of the hotel staff in making the conference successful. Then Sharon explains who the attendees are and how they earned the trip. All the hotel department heads are there, from the general manager to security to housekeeping. Then I and two members of my team stay and review the BEOs in detail with the convention services manager, food-and-beverage director, and, sometimes, the chef.
Debbie Boschee: Anything can happen! At one meeting, a suite assigned to a senior person was a double/double and there were no king rooms available. We all worked with the hotel to physically switch out the furniture in that room minutes before the individual arrived at the property. It was quite funny and yet stressful at the same time. As a planner, you’re always thinking on your feet.
Want more behind-the-scenes info?
BIG IMPACT, LITTLE BUDGET
Prudential Financial's conference and meeting services department, led by Debbie Boschee, vice president, conference and meeting services, serves seven business units within the company. “Last year we had fewer meetings,” she says. “This year, everything is back on the calendar. But budgets have not increased. There is a heightened awareness of spending.”
Boschee knew that Prudential’s 2010 President’s Club conference, which takes place in July, really had to offer the company’s hardworking producers something special. To deliver on that goal without increasing the conference budget, however, required creativity.
A couple of her ideas: On two evenings, Prudential will present a “dive-in movie,” either at the hotel pool or on the beach. There’s no F&B involved and no transportation, so the cost is essentially nil except for the setup. Because it’s a family conference and attendees have afternoons free, Boschee arranged for inexpensive but fun kids’ activities poolside, such as music, hair-braiding, and a temporary tattoo station. She also negotiated a special discounted kids’ menu on the hotel’s room-service menu and in one of its restaurants.
BIG IDEA: INVITE EXECS TO SHARE THEIR GOALS
Central to the partnership between Prudential Financial’s conference and meeting services department and the leaders of the company’s business units is mutual understanding of the goals of that business unit, not just its individual events.
“We have had primary business partners come to our staff meeting and talk at a high level about their goals and objectives for the year, what has worked well in their partnership with conference services, and what might work better,” explains Debbie Boschee. “This helps my team understand what the business unit wants to achieve, because the business environment is always changing and evolving. It also helps when we get a last-minute request; it helps us determine the best location for meetings; and it might give us ideas about whether we could leverage one of their meetings with another Prudential meeting.
“For example, we had a leader in our annuities business attend one of our staff meetings and he discussed their business goals and objectives for the year, production goals, introduction of new products and initiatives, and then tied all of these back to specific meetings and conferences we would be partnering on with them. He discussed how not only the business sessions, but the networking that occurs during those face-to-face events, were key to the attainment of the goals and objectives he shared with us.”