MetLife’s major strategic change, unifying the company’s U.S. distribution channels, was matched by a major change in its incentive programs for 2011. Seven formerly separate conferences were replaced with The One—a single incentive conference designed to be bigger and better than the field force had ever experienced.

In a typical year, Jeff Calmus, Meg Russell, and MetLife’s conference management team would be working on seven separate incentive meetings for two tiers of qualification across the company’s three U.S. Business lines.

But in August 2009, senior leaders came to Calmus, CMP, vice president, and Russell, director, with a request. They wanted to scrap the seven conferences in 2011 and hold one huge incentive program. It would be symbolic, they explained, of a major new strategy shift.

The formerly separate distribution channels—Individual Business, Employee Benefit Sales, and Auto & Home—were combined under one umbrella, U.S. Business, to create a “distribution powerhouse.” The execs wanted to deliver a message of strength and unity at one time, in one place, to all the top sales leaders.

To say that it was a surprising request is an understatement. MetLife had held separate incentive conferences for as long as anyone could remember. It was such a shocking idea, in fact, that the company created an entire communications campaign—from humorous videos featuring senior executives to internal Web sites answering frequently asked questions—to promote the combined meeting, which was dubbed The One. A major focus was reassuring advisers that The One was not a cost-saving measure, and that qualifiers were not losing their rewards. Instead, the mega-meeting would be “an enhanced experience for everyone,” Calmus says, and would truly show MetLife’s strength and depth.

The campaign also was critical to demonstrate how committed U.S. Business President Bill Mullaney and Distribution Executive Vice President Mike Farrell were to the new unified organization, and how excited they were about celebrating that unity at The One.

Strategy to Reality
“It was Mike Farrell’s vision to bring all of the top financial advisers together as one business unit under one roof,” says Russell. “We were bringing the organization together as one, but if we then held six or seven different incentive meetings, what message would that send? That was the driving force behind the meeting.”

It was the planning team’s job to translate that corporate strategy into a conference reality. They used one overriding principle right from the start: “We had to defer to the expectations of the highest-level advisers,” Calmus says. “We had to hit that target as a minimum.Our philosophy out of the gate was: ‘This will be memorable and upscale for everyone.’”

In some ways, one large meeting in place of seven made that easier, as the company was better able to leverage its spending on the event.

First things First
But before they could start the show, they needed to find a venue. The location had to be comfortable handling 4,000 guests, and compelling enough for the company’s well-traveled advisers. The hotel had to be big, but special enough for MetLife’s most valued producers. It had to have plenty of meeting space, plus guest rooms that were sufficiently differentiated to allow for higher-level experiences for attendees at higher qualification levels. One location—Las Vegas—and one property—Mandalay Bay—met all the criteria.

“The key was not only to find the right venue, but the right property that would be committed to the enormity of the meeting,” Calmus says. “Not just the size, but the enormity of what this meeting meant for our company.”

Virna Navia, CMP, senior national sales manager at Mandalay Bay, remembers getting the call. “This was 2009. The economy was down, and we were still experiencing a backlash against Vegas,” she says. “To see an RFP that was an insurance meeting, number one; an incentive meeting, number two; and of the size and quality MetLife was proposing, number three; it really stood out.”

With three distinct room options—Mandalay Bay, THEhotel, and the Four Seasons—the property was well suited to the MetLife program. Still, rooms and suites were not where this meeting would succeed or fail. What really mattered was service.

“The real interesting piece of the story starts here,” Calmus says. “I think the word ‘partnership’ is overused. But we really needed it. We needed it beyond space and negotiation—we needed full buy-in. We had to dig deep.”

“We got that their No. 1 hot-button was giving qualifiers what they were used to,” Navia says. “MetLife wanted an experience no one else had and our team loves to meet that kind of challenge.” How? In the “pre-shift” staff meetings throughout the property, the importance of the MetLife program was explained repeatedly. Thousands of Mandalay Bay employees got the message that MetLife’s guests had earned the trip through hard work, and that top-notch service was the key to a successful meeting. The MetLife team helped out by supplying branded items such as Snoopy stuffed animals and key chains, all of which were distributed to Mandalay Bay employees. “It was a pleasant surprise for line workers to receive the gifts from MetLife,” Navia says. “It helped to build the hype and get them excited.”

“The hotel was amazing at communicating with their associates,” Calmus agrees. “Mandalay execs at every level made their associates aware of the importance of the meeting at every turn and every site visit. They were letting us know they would do whatever it takes.” Senior leaders at Mandalay Bay made their commitment known as well. “The way we approach business and relationships is intended to be very consistent,” says Chuck Bowling, president and COO, Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino. “We don’t want it to be transac- tional, but to really sit down to understand the needs and objectives of the client.

“But I will admit the relationship we formed with the executive team at MetLife was different, and it had a lot to do with their interest in our being as successful as their own conference.

“MetLife wanted one-of-a-kind experiences for their attendees,” he adds, “and really challenged us to come up with them. They helped us elevate our game, and for that we are very grateful and cannot wait to welcome them back.”

Russell recalls that Mandalay Bay’s leaders “came out in full force to meet MetLife’s top execs in person, which does not happen at a typical incentive. They discussed the importance of the event from both corporate standpoints.”

So although Calmus wants to avoid the cliché, The One suc- ceeded because of partnership. “We left there with hugs and tears,” he says. “It was bonding like I’ve never seen in 30 years of doing this.”

Success Is in the Details
Navia knew from the start that the MetLife planning team would be exacting. “They were really prepared and asked a lot of questions. They read the policies and procedures from beginning to end,” she says.

“Hotels with convention centers (or, in this case, an arena) have contracts that say, ‘the production guide will be binding as part of the contract,’” explains Karen Springfield, senior planner at MetLife, who spearheaded the negotiation process. “A lot of planners don’t go deep into reading that, but they should. We looked at every price sheet, fire marshall ruling, and timeline. There’s a tremendous amount of expense linked to that document.” Adds Russell, “We wanted to be cautious, and we didn’t want to be surprised. So we reviewed the hotel specs word by word before the negotiation.”

The attention to detail continued throughout, of course. Once the contract was signed and the planning was under way, Senior Planner Irene McLoughlin maintained the meeting “résumé,” which became a nearly-500-page document detailing every single element within the meeting. “Our industry partners were very impressed with the level of detail we provided to them,” Calmus says, “And this helped us set expectations for the amount of detail we demand and want delivered.” (The hard copy was “truly a masterpiece,” Calmus says, but planners also accessed and updated the résumé electronically on iPads.)

Give and Take
Their extensive preparation is one reason contract negotiation went smoothly. Another was Navia’s method for working through concessions. “We said, ‘Send your concessions and let’s start with what’s important to you,’” she explains.

When she received the list, she created a three-column grid: The first column was the requested concession, the second column was what Mandalay Bay calculated as the dollar value of that concession, and the third column was that dollar value multiplied by the number of days, attendees, rooms, or whatever multiplier would get the total value of the concession. Then she shared with MetLife the percentage of total meeting revenue that the property typically offers in concessions. Considering the timing of the booking, she said MetLife could do a little better than the usual.

Therefore, knowing what the hotel would accept as the total value for concessions, and the value of each of the concessions they were asking for, it was a straightforward process of prioritizing the company’s needs to come to an agreement. “Overall it was an engaging, positive experience,” says Calmus. “If I had to sum it up in one word, I would say fair. There was honest, direct conversation from the beginning on both sides. This set the tone for the entire event, and is how the partnership between Mandalay Bay and MetLife was built.”

Bottom Line
“It was an enormous change to bring the sales forces together at once,” Calmus says. “We had incredible staging and branding. With key execs on the stage reiterating the focus on leveraging all of the company’s people, products, and services, and telling the sales force, ‘We are a strong, unified sales force and company,’ it was very powerful. It’s one thing to send a memo and say we are unified. The message of the meeting was to emphasize: Hey, we mean it.”

In the end, 5 percent more qualifiers chose to attend the meeting than had attended the separate meetings the previous year, but Calmus says the company is still measuring the success of The One. Some survey respondents expressed a preference for a smaller event, and going forward MetLife incentive programs are likely to be a mix of unified and separated conferences.

From the viewpoint of MetLife leadership, the conference was an unqualified success, brought from idea to stunning reality by a dedicated events team.

MetLife’s Planning Team Steps Up

The One was a “first” that spawned a lot of other firsts, including a complete restructuring of how the planners on MetLife’s conferences team do their jobs. “Traditionally our planners manage their programs as a ‘lead’ and receive support from management and other team members as needed in the planning of the program, and have a team to assist with the operations on site,” explains Meg Russell, director. For The One, however, team members were assigned to specific pieces of the planning process: hotel management, F&B, décor, transportation, activities, gifts, and entertainment management. So for the first nine months, as the meeting came together, each planner was solely focused on one function.

“This worried us a little up front since it was a complete change,” says Jeff Calmus, CMP, vice president. “Normally the planners know and understand all elements of the meeting from the beginning.” Putting Theory into Practice The function-specific roles were not immediately embraced by everyone. Russell gave each team member Wins, Losses and Lessons by Lou Holtz, a book about the importance of each individual to the success of a team, and about leaving your own ego behind. As Holtz would say: “The only name that matters is MetLife.” The message got through.

“At one of the first planning meetings, I started by saying how important it was for everyone to accept their functional roles. Then I went to every person and asked if they bought in,” Calmus says. “People verbally accepted their roles in front of the other team members.”

The way Calmus saw it, the entire team was part of something truly remarkable. “It’s a career moment,” he says. “We don’t get many chances at starting something this special.”

In the end, he says, “it worked magnificently. And watching it happen over time was one of the most gratifying things for us—to see the team contribute in such a professional way to something that was so much bigger than any one person.”

On site, 18 internal MetLife planners and managers, plus eight contracted trip directors, orchestrated all the logistics and meeting management. MetLife “line of business” and security teams were also represented at the meeting, along with members of the creative services team.

How to Go Big: 8 Takeaways

MetLife’s conference management department is a well-oiled machine with a lot of experience. But no one had ever planned an incentive conference with the scale and scope of The One. Here are some of their top takeaways:

1. Get Executive Sponsorship
When you change long-established incentive programs, top executives must buy in without wavering, and support the planning department’s vision. For The One, Meg Russell met with executive liaison Michele Brooks, vice president, nearly every day for 18 months. “To execute on Mike Farrell’s vision for this event, we knew that ultra-close alignment and partnership would be essential,” Brooks says. “Having almost daily contact allowed the planners to gain a clear understanding of, and commitment to, the overarching business goals, right down to each detail. Our relationship grew day by day and the end product was a showcase of that trust and collaboration.”

2. Communicate
It must be constant and ongoing, internally with the planning team and other departments, externally to your field force and with your vendors. In particular, says Russell, “we worked with our internal partners much earlier than we normally would.” That includes the recognition department, which managed the qualification criteria, handled all communications with the invitees, and determined how they would be rewarded; the line of business departments, who own the meeting; and the creative services department, which gave the meeting its look and feel, designing all the promotional and print material.

3. Be a partner with your hotel
“Partnership” is a vague term, but there are some specific ways to start things off right, say Calmus and Russell. Be direct and honest, do your homework, understand that your hotel partners are running a business.

4. Mind the budget
With so many meeting elements in play and a lot of creative minds immersed in the planning, changes were often suggested—potentially adding cost. “You need to manage these creative ideas within your budget framework,” Russell says.

5. Boost your branding and signage
Make it 90 percent bigger than you think you need to, Calmus and Russell advise.

6. Forget coffee breaks
There is no efficient way to move 2,500 people in and out of a ballroom. “It’s a one-hour ordeal,” says Calmus.

7. Make it a show
MetLife hired a professional emcee to help the general sessions and award ceremonies run smoothly and to keep the audience engaged. “The host allowed our senior executives to focus on the qualifiers and not the program management,” Russell says.

8. Know when to say no
“If you have program and direction in place, at some point you have to commit to it and not accept changes,” Russell says. “I would say, ‘Is that a new idea? We can’t do it.’ With this size program, a new idea takes weeks of work.”

Making the Most of the Mandalay Bay “Campus”

Transformed into a Food & Wine Gala. Celebrity chefs each took a corner of the room to create a “super station” with a unique food offering. In the center of the room was a “Find a New Favorite” wine station. Says Senior National Sales Manager Virna Navia: “MetLife’s choice to showcase chefs from our property again showed the strength of the partnership.”

Pool area:
The Mandalay Bay Beach became Coney Island, with themed food stations.

Exhibit Hall:
With the addition of a DJ and décor, a 160,000-square-foot hall was turned into the One Stop Café, site of several meals. “MetLife got so creative with a concrete space,” says Navia. “Guests never knew they were in an exhibit hall.”