Perception is Reality: Last summer, the Incentive Research Foundation surveyed incentive travel companies, corporate incentive buyers, and suppliers. Among other questions, they were asked if they agreed with this statement: “The visibility by both internal and external non-incentive audiences prevent us from offering awards that are considered extravagant and as such we have significantly changed the type of awards and program inclusions for our incentive program.” The statement could have been worded more clearly; nevertheless 45 percent of respondents agreed with it.
IRF repeated the survey in the fall. This time, fully 75 percent of respondents agreed with the statement. It’s a tough time to manage incentive programs. And meetings of all types are being questioned, with “non-essential” ones wiped off the calendar. In a live survey at the Financial & Insurance Conference Planners Annual Conference last November, 72 percent of hoteliers said they’d had meeting cancellations for the third quarter of 2008 and beyond, and only 35 percent of planners said their companies would hold their normal roster of meetings through 2010.
But is there opportunity for you amid the turmoil? Even if “non-essential” meetings are gone for good, you can bet incentive programs will be back. And when those decisions are made, get your seat at the table by presenting new ideas to make future incentives even more valuable to qualifiers and to your company. Show your high-level expertise; make the business case.
If perception is reality, be sure senior management has the right perception of you and the job you do. We’ll show you how on the following pages.
Consultant to the Top
Last fall, corporate America was in the grip of uncertainty about the future. Financial companies in particular watched in shock as banks failed, established investment houses disappeared, and Wall Street rose and fell dramatically.
TCW, a financial services firm based in Los Angeles, was scheduled to hold its annual Leadership Conference in November. The property was booked and the agenda set, but with chaos continuing to reign, the firm’s CEO elected to postpone the meeting.
Helping him come to that decision was the conference’s steering committee, among the permanent members of which is Patricia Stuhff, CMP, senior vice president and manager, meetings and events. “As a meeting planner, you have an advantage in that your internal clients are the people at the top of the organization,” Stuhff says. “But you need to know how to seize the opportunities you have to be at the senior management table.”Contingency Planning
After being part of the decision to move the meeting from November 2008 to March 2009, Stuhff got right down to work with her suppliers. She arranged the date shift with a minimum of trauma, because she had negotiated a rebooking clause with the property.
“You have to plan for all contingencies,” she says. “If you’ve been around 20-plus years, as I have, you’ve been through downturns. If it really doesn’t make sense for your company to hold a meeting at a particular time, you have to provide for that kind of change.” She does handleand logistics, but Stuhff’s participation in the Leadership Conference occurs at a higher conceptual level as well. “We continue to review the agenda and look at everything through the new lens,” she explains. “I work as a full member of the steering committee.” In fact, she notes, “I ask the questions that stimulate the discussion.” How? “By thinking like a business person,” she says. “You need to get in the mind of the executive you are sitting down with. Know what your client needs to make a decision.” With regard to the upcoming Leadership Conference, executives’ minds were on one big question: How can we keep the agenda relevant?
“It’s a whole different world now,” Stuhff says. “The steering committee is on hiatus but we will rethink it again after the first of the year. The economic situation is thoroughly unpredictable so we’ve got to stay flexible.” user-driven programs Flexibility is a hallmark of the Leadership Conference, which brings together 200 senior executives.
Rather than create an agenda from above, the CEO and Stuhff sit down with the steering committee to review survey results from the previous year’s event. “But that’s just laying the groundwork,” she says, noting that the survey results are simply a snapshot of that point in time—and, as the entire financial industry was reminded this year, “the landscape can change quickly.” Steering committee members represent all areas of the firm but change yearly. “We discuss objectives, themes, and other meeting elements,” she explains. “The members then get feedback from their areas that they pass on to us, so we are always designing a meeting that is user-driven. That is very important. It’s precious time when you bring people together. You want to make it valuable.”
Always held in California, but moving around to different properties, the conference is a mix of general sessions, breakout sessions, and aactivity. “The idea is to break down walls and get outside of what we do in suits Monday through Friday,” she says. “People don’t know each other, and frankly you can work more effectively when you know your colleagues. That process is facilitated when you put on a pair of sneakers and get physical.”
Do Something Hard
Sharon Chapman joined Berkshire Life Insurance Co. in July 1997 as an administrative assistant. Just over a decade later, she has earned two certifications—her certified meeting professional (CMP) designation and her certificate in meeting management (CMM)—and has risen to travel and corporate events planner. And in 2004 she stepped way outside her comfort zone when she stood before hundreds of peers to announce her candidacy for the Financial & Insurance Conference Planners Board of Directors. We recently asked her about the experience.
FIM: Why did you decide to run for the board of?
Sharon Chapman: It will sound corny, but I have a passion for the association. I think the value that FICP adds to a member’s daily job is immense and I wanted to get that message out. I also wanted to help FICP advance its member offerings, so that it is the first association planners turn to for knowledge, networking, and assistance.
FIM: What did the experience mean for you personally?
Chapman: What I gained by serving on the board for the past four years is immeasurable. It made me a stronger strategic partner and a better planner. And beyond that, stepping outside of my comfort zone helped me to grow as a person.
FIM: What value did it bring to the way you do your job? Chapman: I have a lot more confidence in my recommendations when sitting at the table with senior managers, and I know that the value I add in my position is worthwhile. I received several personal notes from senior management congratulating me on my nomination to the board.
FIM: What were your thoughts when you considered the possibility of becoming president of FICFICFICP?
Chapman: Can I really do this? It was a frightening and self-evaluating experience. Public speaking is truly one of my worst fears. When I was growing up, I would blush just speaking to someone in authority, never mind speaking in public. I knew that if I had to take the stage in front of 600 or 700 of my peers I would turn purple. However, I still felt that I had some value to add to the association.
FIM: What was the return on your investment of time (and courage!) in that FICFICFICP president role? Chapman: Ulcers? Just kidding. The return was a renewed confidence in myself and the job that I am capable of doing. Sometimes we forget why we do what we do. The term on the board of directors renewed a little bit of the passion that you lose sight of in your daily job. And I can honestly now say that I have given something back to the association that has fueled my career.
See the Big Picture
A meeting planner needs a keen eye for details. As important, however, is regularly stepping back and seeing the big picture, says Rob Gingras, CMP, director, travel and meeting services, at Cigna in Hartford, Conn. That means recognizing your strategic role and your value proposition. Gingras’ value proposition, as stated on the corporate intranet, is “managing and leveraging all events to maximize the outcome to the corporation.” This relates to “external facing” events in particular, where the audiences are customers, producers, or brokers. Gingras and his department are the ones who ensure that these meetings present Cigna in a consistent way, in line with the corporation’s mission and goals.
“You need to properly identify your customer. It’s not only the meeting sponsor,” he says. “Your customers include finance, compliance, marketing, and branding, in addition to the hosting area. I don’t know any department that touches every area of the company the way a meeting department does. Your job is to tie in all areas of the company within the event.”
At the same time, meeting planners must be fully versed on the mission, goals, and current initiatives of each business unit, so that the events they plan are aligned with them. In some cases, Gingras notes, a planner might turn a request back to the meeting sponsor, asking how it fits in with the division’s mission.
“You are taking on a consultative role,” he says. “You are the subject matter expert on the physical execution of their message.”
The C-Level Will See You if you Make Money, Don't Just Save It
A few years ago, Tom McDonald, PhD, listened to former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young deliver the keynote address at a Meeting Professionals International conference. What Young said moved him, and he shares the sentiment whenever he is in front of a meeting planner audience.
“Meetings are what life is all about,” Young said. “Think about what you do. You build consensus, you create the common ground of humanity that lets people lift themselves or their profession to a new level, and that’s an enormous achievement.”
Do your executives have such an expansive perception of your profession? Do you?
Shift your Thinking
“With all the changes in business— competition up, profit margins down, ethical lapses in the financial industry, and, now, the economic meltdown,” McDonald says, “everyone has to justify their value.” He advises finding your value by doing fewer logistical tasks and more strategic thinking. That’s a challenge for many planners. “It’s not that they don’t want to be strategic,” McDonald says. “It’s that they don’t take enough time to do it.” Which may go to the heart of the profession. After all, a meeting planner’s mantra is: “If you want something done right, do it yourself.” But actually, planners should let go and delegate more.
What if you have no one to delegate to? Find a way, he says. “See what you can outsource. If you don’t, you will be outsourced.” Look to suppliers for help, too.
You need a Business Plan
Once you’ve delegated, you can focus on the areas where you add value. And here’s a news flash, says McDonald: Simply saving money doesn’t cut it anymore. “Saving a few thousand dollars isn’t going to help a company that’s hemorrhaging millions. But what if you could migrate from a cost center to a profit center?” That would get you some C-level attention. McDonald believes it can be done. He advises creating a business plan for every meeting. (Find a template at his Web site: www.drtommcdonald.com.) Create a design team for the meeting. Know the meeting’s goals and how to measure them. Measure new business and retained business because of the meeting. Take adult learning into consideration and figure out how to ensure attendees take what they learn at the meeting and apply it in the workplace.
“These are big thoughts,” McDonald says. “But start with small steps and keep taking those steps. Pick one step and keep doing that step until it becomes part of your repertoire.”
How to get your Seat at the Table
If senior executives aren’t inviting you into the meeting process from their first discussions, your value is being lost and their perception of you is remaining stagnant. Laurie Fitzgerald, CMP, meeting manager for a large insurance company, believes you can change that. But it takes persistence. “I’ve had to work hard to get a seat, and it took a while for those whose meetings I plan to see that I could add value aside from ordering coffee,” she says. “Most companies see meeting planning as a job that ‘anyone’ can do. They don’t think they need to involve the planner in the process until they are ready to find a location.”
She advises starting small. “I used to ask if I could just listen in on conference calls, explaining that I dissect the information differently than they would in order to deliver the objectives,” she says. “Once I could do that and ask meaningful questions or make suggestions, the window began to open.”
Then, keep at it. “Continually prod those you support with questions about goals, bring new ideas to the table, and show that you have a high-level understanding of their business objectives,” Fitzgerald says. “Little by little they will start to include you. I’m at the point now where they wouldn’t think of not including the meeting planner in initial discussions.”
One new idea she implemented successfully involved a kickoff meeting, which for years centered around department heads giving updates. Fitzgerald knew the meeting could deliver more energy and motivation. “Because of my involvement with the Professional Convention Management Association, I suggested an experiential session that would engage the team on a deeper level. It was a stretch from [the meeting sponsor’s] comfort zone, but because I had built trust with him, he agreed,” she says. “It was the most successful program to date.”
Sidebar: “Which Type of Planner Are You?”
The Tactical Planner
Focuses on program logistics (when, where)
Thinks short-term (“How should we allocate our resources for this year’s 200 meetings?”)
Sees procurement as an obstacle
Looks for ways to save money on meetings
The Strategic Planner
Focuses on program goals (how, why)
Thinks long-term (“Can we consolidate some of our future meetings?”)
Sees procurement as a partner
Looks for ways to make money with meetings
Sidebar: 8 Habits of Highly Effective Planners
The new year is a great time for self-assessment, says Ken Kirsh, president, Kirsh Productions in Summit, N.J. (www.kirshproduc tions.com) See how you do with his hit list of habits that keep planners current, efficient, and delivering value. 1 I innovate rather than conform or rely on convention.
1 I innovate rather than conform or rely on convention.
2 I nurture relationships with good suppliers and cultivate new ones.
3 I relate information and experiences from unrelated sources to enhance my creativity and efficiency in event planning.
4 I use e-mail, phone calls, and in-person meetings effectively and in the right proportion.
5 I ensure my expenditures are aligned with my firm’s goals, hold myself accountable for analyzing their value, and measure cost-reduction related to each program. 6 I have specific performance-improvement goals for myself and my team that are in line with my company’s objectives.
7 I find time with executives, suppliers, peers, and others to maximize feedback and ideas, and to measure.
8 I make the best possible use of technology to improve personal and departmental efficiencies.
Sidebar: Know What’s New
After 23 years in the meeting industry, Karen Knox is still on the lookout for the next new thing. That’s one of the keys to her success. “I’ve always stayed involved in the industry, so I can bring back best practices and trends,” says Knox, who is the head of meeting management at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina.
A member of both Meeting Professionals International and Financial & Insurance Conference Planners, she served two terms on the MPI Carolinas chapter board of directors. She also has earned her CMP and CMM designations, and expects those on her team to do so as well. “It sends a message to our industry partners that we take our discipline seriously,” she says. “We are staying on the cutting edge.”
That means bringing new ideas to the table—like centralization of meeting management, which she implemented in January 2006. “It’s my good fortune to have great internal relationships and the respect of people who view me as a professional,” she says, “so when I brought new ideas for change, they trusted me.”
Knox laid out the benefits of consolidation: compliance with standard procedures and practices would bring consistency to meetings, save money, and reduce risk. “The company is all about embracing cost-effective ideas,” Knox says. “When we centralized, we were able to really track cost savings.”
For 2008, in fact, Knox logged more than her operating budget in cost savings. “Savings have increased yearly,” she notes, “as we develop stronger vendor relationships and educate our internal clients with innovative meetings management.”