Meetings have taken a beating at the hands of U.S. reporters and legislators, and it’s rocking the planners’ world. Here we present a view from the inside. It’s anonymous, because there’s another edict reverberating throughout the financial services industry: Don’t talk to the media.
Financial & Insurance Meetings: How is the perception issue affecting your meetings?
Meeting Professional: One incentive program got canceled three weeks out. The fear was, “What if a stockholder finds out?” Another program was moved from a resort to a city property. In another case, several meetings were consolidated into one meeting. And one of our other programs is being scaled back: Spouses will not be attending, the meeting will be shorter, and it will no longer be held at a resort.
FIM: How many of these changes, if any, do you see as permanent?
MP: So much depends on how the economy reacts and how well our company performs. The feeling is, how can we hold a meeting or an incentive conference at a resort destination when our stockholders are losing money? How would our stockholders react? Unfortunately, the general public doesn’t understand the importance of business meetings or incentive conferences. We need the face-to-face interaction at meetings to help our sales force understand our products, to introduce new products to them, to discuss how those products can help their clients prepare for their future financial security, and to motivate our sales force to generate revenue for the company. And all of these may be even more important in a down economy. If the economy improves, everything else will fall back into place. It will take time, but it will come back.
FIM: How many meetings did you cancel in 2009?
MP: The number of meetings my department is planning in 2009 is down about 20 percent from what we were handling at this time in 2008. Some programs that were scheduled at high-end resort destinations and/or international destinations are being moved to city locations. Additionally, the length of the meetings has been shortened, there is more business content, and evening events have been scaled back.
FIM: What meetings are still going forward in 2009?
MP: Training meetings. Our businesses are carefully evaluating all meetings, focusing on the return on their investment from each program. They are looking at alternate ways of accomplishing the goals of the meeting without physically bringing everyone together. We are also seeing meetings being held back-to-back to save on travel dollars. We are also still holding management meetings and incentive conferences, but in different locations. The bottom line is the major consideration.
FIM: How is your company continuing to motivate and retain the loyalty of the top producers whose incentive trips have been canceled?
MP: While we haven’t canceled incentives, we have relocated them and, in some cases, shortened the program. Our senior executives have done an excellent job of explaining to the qualifiers why we are taking this approach. They’ve communicated that these difficult times require publicly traded companies to make tough decisions, but they also focused on the fact that we are moving ahead with recognition conferences while other companies are canceling them altogether. In their communications they recognize our producers for their efforts and hard work and the fact that they succeed even in today’s environment. They talk about how their efforts are helping their clients plan for a better financial future. The majority of our conference qualifiers understand and respect the company’s position. We’ve received very little negative feedback from our qualifiers.
FIM: How are you handling your cancellation penalties?
MP: I have rebooking clauses, but they aren’t helping me because they typically require rebooking within 12 months, and we are not booking anything in 2010. I don’t think it’s fair to try to negotiate out of cancellation fees. We signed the . I have asked hotels if they would be willing to apply a certain percentage of the cancellation fee to hotel “gift certificates” that could be used as employee recognition awards or as silent auction items. By doing so, we would be encouraging people to vacation at that particular hotel and therefore generate additional revenue for the hotel (over and above the value of the gift certificates). One hotel is seriously considering this idea.
FIM: How much has your company paid in cancellation fees for 2009 programs?
MP: It’s in the six-figure range.
FIM: You mentioned that you are not booking programs for 2010. Is it a wait-and-see situation or are they definitely canceled?
MP: It is a wait-and-see situation right now. If the economy doesn’t improve prior to our 2010 budgeting process in the third quarter, I think we’ll see an even greater decrease in meetings in 2010 over 2009. Unfortunately, meetings are viewed as a cost center and therefore one of the first things to go. Not everyone can see the bigger picture of the value of meetings and incentive conferences. They are an integral part of doing business and succeeding at your business.
FIM: How has your job changed in the past six months?
MP: I’ve been doing this work a long time and I’ve never encountered so many cancellations of contracts during a specific time period. It is a difficult phone call to make to your property salesperson, and it’s not one that any meeting planner wants to make. However, the hoteliers understand and don’t take it personally. Additionally, while we have always been focused on expense management, we are continually being questioned and pushed by our internal business partners to cut costs while delivering the same experience they had at last year’s meeting. We are also seeing this turn into a buyer’s market, which is good for planners and their companies. The past few years we’ve suffered through a seller’s market and it is interesting to see some hotels do a complete turnaround. Where there were meeting hotels that wouldn’t even bid on certain business in the past, they are now aggressively pursuing the business.
FIM: We talk about keeping up the morale of the field force, but what about the meeting department? What is the mood among your planners? What can you do to boost morale?
MP: I continually communicate with them, one-on-one and in team meetings, about the volume of work today versus last year and about the changes happening in our industry. I also am reinforcing the need to bring their customer service to the next level. When it comes time to budget for 2010, we want our business partners to say they cannot do their meetings without our involvement—that we are key to the success of their programs. Recognition of a job well done is even more important these days. Our management team does an excellent job recognizing top service through notes, verbal recognition, handwritten cards, and so on. Let’s face it, we all appreciate being recognized for our efforts—it is a great motivator—and I think it is important to do even more of this during these difficult times.
FIM: Have you been specifically told not to speak with the media? What reason is given? What is your personal feeling about the policy of trying to operate under the radar?
MP: We have specific guidelines in place about interaction with the media—a policy that has been in place since we became a public company. Of course, with the heightened public focus on and perception of business conferences and the money being invested in them, no company wants its name to appear in any publication talking about the meetings we plan, where we are holding them, and so on. Perception is reality and we cannot risk the media painting an incorrect picture of legitimate business meetings. In my opinion, television reporters and commentators have done an extreme disservice to our industry by portraying all meetings as “boondoggles.” They interview former employees getting their impressions of a particular conference. Did they ever think that a former employee may hold a grudge against the company and see this as a way to get back at them? Did they ever investigate the conference fully to uncover the business content and reason for the meeting? One location severely affected by this is Las Vegas. The media have basically said that you cannot hold a legitimate business meeting in Vegas: How untrue this is! The media have sensationalized this. Have they investigated and reported on the other side of the story? No!
FIM: What is your impression of meeting industry efforts to lobby Congress and educate the public on the economic impact of meetings?
MP: It is great to see some of our industry leaders meet with President Obama and key government officials, but I think it may be too little, too late. So much damage has already been done—unemployment has hit all ranks within the industry, from meeting planners, to sales personnel, to cab drivers, to staff, housekeepers, bellman, and the list goes on and on. However, we need to keep fighting to get our message out there, and we need the key players in the industry to lead the charge.—Alison Hall