Capturing business in challenging times was the theme of a half-day educational forum in June, put on by the Primedia Business Meetings Group editors and other trade press for the New England Chapter of the Hotel Sales and Marketing Association International. About 80 hoteliers attended the program at the Omni Parker House in Boston to hear meeting professionals in various industries talk about current issues and trends in their market segments.

Richard Granger, assistant vice president, conference and travel services, Allmerica Financial in Worcester, Mass., led lively interactive discussions about insurance/financial services meetings and incentive programs. Among his observations and predictions for 2003:

  • The financial services industry continues to be driven by consolidation. This will lead to bigger meetings that try to unify the merged companies.

  • Incentive meetings remain the most effective way to motivate and reward agents, and companies are moving forward with 2003 and 2004 programs. "In good times and bad, the financial services industry has its incentive meetings," said Granger. "But I don’t think there’s as much of an appetite to go international the way there used to be." He sees the Caribbean, Canada, and Mexico gaining popularity as incentive sites.

  • Other budding incentive trends: more family-oriented programs and regional destinations. A recent Allmerica incentive in San Francisco had strong attendance, but many spouses stayed home. As a result, Granger sees a potential shift to family-friendly resorts within a three-hour drive or plane ride. "It may be that we’ll need to supplement the annual incentive bash with regional meetings," he noted. "Spouses are very important in the financial services industry."

  • Tight budgets are resulting in shorter but more frequent training meetings in airport hotels or regional locations that are easy to drive to. At Allmerica, the three-night meeting that took place three times a year has been pared down to a one-night meeting that takes place seven times a year.

  • Lead times of four-to-six weeks out for non-incentive meetings have become a way of life, and that’s not going to change. "Particularly in the life side of the financial services industry, we’re totally driven by the stock market," explained Granger, "and the company makes decisions quarter by quarter."

  • An emerging contract problem for incentive programs: Hotels are asking for 60-day attrition clauses instead of 30-day. "That’s a huge issue, especially if we don’t have the flexibility of applying attrition charges to future meetings," said Granger.