On the surface, it Looked Like Just Another year-end sales meeting. There were state-of-the-business discussions, training sessions on the company's products, and workshops to share best practices. But when Creative Group Inc., a meetings and incentives company focused on the corporate market, brought together the sales team from its Appleton, Wis., and Chicago offices for four days in New Orleans last November, it was more than just a chance for the group to get together face to face as they do once each year.

Prior to the meeting, Ron Officer, Creative Group's chairman and CEO; Brad Langley, president and COO; and Janet Traphagen, senior vice president of sales, met to discuss how they could change the way they do business by offering corporate clients new products and services, as well as expertise in areas they had not previously been involved in — such as strategic meetings management. “SMM is more than just a buzzword — it's a necessity in today's business world,” says Langley. “Our intent is to help clients take a strategic approach to meetings and do a better job of leveraging our combined strength in the marketplace.”

That meant bringing in an SMM expert, Lynda Garvey of National Business Travel Association's Groups and Meetings committee, to educate the group, and offering training on how they can help clients prove return on investment using the company's MeetingMetrics tool.

Creative Group is not alone. Brenda Anderson, CEO of Chicago-based Site (formerly the Society of Incentive Travel Executives), has seen many smaller incentive houses and meeting management companies reposition themselves to better compete with their larger counterparts. “I am calling this ‘the evolution,’” says Anderson. “[Meeting and incentive companies] are not going to market in the same way they did a year ago, because the landscape has drastically changed.”

Experient Moves into Social Media

Rick Binford, CMP, executive vice president of event management services at Experient in Twinsburg, Ohio, agrees. “I see a segmentation of the market beginning to take place. The more transactional in nature our services become, the harder it is to improve your profit margin over time. That's where I think there is some risk for those organizations that may have a narrower set of core competencies.”

This forced him and his colleagues “to roll up our sleeves and go much deeper with our clients to get past the simple issues of event execution and into some of the more strategic issues about managing risk, measuring ROI, and solving some of their really tough problems.”

To do that, Experient gathered its top clients for a conference in August. One of the biggest takeaways from the three-day meeting was the need for tools that could integrate social media into events. “We spent three days learning how we can take this new media and lay it on top of a marketing strategy and integrate it into an overall [meetings and events] plan,” says Binford.

The result: Experient's new end-to-end social media toolkit, which will be rolled out in the first quarter of 2010. The offering is intended to help clients develop a social media strategy that can specifically address the objectives they are targeting with each event. Meanwhile, the company is investing in training and education to get its staff up to speed on social media.

Other product offerings that came out of the client conference included the company's new ROI assessment tools, also to be launched in Q1. Anderson sees many incentive firms developing specialties in the area of ROI. “You need to be demonstrating ROI in every program you operate,” she says. Her advice: “There are so many sophisticated methodologies out there, and some are not for the faint of heart. Just get one in place that you can work with, and that your clients can work with, and be able to manage it. Become an expert at it, because that is where the market is going.”

CGI's Langley agrees. “Providing a means to measure the effectiveness of meetings is critical in today's climate,” he says. “Within corporations, people are asked to justify a $100,000 equipment purchase, why not substantiate the return when it comes to their major events?”

Gray Consulting Takes on SMM

Another hot button for many corporations — SMM — is becoming an essential component of many suppliers' service offerings. Scott Gray, CEO of Gray Consulting International Meetings and Incentives, Philadelphia, has seen the trend firsthand as many corporations downsize and eliminate their internal meetings management teams.

“We just presented two different RFPs where one of the services we would provide would be the management of the company's entire strategic meetings management program,” says Gray, from defining success metrics for other vendor partners to managing the sourcing and data collection. He has stepped up his company's investment in this area and brought in SMM experts to provide this capability to clients. Strategic meetings management expertise is “essential in our business,” he says. “The meeting planning component has almost become secondary, and [suppliers] are being asked help clients manage their businesses.”

In fact, when NBTA held its inaugural SMM certification Core Week One course at Emory University in Atlanta last November, the class was sold out, and of the 20 meetings and travel professionals who attended, 10 were suppliers. One of those was Stacey Slifka, supervisor of strategic initiatives at ITAGroup in Des Moines, Iowa. ITAGroup has a proprietary SMM software application called PerformanceSource to help clients manage their programs. “If we are going to be offering the technology solutions, we need to know the ins and outs of [SMM],” says Slifka.

USMotivation Goes Virtual

The need to drive cost savings with every program is also pushing suppliers to become experts in virtual-meetings technologies. “Virtual meetings can save a company millions,” says Dan Leong, COO, USMotivation, Atlanta, and providing this capability to clients has become a priority for his company. “We have had to retool our technology and our personnel required to execute [virtual meetings]. It's a competitive requirement in the current marketplace. If you look at the major companies like Carlson, BI, Maritz — companies that we work with and compete with — there is not a single one that does not have a virtual offering.”

Experient also has been working on new services and products that will help clients integrate virtual capabilities into their face-to-face events. “[Virtual] strategies can provide added revenue streams for clients, as well as help them leverage their events to enhance brand image, increase member outreach, and reach their marketplace objectives,” says Binford.

Most suppliers are partnering with a technology provider to offer virtual meetings capabilities to clients. “Even the larger companies haven't built this technology themselves,” says Leong. “We are not in the technology business. Our job is to work with clients to show them the most cost effective way of getting their message across or accomplishing their goals.”

Who Will Win Out?

As meeting and incentive companies grow more strategic in their solutions for clients, how will suppliers who focus solely on event execution fare? “What organizations are seeking is strategic partners who can help them reach their business objectives,” says Karen Renk, CAE, executive director of the Incentive Marketing Association in Naperville, Ill. “The rest need to adapt, and if they don't adapt, they will fall by the wayside.”

Staying flexible and adapting to the changing business landscape will likely prove to be even more critical in the coming year. According to the Site Index, a study conducted by the association in November, 87 percent of respondents believe it will take at least another year before the industry fully recovers.

“Adaptability is the key to success in this business, and that is what you are seeing a lot of the third-party houses doing right now,” says Anderson. “They're looking at everything.”