New York Life has been holding incentive meetings since 1896. That means the company and its agents are part of a long and proud tradition. It also means that if you want to change anything about those meetings, you go up against 106 years of history.

Not surprisingly, introducing technology into the meeting planning process at New York Life was not an overnight success. In fact, four years after the meeting department launched its search for software, planners are still implementing the package they chose. The big job—creating and customizing the database, which is used for registration and the management of each piece of a meeting agenda—is done. Tools that will help with budgeting and streamline the management of travel data are just coming online.

Fully automating a meeting planning department is a grueling endeavor, but planners at New York Life say it is worth the effort. By October 2001, during the first major incentive conference with the software in use, Jules del Vecchio, vice president, meetings, says, "I was like a little kid. I was jumping up and down with glee."

John Maddox, CMP, the consultant who helped the company through the process, calls New York Life’s experience "a technology story with a happy ending."

The Wish List . . . and the Reality List
Just as the department was considering new technology options in late 1998, New York Life decided to bring all of its meeting planning back in house, offering up the meeting department’s talent to the entire corporation. (See sidebar, page XX.) That gave the software search some urgency. "We knew [our department’s] head count would not increase," says Ann Bruno, CMP, assistant vice president, meetings; therefore, the department would have to become more efficient. They could no longer manually enter registration information from all attendees, for example, nor could they go on site trying to coordinate information from multiple sources—Excel files with the data off the mainframe, an Access database, and various Microsoft Word files.

Before launching their search, del Vecchio and Bruno created a wish list. "It included everything from site selection to accounting," Bruno says. "At the beginning, we wanted the total package." They did extensive research online and narrowed the list to five software companies. Each company conducted a demo with the meeting department and representatives from New York Life’s Corporate Information department—and that’s when the wish list became the reality list.

It wasn’t enough to find a software package that could deliver the necessary tools. Those tools had to be extremely flexible and customizable. "Our meetings are so New York Life–rich that no off-the-shelf package was going to do it for us," del Vecchio says. Specifically, Bruno explains, the software had to be able to handle New York Life’s "business data"—each meeting attendee’s various honors and designations, which are critical for planning tasks such as creating invitation lists for select on-site events.

This is where those 106 years of tradition come in. New York Life recognizes attendees for an exhaustive list of achievements, such as selling 100 life cases, being a member of the Million Dollar Round Table, leading the field in annuity sales, or qualifying for the meeting for the first time. (That’s just a small sampling.) All of this information is stored on New York Life’s mainframe, Bruno explains. Any new software package would have to integrate with the mainframe.

Then there were the security issues. Online registration would be done on the company’s intranet, "which knocked out a couple of companies right there," Bruno says, because they couldn’t work around the corporate firewall.

In the end, balancing the all-important business data, online registration, meeting planning tools, and budget constraints led the department to choose Isis Gold. The package delivered on the company’s critical needs (the reality list) by offering:

  • a way to track spending
  • one database and one tracking tool to streamline the planning process
  • consistency of documents, rather than a mishmash of Excel and Microsoft Word files
  • online meeting registration
  • a way to integrate online registration with the corporate travel department or an outside travel department

Getting Going

But that’s not the end of the story. After nine months with the new software, the meeting team was not much closer to automating its planning than before. It’s a tale that John Maddox, who sold them the technology package, was very familiar with.

Software sales pitches to meeting departments often go great, he says, because planners are anxious to invest in packages that promise to save them time and money. But then, he adds, a department "limps along for six months or a year" and the power of the meeting technology is never harnessed. "People don’t take the time to figure out how to integrate the technology with the way each person does meeting planning," Maddox explains. "Companies need help to get up and get going."

Not long after selling New York Life on Isis Gold, Maddox left Isis and created Meetings IT, a consultancy with the specific aim of helping meeting departments make planning software work for them. Maddox is intimately famiiliar with the needs of meeting planners, having started his career as one. His goal as a consultant is to help planners "map their business processes onto the software." It’s sort of like hiring a personal trainer to get your department into high-tech shape. New York Life was his first client. How They Did It

Most of the process of automating New York Life’s meeting planning involved painstaking training and discussions of procedures. Where Maddox helped most, especially with his meetings background, was in translating what team members said they needed into technological functions that the corporate information department understood, and could create with the software. "John was invaluable in helping us customize the software," del Vecchio says. "He knew the right questions to ask us."

After six months, the department had the registration and event modules of the software up and running. Then they and Maddox went one step further. They put the software to the test at New York Life’s 2001 Partners Meeting in Phoenix.

The meeting, which draws 600 attendees, was being run with an incentive house using its own software. On site, the New York Life crew used the new Isis software to do the same functions, such as check-in, and run the same reports, such as activity counts, "right next to the technology the incentive house was using," del Vecchio explains. "We wanted to see how far off we were. We were very close." They even decided to take a crack at the Honor Dinner seating, traditionally the biggest meeting bugaboo. "We pulled it off," Bruno says. "We were only two people short. [The incentive house] was way off."

With the cooperation of New York Life’s managing partners (who were the delegates at the Partners Meeting), Bruno also tested the new registration system. The MPs agreed to register twice, once through the old system and once through the new system. Again, the new system came through with flying colors.

With its value proven, the software went into full swing at the 2001 Executive Council meeting in October at Opryland. The Executive Council is a major undertaking: 3,200 attendees in four waves. In the past, the department had used an Access database plus Excel files to piece together invitation lists and complete other tasks, such as seating for the Honor Dinner, an 800-person event with very specific constraints. A home-office executive must be seated at each table to act as host, trophy winners must be seated at the front, the offices must be grouped in a certain way, the list goes on. In addition to the seating subtleties, there is a separate dinner for kids, but kids over a certain age are invited to come to the Honor Dinner if they want to.

In other words, there’s plenty of possibility for last-minute changes. "In the past [the planners] had the nightmare of 20 or 30 people standing outside the Honor Dinner while they made changes and tried to seat them," Maddox says. With the new system in place, he says, "There were no changes the day of the dinner."

The fix was twofold. First, the software was customized so that indicators (the attendees’ various honors, which office he or she is from, and so on) could be added to each attendee’s database listing. (Most have multiple indicators, notes Bruno: "That’s where the fun begins.") Then a program was created to prioritize those indicators and come up with the seating plan. That was the heavy lifting.

The second part of the fix was as simple as creating a checklist for attendees to go over at the registration table that verified their guests, activities, and dinner attendance. "It’s a huge report to run," says database manager Kim Quimby, "but it’s great to have the checklist. It’s saved us so much time." Those checklists become part of a daily change sheet that is used to update the database on site.

Both of these innovations have helped del Vecchio’s relationship with his hotel partners as well. "Opryland was an absolute joy for me," he says. "The year before I was doing seating up to 5 p.m. that day and the hotel was on my back: Are the three VIP tables going to be rounds of 10? 12? 8? Now it’s finalized a day ahead of time." Up Next

The department’s latest technological leap was the purchase earlier this year of a Central Reservation System interface. When New York Life works with a travel company on booking group air, the new interface electronically collects travel data from the travel company’s CRS and plugs it into Isis Gold.

With that in place, the department continues its training on the software. "The biggest ongoing challenge is that we don’t have all of the modules open yet," del Vecchio says. Maddox is still involved, helping the department unbundle all of the software package’s capabilities and put them to work. The budgeting module, for example, will automatically calculate a meeting’s total cost as attendee numbers change and other adjustments are made and will track the history of meeting spending, while the task management module will take novice planners through every step of planning a New York Life meeting. Del Vecchio expects that both will be up and running by 2004.