The motivation for extending the wellness initiative into a company’s meetings is typically twofold: On one hand, people are increasingly conscious of their physical and mental well-being — so many attendees will expect meetings to enable them to continue their healthy lifestyles. On the other hand, upper management wants a healthy workforce, which motivates wellness initiatives during internal meetings.
Atlanta, Georgia-based Cox Automotive’s meetings show both motivations at play. “We have seen an increase in the attendee’s interest in wellness in the last 10 years,” says Thais Toro, MBA in International Business and Marketing and event planner. At the company’s client-hosted programs and incentives, “demand for more creative wellness activities is increasing, due to people seeking outdoor and adventure activities in their personal lives.”
At the same time, Cox’s planners also want their attendees to reap the rewards of healthy practices at these events. “The positive impact on people’s behavior after exercising or having healthy eating options is evident,” she adds. “All these different alternatives boost energy, morale, improve concentration and reduce stress. If our attendees are happy, planners will be happy too.” And the company itself prioritizes wellness, so it’s natural that meetings will reflect that aspect of the corporate culture. “Our company provides a very solid platform to support Cox wellness culture through ‘Know Your Numbers’ — where employees get a free health screening and earn credit to pay for our health-care costs,” Toro notes. “Other examples include: the farm-to-table plan, where we support community agriculture programs; standing desks; flexible work hours; remote working day; health fairs; campaigns to get flu shots; etc.”
While incorporating wellness into meetings makes sense from different perspectives, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution. Planners will need to customize the offerings to the wellness interests of their attendees and to their demographics. For example, Grapevine, Texas-based GameStop’s attendee demographic is largely millennial, male gamers, and physical fitness isn’t necessarily a big part of their culture, observes Samantha Vogel, CMP, senior manager, meetings and travel. Over the years, there has been some trial and error in determining which exercise offerings will resonate with most of the attendees. Boot camp and yoga sessions turn out to be less popular than the company’s Fun Run event.
Vogel has also found it effective to simply ask attendees what they’re looking for in this area. “We’ve incorporated the wellness piece into our attendee registration process as well as the attendee feedback process,” she explains. “So we’re asking on the front end: ‘Will you participate in this?’ Because if we’re not getting a lot of interest, maybe we can restructure the activity to make it more appealing. And of course, on the back end we always ask: ‘Was this worth it? Would you do it again? If you didn’t like it, what could we replace it with that would provide the opportunity for you to decompress and focus on yourself while you’re at these meetings?’”
As a result of the feedback, a certain activity may be redesigned, eliminated or simply scaled back if the contingent of interested attendees is relatively small. Often, “it’s about scaling the options to meet the needs of most of your attendees,” Vogel says. “So even though exercise isn’t as big of a passion point for our attendee base, we still have people that are very into exercise and we don’t want to pull all those pieces out.”
Meetings can be mentally taxing on attendees. Even if the event isn’t an intense training session or highly interactive, fairly constant focus on the presenters is required. During those moments of inattention to session content, attendees often tend to work-related matters on their devices. As such, most meetings benefit from built-in options for mental recovery. Toward this end, the Cox Automotive planning team has incorporated meditation breaks and spa activities. As to the former, Toro notes that “We like to use outdoor areas, as being in contact with nature is another stimulating option that we use to support well-being.” Spa sessions are becoming more popular, and she observes that “Guests want to go beyond the standard massage or facial choice; they want specific selections, upgraded selections and a longer duration.”
GameStop has specially designed a mental wellness venue for its attendees. Dubbed the Rest & Recovery Lounge, the space includes complimentary massages, couches for attendees who want to lie down, soothing custom lighting, spa music and even an on-site EMT ready to service any attendee’s physical issues. “Our annual meeting is very stimulating. It’s gaming, so we have a lot of realistic combat, pyrotechnics and laser shows. And we have a lot of attendees that have medical conditions or they just get over-stimulated,” Vogel says. “So it’s also a very popular place throughout the week. And it’s especially popular at the beginning of our annual meeting when everybody wants a free massage after being on a plane for however many hours.”
Feedback from attendees has played a role in developing the lounge. “The first year we did the room, people said, ‘Thank you for finally doing this.’” However, when Vogel’s team was considering adding aromatherapy to the lounge this year to round out the multisensory experience, a GameStop resource group discouraged the idea. Comprised of those who identify with or have a disability, the group “said that people with disabilities often have sensitivities to different smells, so can you not have any aromatherapy in there? We said, ‘absolutely.’” As popular as any wellness element may be, attendees’ preferences and needs always come first in designing the experience.
Veterans with PTSD, who form part of the attendee base, found the Rest & Recovery Lounge especially valuable in helping them decompress. Managing everyday stress is also an important aspect of mental wellness, and there is much research supporting the theory that petting animals lowers stress levels. With that in mind, GameStop also added a Puppy Lounge to its annual conference.
Runs, hikes, cycling tours and other group exercise activities can’t be accommodated in every meeting schedule, but a planner can at least try to facilitate personal gym time for attendees. “Some fitness centers open and close at certain times, and we go in and negotiate with the property to extend those hours on the front end and back end,” says Karen Zunkowski, director of global event marketing for South Jordan, Utah-based Ivanti. According to Vogel, who often speaks with planner colleagues on customer advisory boards, “people aren’t always including fitness and wellness amenities in their standard contracts. And I think that’s becoming more of a trend. It’s something we’ve been doing for a long time. We always contract a concession for all of our attendees to have full access to any wellness facilities on the property.”
The Fun Run is the most popular of the physically oriented wellness activities offered at GameStop’s annual meeting. “On a good year, out of 4,500 attendees, we get maybe 300-400 people” participating, Vogel says. “But there’s definitely been years where we’ve had 150 people.” Group yoga has had even lower participation, sometimes a turnout of only about 30 attendees, and boot camp was discontinued after two years. “We found that a lot of the people that were really hardcore into working out were just doing it on their own time and not necessarily going to the boot camp,” she notes. Unlike specialized forms of exercise, the Fun Run has a general appeal. “You’re not going to go to a yoga class if you don’t practice yoga; you don’t want to look like the one person that’s never done yoga before,” Vogel says. “But with the fun run, they don’t have that pressure of having to be the most in-shape person; you can even walk it. They’re doing it at their own pace and with their friends. It’s a social experience.”
However, basic yoga can certainly be an inclusive activity, one that has both physical and mental fitness components. For some of Ivanti’s smaller meetings, Zunkowski has brought in a yoga instructor “to do a stretch break in the afternoon, just some minimal stretching that anyone of any age or capability can participate in,” she says.
Healthy cuisine at meetings is nothing new, however, what is considered optimally healthy is subject to an increasing variety of interpretations depending on the diet, whether its vegan, keto, paleo, pescatarian and so forth. Accommodating these diets is incumbent upon planners and chefs today, more than ever before. There is also an elevated call for locally sourced foods and indigenous dishes. A sign of the times is the popularity of agrotourism tours. “Our Portuguese winery tour, including olive oil tasting, bread making, etc., was our highest selected tour,” Toro says.
The low-carb trend can benefit the meeting at hand, not just attendees’ overall health. “We know how more and more studies are being done on the effects of food on people’s attention spans and ability to focus, and how the blood-sugar level can be affected,” Zunkowski says. “And much of what we talk about is pretty technical and intensive. So we offer a little variety: You get your Red Bulls, but we’re also going to give you healthier food options and make sure there is always a protein available to you and not everything has carbs.”
Proteins tend to be more expensive, however, and in general healthier options, e.g., organic, can present budgetary hurdles. “One of the challenges we do feel we have is that healthy breaks are oftentimes so much more expensive than just a regular F&B break,” Vogel says. “So it’s cheaper to feed people cookies than to feed them smoothies. We’re trying to work with hotels and convention centers to find more economical options to provide healthier breaks.” But apart from generic options like trail mix, it can be hard to avoid a higher price tag for healthy cuisine. So the context provided by the meeting and the attendees is key: Are many attendees calling for organic options, or specialty smoothies and nutrition bars? Is the meeting an intense training session where participants would benefit from low-carb, high-protein meals? Such questions help planners determine whether the investment in healthier options is justified.
Despite the ongoing popularity of healthy lifestyles, with new diets, fitness routines and products continually flooding the market, not all health-minded individuals are created equal in terms of motivation and commitment. Planners can encourage attendees to stick to the lifestyle during the meeting with various ‘carrots.’ “We look for gifting options that help motivate people to reach their well-being goals, such as fitness watches, sport apparel and branded water bottles,” Toro says. Similarly, GameStop offers a $50 gift card to motivate attendees to participate in the company’s Wellness Fair, where they can have their vitals measured and various other ‘checkup’ routines. “In addition to getting feedback on where they are in their personal health, they’re getting a cash incentive,” Vogel explains. “And for us it’s a way to track our associates’ wellness from year to year and lower the overall benefit cost that GameStop is paying purely by providing this activity at our meetings and providing that incentive around it as well.”
Competition is a great motivator for some people, and that element can easily be added to physical exercises, i.e., the ‘fitness challenge.’ Both Cox Automotive and Ivanti coordinate ‘step challenges’ at some of their meetings, where attendees compete for the most steps during the event. “We’ve incorporated that into our mobile app game: Whoever puts in the most steps gets a prize for that day, usually some sort of tech gadget such as an Amazon Echo,” Zunkowski says. “They’ll be rewarded for having their hotel room be so far away from the conference room,” she quips. “If it’s a long walk, let’s have some fun with it.”
Hoteliers, through their facilities, fitness programs and referrals to local wellness providers, are invaluable partners in the wellness effort. While a hotel’s lack of robust wellness features is seldom a ‘deal breaker’ in site selection, it can certainly hamper a hotel’s bid when it comes to certain groups. “We love to partner with hotels that care about their guest’s health and provide a supportive lifestyle,” Toro says. “We really pay attention to properties that have nice gym facilities and/or offer fitness classes, hiking or bicycling activities. Food is also important, and we focus on hotels that provide a healthy menu. Providing fitness services outside just the gym environment and extended F&B programs is a key indicator that the hotel’s overall mindset on wellness is as important as ours. We also like to partner with properties that have outdoor areas to host activities such as meals and team building, providing another way to bring wellness to meetings.” She adds, “Hotel spas that offer expanded services as steam, sauna or hammam [Turkish bath], where guests stay at the spa, is double the duration and experience, providing a higher value on our wellness spend.”
Among the many hotel brands offering creative wellness breaks and wellness features in their meeting and guest rooms, is MGM Resorts International’s Stay Well program. The Corporate Event Marketing Association (CEMA) Summit 2019 was held at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Zunkowski, who attended, was able to experience Stay Well guest rooms. “They actually designated all of the participants to be in the Stay Well rooms. We could check in at the Stay Well registration desk, which was also a nice perk,” she says. “I appreciated that smoke-free environment and the separate check-in. Each guest room has a humidifier in it, which is good for people that are not used to the dry air. There is a water filter on the shower head and they have a different room service menu that offers mostly healthy options.” Zunkowski concludes that “a good percentage” of Ivanti attendees “would really appreciate” the Stay Well product.
Paying close attention to attendees’ interests and demographics as they relate to wellness is the best way to ensure one’s planning efforts in this area aren’t for naught. Some attendees may not take interest in yoga or organic food options and such elements should never be incorporated simply because they are trendy. As an investment into your meetings, wellness should demonstrate some ROI in terms of strong attendee participation and positive feedback. C&IT