Planners Look AheadNovember 1, 2013

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November 1, 2013

Planners Look Ahead

IFMM-2013-1112-NovDec-Outlook2014-300x470When asked how 2014 was shaping up in terms of the meetings she plans, Debbie Lipsky, CMP, senior meeting planner for SEI, a financial services firm headquartered in Oaks, PA, had good news to report. “We definitely see that things are on the upswing again. It’s busier, more positive,” she says, adding, “not that it was ever really slow.”

As evidence of the upswing, she explained that while SEI has a conference center on its campus, many meetings that had been held there for years are now being taken offsite. “It was a good year,” she notes. “They want to celebrate it.”

Lipsky and her team play a role in more than 500 sales and client meetings a year. In addition to the meetings they plan from start to finish, they also provide support to other departments. “In our organization, our team is valued by the service levels we provide and experiences we provide, so we get pulled into a lot of things that in most companies, a planner might not get pulled into,” she explains. “It’s more to make sure everything is covered so that our salesmen and women or our relationship managers can focus on what they need to do and leave the logistical aspects up to us.”

Technology Trends

She also noted that technology is now playing a bigger role in her company’s meetings. “We did a big change last year,” she states. “We had event apps for four to five of our larger client events and one internal event. It was great. With each one we had increased engagement. We were able to decrease our printing. Everything was accessible via the app. It was a great experience.”

“We had event apps for four to five of our larger client events and one internal event. …With each one we had increased engagement.”

— Debbie Lipsky, CMP, Senior Meeting Planner, SEI, Oaks, PA

Lipsky explained that before introducing event apps into their external meetings, they tested the technology within the company. “We experimented with it with an internal group, which was senior management and leaders in the company,” she describes. “For one of their offsites last fall, we said, ‘Can we experiment with this?’ It wasn’t the most robust program, but it was all of our key stakeholders for future programs, and they all liked it and bought into it so we did it. The first client event we used an app for, engagement was OK. It wasn’t as great as we thought it would be, but we learned from it and for the next two client events, the presentations were on there. Everything was on there. They loved it. They could follow along, and they could take notes in (the app).”

When SEI used the event app at a large client event, it resulted in another welcome benefit. “There was a lot of networking amongst the attendees, which is what we always want to create,” Lipsky notes. She says that the app allowed attendees to post and comment on different elements of the meeting, which allowed them to connect in ways they wouldn’t have done before. “It was good. We’re definitely doing (the apps) again next year. Having attended a lot of event planning industry functions, we’ve used apps, and we thought ‘this is what everyone is doing, we ought to do it.’ But we came to find out not everyone is doing it.”

Amy Ingalls, senior meeting and event planner for Transamerica Life & Protection in Cedar Rapids, IA, also reports that technology is having a greater impact on her meetings. For example, they use RFID technology to track attendance at continuing education sessions to ensure that attendees receive proper credit.

Transamerica also uses mobile apps at its meetings, and Ingalls says this is another item that impacts a meeting’s budget. “Years ago, you didn’t have to have a line item for mobile apps. You do have to make room (in the budget) for that now.”

She made another important point about the use of mobile apps. “When you’re in an international destination, you can’t really offer them. You have to go back to the old-fashioned paper because not everybody has international service on their phone. You have to keep that in mind.”

“The C-level executives are giving me the charge to be more cost-effective and look for more ways to trim the budgets. Not substantially, just being more conscientious about what we’re spending the money on.”

— Amy Ingalls, Senior Meeting and Event Planner, Transamerica Life & Protection, Cedar Rapids, IA

Sarah Whitlock, CMP, meeting and event manager for Pioneer Investments in Boston, reports that her company is also using technology differently now. First of all, all members of their salesforce have iPads. “We also did something at our sales meeting last year where people could take out their smartphones and do voting that way,” she explains.

Lipsky described a very creative way her team recently used technology. “We did a virtual cocktail reception.” The event was designed to celebrate the completion of a project with one of SEI’s clients. “They’re in Minnesota and we’re in Pennsylvania, and a lot of the people who worked on the project have never met face to face,” she explains. We videoconferenced from our facility here and from their celebration in Minnesota. They were at a hotel. It worked really well. The key stakeholders for that project from both organizations were able to speak to both parties and thank everyone for the hard work on the projects. Everyone had a good time. People said, ‘This is great, I finally got to see this person.’ ” (And just in case you were wondering, the cocktails were real, not virtual.)

She adds, “We always challenge ourselves with ‘what can we do better that other people aren’t doing?’ A lot of times our internal clients who are the host of the program are OK with keeping things the way they are, but we ask, ‘What can we do different to make it more exciting and a unique experience for them?’ ”

Ingalls has added some meeting planning apps to her iPad, but admits she hasn’t found time yet to use them a lot. She laughingly shares a sentiment that many other planners can likely relate to: “I’m running around with my hair on fire, just trying to keep up!”

Planners surveyed for a recent New York University study on how technology is used to enhance meetings and events reported that the advantages of using mobile apps include: allowing a more robust give-and-take between attendees and presenters than is typically possible with audience response/polling systems; reducing printing costs through paperless agendas; engaging and maintaining contact with incentive event attendees; and ease of disseminating information.

Other findings from the study, which was summarized by the Incentive Research Foundation (www.irg.org), reveal that planners believe Wi-Fi connectivity should be provided as a free or low-cost service; social media can enhance event engagement, but also can be a time-consuming distraction; virtual meetings will not replace face-to-face meetings altogether, “especially incentive events where attendees receive rewards and expect unique experiences,” the IRF notes.

Budget Matters

As usual, budgets will be top of mind for planners in the coming year. “I am still planning the same number of meetings,” Ingalls says, noting that they plan about 90 meetings and incentives per year. “The C-level executives are giving me the charge to be more cost-effective and look for more ways to trim the budgets. Not substantially, just being more conscientious about what we’re spending the money on.

“Transamerica operates in a decentralized manner, meaning that I’m the planner here in Cedar Rapids but there’s also a large distribution group in Atlanta,” she continues. “They have their own planner. The same way with Los Angeles and Baltimore, and there’s a planner in Little Rock. We each do our own meetings, but we have been just this year asked to look at ways that we can be more cost-effective together and share some expenses.

“Hotel rates are going up with lots of little hidden fees, the resort fee, the Internet fee, all of that, and it’s frustrating when you’re trying to do your budget. I wish they would just put it in the room rate and be done with it. And,” she adds, “they still charge us an arm and a leg for flipcharts!”

The 2014 Industry Forecast by the travel management consultancy firm Advito also cites increasing hotel rates. The report states, “With a year of improved demand under their belts, hotels will look to increase meeting rates more sharply in 2014 than in 2013. The growing imbalance between supply and demand improves their chances of success. Once again, rates will rise faster in first-tier cities than elsewhere.”

Whitlock is experiencing this shortage of hotel inventory firsthand. “Being a planner in the Boston area, it’s a challenge, really, to find meeting space. There’s a hotel shortage in Boston and it’s really tough. I’m planning something right now, and I’m having trouble finding space (eight months out).”

The Advito forecast also indicates, “The issue for buyers is that contracts are taking longer to complete because hotels are becoming more resistant to amendments and addenda requested by the client. Clients are coming under more pressure to accept contract terms they may otherwise reject.” The research done for the forecast also found that a growing number of U.S. hotels are insisting on keeping meeting room rental fees in the contract instead of being willing to negotiate them away.

Ingalls also notes the rising cost of airfare having an impact on budgets. “That’s always questionable. That budget item always just creeps up and up and up.”

Incentive Trends

According to the 2013 Spring Pulse Survey produced by the Incentive Research Foundation, 55 percent of survey respondents anticipate no changes to their budgets for incentive programs in the coming year as a result of recent economic conditions. The report also notes that 42 percent of respondents indicated that North America was their chosen region for incentive travel programs followed by the Caribbean (32 percent), Europe (31 percent), Central America (18 percent), and South America (16 percent).

“We have been looking at more international lately in terms of all-inclusive properties,” Ingalls notes in reference to her incentive programs. “That makes it really easy for us to stay on track with the food and beverage portion of the budget.

“I just got off of a program in Jamaica,” she continues. “We had 680 people there. It was all-inclusive, and it worked quite well because I knew what my food and beverage spend was going to be (except for) some little setup line items. It’s also easy for the attendees. When you have attendees who are your top level versus your attendees who are new to the business and just coming in, they can go out to the pool and have drinks with each other, and they’re on a level playing field. The top-level agent, at some other resort in Florida (for example), could say, ‘I’ll buy a round,’ but the new agent, he can’t buy a round for the whole pool. Those all-inclusive resorts really help the attendees feel equal.”

She shared an experience one of her attendees had with an all-inclusive property. “One of our top agents, a general agent with us, brags about how when he checked out a couple of years ago in the Dominican Republic, he only had a $14 bill because he bought something like a toothbrush and toothpaste in the gift shop.” She laughs, “How often does that happen? I thought that was wonderful.”

Ingalls also uses cruises for her incentive programs. “In August we had an Alaskan cruise (on Royal Caribbean) and the attendees loved it. There again, for the most part, you can really budget ahead for your food and beverage. Your costs are going to be pretty much set in stone when you sign the contract for most of the food and beverage.

“I’ve also done quite a few Caribbean cruises,” she adds. “I’ve used the Royal Caribbean Allure of the Seas for three different programs. That ship is just a ‘wow’ in itself. It’s unbelievable — 17 stories tall. It’s bigger than my home town! I’m from a really small home town of 3,800 people.”

She noted another advantage of booking cruises. “With the cruises you also don’t have to worry about arranging optional activities. The cruise line does that on its own. When you’re doing a land program, you typically offer (something like a) swim with the dolphins excursion. You don’t have to do that on the cruise because they are experts on that and do that every day.”

When asked if her incentive programs are changing in any way, she says, “Here at Transamerica, we haven’t had any changes with our incentives. We have raised the qualifications for the agents, but in terms of content, meetings, what we offer and what we give, that has stayed the same. I do hear other planners say that they’ve gone away from the in-room amenities, that type of thing. We have not changed. What gets hard is always trying to improve and one-up yourself from the previous incentive trip. How are we going to outdo ourselves this year? That’s the hard part.”

Ingalls plans incentives for seven different distribution groups, and she says that the Caribbean is a popular destination. “The majority of our agents are from the Midwest, so going to those warmer climates in the winter is very popular. There are a couple of different distribution groups that really like the Mexico all-inclusives, and they always request those, and Hawaii is always on the surveys of destinations to go to. They like the palms trees and the beaches.”

Whitlock plans one incentive trip each year for her company’s President’s Club. “We stay within the continental U.S. The length is staying the same, content is staying the same. It’s always a challenge to keep it fresh, finding a place that not everybody has been to. We actually went to Lake Tahoe last year. That was our first time going into a snowy destination, but people really seemed to like it. We’re going back to Florida this coming year.” Pioneer’s yearly trip is held in late March.

In terms of the activities offered in her incentive program, Whitlock notes, “We are doing more free time. People enjoy that. Having a free night is kind of nice, especially on an incentive trip when you’re there with your spouse or a good friend of yours and are able to spend some quality time together.”

Managing the Menu

Whitlock noted another trend. “Something that I’ve noticed recently, and I think it’s going to continue, is the trend towards healthy eating,” she says, referring to increasing requests for carb-free, sugar-free and other healthful options, not to mention other issues such as shellfish allergies. “It’s got to be a challenge to be a chef with all of those demands, and it’s challenging for the planner, too, because you want to keep everyone happy. You’ve got people saying, ‘Where are the hot pretzels and the make-your-own sundae bar?’ and then you’ve got people saying, ‘Where are the green juices? Where is the kale?’ You’ve got to strike a medium ground, and it’s a challenge.”

The Year Ahead

While the meetings industry will continue to evolve in 2014, one thing will likely remain the same:  “Meeting everyone’s expectations for the meeting while coming in under budget,” Whitlock comments. “I think that’s ‘Outlook 1990 through 2090,” she laughs. “It’s the permanent outlook!” I&FMM

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