Training Meetings: Trends and TacticsJuly 1, 2013

July 1, 2013

Training Meetings: Trends and Tactics


With the economy slowly, but surely, expanding, corporate executives seem to be putting more emphasis on sales and training meetings in 2013.

For example, one survey found that this year about a quarter of surveyed executives planned on increasing budgets for sales and training meetings, and that one-third expected their sales meetings to have an increasing number of attendees.

Site Selection

Conference centers and hotels continue to be prime venues for sales and training meetings.

NorthPointe Hotel & Conference Center in Lewis Center, OH, used to be a facility dedicated totally to Nationwide Mutual Insurance Com­pany’s training programs. While it is owned by Nationwide and still serves as Nationwide’s primary training center, the campus is now open for other meeting and event business when not being utilized by Nationwide.

According to Kathryn Burton, general manager of the NorthPointe Hotel and Conference Center, the advantage of a place like NorthPointe is its isolation, which minimizes distractions and helps to facilitate learning. “It’s centrally located in Ohio, but it sits off the road to create a private retreat, so it feels like you are a million miles away,” she says.
Another advantage is that it is a facility dedicated to hosting meetings and events, particularly those related to training and sales meetings. Consequently, Burton says, NorthPointe is up to date technologically and provides planners with an environment in which attention is focused squarely on their, and their attendees’ needs.

“It’s important to get that right balance between getting our message out, and knowing what they want to hear.”

— Jennifer Dela-Cruz, CMP, Associate Director, Meetings & Events, RBC, Toronto, ON

While hotels make obvious choices for these kinds of meetings as well, they do create a bit of a challenge for one senior meeting planner from a large national financial services company who is still concerned about perception issues.

“Our budgets go through a lot of scrutiny,” she says. “And there are certainly concerns about perception for our internal events that we are not spending too lavishly or going on boondoggles. And that’s especially true for sales and training — we want to make sure there’s no perception that we’re taking our people out just to party.”

So while her budgets haven’t changed, she says, she prefers to bring those events to mid-level hotels, particularly if it is away from corporate headquarters, “because we don’t want it to look like we’re spending more money, whether or not we actually are.”

While holding sales and training meetings onsite at a company’s headquarters is always a possibility, that presents the problem of having to grab an attendee’s undivided attention. For most planners, offsite is better.

For any kind of sales strategy meeting that requires a lengthier period of time, “where you can really role-play and build skills, getting offsite is great, because you do get rid of all distractions” says Randy Schwantz, an insurance trainer and owner of The Wedge Group in Frisco, TX.

Anita Carlyle, CMP, CMM, managing partner at Moore Carlyle Consulting in Toronto, and a member of the membership committee of Financial and Insurance Conference Planners, points out that smaller boutique properties and unique venue spaces make good sales and training meeting destinations, particularly for companies that simply want to get out of their downtown location for the day so that their people can’t run back to their offices.

The financial services senior planner says that she always goes offsite for sales and training meetings simply because “we don’t want (the attendees) running back to the office or going home in the evening.

“The biggest key is taking them out of the office and out of their home environment so we get their undivided attention,” she says, pointing out that it also helps to get her salespeople together as a group. “It’s already a close-knit sales team and the more they bond, the better they seem to do.”

Meeting Formats

Jennifer Dela-Cruz, CMP, associate director, meetings and events, brand marketing for RBC in Toronto, says that for sales meetings, her groups typically have about 125 attendees, so it’s fairly intimate and allows for breakouts. For larger groups, she says, they may try to get a little more interactive — “something that will get people off their chairs and get them more awake and alive.”

She has found that the length of her sales meetings has been shrinking: now they last 1½ days or two at the most, rather than the three days they were in the past.

“People just want to get back to their business,” she says. “Branch managers want to get back to their offices, or they have clients looking for them. A day and a half, or two days is about the most people are looking to sacrifice to do any kind of professional development, sales or high-level strategy event. As much as everybody says networking and face-to-face interactions are important, they are still worried about their day-to-day business.”

The financial services senior planner says that in her case, the best kind of learning environment is one in which she has her group together. If she’s at a hotel, she wants it to essentially be as close to a buy-out situation as possible so that her attendees have more privacy and fewer distractions, and she’s able to get better service.

She says that for her sales meetings, sessions usually last between 30 minutes and one hour, and that attendees will usually go to two or three sessions before a break, although she does provide continuous coffee service so that her people can go in and out of sessions if needed.

“You can tell when a session has gone on too long,” she says. “(Attendees) will start to wander, go to the restrooms and check their phones. If you see a crowd in the foyer, then you can tell you’ve hit a breaking point.”

So there is the challenge of maintaining the engagement level at these kinds of meetings. Getting the right kind of speaker/trainer can help, says Dela-Cruz, pointing out that the term “edutainer” has become fashionable.

“But, you want to make sure that what these speakers and trainers are talking about relates to the content,” she says. “Do you want a humorous or motivational speaker if they aren’t going to tap into why your people are all meeting together? A speaker or trainer has to understand what the end goal is, and then relate it to content.”

Technological Advances — and Challenges

“Technology is definitely the most challenging item we have to deal with as far as staying ahead of the curve,” says NorthPointe’s Burton. She notes that NorthPointe constantly brings in consultants from companies in the audio-visual and furnishings realm to assess the facility in order to ensure “our facilities remain world class.”

NorthPointe has to “constantly re-evaluate” its facilities, Burton says. “You have to, because the tools the students are using out in the field — like Microsoft Surface — are very different than they were even two years ago.”

One such change has been the trend towards providing attendees with iPads pre-loaded with event content, particularly as meeting planners try to move away from print. Dela-Cruz points out that electronic security issues complicate things technologically for companies like hers.

“Since we’re a financial institution, there are still a lot of challenges out there for us when it comes to using those devices,” she says. “And it has to do more with internal security challenges, rather than actually using the devices themselves. If I’m an attendee at an industry conference, they are great — a lot of fun. But when it comes to our group, if our attendees don’t all have them, then there’s no point in putting an agenda on an iPad.”

For planners looking to take their sales/training meetings offsite, Internet access remains a challenge, simply because it’s very difficult to find a venue that’s going to provide the free Internet that all planners crave.

“It’s at the point now that we don’t expect Internet to be free at any venue,” says the financial services senior planner. “It costs us a lot of money, and we all think it should be free, so it’s one of the concessions I always ask for.” Not that she always gets what she asks for — hotels tend to give her free Internet in the guest rooms, but not in the meeting rooms, she says.

Fortunately, this planner seldom wants to provide general Internet access to her groups during sales meetings anyway, since her attendees will “probably end up just playing on their Blackberries all day and not listen to the sessions. So I only tend to buy five or 10 connections per meeting.”

There are occasions however, when a meeting will have an interactive component, which does require attendees to have full Internet access. “We can expect to see more and more of these events that have interactive content where people will be using their iPads or iPhones,” she says. “It’s just a question of keeping them engaged so they’re not wandering off and doing other things on their iPads other than the things we want them to do.”

Carlyle points out that the cost of providing Internet access to sales and training meeting attendees isn’t the only challenge facing planners — there’s also the question of available bandwidth. “So you might get free Internet,” she points out, “but have a situation where your people get back to their rooms at 5 p.m., and they’re fighting with other users at the hotel for limited bandwidth.”

Holding an Effective Meeting

According to Randy Schwantz, sales meetings tend to fall into different categories, such as a “spreadsheet buyer’s club meeting,” where there’s talk about numbers, “but you never really learn anything.” Or there’s a town hall kind of meeting, where “Mr. Big gets up and talks about the firm’s state of affairs, and then lets the underwriter talk and discuss what’s happening.”

It’s important to remember, Schwantz says, that there should be a difference between a sales meeting and, for example, a training meeting or meeting designed to impart some information from leadership to staff. A sales meeting should help a salesperson find a better way of winning business, make more money and grow the firm. One of the keys to a successful sales meeting, he says, is participation. They can tend to be lifeless if the meeting is dominated by one or two people who tend to drone on. Instead staff should be encouraged to participate, and the meetings should be planned with that in mind.

On the other hand, a training meeting is something that should be designed to develop a skill and, Schwantz says, role-playing exercises should be a key component in this kind of a meeting.

For example, if he’s trying to introduce a team to some kind of brand new sales concept he might take them offsite for a “solid” two days, and “roll out the concept, create a lot of discovery and a little bit of angst, so that they become open to learning, and then start to break down the process,” he says. “And then we’ll role play, role play, role play, then add another piece, then more role play, so that we’re building it from beginning to end, so that when your team leaves that meeting, you’re not just getting (the new concept) conceptually.”

He compares it to learning how to drive or to play golf: A golf pro can explain the mechanics of a good golf swing, but it won’t really take until the pupil goes out on the course and practices. “To learn how to use a new skill you need to role play,” he explains. “You need practice, and you need feedback, and you need it on a continual basis so that you can actually use (the new skill). You can get something conceptually, but never get it pragmatically. I can tell you how to drive, but if I never put you in a car, you’ll never learn how to drive.”

In the end, says Dela-Cruz, she finds that it’s useful to understand not only what the company wants to tell its salesforce or other staff, but also what the employees want to hear. “It’s important to get that right balance between getting our message out, and knowing what they want to hear,” she says. I&FMM

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