| Features - July/August 2008 |
By Diana Rowe
In today’s corporate world, a meeting planner’s to-do list often reads more like an impossible to-do list: selecting sites, negotiating rates and space, analyzing contracts, sending out requests for proposals, planning programs, and making food and beverage decisions. Then, the planner has to hunker down, offer an intriguing educational, training or incentive program and then promote the meeting to every potential attendee possible.
Paradoxically, the current down economy actually may make it easier for planners to elevate the strategic importance of meetings and to demonstrate ROI to C-level executives — now, more than ever, corporate events are key to boosting morale and rallying the troops with a unified corporate message and goals, as well as keeping sales teams motivated.
However, the real challenge may be convincing time-starved employees and incentive winners to carve out even more of their time to attend these important meetings.
Jennifer C. Squeglia, CMP, owner of RLC Events, a full-service planning company located in Marlborough, MA, said, “Meetings are a necessary component of doing business, but too many combined with heavy workloads, travel schedules and personal lives make it difficult for the planner to schedule a non-conflicting date netting a decent turnout.”
Squeglia, who is a longstanding and active member of Financial & Insurance Conference Planners (FICP), brings a long history of experience in the insurance and financial industry including more than five years at John Hancock. “Constantly survey, listen and act upon the feedback from your attendees and potential attendees,” she said. “If you’re not hitting the majority of those folks, something is not right and adjustments will need to be made. Incorporate that feedback into the planning strategy,” Squeglia continued. “We learned that our attendees do want to attend meetings and events. However, they prefer shorter meetings, so we listened and adjusted some meetings from three or four nights into two to three nights, resulting in better attendance.”
Location, Location, Location
Easily accessible destinations reduce time away from home or work, and thus reduce stress for attendees. Squeglia suggested selecting destinations that offer as many nonstop flights from as many hubs as possible. “Location plays another big role in whether an attendee pushes our meeting to the bottom of her pile or is excited about attending,” she said. “Offering nonstop flights is a top priority to the time-conscious attendee.”
Frequent non-stop destinations for Squeglia’s clients are Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Dallas, Phoenix/Scottsdale and San Francisco. “We’ve found preferences for meetings near the airport, but not necessarily at an airport hotel. These cities provide consistent lifts and airport-to-airport service to most of our hub cities.”
Squeglia cited Scottsdale as an example of a historically well-attended program. Affordability and familiarity are vital, says Squeglia. “My clients want to manage their bottom line, and attendees like to go to familiar properties and destinations.
“Scottsdale appeals to the financial and insurance industries,” she continued. “The Phoenix airport offers direct access to multiple hubs requiring few connections. The Scottsdale region offers a great variety of luxury resorts, such as The Fairmont Scottsdale Princess, The Westin Kierland Resort & Spa and The Boulders. There’s a lot to do there, from great shopping to championship golf, all fairly close together, without having to fight downtown traffic.”
Location is what drew Julie Somers to Atlantis, Paradise Island, Bahamas for an incentive program for 340 attendees. Planners like Somers, who is meetings awards promotional coordinator for Allstate Insurance Company in Hauppauge, NY, often look to the Caribbean when tasked with organizing well-attended and effective incentive programs.
Atlantis, Paradise Island, Bahamas, boasts more than 3,400 hotel rooms in five main hotel towers. The conference center has 200,000 square feet of meeting space that includes the 50,000-square-foot Imperial Ballroom. For incentive programs, a sense of adventure and discovery can be cultivated at the property’s redefined waterscape addition, Aquaventure.
Part of Atlantis’ new venture, The Cove, opened earlier this year as an exclusive, beachfront property. This highly anticipated, billion-dollar expansion features an open-air lobby, top-notch dining experiences, newly expanded flagship Mandara Spa and private pool-side cabanas with butler service and flat screen televisions. Planners seeking a private, relaxing experience for their attendees should consider The Cove’s all-suite luxury hotel.
“The major selling points of a destination are ample airlift, abundance of options, and an exotic location,” said Somers. “Combine the attraction of The Bahamas, and the added bonus of onsite marine habitat, water sports, casinos, golf, spa, fine dining and other amenities, and the Atlantis entices attendees of all demographics.”
She emphasized the importance of keeping the energy and interest level high. “If the excitement drizzles to a stop once the attendee steps off the plane, then there will be no incentive to return next year. To keep the momentum going, I create high-energy events such as our main event. This themed awards night recreated the Bahamian traditions of a Junkanoo parade poolside with a high-energy band and buffet dinner, culminating with an impressive, deckside fireworks display.”
In the months preceding the meeting, Somers’ team created an ongoing marketing campaign to keep agents excited about the company’s ultimate payoff, a trip to Atlantis. “Throughout the year, we constantly hit them with reminders about the upcoming Atlantis incentive. We highlighted different amenities such as the family-friendly activities at Aquaventure or the attraction of onsite championship golf. We periodically send these bulletins via snail mail and e-mail. We also mail trinkets, like Atlantis magnets, maps of the Atlantis property and brochures. Multiple teasers keep the momentum of the incentive going while boosting the attendance of the event.”
Continuous updates in the company’s e-magazine combined with teasers and onsite entertainment resulted in a successful incentive trip for Allstate. In fact, Somers said that participation in this destination was so successful that they are returning in 2008.
CVBs Help Generate Buzz
Destination marketing organizations, or convention and visitors bureaus (CVBs) can be invaluable partners in helping to generate buzz. Charles Ahlers, president of the Anaheim/Orange County (CA) Visitor & Convention Bureau, observed that most planners are familiar with the complimentary and basic services offered by CVBs, but may overlook numerous other available tools.
For example, Ahlers said Web sites can be developed to enhance the destination experience for the attendee, which helps to build excitement and ultimately boost attendance.
“Almost all our services are complimentary,” said Ahlers. “We can send out leads to hotels to help meeting planners find open space and get the best rates. We offer site inspections, an extensive meeting and event planning guide containing meeting facilities and offsite venues, and about every aspect of the city. We realize planners have multiple choices for host cities, so we want to entice them with the California culture from its convenient location and easy access to full range of hotels and convention centers to its attractions. That’s our job, and it doesn’t cost the planner.
“Once a meeting is booked,” Ahlers continued, “we can also help planners promote the meeting with photos, a press kit, artwork for brochures and postcards, artwork for e-mail newsletters or Internet banner ads — whatever a planner might need to promote the meeting and boost attendance. Increased attendance for your meeting results in a greater economic impact for us.”
Ahlers added, “We have our fingers on the pulse of our community. We are one of the first to be notified when a new property with meeting space is breaking ground, or another favorite meeting resort is undergoing major renovation. If there’s a new restaurant, we know about that, too. When we combine that knowledge with the details about your meeting, we are able make the perfect connections.”
Web site promotion is a proven winner: “We can work in concert with the planner to develop a custom microsite to include information about the host hotel(s), transportation, golf, museums, adventure parks and other optional activities. But most importantly, we want to excite them about coming to Anaheim. We can display teasers about after-hours events, new restaurants and scheduled community events. Just like the planner, our goal is to send a message of welcome to the attendees. What better way to do that than provide them with as many destination details as possible to enhance their ultimate experience?”
Easy Online Registration
Alec Sonenthal, senior account manager of housing and registration services for Baskow & Associates, a Las Vegas-based destination management company, recognizes that an attendee’s online experience is critical to a positive meeting experience.
“No matter how smoothly a meeting runs,” Sonenthal said, “the one bad experience is remembered. Unfortunately, it’s often the online process, and slow or inferior online registration that will negatively affect your numbers.
“At Baskow, we’ve developed and designed, with valuable input from planners, our in-house registration technology,” he said. “When a potential attendee logs on to your registration site, they’ve selected the online route because their time is valuable. They don’t want to waste valuable minutes clicking dozens of times to finally get to the section for registration. However, with the right applications, online registration and tools can actually help boost attendance.
“We are big fans of integrating all data into one registration process,” Sonenthal continued. “Our job might not be the glorious part of the business, but online registration is the heart and soul of organizing the data and managing the attendees. Not everything has to be exciting and sexy to be an integral part of the meeting processes. Our goal is to ‘bother’ attendees one time to register and get all the info they need at one setting in one online location.”
“All the info” refers to anything from simple registration to adding hotel rooms or optional activities. When the potential attendee accesses the meeting’s online registration, all the options unfold to generate enthusiasm.
Sonenthal explained that there are three steps to boosting attendance via online registration: design of a seamless online registration experience; immediate confirmation; and ability to return for updates.
“The key,” said Sonenthal, “is an online experience that is intuitive and simple to navigate. In the online world, that means minimizing clicks. If we make it too complex or difficult to find, we’ll lose registrations, as your potential attendees simply lack the time to figure out the next steps.
“Immediate confirmation is immediate gratification,” said Sonenthal. “Providing an immediate confirmation of registration by e-mail simply seals the deal. The attendee knows their registration is complete, and this notification reduces their stress.
“People like to be in control, and online registration is a new and unfamiliar tool to many. If we provide attendees with the ability to easily return to their registration record to either update, change, or add to it, then we’ve returned the control to them.”
The best part about online registration is that now the planner has a built-in e-mail marketing system to manage their conference more effectively. What if a workshop’s location changes? With a click of the keys, registered attendees can be e-mailed the meeting location in seconds. In addition, planners can use this year’s contact list to market next year’s conference.
“A Web site or designated section of your company’s Web site is your information highway to provide up-to-date information to the attendees,” Sonenthal emphasized. “We can provide a wealth of information for a fraction of the cost by utilizing your existing list of attendees via specialized and target marketing to drive excitement and build for future years. Online registration does boost attendance, and makes the planner’s job easier today and in the future.”
What’s In It For Me?
This is the question asked by every attendee when deciding whether to attend an optional conference or event. Amy Schuerman, CMP, corporate event planner for Southfield, MI-based Credit Acceptance, a lender for car dealerships, said that her attendees prefer meeting-intensive events, so that they can return home to their work and/or family, while receiving some much needed education or direction.
“The excitement of our meetings is often directly related to our content,” Schuerman explained. “I have to remember that our program is optional. With tantalizing titles and exciting speakers, we market the excitement of our program, and how it will ultimately pay off when they return to their dealerships. In turn, we are constantly surveying and listening to feedback in order to hit the mark for future meetings.”
Most important, Schuerman has to convey the value of their program so the attendees can justify the expense and time away from their job. “Just saying ‘our fabulous educational program’ won’t get a response, but saying ‘our fabulous educational program’ and featuring the big-name speaker, the details of the educational sessions and the ultimate goal — making their business successful — then we have a winner. With voluntary attendance, continual communication and updates are essential.”
Schuerman offers signature events to entice or reward repeat attendees. “These are always offsite and usually themed by location. In New Orleans this October, the second evening we will transport the group to Mardi Gras World for a New Orleans celebration.
“We also entice attendees to enroll on time,” said Schuerman. “For early registrations at our upcoming New Orleans meeting for our primarily male audience, we are raffling tickets to a New Orleans Saints game. Football is a huge incentive to these guys, and we’ve been doing weekly e-mail blasts to remind them.”
Linda Richards-LaBrot, project manager III for the Houston, TX-based Wells Fargo Bank, coordinates an annual, required two-day meeting for more than 150 attendees consisting of store managers, district managers and support team members, and her job is to set the tone of their educational and informative meetings.
“Although attendance is required, we want enthusiasm,” said Richards-LaBrot. “You always get more interaction from participants when you add a little excitement.
“We try to keep the presentations at the level of the attendees,” said Richards-LaBrot. “In the case of financial review, oftentimes the presentation will be about information perhaps not related to the entire group’s needs as it doesn’t pertain to their day-to-day activities. Make it clear what is covered in the session and the degree of expertise required. Sometimes a program can be too broad, so we don’t deal exclusively with big picture issues. We strive for a balanced program of sessions that address every level of attendees’ needs and challenges.
“Sometimes theme comes first, and sometimes theme comes out of the agenda,” said Richards-LaBrot. “However, we incorporate a theme to roll the fun back into the sessions, and we did that with a 1970s theme a couple of years ago. Although our agenda was all sales information-related, and presentation titles did not reflect this theme, our presenters and team members dressed up in tie-dye shirts with a special performance by our version of the Village People. The result was our attendees were more receptive to the educational portion of the meeting because of the entertaining and relaxing setting.”
The Maze Of Marketing
Marian R. Calvin is vice president of communications for Experient, a Twinsburg, OH-based meeting and event solutions company, and she concedes that a planner’s job is rarely limited to the logistics. “It’s stunning to me that planners have to be jacks-of-all-trades. How can they do anything well when they have to do everything? Yet that’s what they do every day.”
Frequently planners are tempted to reallocate some time (and funds) from the marketing of their meeting, acknowledged Calvin. “This can prove to be a costly mistake, since the meeting is really the calling card of your organization. That means, it is in the best fiscal interest of your organization to ensure as many delegates as possible turn out for the event.
“Promotion is the key to increasing attendance figures,” said Calvin. “However, since 9/11 when marketing focused on e-mail, today’s tools of promotion have changed dramatically, and event marketing continues to mature with technology. Regardless of higher costs of rooms, fuel and flights, people are starting to return to events.”
According to Calvin, successful planners will use the full spectrum of channels to boost attendance at their meetings. “E-mail, fax, snail mail — every line that is filled out on a registration form should be used for marketing. A fax is a perfect way to get a message out — short, sweet, bulleted and effectively getting a potential attendee’s attention.”
Planners already create a timeline for managing their meeting, so Calvin recommends including a timeline for marketing to streamline the marketing process and empower the process.
“Create the timeline with all deadlines and cutoff dates backed up from the date of the event,” explained Calvin. “Include sufficient time for development, layout, printing and distribution in order to avoid rush hours. Start with the initial mailing, most likely a postcard, to prepare the recipients to act and save the date. A second mailing will encourage early registration (usually eight to 10 weeks before hotel cutoff date), and the final mailing is sent three weeks before cutoff. Take the time in between to create targeted e-mail or fax blasts.”
Calvin added, “When all elements of the event, from site selection to program planning to exhibit sales, are promoted via a well-oiled marketing machine, the inevitable benefit is increased attendance and satisfied attendees.” I&FMM
Do Your Homework
Before drafting the marketing plan for your next meeting, Marian Calvin, vice president of communications for the integrated meeting and event solutions company Experient, recommends that planners ask the following questions:
Are you certain that you’re offering the best educational program to your audience? Do you ask your attendees and members (including those who do not attend) what they need to know and learn to prosper professionally and personally? Are you responding to those needs?
Are the time of year and day of week an easy sell to your audience? (For example, educators are usually free in the summer, while entrepreneurs of any ilk may find it difficult to leave on weekdays.)
Is your event scheduled so as not to compete with other industry events or your own organization’s regional events?
Do you have a marketing database? Is it comprehensive and accurate? Is it continually tested, corrected and USPS-certified? Have you captured the names of all potential attendees from Web inquiries, product purchases, membership inquiries, exhibitor surveys and marketing alliances?
Are your conference mailings frequent and timely? Do respondents have sufficient time to budget for the event, get permission to attend the event, and benefit from early-bird registration and/or hotel cutoff dates?
Are you missing opportunities to promote your meeting? Frequently missed opportunities include e-mail signatures, broadcast fax cover sheets, letterhead, ads, and articles in every newsletter and magazine you produce, inserts in dues renewal letters and outbound correspondence, announcements to the trade press, and splashy unveilings at the previous year’s convention and all mid-term events.
Do you provide your local chapters and exhibitors with turnkey packages enabling their support to the marketing of your meeting? — DR