Dreary. That’s the pungently terse word North Carolina sales trainer Marty Clarke uses to describe most annual sales meetings held in the opening years of this century. The reason: “The people planning the meetings weren’t paying enough attention to the attendees and their needs,” says Clarke. He adds that’s because in the 2001-2005 time frame most eyes were firmly rooted on dwindling budgets. There’s no secret about it. Many of those meetings misfired. They left attendees bored and dispirited. Planners now are going full-bore with a redesign intended to create a new-style annual sales meeting for the twenty-first century.
Today’s word might be: upbeat... sort of. New rules prevail today, as planners recognize a need to do better, but without huge budgetary increases. The 2006 reality: Companies remain “cautious” about budgeting for sales meetings, says Doug Wheeler, an executive with meeting planner Summit Performance Group in San Diego. But purse strings are opening – budgets are going up. That’s because senior corporate management is agreeing to fund the annual sales meeting “but they are insisting on measurable paybacks, an ROI they can see,” says Florida sales consultant Steve Waterhouse. “Today’s sales meeting is too expensive to be ornamental. It has to provide the organization with a payback.”
That’s not an easy objective. When every annual sales meeting suddenly has to achieve a provable ROI, meeting planners and sales vice presidents alike have to scramble to craft events that ring the right bells back at the corporate offices. But forget another mistake committed all too often in the early years of this century. In a rush to relevancy many executives simply sliced fun out of the annual meeting agenda. But guess what? That’s the wrong move. “You have to include a fun component in the meeting, that’s a must,” says Larry Hanson, senior director of special events for Starwood Hotels and Resorts and a key player in concocting Starwood’s home-brewed annual sales meetings. By all means, monitor the fun component, trim it, reduce it – but don’t eliminate it because, insist the experts, a sales meeting with no fun is like mashed potatoes without gravy or butter or pepper. It’s just plain blah.
Fun doesn’t necessarily mean hours of mindless recreation, however. Small but clever moments may do the trick. For instance: “At our meeting in January we rigged out top executives so that they literally flew into the event,” says Hanson, and of course that dramatic kickoff got the 2,000 attendees talking.
Fun can be quirkier still, says Arthur Cooper, director of sales at the Renaissance Chicago O’Hare Hotel. He says he sees more groups using humorous brainteasers such as how could you get King Kong down off the Empire State Building without shooting him? Intersperse moments like that and, says Cooper, these injections of levity energize groups.
Another activity that’s gaining favor in 2006: “We are seeing more team building events,” says Megan Keogh, a vice president at Sharp Events in San Francisco. From Iron Chef competitions to canoe races (and you are guaranteed to capsize), team building is back on the agenda because these interludes are fun while serving a larger purpose, which is to get reps cooperating in ways that will enhance team selling. Out, however, is fun for fun’s sake. Heavy drinking, intense partying, even endless rounds of golf are verboten in most corporate cultures as companies seek to put on events that are a good time but remain soberly upright.
More key advice: Use the meeting to put forth a mission – a big, exciting goal – that will be central to the company’s strategy over the next year, advises Keri McIntosh, a planner with Boston-based The Castle Group, who elaborates that more of her clients are doing exactly this. Think missions that galvanize the sales force: a 10 percent increase in sales revenues in every product line, for instance. Make up t-shirts: The Power of 10 in ‘06. Drive home the message that this is indeed the strategic goal that will get everybody marching in the same direction. Understand this: Explicit messaging is a new meetings dynamic. “Five years ago very few meetings had a message. Now most we work on do,” says Allison Saget, author of The Event Marketing Handbook (Kaplan Business, 2002). The payoff is a sales force that better understands what it needs to do when it leaves the meeting. Not just for one day but for the next year because, done right, an annual sales meeting provides every rep with an action plan for (continued on page 2)