Packed with Payback

By Robert McGarvey  •  February 2, 2010

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 the year.

That’s just the start of the new rules for successful annual sales meetings in 2006. Take a look at other key concepts that are helping reshape the annual sales meeting.

Access matters. At Starwood’s annual sales meeting, the company nixed hiring high-priced outside speakers and instead put the spotlight on the CEO and the top leaders of each of the company’s six brands, all of whom were available for interactions with reps who had questions to ask. “In effect we had seven keynoters,” says Hanson, who elaborates that outside keynoters hadn’t been scoring well in the company’s surveys, but applause for the internal leaders was strong. Many companies are playing exactly this card. Access to senior business leaders is shaping up as 2006’s most popular trend.

More local talent. Las Vegas sales consultant Doug Beckley suggests kicking up the home-brewed element still more by putting each of, say, the top 10 sales producers on stage for a talk about exactly how they do it. Other reps genuinely want to know and top reps usually thrive when given their moments under the spotlight. One rule: Can the clichés. Ask top producers to focus on specifics that contribute to their success. Nowadays, cynicism greets the high-octane outside speakers (some of whom have no recent sales experience), but everybody in the room wants to hear how these in-house superstars outshone everybody else. Learn their secrets and that’s more money in every pocket.

Winners Circle. Up that ante by “creating multiple opportunities for winners to interact with each other at the meeting,” urges Massachusetts-based sales consultant John DiPietro. Top performers are curious about other high achievers. Maybe give them a private dinner together. Whatever it is, create an exclusive event where the best are with the best and the secrets flow.

Plan, plan, plan. “Meetings work only when they are planned in detail in advance,” says Laguna Niguel, CA sales consultant Sam Manfer. Don’t guess about what reps and senior corporate management want from the meeting – survey them in advance. The more detailed these questions, the more probable the meeting will dazzle everybody.

Changing Venues, Changing Hotel Rules

It’s not just the content that is changing in 2006’s annual sales meetings. Planners report a new landscape regarding hotels and locations, too. One reality everybody reports: Prices are different today. How?

Expect to pay more. Hotel rates are going up because occupancy is higher. That’s a by-product of a prospering economy. Worse news for planners, however, is that “space is getting tougher to find in top markets,” says Steve O’Malley, an executive with travel planner Maritz. His advice: Book as early as possible. Six months in advance isn’t out of line and a year ahead is better. Understand, too, that hotels aren’t budging much on their contracts. They will probably say take it or leave it when it comes to signing their agreements.

Bulk is in. Even in a tough market, the frugal can be rewarded. How? “We’re advising clients to look at the annual sales meeting in the context of all their off-site meetings,” says Maritz’s O’Malley. According to him, when organizations lump all meetings into a single pot and negotiate from that position of bulk buying, “you’ll see savings of 10 to 15 percent.” Particularly popular in these consolidation campaigns are hotel companies with properties in an attractive range of locations, such as Crowne Plaza (keen pricing, but with hotels in San Francisco’s Union Square, Beverly Hills, and still more desirable venues); Loews Hotels (perhaps not as well known as some other chains but with luxurious properties in prime destinations such as Miami Beach, San Diego, even Orlando); and Hyatt, a resurgent chain with highly attractive properties pretty much wherever a company might be holding a meeting. Hotel companies with a wide footprint definitely want to talk about how they can get a big chunk of company XYZ’s meetings business, and they’ll also pony up discounts.

For bargain hunters only. For those who ignored the advice to book early and now are shocked at the prices they hear, let the Internet help find bargains. Case in point: The Scottsdale Plaza Resort happily shows exact dates when it is ready to wheel and deal to accommodate last-minute bookings (see www.scottsdaleplaza.com/group.aspx.) Watch more hotels highlight their dates for good deals because it is win-win, for the hotel and the late booker.

Longer, Bigger. “We’re seeing an uptick in attendance,” says O’Malley, as companies invite more attendees, usually because sales forces are growing in 2006. Another trend: “Meetings are getting longer,” says Michael Massari, vice president, meetings sales for Harrah’s in Las Vegas.“The three-night, four-day meeting definitely is ‘in,’” he says. That’s a full day longer than the meetings that prevailed a few years ago. How are companies filling the extra time? “We are seeing much more demand for breakout spaces,” says Reina Herschdorfer, executive director of sales at the Rio in Las Vegas. Companies like breakouts because that’s where the real teaching and learning occur. Big general sessions are for rah-rah in 2006; intimate groups are where personalized learning happens.

Pre-Meeting Selling. Don’t save pre-event marketing only for incentive trips. Doug Wheeler urges clients to use it for annual sales meetings too. “That’s how to build the excitement,” he says. Stoke the fires before the event and reps will arrive ready to be dazzled. And don’t forget post-event selling, too. Harrah’s Massari reports he is seeing an uptick in sales of logo items from his hotels, from bathrobes to leather portfolios. Six months later, when an attendee slips on a Caesar’s Palace bathrobe, his or her mind of course flickers back to the meeting and, with luck, some of its key messages.

Put it all together and what are the hallmarks of a successful 2006 sales meeting? “A well-run annual sales meeting lets a company do many things. It will train, reward, motivate, and recognize its reps,” says Waterhouse. Granted, that’s a steep, multipart agenda – but remember, in 2006, planning is everything. A well-planned meeting can do all that in the three or four days that probably are allotted. “Use a written agenda that’s distributed to all attendees,” adds Beckley. “That helps keep everybody on the same track.”

While you’re doing all that, recognize that a new, crucial question needs to be resolved for today’s attendees: Young reps want to know not only the company’s mission and goals, they want to see where they fit in. What does it mean for them? They want to know how the business connects to them. Stern advice from meetings content experts is that this is a demand that cannot be ignored. A smartly run meeting takes pains to explain how and where the reps fit into the picture – and don’t say that is obvious. It’s not, say the younger reps, and they are making clear that the companies that hold their loyalty are the ones with the best answers.

Want to know if your meeting fired on all cylinders? Christine Naden, a principal in Palo Alto, California-based i3 Event Marketing, offers what just may be the 2006 litmus test for judging meeting success: “Are your people walking away saying, ‘Wow, I work for such a cool company, with so many incredible people!’” That sounds like a high bar to you? Absolutely it is – but not only do you want your sales rep thinking that, you want it to be true. Talk about setting lofty goals. But less just may not do it, not in the increasingly competitive global business world. The real message you want on their lips as they leave: “I’m lucky to be working here – and they are lucky to have me.”

Tips, Trends, and Deals

Penny Savers
“We’re handling more of our meetings electronically – no paper, no postage,” says The Castle Group’s McIntosh. “Savings to clients can be substantial.” Watch this trend: Most meetings, from now on, will handle most of their record-keeping chores online. That means flights booked, hotel rooms booked, even rating speakers and program elements. Frankly, the technology to do all this was in place five years ago but budget slowdowns crimped impulses to innovate. Now there is a bit more cash in the kitty for experimenting with new approaches – and topping many lists is the advent of the all-electronic meeting. Attendees already are familiar with all-electronic business travel (from ticketless air travel to paperless hotel checkouts) so they don’t require much convincing. Nor do bean counters when they start adding up the savings.

Grievances Hour
How many of your reps arrive at the annual sales meeting loaded for bear? You know the type: At check in, they already have in hand a long list of grievances that they want addressed – finance nixes too many deals, product innovation is lagging, territories are too big (or too small), competitors offer richer commissions, and on and on. You cannot stifle them – it’s suicidal for morale to have a few cranky reps festering in the audience. But you cannot give them free rein either because, suddenly, the annual meeting becomes a pity party filled with blames hurled at management. What to do? “Anticipate the grievances and pre-empt them,” advises Laguna Niguel, CA sales consultant Sam Manfer. Schedule a session on “Fixing What’s Broken” and outline changes that have been made to give reps more of what they want. The real key: Don’t ignore these grievances and don’t trivialize them. Do seem to take some steps to improve the lot of sales reps. A little sincere concern for making reps happier can go a long way towards neutralizing the unofficial Grievance Committee.

Family Togetherness
“More annual sales meeting are inviting spouses and children,” says Keri McIntosh, a planner with The Castle Group. This is a trend to watch, she says. She elaborates that she just got back from a trip to Orlando where a client held its national sales meeting and, of course, Orlando was chosen because it’s a perfect venue for families – “we provided theme park tickets that kept children and spouses busy during the day when the other spouse was in meetings,” she says. More companies are exploring this because, in a time-pressed universe, we all want to maximize our use of every minute and that sometimes means bringing families to meetings. One option: Keep families away during the core meeting days but offer attractive deals to encourage them to come to the meeting location for a pre- or post-meeting family vacation. The other option, as in McIntosh’s Orlando example, is to meet in a place where keeping families busy during the day is as simple as saying “Mickey Mouse.” Another family friendly winner: the other Universal Studios operation in Los Angeles, which might not have the same awareness among corporate planners as the Orlando venue, but both can be counted on to dazzle children (and most adults too). The same holds for Disney, whether the Anaheim or Orlando outpost. Believe this: Kids won’t grumble about Daddy’s or Mommy’s absence when they are spending the day living every child’s dreams. But, in that vein, “location is very important when families are involved,” says McIntosh. Just as Orlando and Southern California are in, probably New York and San Francisco are out because kid-friendly becomes the litmus test. But don’t think only Southern California and Florida are in. Intrepid planners say they find the same magic at, say, the Kingsmill Resort in Williamsburg, VA, which combines prime meeting space with the amenities of a Busch Gardens theme park (and a Water Country USA park in the summer). Many more locales manage to provide good places to meet and plentiful kid-friendly activities – don’t limit your search to the predictable.

Money Talks
Forget big-name motivational speakers. They are out in 2006, says Virginia
sales consultant Robert Jolles. “Feel-good speakers aren’t getting bookings. Sales reps want speakers who teach repeatable processes that will lead to more sales.” Spirituality is out, practicality is in. Also in: speakers who have tangible, real backgrounds in sales. Skeptical audiences want to know how many sales calls this speaker has been on before they lend their ears to his message. However, Tempe, AZ speakers bureau owner Vickie Sullivan cautions, “companies want content, but not if it nullifies their existing programs.” There’s the rub: Companies have already invested heavily in sales tools and processes and much as they want speakers to sprinkle their talks with practicalities, they don’t want a speaker who says, for instance, “forget CRM, it’s a waste of time.” “Buyers,” she adds, “are risk averse.” Yes, they want speakers who rock the boat – but nobody got promoted for booking a speaker who capsizes it. •