Deliver the Goods

By Robert McGarvey  •  February 2, 2010

While corporate America insists that meetings deliver measurable and effective results, within closely scrutinized budgets, Fenton, Missouri-based meetings company Maritz says, “41 percent of companies that measure results have increased event budgets.” So the boardroom wants results. But they’ll also support meetings that achieve results.

Since virtually all companies do some kind of measurement of meetings effectiveness (companies that don’t measure at all amount to under 10 percent of all organizations), the message seems clear. Properly crafted meetings do what their planners always have said they do – contribute to the company’s profits.

To ensure that your next meeting delivers measurable results, here are the rules of the road.
Go into every event with a handful of specific, measurable results that are desired – anything from increased market share to better product knowledge among reps. The exact outcomes, of course, are company dependent. What is becoming universal is the awareness that the more explicitly the results are specified before the meeting starts, the higher the likelihood the results will indeed happen.

What metrics are in fact used to measure meetings’ effectiveness? Maritz points to a medley of outcomes, ranging from attendee satisfaction to knowledge gained, incremental revenue gained, and management’s opinions of the event. Understand this: In a tight money environment, say the experts, “soft” measures (such as attendee satisfaction) are dropping in importance while “harder” measures (increased sales or increased product knowledge) are rocketing to the top.

And that is increasing the need for real know-how in meeting design. What will produce results? What’s fluff? New-style effectiveness gurus are beginning to have a lot to say on exactly this theme, and one emerging secret for highly effective meetings is a highly focused effort to align all event content with the business’s broad, overall goals. David Newman is a sales trainer and speaker with Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania-based Unconsulting. He says that it is crucial today for a meeting to be measurably effective. Every element of a meeting – programs, speakers, events – must be closely tied to the challenges and objectives now on the minds of attendees. Immediacy and urgency matter when it comes to creating an event that grabs the attention of participants and which is pertinent enough to help alter their behaviors enough to impact bottom lines. When a meeting is tightly wrapped around the top two or three goals articulated by the C-suite, what top executive won’t find value in that meeting?

Speak Up!

Speakers and speeches still matter in today’s universe of meetings’ effectiveness, but recognize this: Today’s emphasis is strikingly different from the “feel good,” motivational talks that had predominated. For starters, cookie-cutter, off-the-shelf talks are very much out. One word matters in today’s speaking circles: customization. Today, it isn’t good enough for a speaker to parachute in, talk for an hour about leading a Mt. Everest expedition, and then fly home. Audiences and meeting planners alike are demanding keynotes that tie into the event’s overall agenda and goals. “Clients want speeches that are customized to their situation and highly relevant to their needs,” says Karen Henry, director of event marketing for Erwin-Penland, a Greenville, SC marketing agency.

Michigan-based speaker Tom Connellan kicks this up several notches by arguing that the keynoter’s speech needs to be an integral piece of the meeting. “Feed the keynoter information such as key points that will be made by earlier speakers, key points that will be made by subsequent speakers, and the means by which the information can be received by the participants seamlessly.”

Another word that matters in today’s effective meetings: usability. “Clients want speakers who provide tools the audience can go out and use,” says Andrea Nierenberg, a New York-based keynoter whose core presentations are centered around networking know-how that listeners can readily apply. Work hard to make every talk contain at least one tool, technique, or tactic reps can get excited about trying as soon as they leave the meeting. That kind of relevancy matters, a lot, as 2006 leads into 2007.

Also under attack: Audiences, increasingly, are resistant to a parade of PowerPoint shows. “You cannot make an audience sit through endless PowerPoints; that doesn’t change behavior,” says Lou Schachter, co-author of The Mind of the Customer (McGraw-Hill, 2006).

Schachter’s idea for heightening presentation effectiveness: Curb the time given over to PowerPoints and expand the time allotted to discussion of ideas in small groups (perhaps 8 to 10 around a circular table). Instead of a 50-minute talk, with another five minutes of question-and-answer, a new speaking style might see a 30-minute talk with 30 full minutes then devoted to small group discussion. The core idea: People make ideas their own as they talk them over in small groups and that is what they will remember.

Make still smarter use of meeting time by distributing information before the event, says David Hennessey, a marketing professor at Babson College in Wellesley, MA. Recognize that meeting time is scarce, says Hennessey, and if facts can be distributed beforehand – via email, or perhaps at a pre-event Website – that’s the way to go. Just don’t show PowerPoint slide after slide crammed with facts that participants would more likely have absorbed sitting at their desks in the days before the event.

A closely related trend: “Interactivity is the concept du jour,” says Joe Clark, a meeting planner with Jackson-Dawson Marketing Solutions in Greenville, SC. Pundits say that the age of attendees – many grew up playing video games 24/7 – is driving a need to keep sessions as interactive as possible.

This also is an era of “channel surfing,” where a few moments of boredom prompt us to click through to another channel. Maybe event participants cannot literally surf to another channel – but mentally they can. Bore them and they will tune out the sessions and tune into daydreams. One remedy is simply to provide more interactivity. When we are engaged, we stay involved. “You need interactivity among speakers, managers, participants, even customers during the sessions,” says Rhode Island speaker and consultant Alan Weiss.

Stick to the Schedule

A gripe heard more and more is that “agenda drift” is becoming epidemic. Attendees are proving harder to corral back into the session from breaks, mainly because they probably are battling an avalanche of emails and voice mails. But the same drift is forcing speakers to make impromptu cuts of material, to try to get back on time, and thus there is information that does not get presented. That means the audience is losing out. The antidote: Take active control of break and start times, urges Chuck Underwood, a keynote speaker based in Cincinnati. Underwood relates that at a recent event in Toronto, an organizer stood in the lobby during the break and shouted out, “three minutes until we resume,” “two minutes until we resume,” and so forth. “She was magnificent,” says Underwood, who says that this was one event where the schedule was adhered to with precision.

Think Second Tier

As more organizations seek to maximize meetings results while minimizing expenses, an emerging trend is much more use of second tier cities, reports Robert Gilbert, CEO of the Hospitality Sales & Marketing Association International in McLean, VA. “Many industries…are seeing a rise in use of secondary and tertiary cities,” says Gilbert, who indicates that many – he cites Minneapolis and Indianapolis – have good airlift as well as a surprisingly large stock of hotels. He admits: “Planners need to be convinced that tertiary markets are viable,” but economics may be forcing the issue. “Planners are facing significant compression in supply.”

A case in point of the economic benefits of thinking second tier: While $500 per night has become common for a New York City hotel room, the rate for the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown is nearer $350, a huge savings when extrapolated over a group.

In other cases, second tier cities may also prove to be hidden gems. A case in point of a secondary destination that lately has been gaining raves is Lake Tahoe, where even premium venues such as Harrah’s Lake Tahoe often has rooms for under $150 per night (and rarely are rooms over $200 per night except during the height of ski season). Attendees who may have been to Las Vegas dozens of times are sure to be stunned by the woodsy, alpine attractions available in Lake Tahoe.

That said, don’t count out the very top tier meetings cities – namely, Orlando and Las Vegas – which continue to upgrade meetings product. Most planners say they often get bids from these locations, just to provide a baseline for comparing other towns. By all means, look for deals in secondary locations, but don’t ignore the top tier, which are tops for a reason, say the planners.

Go Unique

Getting attendees thinking, talking, buzzing is the fast-track to higher event effectiveness. A step in that direction, advises Erwin-Penland’s Henry, is to use unique, even off-beat venues for at least some functions. Henry says she has held events in art museums, sports museums, and aquariums, invariably to loud attendee approval. A plus is that most cities have at least some museums and even the busiest metro areas still have venues that aren’t on the beaten tourist path. For instance, Henry recently used the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC as a site for a portion of an event and this museum – open only since 2002 – is an instant wow. Think relevant, too: If talking about the need for enhanced corporate security and secrecy, where better to hold such a talk? The broader point: Ask local contacts for tips on what venues stand out because every Convention and Visitors Bureau has a secret gem of an offbeat site. Ask and they’ll share their insider information.

Data Dumping

Concrete and provable returns are what top executives want to see from events. So stop guessing if attendees are getting the main points. Measure results at every turn, says Mike Mason, senior vice president sales at Gaylord Hotels, who says that in-depth monitoring – via audience response systems – is emerging as a prime twenty-first century meetings trend. A plus is that Gaylord rooms feature iConnect, an interactive in-room computer system that allows for fast surveying of attendees. “Changes in agenda can be made on the fly,” says Mason. Want to know for sure that attendees got this morning’s detailed product differentiation talk? Give them a 20-question test back in their rooms – and if too many stumble, that’s a signal to revisit the products with an eye on improving comprehension.

While you’re at it, meeting planners report heightened use of scanners, bar codes, and similar tools designed to track where attendees go and what they do during the meeting, says Joe Clark, meetings specialist with Jackson-Dawson Marketing Solutions in Greenville, SC. Want to be sure every rep has visited every new product display? New, attendee-tracking tools let a company unobtrusively gather this information. “We are seeing much more demand for this technology,” says Clark.

Food Matters

Better, cooler cuisine might add a few dollars to the meetings budget, but savvy planners say this is a fast-track to accelerated meetings effectiveness. “For today’s meeting to succeed, you really have to nail the food,” says Michael Massari, vice president sales, at Harrah’s Entertainment in Nevada. “People now expect gourmet quality food even for a dinner for 3,000!”
Attendees think better with a happy stomach. What’s in now are celebrity chefs. “We are seeing great interest in demonstration classes for VIPs,” says Massari, who adds that Harrah’s draws on its stable of celeb chefs such as Bradley Ogden and Bobby Flay. And resorts that don’t have celeb chefs on staff can still import them. Robert Pfeffer, director of sales and marketing for the Marco Island Marriott Resort in Florida, says a meeting held at his resort wowed attendees by bringing in chef Mario Batali (a Food Network “Iron Chef”) who dazzled the audience by preparing a meal on stage and, Pfeffer goes on, “we then served all 700 attendees the same dish prepared by our kitchen staff.”

Bob Zappatelli, vice president of food and beverage for Benchmark Hospitality, says the big words in 2007 will include organic, very fresh, homemade, and local. He adds: “We are finished with diets!” What we want to eat now are small plates, filled with natural products. If we haven’t tried the dish before, so much the better. Meeting attendees want culinary experiences they will remember – and increasing memorability always is a key to heightened meeting effectiveness.

Meet Longer?

After five years of meeting compression, is the tide turning? Maybe, says Pueblo, Colorado-based meeting planner Kathy Donnell, who indicates that “suddenly meetings are going from shorter to longer.” She cites as a proof one meeting (for 350 attendees) she recently planned that ran from Sunday to Friday, five nights and six days, “with only a one-half day off for entertainment.” What’s prompting this? Planners say longer meetings may be an inevitable upshot of the push to deliver more content. Attendees’ minds are frying as too much data are forced on them, but the solution may be to elongate the meeting. Doesn’t that increase costs? Of course, but some large, fixed costs don’t budge, such as airfare and airport transportation. Often, hotels are very willing to deal on the price of an extra night or two. So watch this trend: Perhaps the ultimate secret to getting more effective meetings is to recognize that adding in an extra day may be the cure.

What, ultimately, will deliver heightened meetings effectiveness? A lesson that is emerging is that close dialog with senior executives is crucial. What do they see as the needed outcomes for them to continue to fund meetings? The more detailed the answer – and the more measurable the result – the better for all. Adds planner Karen Henry: “When you can prove you are meeting your objectives, it is that much easier to get budgets approved next time.” Want more money next year? Dazzle the senior executives with measurable returns on the outcomes they themselves pinpointed as crucial and, right there, that’s the formula for putting on more meetings next year.