August 15, 2009

Planning Meetings That Mean Business

Meetings and events have been getting a bad rap lately in the media, with extra scrutiny on firms in the financial and insurance industries. As a result, the US Travel Association developed criteria and guidelines to help justify meetings, conventions, events, incentives and business travel to the government, public and meeting. Originally intended for use by firms that received government TARP funds, these Meetings Mean Business guidelines can be used by any company to help shield your event from negative publicity and scrutiny.

Examples of meetings and events that are justifiable under the guidelines are:
· Product launches that educate the sales force, partners and customers
· Sales conferences and employee meetings to align vision, strategy and tactics
· Corporate sponsored events that benefit charities

Policies for approval are:
· Total annual expenses for meetings, events and incentive/recognition travel shall not exceed 15 percent of the company’s total sales and marketing budget
· When planning an incentive, no more than 10 percent of attendees should be senior executives
· All internal meetings or events attended only by senior executives and/or board members should be devoted to a specific business purpose and attendees should be responsible for all personal expenses

For more information on the complete guidelines, check out

Here’s what you can do to help ensure your meetings are free from negative scrutiny:

Tone it Down- In this economy, meetings and events that are overly lavish or extravagant are in poor taste and a poor use of a company’s resources. Look for ways to accomplish your goals in a more subdued manner while saving money and resources.
Substitute sedan cars for limos, or use greener forms of transportation when appropriate, such as bio-diesel coaches, or even hybrid vehicles for group transportation.
Instead of elaborate banquets or galas, consider lower profile receptions and dinners or more casual events.
Replace expensive gifts for attendees or speakers; consider more practical items relevant to your industry. I like to purchase donation certificates for speakers and VIPs to which then allows them to choose an entrepreneur in a third-world country to make a small loan.
Let your exhibitors and sponsors know of your efforts and ask them to keep these in mind when planning giveaways, hospitalities, dine arounds, etc.

Give Back- Corporate social responsibility is more than a popular buzz word; it’s a new way to think about doing business.
Consider integrating activities that benefit the community in which you are holding your event, or a local charity. Build time in your schedule for volunteer work, perhaps replacing more traditional leisure activities such as golf and spa visits.
Consider making a monetary donation to a charity in lieu of what you might have spent on a social event. I once attended a very simple reception at a conference for meeting planners where a hotel corporation that was hosting the reception made a significant contribution to a children’s hospital to purchase neonatal incubators instead of spending on the typically lavish reception. There were actual machines on display along with photos of children treated by the hospital. No one minded one bit not having the free flowing martini bar or shrimp bar.
If you’re planning a teambuilding event, consider replacing the trip to the ropes course with a session building bikes for kids, computers for low income schools, or working to build or renovate buildings, schools, parks and homes in the community. The local convention and visitors bureau can connect you with organizations in your destination.
Consider purchasing carbon offsets to balance your meeting’s energy use.
At the very least, look for ways to share your leftover conference swag such as tote bags, portfolios with a local charity.

Publicize Your Efforts- With so much negative media attention focusing on what companies spends on lavish meetings; it’s important that you control the message when it comes to your meeting’s press coverage. Ask the hotel and destination CVB to provide you with statistics regarding the positive economic impact on the community that your meeting has. Wouldn’t it be great to see a reporter talking about the 25 housekeepers, 50 waiters, bellmen, etc. working this week as a direct result of your meeting at the property? Or an article that talks about the scores of cab drivers, waiters, shopkeepers, etc. benefitting by the dollars your meeting attendees spend in a destination. And if you are integrating charitable activities, ask the charity to assist you with getting positive coverage through their local contacts as well. It’s time that members of the meeting industry take back control of how meetings are perceived by the public.

When planning your next meeting, ask yourself, “How would this look on the front page of the local paper or the Wall Street Journal?” Make smart business decisions that work for your firm and promote the image that you want and you’ll easily weather this latest media storm.

Planning Board Meetings that Mean Business

Planning high-level executive meetings can be some of the most challenging events planners produce. While board meetings or executive retreats aren’t necessarily the largest or most complex meetings you may ever plan, they are loaded with opportunities and challenges you have to anticipate and accommodate. Follow these guidelines to ensure a successful event for all in attendance:

· The first thing you need to do is evaluate who your attendees are and make sure you have a thorough understanding of their needs and desires. You’ll want a clear understanding not only of who is attending, but what is important to those in attendance. Know what the demographics of your group are: age, gender, origin, special health or dietary needs, backgrounds, hobbies, interests, etc. The more you know about who is in attendance, the better you can tailor the meeting to best fit them. For instance, I recently planned a board retreat at a resort where we integrated the environment into the meeting to break up multi-day sessions and allow attendees, who are the sort who love being outside, to experience the various aspects of the resort. I purposely placed every meal or break event in an unusual venue such as the opening night dinner at the golf clubhouse overlooking the 18th hole at sunset, after dinner drinks around a fire pit complete with rocking chairs, blankets and S’mores, continental breakfast one day in the butterfly and herb garden with an instructor leading gentle stretches and yoga poses, breaks on decks overlooking gardens, etc. It doesn’t make much sense to take a group to active people to a resort to then keep them closed up inside meeting rooms all day long. Using these changes of venues required no extra expense, only a little extra time to allow for group movement and some creativity when conducting my site visit to allow me to spot places where I could take my group.

For a board meeting for a medical association whose incoming chair was an avid fly fisherman, I surprised the group with some private lessons one afternoon from a local fly fishing company. We scheduled a 45 minute afternoon break, told everyone to dress casually that day (it was two full eight-hour days of meetings) and then escorted everyone out of the hotel, along the banks of the river to a grove where we had instructors with rods and lines, as well as refreshments and hammocks for those who just wanted to stretch out and relax for awhile. The doctors loved it, especially the chair who was able to share something he loved with his counterparts.

· Know what the purpose of the meeting is, what the desired outcomes are and how the purpose of the meeting will influence the format of the meeting. For instance, is this a regularly scheduled meeting of the board, or a meeting scheduled to address an urgent issue that is affecting their industry. Will the group remain as a whole, or will there be a need for breakouts and group meetings? Knowing these things can help you select the best facility for conducting your meeting and ensure you are providing enough space and the right type of space for your group’s needs. For a full-day planning meeting to brainstorm a way to completely restructure an organization’s 5000 person annual meeting, I selected an offsite conference center that specialized in brainstorming meetings. In addition to the general session rooms, there were breakout rooms such as the rocking chair room where a circle of rocking chairs and white boards lined the walls, a deck with patio and picnic style seating, a library complete with living room style seating, books, games, toys, etc.; even a room with large bean bag type of seating.

· Consider how you set up the room to inspire creativity, promote productivity and create a feeling of warmth and openness. If you are seating everyone around a conference table, consider using blotters with colored placemat inserts to create a theme. If you are trying to spark creativity or alleviate stress, consider placing individual toys such as small Etch a Sketches, doodle art pads, play do, slinkies, candies, and specialty waters at each place setting. If you are going for a more formal, executive look, you can still introduce color in the form of colored linens, blotters, pads, etc. to create a themed look. Many hotels have now added these items into their standard meeting packages and you can upgrade the look of your meeting for free or at a relatively low cost. For an example, check out the Omni Hotels Sensational Meetings

· Work closely with your caterer to present food that is attractive, distinctive, energizing and delicious. Make sure you allow plenty of options in your food selections and accommodate special menu needs. If your group is health conscious, you’ll want to make this matter known to your caterer so they can prepare and label food accordingly. Get creative with your selections and surprise your guests with a different way of presenting the standard coffee break. Perhaps a barista creating coffee drinks to order or a smoothie bar for the morning and an ice cream bar for an afternoon break might be something your attendees will appreciate. Make sure you know what your attendees want and challenge your caterer or chef to find the most interesting and creative way to present it.

· If your attendees are from out of town, make sure you VIP their reservations with the hotel and personally check to make sure they are taken care of by the hotel. Prior to the meeting, if the hotel doesn’t have a VIP manager, ask to speak with the concierge or guest service manager and discuss the importance of your group and any special needs they might have. I always make a point to handwrite welcome notes to my VIPs and include my business card with my cell number in case they have any issues or concerns on site. There is nothing worse than finding out after the fact that one of your VIPs has been haggling with the hotel over some issue throughout their entire stay, especially if it is something that you could have resolved quickly and easily. In addition, should they have a special need that arises, they can notify you immediately so that you can resolve the situation. I once had a chair elect who traveled with his wife and special needs child who required access to the outdoors, in the form of a balcony or patio. The conference headquarter hotel where I placed all my VIPs didn’t have balconies and I received a call on my cell phone from him on the first night explaining the situation. I was able to move them immediately to one of the secondary hotels that had balconies overlooking the river and he was delighted.

Knowing your group’s needs, purpose, goals, and what makes them special and unique is the first step to planning a successful board meeting and ensuring a positive outcome for all involved. Take time to ask some questions, reach a deeper understanding of the group and you’ll guarantee board meetings that mean business!

Put Your Meeting Food and Beverage Budget on a Diet

In a tough economy, businesses look for ways to cut costs and eliminate expenditures. Because meetings can often be a big-ticket item for many budgets, there may be a natural tendency to seek to reduce meetings or eliminate them altogether. Before you consider eliminating your meetings, think about ways in which you can reduce costs related to producing meetings, since they are valuable methods of distributing information and helping businesses to thrive and survive. Here are a few cost cutting tips related to your food and beverage budget that you can implement right away to reduce your meeting budget and increase your value to your employer.

· Instead of purchasing continental breakfast and break service at a per person price, compare how much it would cost to pay by the item. For groups of about 30 or more, it frequently costs less to purchase gallons of coffee and pieces of pastries or cookies. Here’s some guidelines to use when doing your math:

One Gallon of coffee yields 20 cups per gallon; figure 1.5 cups per person for continental breakfast, 1 cup per person for a coffee break
Iced Tea/Lemonade/Punch

One Gallon of Iced Tea/ Lemonade/Punch/Juice yields 20 glasses
Allow 1.5 pieces per person when serving Pastries/Cookies/Brownies
Allow two ounces per person when serving Chips/Pretzels
Allow 3 Ounces of dip per person

· Don’t serve bottled water or individual sodas, switch to water pitchers or water stations (free) and for afternoon refreshments, serve iced tea, lemonade or punch by the gallon instead of sodas at $4-5 each.

· Reception Beverages: Switch from open bar to a ticketed bar where you provide guests with 2-3 drink tickets good for any alcoholic drink. The hotel or caterer will give you a price per ticket that reflects an average price of all the different levels of alcohol and you’ll be charged for each ticket redeemed. Ask the caterer to set up a water pitcher and iced tea or soda station separate from the bar so you are only paying for alcohol tickets and not tickets redeemed for a soda or water.

· Reception Food: I use the following assumptions when planning reception menus:

Plan on six items per person per hour for a reception. For a two hour reception estimate 12-14 pieces per person

Veggie Display- Plan on enough for ½ the group
Fruit Display- Plan on enough for 2/3 of the group
Cheese Display- Plan on enough for 2/3 of the group
Chips and Dip- Use formula above
Cold Appetizer-Select 1-2 appetizers
Hot Appetizer-Select 3-4 appetizers

To control consumption, ask the caterer to use the smaller plates and consider laying out your reception food in the following order, which you will note is from least to most expensive. The idea is that your guests will fill up the space on their plates with the less expensive items prior to getting to the more expensive items.

Chips and Dips
Cold Appetizers
Hot Appetizers
Carved Items
Dessert Items

Another option is to have chips, veggies, fruit and cheese on a buffet table and have waiters pass the hot and cold appetizers, as that will reduce consumption as well.

· Meal Service: Meal buffets always cost more than a plated meal, so offer plated meals when appropriate. To save money at lunch, consider eliminating dessert and instead applying that money to the afternoon break service and beef that up. Many people who will turn down desserts at lunch would love a mid-afternoon snack, so why waste $3-4 per person on a dessert that won’t be eaten? For dinners, ask the hotel or caterer to allow you to pick an item off the lunch menu, as frequently the only difference is a couple of ounces in the size of the meat. Or better yet, give them your per person price you want to spend and ask them to get creative and develop menus that meet your needs. If you have a group that wouldn’t mind a lasagna, enchilada or meat loaf plate, let them know you don’t need to have a fancy cut of meat.
Saving money on F&B is a quick and easy way to reduce your bottom line while minimally impacting your attendees’ meeting experience. By looking for ways to proactively reduce costs, you’ll be seen as a valuable partner in your company’s efforts to reduce operating expenses as you weather these tough economic times.

Developing a Meeting Request for Proposals

Want to save time, energy and frustration when starting your hunt for a location to place a meeting? Then do what the pros do, develop a Request for Proposal (RFP) to solicit bids from hotels and facilities to host your meeting. Your RFP can be sent directly to potential properties, sent via the city’s Convention and Visitors’ Bureau, or sent to a chain’s national sales office for distribution. By outlining all your needs in one document, you save time and make your job easier.

Here’s what to include in your RFP:
1- The name and description of the meeting
2- Your contact information and preferred method of receiving responses
3- Preferred dates and arrival/departure pattern (make sure to note if your dates are flexible)
4- Deadline for responses
5- Description of sleeping room and meeting space needs- number of rooms and suites per night, schedule of meetings and events with attendance and preferred room sets for each
6- Special concessions you want: reduced time for the cut-off date, complimentary sleeping rooms, meeting space rental reductions, VIP upgrades, F&B special pricing, airport transportation, etc.
7- If this is a repeat meeting, then include history from the prior meeting: room pickup per night, F&B revenue generated, as well as the overall spend of your group including incidentals
8- Miscellaneous Fees: Occupancy tax, F&B tax and service charge fee, parking fees
9- Ask for sample menu pricing for meal and receptions
10- Airport: Distance, complimentary hotel shuttle or average taxi and shuttle fares

Once you begin to receive proposals back, take the time to create a matrix outlining your requirements on the left side with the hotels across the top and fill in the offerings from each hotel. Then you can compare at a glance to determine who has the best rates, lowest meal costs, least service charge, etc. This will help to easily see which hotel best meets your needs.

By creating a document that clearly lays out your meeting details, you’ll be able to easily convey information and make sure that all properties receive the same information. Imagine how much time and energy you’ll save if the next time you are asked to plan a meeting, instead of making numerous calls to properties, you take the time to create an RFP and start from that point.

Another benefit of putting all your information in one document is that you will have a clear idea of your meeting’s value to a hotel, which will help strengthen your negotiating ability. Anything that reduces the time you spend while increasing your negotiating ability is bound to make your job easier. After all, that’s what it’s all about, right?