Send this article to a friend
When car manufacturer Renault-Nissan U.K. decided to scrap the big bash it had planned for March, an £18,000 sales launch, Geoffrey Bartlett put on the charm offensive – he doesn’t give up easily. Bartlett, managing director of Corporate Occasions in Lichfield, U.K., explained to his counterpart with the long-time client that giving up such an important opportunity to connect with customers would dull Renault-Nissan’s competitive edge.
"If you have 10 dealerships in an area, whichever one organizes an event is the one that will win the business," said Bartlett, who has been working as an independent event planner for 30 years, and whose clients also include Aston Martin, Ferarri and Range Rover. "I told my client if you don’t do something, someone else will, and they will take [business] away from you."
After some discussion, Renault-Nissan agreed with Bartlett’s argument and retained him to organize a series of smaller launches, instead of the large, expensive one. Smaller marketing events are more effective anyway, Bartlett points out, because they allow cash-strapped companies to target their audience more specifically.
"I told them if they didn’t want to spend £18,000, they would still have to do something small to stay in the forefront of their customers’ minds," he explained.
Bartlett’s experience might sound like just another day in the life of an event planner, post-financial meltdown, but there’s more to it. By explaining to his clients the value of the event they wanted to cancel, and helping them to revise the format to fit within their shrinking budget, Bartlett put to use one of the most important skills that a planner needs to survive in this economy: He helped his client justify holding the event.
Knowing how to justify an event-whether it has already been scheduled or not-is perhaps the most important skill meeting planners must master in this climate, as the global economy sinks further and planners scramble to hold on to business. While the task is not always easy, experienced planners say knowing the right strategies helps.
"Everybody wants to continue getting people together," said Mark Rubinsky, events executive producer at event planning firm MC2, pointing out that even the most cash-strapped executives would rather not cancel a face-to-face meeting if they can justify a need for it. "You have to find ways to get into their head, understand what their needs are and help them remember what the value is of getting people together."
In fact, there are dozens of paths that meeting planners can take when justifying the value of meetings. Some of these paths vary depending on whether you are an independent planner or an in-house staffer. Independents such as Bartlett and Rubinsky say explaining the value of meetings to external clients is their biggest challenge; in-house corporate planners say they spend most of their time helping managers determine which meetings can be justified; association planners are busy helping employers justify the expense of sending their employees to evergreen events.
There’s no doubt that independent planners have the toughest time explaining an event’s value to their clients in the current economic environment. Often hired on a project basis to execute visions that were formulated by someone else, independent planners risk losing deals when the tide turns.
However, this doesn’t mean they should quietly stand back and watch their portfolio crumble. In fact, independent planners now have more ammunition than ever to justify their events. Why? Because during economic slowdowns, companies must make a greater effort to motivate their employees, cultivate customers and keep competitors at bay. Done right, events are powerful tools that help meet these objectives.
"Now more than ever, events are important ways for communities to come together and to re-engage, revitalize, become inspired and improve skills," said Gail Bower, a meeting and events industry consultant and planner.
However, it’s crucial for meeting planners to thoroughly understand their client’s business, so they can have an educated discussion about an event’s raison d’être.
"There are plenty of compelling reasons to get a bunch of people together," Rubinsky said. "When you’re talking to a client, you have to focus on why they are getting these people together and what they need to communicate. If you don’t understand that, then you have nothing to talk about."
Once you understand the client’s business, you can address specific objectives that a meeting might fulfill. The one objective that makes meetings especially easy to justify-especially in this economy-is increasing sales. In fact, events such as trade shows, client dinners and distributor conferences usually result in a clearly visible spike in revenue.
More importantly, sales generated through an event are remarkably cost-efficient.
A recent survey by the Center for Exhibition Industry Research shows that the total cost of closing a sale without trade show participation averages US$1,140 compared to $705 for a show-generated lead.
Dallas Teague Snider, an independent meeting planner and founder of Make Your Best Impression, points out that many businesses make the mistake of cutting back on their event and marketing spend at a time when they should be ramping it up.
Cutting back on visibility, reducing the number of events held or even canceling engagements outright might signal to clients that the company is having financial problems or that it isn’t committed to serving a particular niche during the downturn. It also opens a wide gap for competitors to sneak through.
While these arguments might seem logical to anyone with event expertise, they can sometimes fall flat without data to back them up. Dan Hoffend, vice president of corporate account sales for event management firm Freeman, points out that smart meeting planners who have been collecting ROI data on their events all along can now pull out those spreadsheets and argue their case without breaking a sweat.
One of his favorite ways of measuring ROI is to quiz participants before and after each meeting. For example, Hoffend might ask attendees whether they recognize the host company’s brand, how much they know about its products and whether they see any partnership opportunities. The difference between the answers generated before and after the event can be easily translated into data that shows whether the company succeeded in its mission.
"The questionnaires can give clear results showing that you have succeeded in moving attendees from one point to another," Hoffend said. "If the value of your event is clear, then you’re always going to have a justification for it."
Amanda Stranack, director of event services at Inntel in London, points out that questionnaires can also be sent out months after an event has taken place-so if you don’t have the data in your archives already, it’s not too late to start gathering it. Sometimes it’s even worth it to hire a professional market research firm to conduct formal surveys, adds Stranack, whose clients include companies in the transportation, telecommunications and finance industries.
In addition to the tangible value produced by events, there is also a huge intangible benefit to be reaped from personal meetings, Bower says. She points out there is a priceless connection built between company and customer when they have the chance to interact.
"Corporations might be able to demonstrate a product better or showcase how friendly, thorough and expert their sales team is at a face-to-face meeting," she said.
When selling intangible products, for example insurance policies, companies can benefit from giving customers a chance to put a face to the brand.
This intangible benefit applies particularly to incentives and other events meant to motivate employees. Personal meetings help give employees pride in their organization and offer the best platform to send a uniform message about the company’s strategy, Rubinsky says.
Especially in this economy, it’s crucial to motivate employees, and help salespeople keep an upbeat attitude they can pass on to their customers.
"It’s important to feel better about work, because then you work better," said Priscilla Leherle, Paris-based manager of Eventus in France, Belgium and Luxembourg, whose company organizes corporate team-building events.
"Team-building events are not just about having fun, they’re about creating positive effects for the company," she said.
Some of the positive effects that her clients have seen include not just a happier workforce, but one that is more productive, more cooperative and able to fully harness the power of team thinking.
Motivational events are particularly important in this climate to keep the sales force engaged, experts say.
"Everybody is so negative at the moment, and that’s not good," Bartlett said. "If you’re in a sales meeting with someone and they’re negative, you don’t want to do business with that person."
Unfortunately, motivational events have come under particular scrutiny from the public over the past year.
In October, insurance company AIG was publicly shamed for holding a lavish retreat. As AIG pointed out at the time, most of the attendees were top-producing independent insurance agents, and most corporate experts agree that such events are necessary to keep salespeople motivated.
"Corporations need to hold employee recognition events...to bolster the confidence of employees so they take ownership of the current situation and roll up their sleeves," said Pat Ahaesy, founder of P&V Enterprises in New York.
One important detail to keep in mind when trying to explain the value of events to clients, however, is that it’s pointless to try to justify value unless one actually creates value. Independent meeting planners especially-who have to prove their worth with every event they sell-must be sure to give clients maximum bang for the buck.
"An event can be a powerful marketing experience, not just a reason for people to stand around in fancy clothes sipping cocktails," Bower said.
At the same time, it’s key to consider the client’s plight as well, instead of just putting on the hard sell, Ahaesy says. And she should know. A few days after Sept. 11, 2001, the independent meeting planner called one of her largest clients, a Manhattan-based financial firm that had lost its headquarters, half of its staff and its founder in the terrorist attacks. The firm was considering canceling a client-appreciation party that was to be held just a month later.
"I called them to ask, ’Is there anything I can do for you?’" Ahaesy recalled.
When her counterpart told her the firm might scrap the event, she didn’t flinch. She pointed out that staying on schedule would demonstrate that the company had survived the tragedy, reassure clients and help bring employees together. But she also showed sympathy.
"I said to them, ’If you decide not to do it, I understand, and there will be no penalty to you whatsoever,’" she recalled.
By the same token, independent planners should be wary of trying to justify every event regardless of its value, at the risk of squandering their clients’ trust.
Inntel’s Stranack says she often agrees with clients when they ask her to take an event off the roster.
"Sometimes I say to them, ’Yes, you’re absolutely right.’ That message can be communicated just as well by e-mail," Stranack said. "I try to give my clients a sensible answer, rather than just doing everything to secure one event."
By working in partnership with your client, winning their trust as an events and meeting advisor, you are much more likely to have success keeping their business through bad times and good.
Success in a Top-Down Environment
Corporate planners, meanwhile, often find themselves in a very different boat when the economy goes under. Many large companies beef up their meetings departments during booms-to help organize the lavish client appreciation parties, sales incentive cruises and executive powwows-only to sharply scale back during economic downturns. The result is a wide swath of in-house corporate planners who find they have to justify the value of their position when times get tough.
The best place to start in this situation is to make sure you understand why your job exists in the first place-and to turn yourself into a strategic partner, instead of being another expensive cog in the wheel.
"What I often find is that planners don’t know what the objectives of their programs are," said Julie Johnson, CMP, CMM director of events and incentives at Lennox Industries.
When the time comes for them to discuss whether meetings can be justified or not, planners are often receiving instructions instead of helping make decisions. At Lennox, Johnson says, planners make a point of helping executive management determine meetings strategy.
"It’s not my group telling the executives what to do, or the executives telling us what to do: we collaborate," Johnson said. "When we sit down, I ask the executives, ’What are we trying to say with this meeting, and if we don’t say it, how much is it going to hurt us?’"
Understanding the business thoroughly, she says, allows her to ask those questions and help translate the answers into an effective meetings policy.
Another way that in-house planners can justify the value they provide is by squeezing every last penny out of the meetings budget and shaving costs whenever possible.
"Demonstrate how you are helping the organization meet its financial goals," recommended Gregory Pynes, senior director of meetings at Physicians’ Education Resource, a company focused on educating doctors and patients about cancer. "Focus on the numbers."
In addition to getting vendors to cut their prices, planners can negotiate valuable extras into their contracts-free meals or upgrades, for example. However, it’s not enough for meeting planners to simply cut costs and assume their work will be noticed, they must also make sure executive management hears about the savings that were achieved.
Often, however, there is little that corporate meeting planners can do to control decisions that come from higher up.
Kay Burke, CMP, CMM, senior manager of company meetings at JC Penney, believes it isn’t a planner’s job to challenge management’s choices.
"Most decisions about whether meetings should be held or not are driven top-down," she said. "That’s just a simple fact."
She points out that during downturns companies must signal to employees, suppliers and the outside world that they are wary of unnecessary spending and adds that she supports the effort to become more conservative during hard times.
In Search Of: Attendees
Associations, meanwhile, can’t afford to become very conservative when times get tough. After all, these groups usually derive a large chunk of their income from meetings and feel the economic slowdown more acutely than most. Leslie Zeck, CMP, CMM, director of meetings and conventions at the American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC), says her biggest challenge has been to convince members to send their employees to conferences. While individuals might want nothing more than to attend an annual trade conference that they have come to for years, most of them can’t afford to go unless their boss foots the bill.
"Wordsmithing is an effective tool," Zeck said, pointing out that her group has been adjusting the marketing materials to reflect the new climate.
Instead of billing the conference as an opportunity for continued education and networking, ACEC is promoting its more strategic benefits. Zeck says the group is consciously adding important buzzwords to this year’s agenda, and many of this year’s sessions will revolve around topics such as "remaining competitive in today’s economy" and "running your business more cost-effectively."
"We’re helping our members explain to their management that there is a return on investment," Zeck said.
Internally, however, Zeck has not been forced to do much convincing. She points out that ACEC’s executive management is just as committed to holding events as her department is, since conferences make up a large part of the group’s revenue stream. As a result, Zeck and her colleagues have been helping the organization maintain its meetings program while cutting costs wherever possible.
For some lucky organizations whose budgets haven’t been affected yet-such as the European Cancer Organization (ECCO)-it’s more important than ever to make sure the content delivers on its promise. Wessel Nieuwenweg, ECCO’s Brussels-based congress unit manager, says the group is particularly keen on securing the best speakers and presenting the latest science at its conferences.
"It doesn’t mean we can sit there and relax, but we have to make sure that the message gets out there," Nieuwenweg said.
To get the message out, ECCO enlists the help of its member societies, committee members and speakers, but also puts out ads in niche publications such as medical journals. Unfortunately, however, all the right strategies in the world don’t always do the trick.
The American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE), for example, cancelled its Science and the Emerging Bioeconomy for Executives conference that was slated to take place in December, after only one member registered.
To avoid a similar fate for its Spring National Meeting in April, the group now plans to appeal directly to the industry’s largest employers-companies such as Merck, Dow Chemical and Carnegie-Mellon University-says meetings director Jeffrey Wood.
"We’re going to petition the CEOs of all the major companies, to try to convince them to let their folks go," said Wood, explaining that AIChE’s senior management will probably opt for just picking up the phone instead of sending a formal letter.
To justify the value of sending employees, Wood says, AIChE executives will point out the educational value that members will derive, but also explain that an association isn’t much good to its member if it loses one of its main sources of funding.
"It’s a tough sell," Wood admitted, adding that he’s not sure how successful those phone calls will be. "Everyone is in survival mode. Companies can’t get credit to put in a new boiler or a chemical processor. A lot of us are just going to have to suffer through this year."
DALIA FAHMY is a New York-based freelance writer.
• See more Meeting Professionals International (MPI) news
Number of views of this article: 5,477
Tags, news section:
Tags, event suppliers:
Event Planner Spain, S.L.
Paseo de la Sierra, 38-20, 29018 Málaga, 西班牙
© Copyright Event Planner Spain 2006-2013
Tel. +34 952 294 327