It’s not pretty out there. As the economy grinds to a crawl and companies slash more meetings, planners are fighting aggressively for every shred of business. Yet, David DuBois, CMP, CAE, is optimistic. The head of the Forth Worth CVB recently launched an initiative that he hopes will boost revenue this year by US$2 million. The "Meal Deal," as it’s known, offers clients who sign up for a meeting in 2009 an entire food and beverage function free of charge.
"It’s a buyer’s market," said DuBois, explaining how the CVB will foot the bill for a breakfast, coffee break, lunch or dinner, depending on how many room nights the client books. "If we go up against our good friends in Austin for a piece of business and the rates are pretty close, the ‘Meal Deal’ program could make the difference between us getting the business instead of Austin."
With the global economy sunk in a massive recession, meeting planners are bracing for the toughest financial downturn of their careers. In times like these, innovative business strategies are especially important, and they can help with everything from attracting profitable business to growing contact networks.
"The people who will come out of this glowing are the ones who can find opportunity amid the adversity," said Brooke Bode, MPI’s director of knowledge management. "As an industry we need to band together and figure out how we can come out of this not just surviving but thriving."
And at MPI’s MeetDifferent conference in Atlanta, Feb. 7-10, the economic crisis is being targeted head-on, offering attendees cutting-edge strategies to help grow their businesses and advance their careers. The result is a complete four-day tutorial on how to get through this economic storm, not just intact, but with a stack of deals in hand.
How to Thrive in Tough Times "It’s easy to become a victim, but you have to find ways to affect what’s happening around you," said Bonnie Wallsh, CMP, CMM, founder of meeting planning firm Bonnie Wallsh Associates.
No. 1 on the agenda is increasing profitable business. Because when the need for every meeting is being questioned by potential hosts, attendees and sometimes even the media, it’s more important than ever to make sure the business that comes in counts.
Financial incentives, such as the "Meal Deal," work well. And DuBois and Wallsh are among the speakers scheduled to present at MeetDifferent on the wide variety of topics that can help attendees compete more effectively for profitable businesses.
Another tactic to enhance professional success is to offer more value for the money, experts say. Gail Bower, a meeting planner and consultant who helped plan former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s inauguration and regularly works on the Newport (R.I.) Folk Festival, points out three often neglected areas: sponsorships deals, exhibitor packages and VIP services. By customizing offerings in these three areas, meeting planners not only distinguish themselves from the competition and help justify the value of their meetings, but they also create the opportunity for up-selling.
"One size does not fit all," Bower said. "If an event has a high-value corporate sponsorship program that offers its corporate partners a significant return on investment, corporate sponsors are still going to purchase because it’s a marketing vehicle."
Instead of asking sponsors to fill out generic forms, she recommends building a close relationship with them, figuring out their marketing needs for the year and tailoring a deal that helps them meet these objectives.
"Exhibitors have varying degrees of capabilities, interests and budgets," Bower said. "Why not offer different packages so exhibitors can purchase at the level they’re interested in?"
The draw of customized packages also applies to attendees. Bower, who has helped organize the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival for over a decade, says VIP packages help to boost revenue. Last year, the festival sold out its limited supply of Big Chief VIP Experience tickets offering an air-conditioned lounge, snacks and soft drinks, full-service restrooms and private viewing areas. The added comforts—priced at a hefty $750 per weekend compared to the standard tag of $120—even helped attract visitors who might otherwise shy from a hot and crowded New Orleans race track, Bower says.
Of course, none of these strategies work if you don’t draw attention to them. Effective marketing is crucial in this economy, and if you think you don’t have enough money for marketing, think again.
"There may not be room in the budget for more traditional, costly things like printed fancy four-color brochures," said Cris Canning, CMP, head instigator for Hospitality Ink and director of sales and marketing for The Venues at NTC Promenade. "But there are marketing tools on the Internet that are low-cost or free."
Starting a blog, for example, not only boosts your online presence by creating a public platform on which to present ideas and services, but also lifts your search engine ranking, she points out. Social networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn let you mingle virtually with clients and colleagues, meet new people who might be interested in your services and obtain recommendations from those who already know you.
"A lot of people are resisting some of the social media, thinking it’s all kids," she said. "Well, it’s not."
In fact, sites such as Facebook have become perfectly acceptable business tools.
Canning raises a point that often comes up in discussions about doing business these days: Different age groups do their work in very different ways.
This is the first time in history that four generations have found themselves in the same workforce.
Usually, these generational gaps are seen as a liability, or at best, a drag to deal with. However, a growing number of business experts, such as MeetDifferent Presenter Jason Ryan Dorsey—the self-proclaimed "Gen Y Guy"—believe a multigenerational workforce can be turned into an economic advantage if it’s managed right.
"When you bridge generations, you will see specific outcomes," Dorsey said. "You should see higher retention, higher productivity and better teamwork and innovation."
He points out that offering customized incentives to staff members from different generations, for example, will help motivate employees better than a generic corporate gift.
Consultants such as Dorsey say meeting planners have plenty to learn about generational issues, and add that with some understanding, you can use your age diversity to your advantage.
For starters, make sure your project teams are generationally diverse, says Lynne Lancaster, co-founder of consulting firm BridgeWorks, and co-author of When Generations Collide.
"If you have a big client, you might say, ‘Let’s put all our top Baby Boomers on this account because they have been around the longest.’ But that’s not the way to look at it. You get more perspective by having a multigenerational team," Lancaster said.
Plus, your client is likely to have several generations on his workforce, and they will relate better to you if they can identify with your representatives.
Perhaps more importantly, having several generations planning one meeting will help you incorporate elements into the event that appeal to people of different ages. Instead of PowerPoint presentations, your younger staff members might help you introduce more interactive screens or even hand-held voting devices. And seeking input from your Baby Boomers about food and beverages might help you avoid menus that are too experimental for many taste buds.
"By bridging the generations you’re going to be able to do more with fewer resources," Dorsey said. "Bridging the generations actually saves you money."
With such impactful bottom-line and savings issues of increasing importance, MeetDifferent will provide actionable solutions to attendees to help ensure a healthy global meeting and events industry.
DALIA FAHMY is a freelance business and financial writer based in New York.
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