The changing perception of face-to-face meetings

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By Joe Nishi and Jennifer Glynn

Since the very beginning, people have been meeting. For faith, trade, education, political or social reasons, we shook hands as a gesture of peace by demonstrating that the hand holds no weapon and looked into each other’s eyes and decided to either trust or not trust either other. At one time, it could have meant the difference between life or death.

Today, the reasons to meet can be just as important, from pharmaceutical companies wanting to gain insight on their products to organizations requiring a shift in their culture in order to survive. Is looking someone in the eyes and shaking their hand as meaningful and relevant as it once was? Yes! In our opinion, it’s even more critical given the uncertain business climate we have today.
The changing perception of face-to-face meetingsWorking with our clients on finding the right venue for their business events for over 22 years has given us a perspective on how the environment of face-to-face meetings has changed. Information is instantly available for the world to read, watch or hear. Financial wrongdoings in the private and public sector have resulted in a society that has had an increasingly difficult time trusting our leaders and the decisions they make. Stephen Covey writes in his book Smart Trust “One reason why violations of trust are so damaging is because trust is such a vital principle, and, consciously or not, we count on trust to make our world meaningful and our relationships worthwhile.”

So how are corporate meeting planners and suppliers dealing with the challenging times? We interviewed clients, industry leaders and research specialists to find out their take on the following four questions:

  1. The trust factor: Why do we need to meet now more than ever?
  2. How has public perception changed the way we procure, plan and execute business events?
  3. Are budgets the biggest factor in determining where the meeting goes?
  4. How are we measuring Return on Investment?

The trust factor: Why do people need to connect?

The reasons why humans need face-to-face contact have been well documented: It’s simply in our DNA. We do our best learning and relationship-building when we’re interacting with others, reading non-verbal body language and rolling our eyes at each other’s bad jokes. Dr. Sebastian Henn, Post-Doctoral Research-Fellow formerly with the University of Toronto and now Leibniz-Institute for Regional Geography, recently completed a study on knowledge creation and noted “that in most cases attendees main goal for going to meetings was to network, collect new contacts to new potential business partners to collaborate in the future and create a stronger competitive advantage for the future.” The study went on to say that “gestures, facial expressions and thus emotional and psychological factors are decisive for building trust and thus are important when people are meeting for the first time.”

Teams cannot be effective if team members do not trust each other. Scott Kress, president and founder of Summit Training and president of The Frontier Group, put it this way: “Most teams can operate in the good times. However, it’s your team’s performance in the difficult times that really is critical. While technology and online learning tools are a great resource for companies today, relationships are the foundation for any high performance team.”

Building relationships is key

Douglas Bolger, Chief L(earn)ing Officer of L(earn)² and his team help transform lives through learning. Every day they see the power of emotional connections and face-to-face interactions making an impact on organizations. Trust is the overall benefit of meetings and without trust you cannot build meaningful relationships. Bolger believes sharing best practices by making thoughtful connections through elaborate conversation and active learning really benefits organizations in two ways:

  • Direct benefits: Improved morale and leadership skills; increased sales; improved collaboration; employee retention; new employee attraction; and ownership of changes within the organization.
  • Indirect benefits: A belief that my organization is committed to learning. “I’m learning skills that can be applied to real world problems.”

How has public perception changed the way we procure, plan and execute business events?

As a result of the economic slowdown and increased media scrutiny, be it the ‘AIG’ effect or the perception of corporate overspending, planners today have to be wary of how their business and incentive programs are being perceived by their shareholders.

Demonstrating the need to put measurable metrics against meeting/incentive spending has allowed these Canadian planners to ensure they are being strategic and that when scrutinized will rise above the perception issue.

“The overall perception of meetings is getting better,” says Angie Pfeifer, C.M.M., assistant vice-president, Corporate Meetings, Travel and Incentives for Investors Group Financial Services and MPI Past Chair. “As an organization we’ve made huge progress in demonstrating the value of meetings. We’ve done that by delivering on measurable results like productivity and employee retention. Measurement is difficult and just knowing where to start is a major stumbling block to organizations.”

Defining purpose

Pfeifer suggests that you begin by talking to key people in your organization, starting the conversation with the basic question: “What’s the purpose of the meeting?” This will ensure that you are meeting for the right reason and perception isn’t as much of an issue. As an industry, Pfeifer agrees that we are better than where we were even just a few years ago: “We are more organized, however more needs to be done as this is the new normal going forward.”

Gone are the days for staying with the status quo. Strategic planners are taking themselves out of their perceived ‘party-planner’ roles and ensuring they are at the boardroom table, measuring their impact on the company’s bottom line not as a cost centre, but as revenue generator.

Manulife Financial Canada’s distribution sales support team plans over 300 meetings and perception has not been an issue. “We spend our dollars wisely, ensuring we are only organizing meetings and incentive programs that have specific and meaningful goals and objectives to be achieved. We consistently evaluate the business reasons for a meeting and choose a location that best meets those needs,” says Patricia Kerr, director, Distribution Sales Support, Manulife Financial Canada.

Meetings still important

“Sales meetings are still very important,” says Kathie Kirchsteiger, senior marketing coordinator with Pearson Canada. “Location, price and determining what is needed versus what is wanted is critical.” This focus on the critical needs of the organization versus just doing the only the “fun” stuff helps ensure that meetings stay targeted on key business objectives.

Due to the very nature of our industry today, we are always going to be under the radar. When planners educate their internal customers (C-level, shareholders, etc) on the strategic value of their incentive programs they become the biggest advocate for those events because the results are clearly evident. “Specific to our incentive programs, our senior leadership feel that the overall financial results speak to the ROI. Repeat high performing brokers and increased sales can be partially attributed to the incentive campaigns we execute,” says Gail Steffensen, vice-president of Great-West Life.

Are budgets still biggest factor in determining where the meeting goes?

In recent years, both suppliers and planners have had to manage the economic pressures of their business. Planners have had to create ‘more with less’ and suppliers have had to adjust their business models to meet the expectations and changing demands of customers. Those that have been most successful are the savvy planners that have been strategic with their budgets and the suppliers that have been flexible and have continued to be true ‘partners.’

There is increased optimism about 2013 and a recent PKF Consulting report suggests that both ADR (Average Daily Rate) and RevPar(Revenue per available room ) will see modest increases in 2013. But are times changing? Are we going back into a ‘sellers’ market? Are the days of a good deal gone?

“Marriott is seeing strong growth in the corporate market with booking pace strong for 2013 and 2014. Our recent acquisition of Gaylord Hotels speaks to Marriott’s confidence in the group market,” says Scott Allison, vice-president, Canadian operations for Marriott Hotels and Resorts of Canada

Opposing viewpoints

On the other side of the coin is what hotel clients are saying.

“Based on the fact that we do approx 200-plus meetings and events in a calendar year means that budgets are a significant hot button for us. Our clients continue to expect us to do what we did last time with no increase in our budget, even though the industry increases are not insignificant. The increasing cost of airfare is also problematic for us, as there is nothing we can do about it. Using webinar technology for meetings is growing in popularity every day due to the high cost of meetings,” says Gail Steffensen.

“Budget restrictions have provided us with a discipline to think about the meeting and to ensure it was necessary. Some meetings that were cancelled were not rebooked, but we have had new ones added with a different business focus – structured to meet the demand of our business partners.”

Budget scrutiny

Manulife Financial’s Patricia Kerr says: “We are still under the budget scrutiny of 2008-2009. All aspects of meetings are being considered: What meetings can be cancelled? What meetings can be combined? What meetings can be shortened to cut costs and improve efficiency?”

Sharon Chapman, a seasoned U.S.-based meeting planner, has been faced with flat budgets since 2002. These budget restrictions have allowed her and her team to look at some creative solutions. “We have been pretty fortunate in that we still have found good value for our programs by moving into hotels’ shoulder season for value dates and rates. Instead of dine-around evenings, we now provide American Express gift cheques, so that we can predetermine the amount spent ahead of time.”

Budgets may not be increasing significantly in Canada either, but suppliers are not seeing cutbacks on meeting spend that they have in years previous. Spending is seen as more “thoughtful and purchasing choices are prioritized to the core values of the organization and the planners’ individual beliefs,” says Claire Smith, vice-president of sales for Vancouver Convention and Exhibition Centre. “We are no longer seeing the days of ‘champagne and lobster style splashy affairs.’ Planners are now and focusing more on selecting local menus and hiring impactful keynote speakers. Overall we are seeing a planner’s budget being funnelled more selectively.”

How are we measuring return on investment?

How companies measure ROI varies as much as the companies themselves. However, the overall goal is to understand the economic and cultural impact (ie: employee engagement) that the meeting, conference or incentive will result in.

Pearson Canada measures the ROI of each event through tracking sales for discipline-specific events. “This is matched against the costs by department to ensure that ROI can be measured against the total amount spent for that event,” says Kathie Kirchsteiger.

Angie Pfeifer measures their meetings and incentive ROI through “calculating employee retention, productivity levels and the bottom line.”

Scott Kress and his team set the right expectations of their programs from the beginning. “Whether it be for networking, brainstorming, sharing best practices, if attendees know why they are there, they will make the most of it.”

Where do we go from here…

While many believe that we’re stronger as an industry than ever before, others think there is room for improvement.

“Currently, the meetings industry is not measured as an industry at all, but as a sector in the tourism industry and we still have a long way to go before our the government understands the economic scope of our industry,” says Joe Orecchio, president at Road Ahead Meetings and Events and Immediate Past President of SITE Canada. “Industry associations are still very segmented. Until we anoint an organization as our voice, we will not have the impact on government.”

We’re getting there, however. The Business Events Industry Coalition of Canada was formally launched in January, 2010, to act as a unifying voice for the myriad business-events industry groups and associations here in Canada.

Provides credibility

Rita Plaskett, CMP, CMM, and current chair of BEICC states: “The industry was crying out for credible data. Thus the Canadian Economic Impact Study was conceived.” The first study was released in 2008 and updated in 2009 and the MPI Foundation’s Project Advisory Committee is hard at work on the next study, CEIS 3.0. “Leveraging the CEIS with those outside our industry in both the private and public sector will not only raise the profile of the business events industry as a whole, it is also incredibly important to organizations that need data on the economic impact of meetings at the regional level thus empowering them to make sound business decisions,” says Plaskett.

Working together instead of relying on government and the media to just simply recognize the value of meetings is a common message from industry leaders.

“Strategic partnerships are crucial” says Marriott’s Scott Allison. “There is increased awareness at the federal and provincial level on the value of meetings, but governments can’t do anything about it. Governments have to cut the deficit – anything that requires a cash outlay is no longer happening, private and public partnerships are the way future tourism development will take place in Canada.”

Seeking a collective voice

Vito Curalli, DHSP, MBA, executive director, Canada, Latin America and International Sales at Hilton Worldwide, goes further and says: “The economic impact of meetings is incredibly important to both the industry as well as to the strength of our overall economy in Canada. As a member of Hotel Association of Canada, we continue to work to have our collective voice heard on Parliament Hill. We believe that the government is taking notice of how important the industry is to our macro environment, but we need more industry representatives to contact their local MPs in order to remind them that the meetings industry generates over $72 billion in economic impact and contributes a large tax sum to the government on a yearly basis.”

There has never been a more critical time to meet face-to-face than there is today. Regardless of your role in the industry, the way we discuss, plan, execute, service and evaluate business events has changed tremendously in a relatively short period of time. The old adage of “it’s just about heads in beds and butts in banquet chairs” has been replaced with ROI, strategic meetings management policies, alignment of goals and objectives and economic impact. This is a huge shift in thinking and one that should be welcomed and embraced. Perhaps instead of asking can we find the money to do the event, we should be asking: What’s the cost to our organization if we don’t do it?

The global economy is on shaky ground and there is still major concern about the “optics” of bringing people together to meet. This is exactly the right moment to have your team engaged and pulling in the same direction. As Stephen Covey notes in Smart Trust, Hector Ruiz, chairman and CEO, Advanced Nanotechnology Solutions says: “The right people will feel far more pressure to perform well when they are trusted.” There is no better way to encourage trust in one another than by getting them together. Restoring that trust in each other through the power of meetings is the key.

About the authors

Joe Nishi and Jennifer Glynn are owners of Meeting Encore Ltd., one of Canada’s premier site selection companies since 1990. Meeting Encore’s team of industry veterans saves their clients time and money through sourcing, negotiating and contracting the perfect location for conferences or incentives. Both Joe and Jenn are active in the industry through their involvement with MPI, SITE and numerous advisory boards. They can be reached at 905-403-9646 or contacted via the company website at www.meetingencore.com.

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