The word “stimulus” is on everyone’s lips. From corporate presidents to the President of the United States, stimulating an economy in recession and reviving fallen businesses seems to be the main topic of conversation. The word also applies to the workforce: A stimulated employee is usually a motivated one. However, recent media and government criticism of incentive programs has encouraged many companies to cancel scheduled events. Unfortunately, by killing those programs, companies also are eliminating the incentives salespeople need to drive revenue and remain motivated.
“Meetings are critical for businesses and individuals to grow their sales and marketing opportunities, enhance their individual performances and identify new ways of conducting business,” says Gary C. Sain, president and CEO of the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau Inc. “Meetings are economic drivers.”
As the second-largest meetings destination in the U.S. and a choice locale for both domestic and international incentives, Orlando has suffered from backlash aimed at companies that received emergency financial assistance. The city not only has lost revenue from Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) recipients canceling much-scrutinized meetings, it also has lost revenue on canceled or downsized meetings that have nothing to do with TARP funds. Throughout the private sector, companies are canceling incentive events, or trimming budgets and attendee numbers, because they are afraid of getting caught in the backlash, too.
“The increased sensationalism on meetings is one-sided,” Sain says. “We agree that taxpayer dollars should be spent wisely. However, the political rhetoric has created an environment where corporate CEOs are canceling meetings due to the possibility they may be vilified by the media.”
Las Vegas, the country’s largest meetings destination, also is struggling with reductions in group business. As of March 9, the city had seen 340 groups cancel meetings scheduled for 2009, resulting in the loss of nearly 112,000 visitors and an estimated $132 million in potential revenue.
“Our industry has been impacted by the misperception that meetings are not a productive part of doing business,” says Chris Meyer, vice president of convention sales for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. “Having already been impacted by the downturn in the economy, the industry was then impacted further by negative rhetoric.”
To combat negative rhetoric and provide a practical and actionable blueprint TARP recipients can use to justify meeting, conference, event and incentive spending, a coalition of industry leaders, headed by U.S. Travel Association, developed a list of guidelines, called the “Model Board Policy for Approval of Meetings, Events and Incentive/Recognition Travel.” It is designed to offer an alternative for CEOs and corporate planners at TARP companies, who are required by the Treasury to have such a policy in place. The model board policy also may be adopted by non-TARP recipients, who can modify the guidelines as needed, based on their industry, company size and market sector.
By following these self-imposed restrictions, incentive planners can preserve and revitalize the industry by making it more transparent. But they may be better able to sway public opinion if they rethink how they put incentive programs together in the first place.
The traditional incentive program includes winners, their guests and a small number of executive hosts to facilitate the meeting and give winners the opportunity to network with corporate leadership. But because they often meet in tony locations, the press has had a field day drawing attention to what they characterize as corporate “boondoggles.” Kit Garrett, DMCP, founder and CEO of Discover New York, suggests planners move away from planning group programs and focus on rewarding the individual, instead.
“The individual hit the target; the group didn’t win it,” Garrett says. “Take it out of the public perception by customizing a program for the specific winner.”
Garrett says this method also is more cost-effective than planning a group function. If attendees don’t like the dinners and activities offered to the whole group, they often make separate plans, which results in cancellation and no-show attrition fees.
“If someone is not a golfer, why put them on the golf course?” Garrett says. “We call the winners before the trip is booked and educate them on less-expensive options so they can get more for the dollars allocated.”
Mitchell Beer, CMM, president and CEO of The Conference Publishers Inc., agrees that providing employees with a choice is key, but suggests planners also include socially responsible activities.
“There will always be high-performing executives or sales reps who are genuinely motivated by the promise of a traditional incentive trip,” Beer says. “But what if it became standard practice to offer a menu of options that included the glitzy destination, but left it to each employee to choose the incentive that was most meaningful to them?”
Beer points to Timberland’s visit to the Ninth Ward in New Orleans, the area of the city that suffered the most catastrophic flooding from Hurricane Katrina. The outdoor clothing and footwear company set aside one day of their annual sales conference for community service. Two hundred Timberland employees helped to rebuild a jazz musician’s restaurant and donated the Timberland boots they were wearing to residents of the Ninth Ward.
“If the industry as a whole showed its courage and audacity by proposing such a socially responsible approach, it would be a whole lot more difficult to cast meeting professionals as evil, profligate villains,” Beer says. “Rather than just asking our communities and stakeholders to listen to our words, we would be inviting them to watch us take action and judge the results for themselves.”
Monica Compton, CMP, is an event specialist with Pinnacle Productions Inc. She has 17 years experience as a global meeting planner, managing a variety of corporate programs both domestically and internationally.