A Plan of Action

Ameriplan's incentive trips help the multi-level marketing firm take advantage of an economy that plays to its strengths.

A bad economy isn't necessarily bad news for all businesses. Some sectors tend to thrive during a downturn, such as network marketing firms like Mary Kay, Amway, and Plano, TX-based Ameriplan, which sells access to a nationwide network of dentists, doctors, and vision care providers that offer members steep discounts.

In business since 1992, Ameriplan differs from other network marketing—also known as multi-level marketing—firms in that it sells access to services rather than the "pills, potions, and lotions" that many competitors distribute, says Jim Hardin, vice president of sales for Ameriplan's Southeastern division. "We sell the opportunity to save money," Hardin says.

Historically, economic downturns have been good times for multi-level marketing firms, he says, noting that people get tired of the corporate world and want to go into business for themselves. "Our product works best for people without insurance coverage," Hardin says, making it ideal during a time of mass layoffs, unaffordable insurance, and 47 million Americans without any coverage. "Many companies keep medical benefits but cut dental coverage," when cutting costs, he adds, noting, "Dental care is our signature product."

Nor did Ameriplan let the anti-incentive rhetoric by politicians and the media earlier this year shake its faith in incentives. In April, when insurance and financial firms were canceling incentive and meetings travel en masse, Ameriplan was running a month-long double-points promotion to spur its people to work even harder to sell during a difficult patch.

In fact, while multi-level marketing firms have not been immune to this downturn as they have been in previous, less serious ones, in general they have been steadfast in continuing their incentive travel, says Bill Boyd, president and CEO of Sunbelt Motivation & Travel in Dallas, which manages incentive programs for Ameriplan and other multi-level marketing companies.

"They are not afraid to spend money or go on trips," says Boyd. "They live and die on the production of their independent contractors. They have to dangle a pretty good carrot, and incentive travel is a carrot that works." That said, it doesn't hurt that they are generally privately held companies far less affected by public perception, he adds.

Travel Takes Off

Like any other sales organization, Ameriplan fights to get its sales network to work as hard as possible to produce as much as possible, and since 2003, one main tool in the company's arsenal has been the incentive travel program: the Top Producer Trip. The Trip is something Hardin brought to the company, having experienced incentive programs' success over nearly two decades as an executive at other multi-level marketing companies like Mary Kay before joining Ameriplan in 2001. Hardin has worked with Boyd since 1982, and when he finally convinced the identical twin brothers who founded Ameriplan to give an incentive travel program a shot, he brought Sunbelt on board. "I convinced the owners there is value to this kind of program, and I know a great guy to run it," Hardin says.

Ameriplan started with seven-to-10-day annual Top Producer Trips to destinations like the Atlantis resort on Paradise Island in the Bahamas, the Big Island and Lanai in Hawaii, and Quebec City. The company then moved to shorter programs every six months, to destinations like the Playacar Palace beach resort in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. The most recent Top Producer Trip began on January 19, ran through the end of June, and featured three days in Las Vegas.

In the past, the trips were for Ameriplan's top 50 producers plus one guest apiece, and the company found that around half of each year's crop were first-time winners, Hardin says. For 2009, the company changed the rules so that anyone earning a set number of points qualifies. "We'll probably take 80 to 100 people," Hardin said in late May, a month before the program's scheduled end. "So that's a pretty successful program."

And while they are expensive—aside from airfare, the Hawai-ian trip used the Fairmont Orchid on the Big Island and the Quebec City attendees stayed at Fairmont's Chateau Frontenac—Hardin says the real value to Ameriplan is the tens of thousands of Independent Business Owners (IBOs) who worked so hard over that period, signing up new members and IBOs, but did not qualify for the trip. "We have all of these people who don't make it, but still add a lot of business, and say, 'Next time, I'll qualify.'"

How Ameriplan Works

Ameriplan's main offering is Dental Plus, a $19.95-a-month plan that offers access to a network of more than 30,000 dentists offering discounts of 50 percent to 80 percent on their normal walk-in fees.

Over the years, the company added networks of vision care providers and chiropractors, as well as a network of 50,000 chain and independent pharmacies that offer discounts of 25 percent to 50 percent on prescription drugs.

Its newer Basic Health Plus plan offers discounts on doctors' services, plus prescription drugs, ancillary services like lab tests and diabetic supplies, a 24-hour health information line staffed by registered nurses, and a hospital advocacy service. Ameriplan is not insurance, Hardin notes, and members pay their own bills when services are provided.

But as in all multi-level marketing companies, for the IBOs who sell Ameriplan's products, the real money isn't in selling the product as much as it is in recruiting other IBOs to work under them, and getting a commission on what they sell. And, in fact, Ameriplan's Top Producer Trips are heavily weighted towards recruiting new IBOs, so much so that Hardin says that while "members are the lifeblood of our company, normally, the people going for these trips mostly develop IBOs. Only a small percentage just sign up new members to win the trip."

Ameriplan's 2009 Las Vegas trip required 1,250 points to qualify; signing up a new member for one of the company's plans nets three points, while signing up a new IBO to work under them garners four points. But becoming a regional sales director—by selling six memberships and signing up four other IBOs that work under them—brings 50 points. Each of the next six steps up the ladder brings 50 more points.

Thus, becoming a senior regional sales director, by getting three of their IBOs to become regional sales directors in their own right is good for 100 points on top of the previous 50 points, or 150 points towards the trip. The top level, national vice president, is worth 400 points alone. The main compensation is based on commissions of 30 percent of the monthly membership fee paid by each member or IBO signed up personally, plus overrides on commissions of IBOs and other sellers they recruited.

The Draw

The Las Vegas incentive program was unveiled and launched with great hoopla at Ameriplan's annual meeting in Detroit on January 15-16, 2008. The announcement came with its own sub-incentive: The qualifying period for IBOs who attended the Detroit meeting began two weeks earlier, on the first of the year.

The Top Producer Trip was then promoted in the company's monthly magazine. Daily rankings were posted on the website; in regular team messages the various regional, executive, and national sales directors sent to the IBOs under them; on Ameriplan's weekly sales call; and on colorful flyers mailed to all eligible IBOs.

"We do the trips first-class," says Hardin, adding that aside from airfare and staying at hotels like those in the Fairmont chain, attendees get a cash allowance for meals and incidentals, and activities like a day trip to the Mayan ruins at Tulum on the Playa del Carmen trip. Still, Ameriplan prefers not to make the trips too structured. The twice-yearly trips run three to four days, and that includes a welcome reception, the planned activity, and a big farewell dinner.

Even room gifts have marketing the trip in mind. On arrival in Mexico, attendees will find a framed picture of the destination in their rooms, and then at the final dinner, will find those frames on the tables with pictures of the attendees taken during the festivities. The Mexico trip, for a program that ran through the end of December, was scheduled for May. But the company postponed it due to the swine flu outbreak, and will now go in October—actually a month or two after the Las Vegas trip for the program that followed, which ended on June 30.

"The destinations are great, but we take them on the trip [so that attendees] get to mix and mingle with the corporate staff, and the top recruiters in the company get together and pick each other's brains," Hardin says. "You get together with all the top people, and build relationships all over the country. People bond."

While the trips are expensive, Hardin admits, he says, "One thing we do not hear is, 'Why a trip and not cash?' Cash is the most expensive way to motivate. When the winners get back, they talk up the trip, and they challenge each other to go on the next one."

Originally published July 1, 2009

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