Attitude Adjustment

As if you didn't already know, recent news on the economic front hasn't been very promising. To wit: The forecast for economic growth for all of 2003 was revised downward in mid-May; both the consumer price index and the producer price index dropped precipitously in April, a signal that deflation is a credible threat in the near future; and The Gallup Organization warned that consumer confidence did not rebound as expected after the end of the Iraq war, and it would likely remain low throughout 2003.

Predictably, corporate executives have redoubled their efforts to trim expenses, with meetings taking sizable budgetary hits. Independent planner Pat Nave, president of PS Nave and Associates in Westport, CT, notes that one corporate client has gone from holding three major meetings to two, replacing one with a teleconferencing session. "It's the first time I'm seeing teleconferencing truly affect the meetings business," she says. "There was hoopla some years ago about it, but it never got off the ground. That's changing now."

Besides this, Nave and other planners find that more meetings are being staged on a regional basis to reduce air travel and promote drive-in attendance, are shorter in duration but have longer hours in each day, and are often disallowing spouses to accompany attendees. These changes stem in a large part from fiscal concerns, but they also indicate a shift in management's prevailing wisdom on the role of meetings. Here's how that shift is affecting the planning of corporate events.

9 to 5, and Beyond

Surely, whatever enjoyment that once came from attending a company meeting is hard to find anymore. "They're not much fun; they're down and dirty, with no free time," says Nave, who coordinates many sales meetings for large firms. "People are in sessions from morning until evening, and they only take a true break at lunch -- and even that has been shortened."

Despite this, the atmosphere in such meetings isn't as bad as one might think. "They aren't filled with people who are totally down in the mouth," Nave adds. "Most of these folks are happy to have jobs, and they are happy to be getting together." Even at user conferences, attendees have adjusted their expectations in keeping with the economic climate, says Linda Bennett, a planner with Maritz Travel West in Walnut Creek, CA. "A lot of it has to do with perception -- the users want to have a good time, but they don't want to see the company just throwing money around."

Interestingly, Stephen Hines, president of Marketing Resource Management, a independent planning firm in Aldie, VA, sees good things in this new atmosphere. "The change I've noticed at meetings isn't that people are coming in overly stressed, but rather that they are coming in more focused. There's nobody laughing much, but that's mostly an acknowledgement that you should be paying full attention to the business at hand. And it's benefiting everybody, in that they are there with a single purpose in mind. I'm not seeing people being stretched the wrong way mentally."

These days, one key aspect common to most corporate events is increased attendee interaction in sessions. "It's so important that when we are spending money to bring people together from around the world, they have to leave not only with content knowledge but also with a feeling that they are part of a larger team and they can call on any of us at any time for assistance," says Cynthia Dugan, event manager for Abbott International in Abbott Park, IL. "So our meetings don't have sessions featuring talking heads -- they are very interactive and always facilitated. I almost never do classroom-style anymore; we do crescent rounds so people can turn around and interact with each other." And Lynne Tiras, president of International Meeting Managers in Houston, TX, finds that her corporate clients are seeking out facilitators with specific industry or subject knowledge to push the sessions in the right direction and get the most out of attendee dialogue.

Even for keynote addresses, planners are turning away from celebrities, athletes, and other big names who specialize in motivational pitches. "Takeaway value is more important than ever right now," says Don Epstein, CEO of New York City-based Greater Talent Network. "We are getting demand for people such as ambassadors, who have a knowledge of foreign affairs but in the context of business: the nitty-gritty of dealing with people and customs within specific nations. They'll talk about current situations, America's role in the world, its effect on business, bridging cultural divides, and security."

Another popular option is the satirist. The reason: A social commentator, business consultant, or literary figure can make people laugh, but also make them think while they're doing it. "It's been an uneasy time, so you can't have outright comedy," notes Epstein. "But you have your speaker present things in a way that entertains while forcing people to think about the issues that are important to the organization."

Finally, Epstein finds that his firm is being contacted more often by senior-level people in companies, "to make sure they are getting the type of person they really want." And when they call, executives have a slew of questions and demands. "They want to have a one-on-one conversation with a prospective speaker and get them to tailor the presentation narrowly to the group," he says. "And they don't want to see tapes anymore. They want client recommendations and critiques. Anybody can make a great tape, and groups sometimes get burned by them. Some clients even make the effort to see the speaker in person, onstage."

All Work, No Play: Not Good

While improved attendee dialogue promotes camaraderie, some other traditional teambuilding activities have been cast aside, victims of budgetary and time constraints. "With sessions routinely going later into the afternoon, you're not seeing as many groups knocking off early to play golf or have a themed event," says Hines.

However, this doesn't mean that all teambuilding ideas are unworthy of the company's time or too rich for its blood. For instance, Lex Lyon, president of PRA Destination Management in San Diego and 2003 president of the Association of Destination Marketing Executives, finds that groups are interested in "voluntours," where attendees do charitable works in a destination. "There are certainly more civic-minded requests by planners these days," he says. "These are inexpensive, and you're bringing colleagues together to work on something with no pressure, but with a chance to learn more about each other. Plus, it's good for the firm's reputation."

Beyond this, an event that builds goodwill between employees and management doesn't have to be expensive, either. Tiras recently coordinated a regional meeting at a lakeside resort, which made it possible for attendees' families to drive in towards the end of the four-day meeting. The last afternoon saw a picnic for the families of the 1,500 attendees. "They had a barbecue, swimming, fishing, games, face painters, drawings for prizes, and music," says Tiras. "It was a real feel-good day, but not a costly one."

The Job Ahead

Though the planners and suppliers we interviewed are split on whether they see light at the end of the tunnel for this economic slump, there is agreement that most corporate planners have a challenging task ahead of them when discussing with their executives the ongoing role of internal meetings. Hines believes that planners must effectively counter any "perception lag" that could cause meetings to remain bare in certain areas, even after the economy shows signs of picking up. "At some point, we will see some loosening of the reins, and meetings will regain some of their broader educational value. But at this moment, people are feeding each other's concerns, and that results in constricted meetings becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy."

On the other hand, adds Hines, "Many planners have the clout to be leaders and engage their executives in a dialogue that stresses the value of the wider-based meeting -- not just the meeting that's narrowly focused on immediate business outcomes. We have a responsibility to remind executives that meetings are also about giving attendees increased skills, and not just about how to move product for the next three months."

Tiras feels the conversation with management could stand to be even more immediate: "For those who haven't yet, talk to your bosses. Companies still have to have meetings to succeed, and when the market is this soft the hotels are practically giving away the store—upgrades, receptions, golf, you name it. This is an opportune time for corporations to have meetings that raise morale while educating people. It'll be a shame if companies don't jump on this opportunity."