Forging Ahead

Public perception be damned. These three companies met with success.

AIG. Primerica. Wells Fargo. We've all heard about the meetings, conferences, and incentives that have been canceled or downsized, but there are hundreds that have gone ahead with much success, because when times are tough, senior leaders need to be seen and heard by the troops who are looking for direction and vision.

Here are the stories of three companies that haven't let the down economy or fear of public misperception stop them from doing what's right for their organizations.

Rolling Along

With close to 2,000 on hand, the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company knew it made the right decision by going ahead with its annual North American Tire Dealer Conference January 30 through February 3 at the Gaylord National Hotel & Convention Center in Prince George's County, MD, as attendance was up from the prior year.

When asked if there was a chance of postponing or canceling this conference, Andy Traicoff, director of marketing operations, says, "We had a meeting with our executive leadership team that lasted about one minute. We stressed that this is an investment in our customer base; it's not a junket or a party." A trifecta team consisting of Traicoff, Ed Markey, vice president of public relations and communications, and Mark McDonald, director of customer relations, was responsible for planning the conference with the help of ADM Productions, a Port Washington, NY-based meetings and events production company.

"Many have used the analogy of drinking out of a fire hose to describe all that goes into this conference," says Markey.

Like most companies, Goodyear has been keeping a close eye on its expenditures but concludes that this yearly conference is an investment. Rich Kramer, president of Goodyear's North American tire unit, touched upon this during his keynote address.

"Many other companies, both inside and outside the tire industry, have canceled their customer meetings this year because of the economy. And that's perfectly understandable. [However,] seeing you, hearing from you, whether you are supportive or critical of what we are doing, is paramount to our success during these trying times. Incredibly, or maybe not, our attendance here in Washington has actually increased over last year in Dallas. That says a lot about what you expect from us and confirms what we believe about you. So, I hope you see that we're not doing things like everyone else. This kind of investment in you is what it means to be a valued Goodyear customer," declared Kramer.

One such customer is John Turk, president of Conrad's Tire Express and Total Car Care, which consists of 30 retail stores in the Cleveland, Ohio area. Turk has attended approximately 15 Goodyear conferences.

"It was great that they had the courage to go through with the conference. I have no negative feelings toward those companies that have to cancel meetings because of the economy, but I do applaud Goodyear for having the courage to press forward," says Turk. "In this age of people connecting through faxes, e-mails, BlackBerry [devices], a lot of interpersonal connections get lost. A conference like this gives you the opportunity to connect face-to-face."

When the conference kicked off, not only did attendance exceed that of the previous year, but there were more key decision makers on hand this time around. There was a larger number of individual customers, with fewer guests. "This helped them manage their costs effectively," says Traicoff. "Plus, we were able to reach more customers than we had in the past."

Since the event is not just a dealer conference, but a tradeshow as well, there are very few venues that can accommodate the group. For the past six years, it has used Gaylord properties, and next year it's at Orlando's Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center.

The Goodyear conference has undergone a metamorphosis. Gone are the booming fireworks and Cirque du Soleil performances, replaced by business sessions and education. Topics this year included time management, leadership skills, managing young employees, and employee retention.

"When Goodyear first started hosting its dealers conferences, they were more staged. Each person gave a presentation and I sat through all of them. Now, it's been broken into smaller pieces and you can attend just those sessions you're most interested in. You can connect with subject matters that mean the most to you," explains Turk.

The conference is also a backdrop against which the company unveils new products. Goodyear rolled out 12 new products this year—a company record.

"One of the key messages we gave to our dealers was although this is a difficult year, we're still going to continue our innovation and launch of new products. This gave our customers a real reason to believe," says Traicoff.

Many meetings, conferences, and incentives are being canceled or postponed because of the weak economy and to avoid criticism in the media. Goodyear was not concerned about media backlash. "This is a business meeting that we encourage media to attend," says Markey.

The company was pleased with the results. In a survey of all attendees, 98 percent felt overall satisfaction of the investment they had made and 92 percent left understanding Goodyear's strategy and agreed with it. "We got pretty high marks," says Traicoff. "Highlights for the attendees were learning about Goodyear's new products, hearing what our strategic direction is, and getting the opportunity to interface with Goodyear leadership."

The planning process starts with one integral question, says Traicoff. "What do we want our customers to think, feel, and do when they leave the meeting." The theme of this year's gathering was "The Next Generation."

"We focused on the next generation of technology they will be using, the next generation of leadership, the next generation of employees who talk with their thumbs as they text each other instead of looking at each other eye- to-eye, the next generation of consumers," says Traicoff. To further emphasize this theme, young Goodyear leaders addressed the group. "We took it full throttle all the way through," says Traicoff.

ADM Productions was integral in helping Goodyear design the conference. This was the seventh year the two companies worked together.

"We immerse ourselves in understanding the brands and the strategic communication being imparted," explains Dan Held, ADM's vice president of new business development. "Goodyear explained that this year's conference had to be more cost effective. They wanted us to be creative with a tighter budget."

One of the cost-cutting measures put into place had to do with a giant tire that was displayed. In year's past, an actual nine-foot model of a tire was used. This year, a video of a seven-foot tire was displayed on a Stealth screen. "It was one-fifth of the price of the giant model, inclusive of the costs for rigging," says Held.

The conference certainly instilled confidence in attendees as the company's market share is up. "During the first few months of 2009, when we're suffering through some pretty difficult times from a vehicle manufacturing and miles driven standpoint, our brands are growing market share," explains Traicoff. "It's not something we're walking around saying, proud as a peacock, as it's a tough environment out there. But we do believe that by getting our folks together, hunkering down, and explaining what we're doing and why we're doing it has helped lead to that success."

CA's Aspiration Trips

Despite fear of media backlash, many companies are going ahead with their incentive trips, realizing what an effective business tool they are. Four-billion-dollar CA, the world's leading independent IT management software company, is ready to say, "G'day mate," as its best 300 salespeople head to top resorts in New Zealand and Australia for six days during this month's 29th-consecutive incentive trip.

CA believes in putting this program in the spotlight. "We keep the trip highly visible. It is the most sought-after honor amongst our salespeople around the world," explains Bill Hughes, an executive at the Islandia, NY-based CA.

The company uses the trips as a recruitment tool by running full-page ads in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and USA Today featuring photos of past incentives to recruit new salespeople.

Hughes credits these sales incentive trips for helping keep all but one of the company's 200 best sales performers over the tenuous last 24 months. Incentive travel helps attract and retain the best people, he says.

"These sales incentive programs are a big part of our motivation, retention, and training. They are just a great way to keep our salesforce engaged even in this tough time," explains Hughes. "They are a valuable tool to keep our salesforce motivated, working hard, and firing on all cylinders."

An African safari ... a Russian cruise ... sun and fun on Bora Bora ... the Seychelles Islands ... Hughes calls these "aspiration trips." In 2008, winners traveled to the islands of Tahiti, Moorea, and Bora Bora in French Polynesia; in 2007 it was a Baltic cruise aboard a Regent ship from Copenhagen to Russia with stops in Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland, Tallin, St. Petersburg, Helsinki, and Stockholm; and in 2006 it was South Africa.

"They are a badge of honor. These salespeople have exceeded their quotas by two to three times and in turn get a trip they will remember forever," explains Hughes. "Everyone in sales aspires to be one of these award winners."

Although extremely profitable, CA has also made a concerted effort over the last three years to cut costs and expenses.

"But these trips are an investment. Given the tough economic environment and with all the negativity surrounding us, you need to keep your best and brightest and our incentive trips keep our salesforce engaged and working hard," says Hughes.

Computer Scientists Take to the High Seas

A floating conference complete with games, games, and more games, as well as appearances by Minnie, Mickey, and Goofy, was more popular than ever last month, even in this era where price and perception is paramount.

In this case, the games were digital, as this was the Fourth International Conference on the Foundations of Digital Games that was held April 26-30 aboard the Disney Wonder. The cruise was completely sold out. Approximately 350 attended from 33 countries, the majority of the group was computer science faculty and game studio executives. This conference, with Microsoft, Electronic Arts, and GarageGame as its sponsors, has evolved from Microsoft's Conference on Game Development in Computer Science Education. These conferences have helped create a new academic community of computer scientists focused on computer games.

In the past, the faculty received some type of subsidiary for the cost of the cruise, but not this year. They paid their own way. As a result, not as many brought guests and the group was slightly smaller from the 402 who attended last year.

When Microsoft first announced they would be having this conference aboard a cruise ship, they were met with some hesitation. "We heard from potential attendees, 'it will be too expensive, my cell phone and Internet will be too unpredictable,'" says John Nordlinger, senior program manager, Microsoft Research. "Those same people came to us after attending to say that it was the best conference they have ever attended because they didn't have distractions and were able to be fully engaged."

One attendee, Cory Ondrejka, former chief technology officer of Linden Labs, the makers of Second Life, and now senior vice president of digital strategy at EMI Recorded Music, comments, "Not only did the isolation from cell coverage and net connections implicit to a cruise result in more time to interact with fellow participants and review interesting concepts raised throughout the conference, but the remarkable mix of academics, researchers, and game developers led to great conversation, brainstorming, and general thinking outside of the box."

Although most think of sun and fun when they think of cruises, this is a true academic conference that is co-branded by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), said to be the gold standard in the world of computer science.

The schedule is grueling. "Sessions are running until midnight every day on dual tracks," says Kent Foster, senior academic marketing manager, Microsoft Corporation. "Last year we had 44 sessions."

Landry and Kling, a Miami-based group of cruise event specialists, manages the conference. "When I told Landry and Kling we would be running sessions until midnight or 1 a.m., they questioned whether we could fill the rooms at that time. They were surprised to see how packed they were. As a matter of fact, they told us we've broken the form of how many sessions you can have on a cruise."

Conference sessions included "Creating and Managing an Academic Games Program" and "The Intellectual Life of Online Play."

As far as perception, not only do the academic sessions reveal what an in-depth conference this is but so does the fact that ACM supported peer-reviewed papers are accepted at the conference. "This mitigates much of the technical press because they are aware of what ACM is and are comfortable with that," says Nordlinger.

When Microsoft organized the conference, there was a bit of convincing to be done before the first cruise. "When we internally championed this, we had a lot of people each step of the way asking if this was really the right way for Microsoft to do this. It took 15 minutes of convincing," says Nordlinger.

The all-inclusive nature of the cruise also makes it extremely cost-effective. "In talking with some of the faculty going to ACM SIGCSE, [the Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education, which hosts symposia and conferences], they are spending twice as much as going on the Disney cruise ship for this conference," says Foster. "The cruise is quite cost effective and the quality of what you get is high."

Having a group gathered on a cruise ship creates camaraderie that is hard to duplicate at land-based venues. Plus, the group gets to interact with the speakers for the entire voyage. This year's opening keynote speaker, Chris Satchell, chief technology officer for the Interactive Entertainment Business for Microsoft, was on hand the entire cruise.

The impact this conference has on computer science programs around the world has been impressive. "Through intense conference interaction with faculty peers from around the world on the cruise ship, we've seen an incredible up-tick in software adoption with game development platforms such as XNA and higher satisfaction with Microsoft as a partner with computer science educators. The fact that this conference has been conducted for the past four years suggests that this is more effective than many other faculty initiatives we've done," says Foster. It may be four days of games on the high seas, but very productive computer games for the academic community.

Originally published May 1, 2009

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