. Planning for the Future With Annual Meetings | Successful Meetings

Planning for the Future With Annual Meetings

When it comes to setting the agenda for the year ahead, organizations have few better opportunities than the annual meeting. Whether looking to rally employees, introduce organizational changes, or reset a company mission an annual meeting often serves as a cultural catalyst. "An annual meeting is a great venue for starting the process of a cultural change," says Dr. David Vik, author of The Culture Secret: How to Empower People and Companies No Matter What You Sell (Greenleaf Book Group), released last month.

But Vik, who worked as a coach for Zappos.com executives and employees from 2005 to 2010, cautions against a one-sided approach to annual meetings, where company leaders give speeches and everyone else listens.

"Saying 'we're going to change our culture - here's our vision and purpose,' is going to alienate the very people you need to get onboard," says Vik. "When people are asked to give input about where they work and how they can better serve customers, they're usually all for it, and the annual meeting gets better results."

Many companies are finding this to be true - and they are giving the traditional approach to an annual meeting a refresh, from adopting more flexible content delivery formats to choosing more inspiring venues. In the process, they are creating annual meetings with results that can be felt throughout the rest of the year.

Here's a look at how the annual meetings strategies of four companies helped each one address a challenge or achieve a goal.

Reconnecting With Attendees
Sage North America, a software company, had long used annual meetings to connect with multiple audiences, hosting a weeklong Sage Summit where part of the week was dedicated to resellers of its software, and the other part was focused on the corporate clients who used it. Everyone would then get together mid-week for a general session that included keynote speakers and speeches from the company leadership.

But two years ago, Danielle Cote, vice president of event marketing for Sage North America, noticed that the keynote format did not seem to be connecting with attendees.

"It just seemed like there was a lackluster energy - attendees were going through the motions," she says. "This was supposed to be the kick-off event, but after it ended, everyone just got up and left. There was no networking and no real energy."

With about 2,000 customers, 800 resellers, and 100 of Sage's own employees attending the summit, it was noticeable when such a high volume of people couldn't generate much excitement. Cote and her team began looking at data drawn from the RFID tracking system newly installed in the name badges that year and saw that many attendees, instead of attending the keynote, were meeting in nearby cafes or restaurants to network.

With this in mind, Cote drew on her own experiences and sources, and attended a conference for event managers that addressed how to spark engagement at such a large-scale event. She decided to abandon the large general sessions and adopt a discussion format. She applied it to the particular industries Sage's products served - accounting, nonprofit and government, human resources, and sales. Cote then brought it all together using an open-space approach, in which a bulletin board of issues was created and attendees broke out into small teams, setting the agenda on a topic while guided by facilitators. This all came together to form "Sage City."

Sage City was launched at last year's annual meeting, held at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center in Nashville. Customers who arrived weren't shown into a big lecture hall, but instead strolled into a gathering of "villages" such as the Accounting Village or the Sales Village, where they would find a community of others in their industry.

Facilitators - partners and resellers of Sage products - greeted the attendees andoffered them topics to choose from, such as cost control or rising energy costs. They would then devise outcomes and post these on "chat walls" in the center of Sage City, where others could read and take ideas that their own group or others had discussed.

"It became a gallery of problems and solutions that people could view all week," says Cote.

The energy was palpable. With the groups being no larger than six people and having the freedom to decide what was discussed, every attendee became an active participant. The company saw a spike in activity on its social media sites, with the event's Facebook page, Twitter, and YouTube accounts enjoying activity increases of two- and threefold.

Overall, the company leaders gathered some 600 "outcomes" from the discussions, that have since been used for a range of organizational purposes.

"They're marketing leads, product suggestions, and best practices - it was a watershed moment of customer experience data for us," says Brad Smith, executive vice president of customer experience at Sage North America.

Beyond Sage City itself, Cote worked to ensure the event offered something for all participants. Resellers attended from Sunday to Tuesday, where they learned about the latest products and solutions the company had available. Customers arrived Tuesday, when Sage City launched.

Over the next three days, attendees took part in a customer-appreciation night and attended a trade show, networking activities, and educational events. The variety of activities and attendees, punctuated by the interactivity of Sage City, created an annual gathering that not only provided information and company direction, but also genuinely energized those involved.

"As a Sage customer, I was not expecting Sage City to have such a big impact on me," says Iskra Perez Salcedo, accounting manager for Johnson & Johnson, Inc. "The feedback that I received from other customers that have used the same software as me for years has helped me use the program to its full potential. I enjoyed being able to connect with like-minded people, and found the Sage City set up to be easy to follow and very productive."

Creating a New Culture
It's especially essential to get the annual meeting right when the company itself is new. Terumo BCT, which specializes in blood treatments and cellular technologies, was formed in 2011, when Japan-based Terumo Corporation acquired CaridianBCT, combining it with its Terumo Transfusion business.

The first-ever annual meeting of the combined Terumo BCT, held last year, presented an opportunity for the company's more than 300 sales associates and support staff from around the world to meet, many for the first time, and help forge the new organization's identity. As a global company and a new one, there was plenty to discuss, and Terumo adopted a format that combined a great deal of interaction with upper management along with small-group problem-solving sessions.

The event took place at the Loews Royal Pacific Resort in Orlando, a destination that was relatively central for attendees flying in from Asia, Europe, and South America.

The company allocated time for all attendees to come together several times a day for talks with Terumo BCT's president, CFO, and senior vice president of commercial operations. Andy Satter, CEO of Andrew Satter & Associates, Inc., an independent meeting planner based in New Paltz, NY, says that some organizations avoid allowing this kind of dialogue to happen out of a fear that the annual meeting might get out of their control or they will hear comments that challenge the direction and leadership of the organization.

"This is overblown - it's an anxiety that many clients have at first; they feel it has to be scripted and controlled," he says. "I've been in situations where the client is ramrod about what they want to discuss, but if the message is not acknowledging the needs of the audience, people end up disengaging - their eyes are glazed over."

Large networking events and cocktail mixers gave Terumo's attendees the opportunity to interact with one another as a unified company, rather than the two separate entities they had been just months earlier. But much of the agenda took place on a more granular level, focusing specifically on each of the three main markets that Teruma's sales teams serve: blood centers; hospitals and therapeutic centers; and biotech and cell processing facilities. Attendees learned about the latest Teruma products serving these markets and issues facing the industries, including economic concerns and health-care reform.

Associates also took part in training and education sessions connected to their specific regions, in sessions designed by the regional sales leaders. Considering the variety of different governing bodies and regulations with which the sellers must deal, a one-size-fits-all approach just wouldn't have made sense.

"These were two companies that each had its own product line, so there was a lot of cross-training that needed to take place," says Tara Jones, events manager for Terumo BCT. "Any meeting taking place on an annual basis is a core opportunity for a salesperson to get in touch with the product that they're selling and meet with their own customer support marketing teams to strategize how they can all serve the customer, so that had to be a priority.

The event proved to be a major success, with attendees not only coming away with a deeper understanding of Teruma's products and goals, but a tangible sense of where their efforts fit into the global organization. After the success of this first global gathering, Jones expects to run something similar every three years or so, with national sales meetings taking place on an annual basis.

"We want to make sure everyone is aware of best practices and what's forthcoming from R&D," says Jones. "But it's good to bring everybody back to focus on our overall company plan in the next few years and allow them the opportunity to see the vision globally as well as in the perspective of their various regions."

Avoiding Information Overload
With so much information to get across at an annual meeting, it can be easy to overload attendees. "It's no longer practical to have participants sit in a general session from eight in the morning until four in the afternoon listening to a roster of speakers presenting PowerPoints," says Paula Balzer, CEO of New York City-based TBA Global, who has helped plan many annual meetings.

Balzer recommends planners break up the heavy content sessions that often come with an annual meeting with frequent moments that energize attendees. These can range from active problem-solving exercises, to musical or comedy performances.

Marcia Cosenza, senior meeting planner for health-care company Kaiser Permanente, was seeking a way to integrate diversions that would keep her attendees alert and receptive at an annual gathering of 150 managers last fall. She also wanted the activities to have a wellness emphasis in keeping with the mission of a health-care organization. After much searching, Cosenza decided to bring the meeting to the Carmel Valley Ranch, located at the center of nearly 500 acres of land adjacent to the Garland Ranch Regional Park in central California.

The company took over most of the resort's 139 guest suites, and the group was able to experience the property as something of a two-day luxury summer camp. Each morning they could choose between several activities, including a private yoga class, a guided hike on the resort's Huff n' Puff trail (offering views of the Santa Lucia Mountains, as well as deer and wild turkey sightings), or a tour of the property's two-acre organic garden.

"We like to give attendees fun opportunities to get outside and enjoy physical activities that truly take them away from the meeting space," Cosenza notes.

If used properly, the environment can provide context for the content of the meeting, as was the case here. The setting at Carmel Valley Ranch and other outdoor-oriented properties can create a strong connection to the issues participants were going to discuss, says Andrea Sullivan, an organizational psychologist and CEO of Brain Strength Systems. "Our brains are designed to respond to everything around us through our senses," says Sullivan, "The outdoors can be very beneficial to our emotional state."

For the Kaiser team, the highlight of the meeting was the ranch's garden-to-table cuisine from executive chef Tim Wood. "We had numerous comments on how great the food was, how fresh it was," says Cosenza. "There were no canned menus here. The culinary team created all custom menus for our program, going so far as to provide thoughtful suggestions based on what was local and in season."

Incorporating ingredients from local farms and the property's own organic garden, the culinary team developed a menu that was not only delicious but kept meeting participants focused on ideas of health, sustainability, and great hospitality. "When looking into conditional factors that may influence an attendee during a meeting, meals play a large role," says Sullivan.

Balanced Participation
The value of giving more company members a seat at the annual-meeting table is as important for an organization of several dozen employees as it is for several thousand. This point is a core value for OperationsInc, a human resources outsourcing and consulting company based in Norwalk, CT, which has a staff of just 40 employees, with 20 of them working remotely.

"We also have a staff where 70 percent of our people work around 30 hours a week on a flexible schedule," says David Lewis, president and CEO of OperationsInc.

This flexibility has distinguished the company from larger HR counterparts, allowing it to attract top talent who might be looking for an organization with a better work/life balance. But it also means that employees are spending more time with the clients they are consulting than with other members of the OperationsInc team.

This makes it essential to take full advantage of an event like the annual meeting, when the entire company will be together.

OperationInc's events typically run for the better part of a day, with educational sessions, company updates, and activities. The last annual meeting took place in November, in the company's brand-new, 2,000-square-foot headquarters.

To help encourage familiarity between company members, Lewis worked to get the broadest cross-section of workers involved as possible, to re-familiarize employees with all of OperationsInc's services as well as its people.

"I don't want to be the only voice heard at the annual meeting," says Lewis. "At the last company gathering, nine of our 40 employees presented - whether it was case studies or sharing best practices in the areas of their expertise."

After a three-hour education session, attendees took part in a wine tasting where they could bond or reconnect. This was followed with a "Family Feud"-style trivia game where in-office employees were teamed up with remote workers, encouraging further interaction.

Finally, as it was just a couple weeks shy of the holiday break, Lewis brought in a catered Thanksgiving-style meal, complete with turkey and all the fixings. While an unusual meal for a business meeting, it succeeded in driving home the message that even if they only see each other once or twice a year, the members of OperationsInc are part of a family.

"We put a great focus on flexibility and time for family and work-life balance," says Lewis. "So it's important for us to have those themes show up in a company meeting where it's designed to connect people and emphasize who we are and what we are about as an organization. That's just what this meeting did."

Continuing the Conversation
When the annual meeting is over, more work remains to be done. Follow-up is essential to a successful annual event to make sure the topics discussed stick, and technology including social media is making this easier than ever for planners.

"Every time you have an annual meeting, you're getting together a community of people under a common bond, but that community has to last longer than just the two-day meeting," says TBA's Balzer. "The message needs to extend further."

TBA Global offers its clients the proprietary microsite EventO, which not only can be used throughout the meeting for administrative and social networking, but after the event as well. It allows for a dialogue between attendees and leadership, including updates and information that builds on the topics from the annual event.

"It should be a conversation, asking, 'How is that working for you?,'" says Balzer.

Creating lasting impact has been one more of the benefits of Sage City as well. The company leadership has taken the ideas that worked so well at Sage City, particularly around tailoring topics to particular company roles (such as inventory manager or bookkeeper) and is planning to apply them to the rest of the Sage Summit agenda.

"We want to take the role metaphor and extend it into our exhibit hall, so we can have vendors that can address those key roles," says Brad Smith. "We'd also love to host a virtual Sage City reunion several months after the next event."

This level of networking also led to deeper relationships than had been seen at previous meetings and has created more value than a basic annual presentation ever could have.

"One of our resellers had a customer that was really an introvert who didn't typically get into networking, but after his Sage City experience, he actually created a virtual Sage City group that continues to drive ongoing conversations," says Cote. "It creates incredible relationships that carry on after the event itself."