Sales Meetings: More Miles for Your Money - 2007-12-28

In the budget-constrained reality of today's corporate world, person-to-person contact with customers—and even with fellow employees—is one of the first expenses to be eliminated. As a result, traditional meetings often are replaced by faceless conference calls and semi-faceless webinars in order to meet budget constraints. Nonetheless, companies still need to train their people and offer perks that can attract and retain top sales professionals. What can a meeting planner do to make everyone happy?

The tried-and-true option of the traditional meeting is still available, and from New York to San Francisco, there are plenty of suitable destinations. Smaller cities like San Antonio or Cleveland offer lower costs, while less orthodox destinations, such as China or an island in the Caribbean, are top choices for creating unforgettable experiences.

When it comes to choosing the best destination for a sales meeting, Las Vegas still comes to mind first. But is it really your best choice? Your attendees might be energized by the action, but it might also distract them and give them a reason to leave the meetings early.

According to Brad Weaber, executive vice president and chief customer officer of Twinsburg, Ohio-based event planning firm Experient, "Chicago and San Francisco have shown a lot of activity lately. On the East Coast, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia are always good choices for corporations that are located in that region and don't want to go far for their sales meetings."

The most important thing for event planners is to keep in mind the objective of the meeting. "Start with the end," Weaber says. "Determining what you want out of a sales meeting beforehand will lead you to make the ideal location choice to meet those objectives down the road," he adds. Keep in mind that sales meetings are different from incentive trips and require a completely different mindset. Locations for incentive trips, even if they are disguised as seemingly formal meetings, must offer a large quantity and variety of entertainment. Meetings with the primary goal of sales training call for a setting more conducive to learning. But, it's also important to make sure that entertainment hasn't been eliminated entirely. As a group, salespeople are social animals. They'll be more productive and get more out of the meeting if the agenda includes some outlet to satisfy that need. Unfortunately, these types of dedicated sales meetings have had their budgets consistently cut in recent years, as companies look for a better return on their investment. Here are some tips on how to keep the pizzazz from disappearing entirely from your sales meetings.

Stay Focused
"Ask the right questions inside the organization to make sure the goal of the meeting is clear and everyone is in agreement, and keep your budget in mind," Weaber advises. "A lot of companies are re-evaluating the cost issue and choosing to stay local. Cost, rather than seasonality and entertainment, is driving a lot of the decisions today." Weaber also says that overseas meetings haven't been as popular as they used to be, except for locations such as China and Brazil, which offer a financial advantage due to the currency exchange rates and local cost of living.

One way to cut back on expenses is to choose meeting locations that offer inexpensive, easily accessible entertainment that attendees can enjoy on their own. The more planning your staff has to do, the higher your costs are likely to be both before and during the meeting.

Companies located in large metro areas that want to stay local will have to contend with the higher prices, but might be able to offset some of that expense by providing free time for attendees to find their own entertainment. With built-in cultural, culinary, and architectural options, cities such as Boston and New York are natural choices for a productive summer meeting. Chicago, although thought of as a working city by most, offers extensive culinary and cultural entertainment as well as Lake Michigan, with its high-end marinas and party boats for cruises.

Cruise Control
For any season, except perhaps the hurricane season, a cruise is a very interesting choice that has been around for more than 30 years but still sounds fairly eccentric. Offering the first-class treatment of a resort combined with the excitement of exotic travel, these seafaring adventures are becoming more popular. A cruise offers a very controllable, self-contained process, and your audience will be completely involved in the meeting. Further, because it's not the same old choice, people will be excited to go. If you pick your ship and itinerary carefully, you're sure to have all the necessary equipment and space, as well as an environment that is not disruptive to your goals.

Richard Weinstein, vice president of corporate and incentive sales for Miami-based Carnival Cruise Lines, says, "In the past five years, we've seen a lot of growth in the meetings segment. Ships now have dedicated spaces and pay closer attention to what meeting planners want and how some meetings differ from incentive programs—particularly with the dedicated meeting space, the equipment onboard, the setup of the room, and the availability of a convention services coordinator."

Cruises provide a major change of scenery for those who always have held their meetings in more mainstream destinations. But that's not even the greatest advantage that cruise ships offer.

In addition to the fact that your audience can't stray very far, all of the meals and entertainment are included in the package, which simplifies planning and almost completely eliminates unexpected expenses.

"Menu planning is much easier, with vegetarian or low-salt options for those with special dietary needs. All of those contingencies are covered," Weinstein says. "And your cost per person tends to be a lot lower." That work being off their hands, meeting planners can dedicate more of their time and attention to the other aspects of the meeting.

"Before 1985, meetings on cruise ships were fully tax-deductible, but changes in the tax law disallowed these deductions [for the corporation]," Weinstein continues. Individuals can deduct the cruise as a business expense, so, he says, "you can gross up the cost, charging the attendee fair market value; they pay the tax themselves, and the host organization can give them money to cover it." Some companies choose not to deduct cruise meetings at all because they offer such good value compared with land meetings. "With all of the entertainment and meals included and the easier planning, it tends to be a 30-percent savings over land-based meetings. The savings are worth the non-deduction," Weinstein points out.

Downsides? In addition to possible seasickness, another risk is that there might be fewer breakout rooms available. But for general sessions, the showrooms—with their great audiovisual setups already in place—offer the best production capabilities that any meeting planner could ever want.

Planners can choose different lengths and itineraries to suit various types of meetings. The cruise setting is ideal for meeting programs that don't require 24-hour space holds and can use unusual rooms such as the bars and smaller reception rooms. Group sizes range from 50 for a seminar to a full-ship charter, which can host as many as 3,000 people.

"If your group will take more than half of the ship, you have to charter the whole ship," Weinstein says. That is because passengers usually are split into two groups for several activities—when one half is dining, the other half is at the shows, and vice-versa. This reduces the possibility of disruption from the ship's other guests: The different groups won't run into each other all that much, except during "after hours" activities.

In addition to being very impressive, a privately chartered ship allows you to have virtually every aspect of the cruise customized for your group. You can decide which ports the ship will call on, what dishes will be offered on the menu, and which shore excursions will be available. The most important thing is that your guests enjoy the meeting and look forward to coming back for the next one. No matter what your meeting recipe calls for, all ingredients are available in different sizes and packages, on land or water.

Originally published December 01, 2007

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