Signs of Life

A stroll around the Gaylord Opryland Hotel Convention Center in late April produced a scene that would warm the heart of any corporate meeting planner. For five days, more than 2,000 employees of Symantec Corp., the Cupertino, CA-based maker of IT security products such as Norton AntiVirus, flocked to and from the ballroom, the meeting rooms, the business center, and the restaurants, during the firm's worldwide sales and marketing conference. The group even took over the enormous "Delta" wing of the property for an antebellum-themed opening reception. To an outsider, it seemed like, well, old times.

But the event's planner, Biruta McShane, is quick to say that's not the case. McShane, president of Meetings & Incentives Group, an independent planning company in Cupertino, notes that "this was an intense meeting—it wasn't one big welcome reception. People were in meeting rooms from eight until six each day, with an hour for lunch." And for her it was no picnic, either—the lead time for this 10,000-room-night meeting was just eight months.

Actually, none of this is very surprising these days. In fact, it's pretty clear that sales meetings won't look anything like what they were in the roaring 1990s anytime soon. But the good news is that, in many industries, these meetings are also evolving away from what they had become since the boom went bust: anxious, bare-bones affairs with not a moment for attendees to relax—if the events were even held at all.

Slowly but Surely

"We're finding that a healthy recovery in sales meetings is industry-specific right now," says Steve Goodman, regional VP for Twinsburg, Ohio-based independent planning firm Conferon. Goodman handles the high-tech and telecom fields, noting that the former is proceeding slowly while the latter has really picked up its booking pace. But, "Even companies that haven't yet returned to brisk business are getting more active on the meetings front. We're seeing many more RFPs coming in—on a better pace than in the past three years—and we are seeing major increases in the number of programs going to contract."

Steve O'Malley, VP of major accounts for Maritz Travel Company in St. Louis, adds that "There is a pent-up demand for holding these meetings—there're a lot of messages that need to be delivered to salesforces that haven't gotten out in a long time. Reps have not been able to hear firsthand from their C-level executives about their companies' directions and plans, nor have they been able to learn from each other in a few years. I wouldn't call it a groundswell just yet, but companies are moving in the direction of executing some of the meetings they had postponed."

And although lead times for planning sales events will lengthen out of necessity—after all, increasing demand makes hotel space scarce, requiring earlier bookings—the two-year window might not ever return. "We used to push people to book meetings that far out, but right now we are seeing three to six months' lead time, even for programs of more than 1,000 people," says Goodman. "Executives have gotten used to having their planners create an event in that time frame. But the abundance of space availability will dry up, and I'd say the six- to nine-month window will end up becoming the norm."

And with so many regional programs having taken the place of national events since 2001, lead times for some planners are still extremely short. "I just did five back-to-back, one-week programs, with just three weeks' notice before the first one," says Wayne Wallgren, principal at WorldWide Incentives in Dallas, TX, who works with manufacturing, homebuilding, and automotive clients. "So I was working on site at one event while planning the next." There were 75 reps per session, and the program moved to a different part of the country each week. "I don't think the national meetings have gone by the wayside—this particular client still has its big event every two years—but a lot of times it's easier and less costly to move your executives and content providers to different places and have the reps drive in, than to move the reps to one location mostly by plane," he adds.

"I think we'll see national events return, but not until companies can feel they aren't sweating out earnings every quarter," says O'Malley. "In the interim, regional meetings are working. We have one client who hosted 27 meetings in 27 cities over six weeks. The senior-level people divided up the destinations, and went out to deliver the message." Other planners report that their several regional meetings have been whittled to two semi-national events, held in destinations where the maximum number of attendees can drive in.

Interestingly, while executives are getting themselves back in front of their salespeople, they aren't doing it without some help. "Because companies have downsized, there are often fewer people devoted to crafting the message and developing training," says O'Malley. "So we are seeing companies hiring consultants to help deliver content and message, and to handle the production aspects of these events."

Changing Tone

With many planners reporting that their most recent sales events are one half to one full day longer than in the recent past, it's clear that companies want yet another message delivered to the troops: Take a moment or two to relax. And while there's not much money being spent by companies on leisure activities or even teambuilding just yet, there's at least a reemerging acknowledgement of the social aspect of meetings. "We're seeing the social and networking elements come back, though it is in no way extravagant," says O'Malley. "Firms are taking a few hours here and there to put on an informal or themed event so people feel valued and engaged."

"Because we didn't want the entire meeting to be as intense as previous years, we stretched it over an extra day," says McShane of the Symantec meeting. "We did add some training sessions, but it also allowed us to have an extra free night." And that's when the soccer tournament took place.

"Each region from around the world fields a team, and we rent out a few fields and create a Super Bowl-style party for players and spectators," says McShane. "It's become an annual event. It's not mandatory for other employees to come watch—it's a free evening for them—but this year a few hundred people showed up anyway. And the next morning, we recognized the winners at the general session, and they wore their medals for the rest of the day. They were really proud."

The return of recognition is something Conferon's Goodman sees as well. "We have four major sales kickoffs slated for the fall, and each one has an extra evening or an extra day to them, either for the whole group or for a segment of the group. Firms are bringing back recognition, but without creating a whole separate event."

On the other hand, 25.4 percent of respondents to a recent SM survey say that their sales meeting budgets have stayed the same since 2002, while 53.6 percent say their budgets have actually decreased in that time. What's more, 59.4 percent of those with smaller budgets say the cuts were greater than 10 percent. So how is it that many firms are lengthening their meetings despite having the same or an even smaller budget than they had two years ago?

David Furnish, director of corporate sales at the Opryland, says that "it seems groups are evaluating what's most important to the event, what absolutely needs the cash outlay, and where they can trade off expenses. So areas such as production, print materials, and others are being cut down to compensate for allowing an additional night."

"Many companies are restricting air travel to save huge sums," says Goodman. "At several of our sales kickoffs, we are dictating when people can come in and leave, making them fly on the cheapest tickets even if it means an alternate airline, a connection, whatever. We're also seeing cutbacks on production; one of our events is the same as last year, but the production budget went from $200,000 to $100,000—we must lose the bells and whistles. And many meetings are cutting back the open bar; it's either just beer and wine, or well brands, or drink tickets." He adds that "going forward, more executives will ask about each line item, 'Is this necessary to the success of the meeting?' And if you do that for each area, adding one more night to the program isn't a problem."

In the end, O'Malley says that "if firms can get their heads around generating from the meeting a return on objective—sending reps into the field better informed and excited about the product—rather than struggling to find a concrete return on investment, then that could get them to pull the trigger on having more sales meetings. Besides, if a company waits too long to hold stimulating sales events, once the economy turns around, the reps will be like frogs in a wheelbarrow—they'll be hopping off left and right."