Viewpoint: Doing Well By Doing Good

Do you hear that sound? It's the roaring return of the offsite meeting. From the meetings lobby in Washington to the thousands of "Keep America Meeting" petition signatures to articles in major news publications to television news programs, people are calling for a return to face-to-face meetings. Sure, there definitely is ground to make up after a tough 2009, but many meeting planners already are looking forward to a stronger and brighter 2010, a year hopefully marked with less oversight and undue criticism of every dollar spent in our industry.

In the post-AIG world, image and perception is everything. The perception that meetings equal corporate excess is prevalent. Meeting planners are working hard to battle the issue of perception. No longer do planners simply seek approval from their superiors regarding destinations, budgets, themes and event ROI. Now, they seek it from the media, consumers, watchdog groups and even Congress. One way that meeting planners are responding is via community service activities integrated into their event agenda, and PR to get the word out.

The hospitality industry has long been an industry that epitomizes social responsibility, with travelers, clients and staff from a multitude of socioeconomic backgrounds, and with hotels and resorts exhibiting a rich history of supporting the local community. Meeting planners are taking this to a new level with the integration of social responsibility into the corporate meeting agenda in an effort to leave good behind after a meeting.

Let's face it: We're image-conscious in the United States. Eighty percent of Americans have a more positive image of companies that support a cause they care about, and a majority of Americans, 79 percent, consider corporate citizenship when making investment and purchasing decisions. Meetings are a reflection of corporate spending, and in a time of negative corporate images, corporate social responsibility exhibited through events can have a positive impact on a company's bottom line.

A perfect example is Texas Roadhouse, a 325-chain restaurant. Texas Roadhouse held an April meeting in San Francisco for 1,000 managing partners and spouses. The event featured five days of business meetings and lavish fun, but also a full day of community service, which included more than $1 million in equipment and donations for a community service program benefiting the local San Francisco community. Getting the word out was important, which resulted in an appearance by the CEO on CNBC during the event, to show that meetings are crucial to business and that they were making a positive impact on San Francisco via community service.

What's more, this is becoming more of an easy sell than can be imagined. The real "sell" is a meeting/incentive itself. With that in mind, smart planners are including community service activities in their RFPs or in their internal pitches to decision makers to fend off potential negative perceptions their events may convey. What sounds more palatable for an event: a golf outing or a bike build for charity? Beach Olympics or a donation of school bags for children? Which is more prone to receive positive feedback from the media, consumers or watchdog groups? It's an easy sell.

In the coming year, events will remain under the microscope. Using perception to meeting planners' advantage will yield results for clients, participants and communities at large.

Originally published Nov. 16, 2009