May 20, 2009 • New York - After the "AIG effect" put unprecedented scrutiny on corporate meetings and incentives, meeting buyers speaking here this month said their firms have adjusted practices to deal with the changes in public perception amid the challenging economic environment. What was entertaining is now tacky, and companies including Anthem BlueCross BlueShield and MassMutual have attempted to tone events down, if not cancel them altogether, even though they still deliver value.
"We are continuing to have all of our incentive events," said Jeanne Young, vice president of travel services for MassMutual Financial Group, speaking at the Financial and Insurance Meeting Planning Conference. "We spend a lot of money on incentive events, and the primary reason is because the people who we are rewarding are not employees. If we don't incent them to go out and sell more, they will sell for someone else because they are not dedicated [or] exclusive to MassMutual. It behooves us to make sure they still regard us as the No. 1 company that they want to do business for. We're not really doing anything much different than what MassMutual has always done; we are not doing anything different in direct response to this bad press or anything."
But Young acknowledged that her team partners with the public relations and marketing departments before following through with events, preparing those media relations officials with "canned responses in the event there are reporters outside of the hotel."
"In the past," she said, "money was seemingly no object. I had some customers that put some things on the agenda that were really over the top, like gladiators walking through an event." MassMutual never used the gladiators, but when similar ideas arose, Young and others developed the saying "Kill the gladiators" to squash them.
Anthem once held an event with penguins, said Jenell Smith, senior marketing director for Anthem BlueCross BlueShield. Now it is more seriously considering the purpose of meetings and returns on investments.
"Perception is everything," said Smith. Immediately following the AIG backlash, Anthem canceled a large group incentive meeting for top salespeople and brokers to avoid being blasted by the media--even though Anthem is not a beneficiary of the recent bailouts, like AIG and other companies that have been criticized for wasteful spending. "Being in the financial and insurance industries, we are heavily regulated [and] heavily scrutinized. We always have that magnifying glass on us," Smith said. "Deposits were made, site visits had taken place and a decision [by the CEO] was made to pull it."
The money invested in that meeting is being "held in escrow because [the CEO] knew that the storm would be weathered," Smith said. However, the meeting will not be held at a four- or five-star resort, and Anthem added an educational component to the meeting to clear any bad taste it could potentially leave, she continued. Additionally, Anthem attached charitable causes to meetings in order to offset any unfavorable opinions, according to Smith.
Anthem still plans on rewarding its top salespeople and brokers with gifts like Broadway show tickets or dinner certificates. "We still wanted to do something that was under the radar but could still be fulfilling to that recipient," Smith said.
When it does host meetings, though, Anthem no longer prints its company logo on signage around the meeting; instead, the meeting title is merely printed in bold-faced type. Activities like golf and fishing are still on meeting agendas as "a team-building activity," Smith said. But meetings are not being held outside of the continental United States and Anthem is limiting invitations for spouses and other guests, Smith said.
Anthem and MassMutual gain too much value from incentives and meetings to simply do away with them, but the recent hubbub has brought with it a desire for demand management. "We look back at our goals and ask, 'What is the true purpose of this?' " said Smith, referring to planning events with senior management. "That wasn't always the case, I'm sorry to say. Some people just wanted to have a big shindig, and they wanted to get together."
Young said MassMutual prioritizes incentive meetings as a means of offering revenue-generators a perk to sell more and increase company loyalty. "Our company [consists of] very thoughtful and introspective people that understand the true value of these events and conferences and they understand that it is a business tool; this is not a vacation," she said.
MassMutual--like Anthem--will not look to hold training, education and recognition events outside North America, and will hold many of those non-incentive meetings in its conference center located in Springfield, Mass., said Young. "We have an upcoming meeting in Europe. We canceled an offsite venue that was going to be considered 'over the top,' and we are holding it at the hotel instead," Young said. "[The AIG effect] has helped all of us to come to the table better prepared and better able to articulate our value."
Even if "two years from now people will be wanting to go back to those places," Young said, "as professionals [we can] make sure that our companies don't make short-term decisions that won't serve us well in the long run." She does expect scrutiny to fade, though, and companies to resume previous meeting planning patterns. For now, Young brought in a third-party meeting planning team to help leverage some of its buying power to negotiate some of the penalties that MassMutual might incur due to cancellations.
"What we have been doing is moving those meetings in-house and adding a charitable component to it, whether it is cooking meals, painting tables for women and children's shelters, building bicycles for boys and girls clubs," said Smith. "The sales teams we work with can then publicize the fact that when they are out with brokers or chambers of commerce for meetings: They are doing something good for the community, but we are also having this meeting and supporting the local community."
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