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15 Minutes With...Roger Dow

Roger Dow has had a long history with the meeting and incentives industry – as a Marriott Corporation executive, a motivational speaker and now as President and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association. Who better to lead a coalition of industry associations in an effort to answer the chorus of media and Congressional voices whose criticism has undermined a $100 million industry and more than a million jobs rather than creating substantive reform.

“Meetings and incentive events held by any one of the companies receiving federal funds are being used as a poster child for excess – which obviously isn’t the case,” says Dow, adding that there are good meetings and bad meetings in every industry, “but the bottom line is that incentives are one of the most cost-effective ways of aligning a sales force, increasing productivity, building engagement and achieving results – and that’s why they’ve been so successful.”

At the same time, Dow wants to see more common-sense thinking in the meetings and incentives arena. “There has to be a consistent set of guidelines,” he says. “I came out of the corporate sector, and everyone has some sort of guidelines. They ask: ‘OK, you’re going to run a meeting. What’s it going to cost? What’s the incentive going to cost? What’s the anticipated upside revenue?’ And the meeting or incentive makes sense or it doesn’t make sense. The problem is a lack of consistency. We want to have transparent, consistent guidelines that companies can make use of, whether they’re taking federal money or not.”

In the absence of such guidelines – and in light of the intense media scrutiny of the meeting and incentive practices of companies that are accepting federal funding – “companies that have been conducting legitimate meetings and incentive events year in and year out are canceling because they don’t want to be painted with the same brush,” Dow says.

Consequently, the coalition that Dow leads – which includes SITE and MPI, among others, and operates under the banner “Meetings Mean Business” (www.meetingsmeanbusiness.com) – has put together a set of proposed guidelines that boards, businesses, companies and CEOs can use as a benchmark when they’re planning meetings and incentive events, “to be sure they can stand up and justify them in accordance with these guidelines,” Dow explains. (The guidelines can be found on the U.S. Travel Association website at www.ustravel.org)

The objective, he says, is to give CEOs the opportunity, when someone in the media asks, to say, “You’re darn right we’re running this incentive. This incentive has got a 30-to-1 return on investment for our shareholders, and I’m charged by our shareholders with building value for our organization. We’ve looked at this meeting, what the ROI is, what the purpose is, what the costs are, and I’m happy to have an open book on that. But don’t tie my hands behind my back and keep me from doing business that really increases revenue and increases share.”

Used properly, Dow fervently believes that meetings and incentive events are an effective tool for creating motivation and engagement, building productivity and getting employees focused on common goals and objectives. But the scrutiny such programs are under right now is undermining that effort and taking a valuable tool out of the hands of management. “No one wants an irresponsible incentive run,” he says, “but when you put one of these events under a magnifying glass, it gives one company a black eye and four other meetings get canceled.”

Besides the guidelines, Dow’s coalition is also mounting a public relations and lobbying effort aimed at getting out the message to the media and Congress that meetings and incentives are a valuable business tool, and that they’re being hindered because of uninformed scrutiny. “It’s the community, it’s the destination, and it’s the worker that gets killed in the process – not the company or companies that people want to shine a spotlight on,” Dow argues.

The coalition has taken this message to Capitol Hill, where it got a sympathetic hearing from several members of Congress and Treasury Department representatives. Dow and others also met in March with President Obama, who encouraged them to “stay focused” and to continue to promote meetings and travel.

Dow’s advice to the incentive industry – and to companies that use meetings and incentives: “You should clearly be able to state why you’re holding this meeting or having this event, what the purpose is and that you’ve done your homework. That way, when you hear from critics, you can say, ‘We’re following sound business practices that have been proven to increase revenue, increase share and are good for our business. And as leader of this organization, I am not going to do something foolish like cancel a meeting of incentive just because someone might talk about them.’”

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