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Ask the Experts (Winter 2009)

The incoming administration holds a big party to celebrate the Inauguration, yet chastises companies for holding similar corporate events during the economic crisis. What’s the difference, and what can we learn from it?

By William Keenan Jr.

Here’s a study in contrasts. One the one hand, some 1.8 million people gather in Washington, DC, to witness and celebrate the Inauguration of a new president. There are breakfasts, dinners, speeches, musical events, balls and any number of other types of events surrounding it – and everyone is happy and satisfied that it was time and money well spent. But at essentially the same time, companies like AIG, Wells Fargo and others are being forced to answer for – or even cancel – trips and events that are deemed by the media and the public to be wasteful expenditures in a time of economic crisis. Are there any lessons to be learned here?

Well, in fact, there may be. Motivation Strategies talked to a number of leading meeting planners and incentive providers and found that they too were struck by the contrasts.
 

Move People to a Better Place

The Inauguration analogy is certainly not lost on Chris Gaia, Vice President of Marketing for Maritz Travel. “We find it interesting that here you have a situation where a new administration is coming in, and what are they trying to do?” he asks. “They want to be able to launch a set of programs and help the country begin to understand and embrace its vision. They want to communicate their priorities and get people energized. They certainly understand the fact that a lot of the economic malaise is due to people who are concerned about the future and have no confidence. So another objective is to get people to feel comfortable and moving forward.”

And how did the Inauguration accomplish that? “Well, they had a big meeting,” Gaia says. “When you step back and take a look at it, they brought a bunch of people in who had an opportunity to hear from a very charismatic leader who outlined a vision for the future, who communicated goals and objectives – things that they wanted to accomplish and things that they wanted people to rally around.”

Gaia notes, “That’s the same thing I see in most of the meetings our clients are doing – but it’s on a business scale rather than a national scale. It’s how we create value for customers. And it’s how I communicate with employees as a human being and as an individual so that you can connect with me beyond my words. When you connect with people at that heart-to-heart level, that’s what creates motivation, that’s what creates buy-in, that’s what creates performance.”

Gaia says the Inauguration got it exactly right. “That’s exactly the way to move people to a better place,” he says. “And we ought to be doing the same thing within corporations, rather than trying to knock it all out.”

Clearly there are lessons to be learned. “When you think about your meeting, event, or incentive strategy, you have to create a much greater transparency in terms of what these programs are, what you’re spending on them and how they’re creating value,” Gaia says. “And part of that value-creation story comes down to asking clients: ‘For the type of meeting you’re running and the attendees you’re bringing in, what really are the business goals and objectives you’re trying to accomplish, how do you measure that and how are you going to connect that to the broader good and create value for your organization?’”

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Keep the Big Picture in Mind

Cornelia Horner, Director of Meetings for the American Land Title Association (ALTA) in Washington, DC, was involved in planning a weekend of events for AFTA non-partisan political action committee (PAC) donors that surrounded the Inauguration. “We had dinners and breakfasts with speakers, and for those who didn’t have tickets to go to the swearing in, we had an all-day parade-watching party at the Willard Hotel, right on Pennsylvania Avenue.”

Horner reports that while crowds were enormous and crowd-control and security measures made getting around difficult, the motivation and energy level of the attendees was palpable. “We had various levels of donors invited to different levels of events, and no matter who they were or what their level of participation was, they were just excited to be there,” she says. “The crowds were amazing – cheerful and happy, even if they were standing in line.”

Horner adds that ALTA started planning for its Inaugural weekend in July, “not knowing who was going to be the winner, but knowing that it was going to be an historic event no matter what … and we definitely picked up a few more large donors who wanted to be part of it. So it was definitely incentivizing for the larger donations.” She adds: “Given the economy, you wondered whether the city would have as many corporate or association events as in the past, but from everything I’ve heard the answer is a resounding yes.”

As for lessons to be learned, Horner says that “having the historical significance, and as well as the energy and the vibe, makes it less of a hard sell in terms of what’s the ROI for the event.” One of the take-aways she suggests is that, “Any time you look at an event, you’ve got to think about the big picture – why are you hosting the event and is it going to be worth the time and money you’re going to put into the planning and execution.” A community service or corporate social responsibility element can also help provide that feel-good motivational element. “I think that component of our business world and meeting planning is going to continue to grow,” Horner says.

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Use History and Storytelling

Community service and “paying it forward” is already an important part of a growing number of meetings and incentive programs. According to Andrea Michaels of Extraordinary Events in Sherman Oaks, CA, the executive conferences it has planned for international building materials firm Cemex have also had major educational and community service components. “And executives are charged with taking all of those elements of education and social responsibility and bringing them back to share with the people who didn’t go to the meeting,” she says, “so they are paying it forward.”

And while Michaels thinks the government might have scaled back its Inaugural celebrations in the same way it’s asking corporations to scale back on their meetings and incentives in deference to economic concerns, she also agrees that corporations – and the meeting and incentive industries as well – have much to learn from the Inauguration that could apply to their programs.

“The people at the Inauguration wanted to be a part of history,” Michaels says. “And there’s a lot at that emotional level we can learn to incorporate into our programs. We can get people involved in the community. We can do things that are more family oriented – get children, wives, husbands involved in what’s going on in the company. We could have speakers and workshops on community service and family relationships so that we learn to support each other.”

The Inauguration also illustrated the power of storytelling – “the fact that generations need to share history and get to know each other,” Michaels says. “In corporations people often work in a vacuum and go home. Storytelling events can help to build a community within the corporate culture, one in which people care about each other and help each other.”

At the same time, Michaels believes the meeting and incentive industries should “stand tall” and articulate more clearly what they do. “We’re educating, building teams and improving corporate performance. And we’re not spending lavishly, but smartly, and we’re getting a result because of it.”

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