Strategic Meetings: Building Consensus

Strategic MeetingsStrategic meetings require everyone involved in developing both the format and content to work toward the same goals.  The challenge in today’s “management by consensus” corporate environment is to find agreement without falling into one of two outcome-killing traps.  The first is creating so many objectives that they compete with each other, leaving the audience confused about what you want them to do.  The second is creating objectives and messages that are so watered down that they become meaningless.

As you approach creating objectives and key messages with a group of senior managers, it’s important to remember that they are all strong personalities with very specific goals and challenges for their area of responsibility.  In many cases, their compensation is tied to achieving their goals so they will fight to protect their territory.  There are also political dynamics to consider where there is power, ambition and ego involved.

Given those constraints, these are the steps I recommend to give you the best chance of achieving consensus on meaningful, achievable outcomes and messaging:

Know Your Stakeholders

Never walk into a meeting unprepared; which in this case means a little research to learn two important things.

The first is to find out who will be in the room and what their roles are in the group dynamic.  In any management team there are thought leaders and followers.  The leaders are the people who actually make the decisions.  They are typically the people who sit quietly and hear everyone’s position and then weigh-in late in the discussion.  You can tell who they are because everyone stops talking when they speak.  In most cases, once the leaders state their position, the followers quickly fall in line behind them.

The second is to find out is what’s important to each person in the room.  Every stakeholder has objectives they want to achieve at the event, and usually there is one that is most important to them.  Knowing in advance what each person’s priority is can be very helpful in the give and take of building consensus.  Like all negotiations, if you can give them a win on that priority, they are probably willing to give on other issues.

Find a Friend

The best way to get the information you need is to find an insider to help you understand the dynamics of the group.  They can give you vital insight and will often provide support or nudge the conversation in the direction you need during the discussion.

Personally, I find it pretty easy to spot a mentor.  They are the person that greets you warmly, is truly interested in what you do and introduces you to people who are important to your success.  If you can’t identify who your mentor is, ask your client contact or a department admin.  They always know who is supportive and who isn’t.

Give Them a Starting Point

It may seem presumptuous, but I find it helps to give decision-makers something to react to.  I usually provide a list of outcomes and key messages to begin the discussion based on my knowledge of their business.  My suggestions might not survive the discussion, but they provide a valuable framework and catalyst to start the conversation.

Listen Carefully

Once the discussion gets started, stop talking and listen to what is being said.  Realistically, the leaders don’t really care about your thoughts and, by listening, you will gain amazing insight into their business and event expectations.  The only time I speak is to ask for clarification or to parrot back a key point.  Patience and quiet leadership are required at this point in the process.

Find Your Moment

If you are watching and listening, there will be a moment when you can end the discussion and finalize your outcomes and key messages.  The two clues I look for are repetition and loss of interest.  When the discussion stops progressing and people begin to repeat themselves, it’s time to finalize the deliverables.  The other thing to watch for is when the leaders lose interest and start looking at their watch or checking their email on their smartphone or tablet.

By this point in the discussion, you should have a list of three or four ideas that everyone agrees with, even if they have argued over semantics.  Seize the moment and lay out the key points you’ve heard for their approval.  If you’ve paid attention and your timing is right, the group will approve your outcomes and key messages without further discussion.

Building consensus doesn’t have to be a prolonged process if you can get all the decision-makers in the room at the same time.  If you prepare properly and listen carefully, you can usually leave the room with consensus after less than an hour.

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Strategic Meetings – What Are They?

Strategic MeetingsStrategic Meetings are receiving a lot of attention on websites and in social media.  So what are they and how are they different from what most companies are currently doing?

In the simplest terms, strategic meetings are meetings that literally change the status quo.  They are specifically designed to align with your business initiatives to produce a measurable change that directly impacts your bottom line.  Regardless of audience, strategic meetings provide knowledge and tools that motivate attendees to take action to achieve specific outcomes.

In today’s economy, most companies don’t have the resources to invest in meetings that don’t produce a measurable return on investment.  The soft goals of celebrate, educate and motivate have been replaced by very specific outcomes like increase sales by 15%, improve margins by 10% and reduce customer defections by 25%.  As a result, planners have evolved from shoppers who source and negotiate to communication strategists, curriculum designers and measurement experts.

This change in skill-sets has even changed the language we use as planners.  Broad words like goals, objectives and engagement have been replaced by measurement-specific language like actionable data, ROI and knowledge retention.

The evolution of meeting planning may be bad news for party planners, administrative assistants and corporate staff that plan meetings part-time, but the end result is good for the industry.  As senior management learns to value meetings and events as strategic tools that have a dramatic impact on their company’s behavior and financial results, strategic meeting planners are becoming valuable assets to their companies.

What a refreshing change from the status quo.

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A Meeting Planner’s Response to the IRS Meeting Scandal

irs-calling-uncle-samAs a Meeting Planner, I watched media coverage of the recent IRS meeting debacle with great disappointment and frustration.  Once again, my profession and industry fell victim to media hype and misperception due to the actions of charlatans claiming to be meeting planners.

In recent years, there have been a number of similar stories involving financial irresponsibility and unprofessional conduct (e.g. AIG, GSA, Tyco).  While no professional planner will defend the poor decisions and financial excesses of these cases, it’s unfortunate that a few bad apples have had such a negative impact on the public’s perception of the meetings industry.  The majority of the planners I know are experienced professionals who work very hard to stay abreast of the latest techniques in communication, strategy, business ethics and adult learning.

Whether a meeting is paid for with private or public funds, conscientious meeting planners focus on maximizing business outcomes while managing expenditures to achieve the greatest possible return on their client’s investment.  The days of extravagance and uncontrolled spending passed decades ago and no respectable planner would design an event like the IRS meeting.  Star Trek and dance videos?  Those strategies and techniques died out in the late 80s and will never return.

Of course, there are probably a few ignorant and lazy dinosaurs that cling to these outmoded techniques, but they should be regarded as snake oil salesmen who prey on the ignorant and inexperienced.  We can only hope that they retire or lose their business to one of the many professional meeting planners that practice fiscal restraint and achieve measurable business results for their clients.

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Food and Beverage Purchasing

Meeting Services (1)As a self-proclaimed “Foodie” I feel very fortunate to be able to plan meals (amongst many other logistical details) for a living!  Food and beverage often is the second-largest item in a meeting’s budget, but you don’t have to break the bank to provide a memorable F&B experience.

When starting to plan F&B functions for your meetings, events, incentive trips and product launches, it is important to start building relationships with the key vendor partners from the get-go, with your Convention Services Manager and Executive Chef.  Talk to the chef directly regarding details of your specific group and what you are looking to do.  Discuss the potential of local items , availability based upon season, their recommendations and the items that will be more economical based upon the date of your event.  Additionally, we take this a step further and ask the Chef:  “What is something creative that you have always wanted to do?”.  Aside from the obvious, this also helps engage the culinary team and allows them to do something new a different.

Think strategically to determine which purchasing methods work best for your group, without sacrificing quality (or quantity).  There are many purchasing methods to consider:

  • Per Person:  Generally works well for small groups under 100 people, but please note that each menus is still negotiable.  Talk with the Chef to see what he/she feels you can cut out of each meal, without the attendee suffering.  You can also talk portion sizes with the Chef and request smaller portions of each item to reduce the cost.
  • Ala Carte:  For larger groups, consider purchasing each item on an ala carte basis.   When you purchase a menu on a per person basis, the price is generally based upon every person taking every item, which in reality is not the case.
  • Carving Stations:  When purchasing ‘carving station’ items, it is not necessary to purchase for every person.  We generally cut our attendee numbers in ½ or more to determine the number of items to purchase as each carving station.
  • Action Stations:  When purchasing ‘action station’ items, it also is not necessary to purchase for every person.  We generally cut our attendee numbers down by a 1/3 to determine quantity.
  • Bulk:  For larger groups – consider purchasing bulk vs. per person packages – compare pricing to see the best way to go for your group.
  • On Consumption:  Purchase on consumption when possible (Prepackaged items, canned beverages, coffee, alcohol, etc.)
  • Mixture of Above:  We often mix per person with consumption to get the biggest bang for our client’s buck.

It’s all about creativity and knowing your groups history.  As you move forward with future years for the same group, be sure to reference last year’s notes and final bill to make changes that will benefit your client’s bottom line.   You will be sure to exceed your client’s expectations each and every year by making improvements on the previous year’s decisions.

Happy Purchasing!

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Event Planners vs. Meeting Planners

t621122222Are Event Planners the same as Meeting Planners?  There is often confusion about the difference between these terms, yet many people (including myself) use them interchangeably.  For most people the difference in terminology really doesn’t matter, but for those who care I’ll try to clarify.

Events are any kind of organized occasion.  It is a broad term that encompasses everything from a birthday party to the Super Bowl.  Meetings are a sub-set of Events, as are Trade Shows.  Therefore, meetings are events but events are not necessarily meetings.

To further muddy the waters, there is another category called Special Events.  Special Events covers a broad range of activities including weddings, corporate parties and social events, recognition events, special interest events (bridal shows, public trade shows, etc.), private social events and civic events.  Special events typically take place over a short time frame, from a few hours to a day.  Special Events rarely take place over multiple days.

To summarize, the term Event covers a broad range of activities, including Meetings, Trade Shows and Special Events.  Each of these is a sub-set of Events.

Now that I’ve cleared that up, maybe I’ll just keep describing myself as a Meeting and Event Planner.

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Event Planning Companies Save Time and Resources

Equinox LogoEvent Planning Companies are often perceived as a superfluous expense that adds little value to a meeting or event.  As a result, they are one of the first things eliminated when budgets need to be reduced.

On the surface, it seems like an easy call, “Why pay $50,000 to an outside company to plan our meeting when we can do it ourselves for free?”  “They don’t know our business or culture.  Let’s have the marketing team plan the meeting.”  “Jill’s admin isn’t very busy right now, she can make some calls.”  Regardless of how it’s said, the underlying belief is that planning an event is simply shopping for a good room rate and arranging food and AV with the hotel.

Professional Meeting and Event Planners

There was a time when the idea that meeting planning was simply managing logistics was fairly accurate, but that’s no longer the case.  Today’s planners are savvy professionals with a wide range of skills and experience.  From venue selection and contract negotiations to post-event ROI calculations, professional planners are experts on strategic planning, adult learning, negotiating and financial management.  They plan dozens of events each year and maintain the same level of professional standards as your attorney, realtor or dentist.  They bring a level of experience and expertise that is far beyond the abilities of non-professional planners.

Professional Planners Think Strategically

In today’s cost-justified world, meetings and events are powerful strategic tools that significantly impact a company or association.  They represent a significant investment of time and resources, and stakeholders expect a return on their investment.

Event planning companies understand business and the value of events in a corporate business strategy.  They recognize that the success of their business relies on the success of your business.  They think strategically and are as comfortable in the C-suite as they are in the back halls of a hotel.

Professional Planners Save Money

The professional planners at event planning companies negotiate dozens of contracts every year.  They think beyond room rate to negotiate the most beneficial deals available.  They know how venues and suppliers make money and where they have flexibility.  That knowledge allows them to create win-win situations where you receive discounts and concessions that less experienced planners might not be aware of; impacting your purchasing power and bottom line.  In some cases, those savings more than offset the cost of their services.

Professional Planners Save Time

Every minute your staff spends planning your meeting is a minute they are not using their true expertise to benefit your company or association.  In addition, most planning tasks take more time because they don’t have the processes and tools to do them efficiently.  The end result is that they are forced to spend more time to produce less while ignoring their core responsibilities.  That means lost opportunity costs that can have a negative impact on your business.

The Right Tool for the Right Job

You would never hire your bartender to fix your car or go to your mechanic when you are sick, so why entrust your events to a non-professional planner.  In a business climate where every cost is scrutinized, the risk is simply too great – to your brand and to your stakeholders.

When considering your next event, consider the professional planners at an event planning company.  You will be surprised how effective your meeting can be without significant cost increases and how well you will sleep knowing your event is in the hands of trained professionals.

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Attendee-Centric Meetings

Meeting Attendees GraphicYears ago, a company could schedule a meeting and the attendees would show up to hear whatever the company wanted to tell them.There was much less scrutiny of corporate expenses and everyone was happy to take a few days out of the office on the chance they might meet someone, see something or learn something that would help their business.

Today, the “if you hold it, they will come” idea is no longer valid.Attendees are much more discriminating for several reasons:

Cost vs. Value

Corporate travel and expenses are under intense scrutiny and expenditures are being measured against the value received.Decision-makers want to know the value of attending and the expected return on investment.Those events with clearly defined agendas and detailed content outlines are much more likely to be approved than less-defined events that promise “a unique experience.”

Relevance

Today’s attendees want to gain knowledge and tools that they can immediately use to increase revenue.They don’t have the time or resources to hear about company vision, the latest vaporware or technology that won’t be available for months or years.They demand functional tools, real solutions and differentiated products.If you don’t offer them, they’ll look for another event that does.

Inspiration

Attendees want to be inspired and energized by an event.They want to be engaged.Networking and being a part of something greater than themselves is much more important than theme décor, free drinks or an imaginative menu.

Ownership

Today’s attendees want a two-way conversation.They don’t want to be lectured or talked down to.They want to feel ownership of their experience and to know that their ideas and suggestions were heard by the meeting’s organizers.

The days of passive attendance are over.Attendees have increased expectations for meetings and reduced budgets.They want to know there will be a payoff for their time, expense and the inconvenience of travelling.If your event doesn’t offer what they looking for, a complete listing of competitive events is just a click away.

When planning your next meeting or event, make sure it is attendee-centric and provides your target audience with clear value for attending.If you don’t, you may not get a second chance.

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Strategic Meetings

Strategic MeetingsEveryone’s talking about strategic meetings, but what are they and how are they different from what you are currently doing?

Strategic meetings are meetings that literally change the status quo.  They are specifically designed to align with your business initiatives to produce a measurable change in behavior that directly impacts your bottom line.  Regardless of audience, strategic meetings provide knowledge and tools that motivate attendees to take action to achieve specific outcomes.

In today’s economy, most companies don’t have the resources to invest in meetings that don’t produce a visible return on investment.  The soft goals of celebrate, educate and motivate have been replaced by real-world outcomes like increase sales by 15%, improve margins by 10% and reduce customer defections by 25%.  As a result, planners are being forced to evolve from shoppers who source and negotiate to strategic planners, curriculum designers and measurement experts.

This change in skill-sets has even changed the language we use as planners.  Broad words like goals, objectives and engagement have been replaced by measurement-specific language like actionable data, ROI and knowledge retention.

The evolution of meeting planning may be bad news for party planners, administrative assistants and corporate staff that plan meetings part-time, but the end result will be good for the industry.  As senior management learns to value meetings and events as strategic tools that have a dramatic impact on their company’s behavior and financial results, strategic meeting planners will become valuable assets to their companies.  Their expertise will be sought and their programs will be funded.

What a refreshing change from the status quo.

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