The New Look of Offsites

Meeting planners and hospitality professionals would argue that it’s understating things to say their business dropped off a cliff in the fall of 2008. The economic collapse and the public relations nightmare created by the notorious $443,000 soirée thrown by an American International Group subsidiary just days after the Federal Reserve rescued the troubled insurance giant with an $85 billion bailout package didn’t just produce a fall off a cliff for the meetings and events industry; it resulted in the equivalent of a “Thelma And Louise” canyon launch.

Like the economy itself, meetings and events have slowly trickled back into company budgets, but not without significantly closer oversight.

“I think it had a positive impact on the meetings industry,” says Carina Bauer, CEO of IMEX Group a producer of worldwide events that promote the incentive travel and meetings industries. “It forces everyone to think above and beyond logistics. You now have to have an objective and you have to know how to best deliver it.”

That, too, may be an understatement. Here we are nearly five years down the road and, according to Benchmark Resorts and Hotels, which releases one of the industry’s most widely disseminated annual trends reports every January, meeting demand is improving at an encouraging pace in 2013, but most companies still remain cautious with long-term meeting commitments.

Meeting planners we spoke with as well as hospitality industry professionals say they welcome the closer scrutiny of today’s offsites.

“I want to be able to prove ROI,” says Tammy Olson, CMP, the meeting and events planner for DJO Global, a medical devices and services provider. She plans about 30 group events per year — strategy meetings, product launches, incentive trips and leadership powwows — plus a few major trade shows. Groups range in size from a dozen to 50 or more.

Olson says the onus for proving the value of meetings has actually been pushed up — to the executive level. The ones calling for and leading the meetings must build objectives into the plan from the start. “It used to be, ‘We’ll get back to you on that,’” she says. That doesn’t fly anymore.

Caren Bigelow, Travel Director at USMotivation, a full-service incentive marketing company, says incentive trips have rebounded nicely in the past couple of years, albeit in a smaller, shorter and closer-to-home format at first. Companies are venturing farther away this year. She’s sending one client group to San Francisco for meetings and an overnight to Sonoma for a wine tour.

“It’s a little scary because of all of the transfers and the operational aspect. There are a lot of moving parts,” Bigelow says.

Mixing business with pleasure

That trip is a good example of a growing trend of combining business with pleasure. Training is often part of the mix, as are sessions that are relaxed networking opportunities.

“Invariably, when you do follow-up surveys, people say their favorite events are the social events,” says DJO Global’s Olson. She places a high value on what she calls structured downtime or “white space.” Sometimes, she has to fight executives to keep it in.

“There’s a perception that downtime is wasted time, but experts in creativity will tell you that you need downtime,” she says. “That’s a tough sell for executives.”

Of course, companies still sponsor sales incentive trips that focus primarily on fun for top performers. Few cities in America felt the fallout of the so-called AIG Effect more than Las Vegas. That makes the rebound, slight as it is, a welcomed turn of events.

Scott Johnson, Marketing Manager at Caesars Entertainment, says Las Vegas resorts are seeing smaller groups for shorter stays than pre-AIG — generally three or four days at the most. They also are experiencing the national trend of shorter booking windows, often no more than a few months out.

“Most of our clients are still keeping the incentive piece separate, as it diminishes the reward aspect” if you combine business with recognition, Johnson says.

How are they helping clients pinpoint ROI? Johnson lists three keys: asking the right open-ended questions; cultivating strong relationships that provide a more global understanding of each program; and keeping and enhancing good listening skills.

Shorter booking windows have become routine around the country. Olson also says with more meetings being canceled within a month or even less of the event, she is demanding — and usually getting — more flexible cancelation policies from the venues she uses.

The good news is that until hotels and resorts get back to regularly having 80 percent or more of their rooms booked, corporate event planners have the upper hand. “Nothing is off the table for us or any vendor we work with,” says Bigelow, encouraging companies to be creative when thinking of locations for their events (museums, art galleries, open space areas). “You should always ask. The worst they can say is ‘no.’ ”