Smart Moves: How the conference changed its spots

Corporate-events organisers are learning new tricks to banish the 'yawn' factor, writes Graham Keene
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HHow often have you arrived at an annual sales conference and felt that sinking feeling that you are in for days of drab corporate presentations? And when it is all over, how often do you really feel invigorated by the experience and enthusiastic about the months to come?

If you recognise this in your own company, then perhaps it is time to suggest a change of tack. More forward-thinking businesses have realised that corporate events are only worth the investment if they make a measurable difference, and that staff expect more than the usual rhetoric. As a result the events management industry is changing its spots, like any other industry where customer expectations have changed. And not only this, budgets have become tighter since the last recession in the UK and clients have much higher expectations of what they should get for their money.

In striving to maximise employees' performance in the broadest sense, companies are also looking to keep a lid on the rising costs of training and motivational programmes. As a result, managers are realising the benefit of integrating motivation and team building into sales conferences and product launches. In this way, they can lead their staff up steep learning curves relating to new products and services, while creating a better environment for improved team working and all in the context of an experience that will not be remembered for turgid presentations by marketing and sales managers.

While the basic sales conference was innovative in its day, a broader and more creative brief can bring a fresh perspective to how people work.

IMS Health, for example, used an event in Cyprus to launch a new approach to how it worked as a company. The whole event had a theme to communicate and reinforce the new ethos, combining team-building exercises focusing on collaborative working with the introduction of a new long-term incentive programme and presentations on marketing and sales issues.

"Our Global Services group has re-organised to provide greater customer orientation and integrate our numerous products and services into a cohesive whole," says Bob Scott-Edwards, of the company's marketing and global services department. "We used our meeting in Cyprus to launch our 'One Team - One Vision' approach which has now been carried right through our group from top to bottom. Three months later, you can still hear the buzz generated by the meetings!"

An inspirational event is a powerful platform for communicating with employees, and by building in people-skills elements, forward-thinking businesses not only benefit from increased staff performance, but are saving money.

Corporate events are also ideal for launching motivational programmes, which are moving away from crude rewards for top performers. Now, employers recognise the increased benefit of group incentive programmes which encourage teamwork and improved communication between participants. Also, if a long-term incentive follows the theme of a sales conference, it helps focus on the rationale and objectives set out at the launch.

Top management can use such events to introduce or reinforce cultural change in a receptive environment. A classic example of this was a programme for Rhone-Poulenc Rorer (RPR), a drug company which was integrating its sales force following the merger of two companies. According to RPR's sales and marketing director, Colin Hannah, it was a situation typical of a business after a merger, with a lack of structure in the combined sales force, no clear culture or leadership but with huge potential.

Rather than continuing with the programme of sales conferences and rewards for the sales teams, it wanted an integrated programme of events, motivational support and training under the banner of "Odyssey - a journey of challenges". Mr Hannah identified the value of integrating all of these into a single comprehensive programme combining all aspects of team development and performance. "The reaction to Odyssey was extremely strong," he says, "with individuals working closely together to support the performance of the team as a whole. After just six months sales were up by 27 per cent.

"More importantly, we now have a totally different sales force in its thinking, its planning and its team work. All the post-merger cynicism has gone. It's not about working harder, it's about working smarter. People are communicating better, maximising their sales opportunities and sharing information."

Graham Keene is a director of World Event Management. For information, please contact Andrew Butcher at Harrington Communications (tel: 01710- 706 0770).