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Expert Event Planning

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When it comes to events, what distinguishes a so-so experience from a memorable one? Whether you're planning a convention for thousands or a board meeting for 12, this practical advice from the experts can help make your event the best ever.

DO YOUR HOMEWORK
Extensive pre-meeting research is essential, all agree. Ask yourself these key questions: What are the meeting's objectives? Are the attendees gathering to learn something (as in a product launch or sales training session), for team building, or just to have a good time (such as an incentive-building event)? Who are the attendees? Are they inside or outside people? How do they relate to one another?

"Understanding the expectations of the sponsor is even more important than knowing the objectives," stresses Victor Bao, president of Miami-based Valorem Meetings & Incentives, a division of Valorem Travel Group, which coordinated production of the hit television show Survivor Amazon. "Do they like laid-back programs or do they expect the delegates to take home a 'wow!' feeling, with memories of three days of flashy presentations? You need to know this."

KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE
"Consider the attendees' demographic profile, age range, and activity preferences to select a destination and program," advises Laurie Sharp, certified meeting planner (CMP) and president of San Francisco– based Sharp Events.

"Hispanic executives tend to enjoy traveling with their families, so meeting destinations should be family friendly," suggests Karen Garcia, CMP and managing director of multicultural initiative for Meeting Professionals International (MPI). Ms. Garcia also recommends crafting the opening-night event of Hispanic gatherings to include the delegates' family members.

"The key to successful Hispanic corporate conferences is maintaining and enhancing relationships," says Mr. Bao. "It's important to plan lots of time together so attendees can get to know each other better."

For the annual meeting of a major Hispanic-owned multinational corporation, Mr. Bao devised a session aimed at both strengthening the company and building relationships. Attendees were divided into "teams" of four or five executives from different areas of the company and charged with devising solutions to company problems. "As the teams talked and thought, relationships were formed," says Mr. Bao.

LEARN FROM HISTORY
Sharing information from past meetings is a frequently overlooked strategy that can result in better service, lower costs, and fewer problems, says Ms. Garcia.

A "meetings history" log should have pertinent information on past gatherings, including locations, number of sleeping rooms reserved/used, and expenses such as ground transportation, food and beverages, entertainment, and audio/visual equipment. "Knowledge of your meeting history enables the venues and suppliers to better understand your requirements, be better prepared, and, occasionally, avert catastrophes," says Ms. Garcia.

She cites the example of an organization that booked an in-city hotel after holding three annual conferences at resorts. After reviewing the company's records, the hotel asked why a city hotel had been chosen. The planners were dumbfounded. They thought the downtown hotel was a resort!

Calculating the value of your past meetings and sharing the information with prospective venues can be an important negotiating tool, adds Margaret Gonzalez, president of the International Association of Hispanic Meeting Professionals. "When you add up the costs of the rooms, food and beverages, entertainment, ground transportation, and delegates' cost of arrival, the economic impact can be impressive. Even medium-size gatherings, with 1,000 people, can bring a destination more than $1 million."

CHOOSE THE RIGHT SITE
"While meeting in the office may seem like the most cost-effective plan, it's often a false savings because work distractions too easily dilute the full group thought," says Mr. Bao. "In off-site locations, attendees are refreshed and truly able to focus on the agenda. As a result, the upfront facility expenses are frequently recovered in increased productivity."

"Use the meeting goals as a guide to selecting the venue," advises Mary T. Ryan, senior sales planner with Carlson Marketing Group, a Minnesota-based relationship marketing firm.

Ms. Ryan recommends using in-city hotels for intensive all-day meetings, such as training sessions and sales meetings with tradeshow components. "City business hotels have a higher ratio of meeting and exhibit space to sleeping rooms and are well seasoned in handling meetings and conventions."

For high-level CEO gatherings, choose small, exclusive, yet easily accessible properties, says Ms. Ryan. "If the meeting is all work, use a prestigious in-city hotel. If guests and leisure activities are included, select an exclusive resort."

When the objective is relationship building, Ms. Sharp prefers a golf resort. "If you're expecting several hundred people, choose a resort loaded with activities. With 300 delegates, you'll please 95 percent by making sure there are as many activities as possible."

"Keep all your meetings under one roof," advises Geri Schmid, a Carlson Marketing Group account manager. "If your gathering is too large for the biggest meeting hotel in the city, choose a convention center."

Jorge Rivas, finance and operations director and meeting planner for the National Society of Hispanic MBAs, recommends choosing a convention center with an adjacent hotel. "It's easier for the delegates, and it eliminates the expense of shuttle transportation," he says.

"Be a big fish in a small pond," adds Ms. Ryan. "If the gathering is larger than a handful of people, choose a venue that is not much larger than your group requires. If you're the largest group at the property, you'll get the best service."

MAKE IT EASIER
Once you've established the type of venue, let the city and county convention and visitors bureaus (CVBs) do the work, counsels Ms. Gonzalez. "Whether your meeting is large or small, CVB convention specialists are eager to develop your RFP [request for proposal] and send it to all the appropriate hotels on your behalf."

Involving CVBs is a top priority for executives such as Mr. Rivas. "Engage the CVB 100 percent from beginning to end," he says. "How much support they provide depends on how much I ask. Working with a CVB means I can always reach a real person to solve problems."

As the Hispanic meetings market grows, more CVBs are hiring Hispanic and multicultural convention specialists. "That makes my job even easier," says Mr. Rivas, "because they have the right contacts for the special decor, food, and entertainment Hispanic attendees prefer."

BE CREATIVE
Says Mr. Bao: "Always establish a theme, even for a cut-and-dried accounting conference. A theme makes it easier for the attendees to remember what the organizers want them to achieve and what they've learned."

When a major U.S. company turned to Mr. Bao to fulfill its meeting objective of establishing cohesion between the technical support and sales staffs, his "In Tandem" theme brought the concept to life for the attendees. Through sports such as tandem bicycle riding, Mr. Bao cemented a camaraderie between the sales and tech support people.

"Entertainment educates," agrees Charles "Chet" Towle, senior producer and senior designer of Charles C Production Group of Newport Beach, California, who, like Mr. Bao, stages mega-events for major corporations and movie studios. "People have a 10 percent retention rate for the spoken word, but a 30 percent retention rate for visuals. Add entertainment, and the retention rate soars to 60 or 70 percent," he says.

Rather than arranging a lecture on how to sell the spa products of an international cosmetics giant, Mr. Towle created a lavish stage production that entertained and informed the sales force audience. Performers in costume, holding trays of candles, danced out the joys of using and selling the new line. "[Sales reps] couldn't wait to sell the product," he says.

DOWNSIZE THE BUDGET
In today's economic climate, how can you save money and still please the attendees, especially if they've enjoyed lavish conferences in the past?

Linda Mansouria, president of San Francisco–based Make It Happen, a meeting, event, and incentive company, reduces food and beverage expenditures to everyone's advantage.

For smaller meetings, she suggests replacing full breakfasts with continental fare or just coffee and tea. "If the venue has good restaurants or there are restaurants nearby, schedule the morning meetings a bit later so delegates can enjoy breakfast on their own. You can also expand the lunch break from one hour to 90 minutes to let the attendees eat on their own."

A cost-saving trick for larger conferences is to provide the food but have delegates pay for it.

"Turn lunchtime into a peer-to-peer, brownbag learning experience," recommends Ms. Mansouria. "Advertise the lunch in advance as a roundtable discussion. Create different topics at each table moderated by a facilitator. Delegates can then buy a box lunch and sit at the table that interests them."

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