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How to Plan an Effective Offsite Business Meeting

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Here’s how a destination meeting can capture the complete attention of attendees.

The function space at the Fairmont Orchid on the Big Island of Hawaii was decked out for a big game. Local cheerleaders performed, Florida State football coaching legend Bobby Bowden gave the keynote speech and, to add some Hawaiiana, entertainers performed the haka, a traditional Polynesian war dance that local football players have adapted for their own.

The scene wasn’t a big bowl game, however, but a highlight of the Mitsubishi Electric Cooling and Heating annual distributor meeting. No doubt, the attendees were having a great time. But the real point of the evening, the first night of a four-day conference in January 2011, was to draw attention away from the everyday.

The primary goal of that offsite meeting, says Don Brooks, president and owner of Incredible Events, a Franklin, Tenn.–based event planning company, was to get attendees to be present in the moment—not mentally back in the office. “We need to get [attendees’] minds away from those 16 things they asked their staff to handle while they were gone,” says Brooks, who has been managing the heating and cooling event, and many others for the electronics giant, since the mid-’90s. “They still have a job to do, even when they are at that meeting. So we try to get them to relax a bit.”

A destination meeting can fulfill many objectives—from reinforcing corporate culture to team building to training. But one overarching objective for every offsite meeting? Mind-share. Despite advances in videoconferencing and myriad other ways to bring employees together, the destination meeting is still the gold standard when it comes to ensuring undivided attention.

“Planners realize that if they can get people away, they’ll get their full attention,” says Bill Boyd, founder, president and CEO of Dallas-based Sunbelt Motivation & Travel, Inc., a full-service incentive, meeting and convention management company. That said, Boyd’s clients are far more careful than they were in the past when it comes to choosing a destination for an offsite meeting.

“CEOs are still loathe to take employees to a destination that might appear to give a bad impression,” Boyd says, adding that some of his companies are still reacting to the “AIG Effect”—so-called after bad publicity rained down on the insurance giant after a lavish sales meeting held on the heels of accepting billions in government bailout money. “If it says resort in the property name, you’re not going to find them there,” he says, adding, “We know which clients can tolerate the word resort or a luxury property.”

Matching the Property with the Objectives

Conversely, for some meetings, luxury helps the company attain its overall objectives. Mitsubishi never hesitates to pull out all the stops for its annual distributor meeting—attracting high-level executives from its most important customers for four days requires a top-notch destination.

“Because new products are introduced and all the philosophy for the coming sales year happens at this meeting, Mitsubishi needs to make certain they get all the top people to come,” Brooks says. “In order to do that, they feel they have to choose a destination that is very desirable, like Hawaii, and provide an overall experience that is going to contribute to people being relaxed, because if they are relaxed, they are going to learn better.”

The Fairmont Orchid has hosted the meeting—which attracts about 500 people, about a third of whom are distributors and their families—for the past two years, and will be the destination again in 2012. The property’s combination of amenities and attentive service makes it an obvious choice, Brooks says.

Visiting the same property three years running is unusual for this event, but Hawaii is not. Over the 17 years Brooks has been managing the event, more than half have been held in Hawaii, at a who’s who of top properties including the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua and the Grand Wailea Resort.

Long-Haul Starting to Creep Back

For much of the past four years, events such as Mitsubishi’s were a rarity in the industry. In the early aughts, the sky was the limit in terms of destinations—the farther, the better, says Sherry Parks, CEO of Corporate Planners Unlimited Inc., in Dana Point, Calif. After a total retrenchment mid-decade, she says, exotic locales are slowly getting back on the radar. “Meetings were going global and they were going further and further afield, then drew back with the economy crunch and security concerns,” she says. “Now we are just starting to see them venturing out again.” Mexico and Costa Rica are hotspots, with the Dominican Republic an up-and-comer.

One reason these destinations are on the rise is the value. “Labor costs less at these destinations,” she says. “You don’t pay $195 for coffee service or high prices for a bottle of water. You get better value going offshore.”

Value is certainly top-of-mind these days, Brooks agrees. “Internally, everyone is concerned about spending, and Mitsubishi is absolutely the same way,” he says, adding that it’s not just because of public opinion. “They are concerned because they want to be fiscally responsible.”

However, that doesn’t mean skipping the hotspots. “If we can go to a beach destination or the mountains, and do it for the same price as Columbus, Ohio, why wouldn’t we do that?” Brooks says if the client can be flexible about timing and location, he can often make that happen. “Every hotel has a hole in their schedule. If we can fill that hole, we can often negotiate a good deal.”

Getting Down to Business

That budget consciousness extends to the programming of the meeting—Sunbelt’s Boyd says that oftentimes these days, meetings will start on arrival day, with the last scheduled event held on departure day. “Companies want to make sure they are getting their money’s worth,” he says.

They want to make sure they get their money’s worth in another way as well—ensuring that the attendees experience the destination. When Parks recently took a telecom group to Hong Kong, one highlight was a tour of a factory that makes telephones. Attendees also visited a phone company, where they explored operations and even saw what a Chinese phone bill looks like. “We showed them a lot about how the Chinese phone system works,” Parks says. “They were really fascinated—it was over and above the traditional stuff.”

Another way companies are exploring a destination is through a community service component. Boyd estimates that 60 to 65 percent of the meetings his company plans now include some type of community service project. “CSR is the hot thing to do,” Boyd says. “It’s been growing for the past seven or eight years, but now everyone wants to do it.”

CSR has the added benefit of drawing a group closer together—something that is always a goal of a destination meeting. As an international company that has experienced tremendous growth over the past two decades, Mitsubishi understands intimately the importance of bringing people together, Brooks says.

“Every time you grow, you’re going to water down your corporate culture if you don’t get people together.”

Jeanne O’Brien Coffee writes frequently about business travel and employee motivation from her base north of Boston. Her work has appeared in the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, Northshore magazine and numerous print and web outlets.

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