While the stock market may be booming and the unemployment rate dropping, meeting planners, particularly those in the financial and insurance industries, remain focused on keeping costs in check. That was one of the points highlighted during the education sessions of the Financial & Insurance Conference Professionals (FICP) Winter Symposium. Taking place at the Hyatt Regency Jersey City, the event brought together planners working in the financial and insurance industries as well as representatives for hotels, DMCs and other hospitality partners for several days of networking and education.
Among the highlights was an industry panel in which a cross section of those involved in creating events for the financial and insurance industries discussed the trends they were seeing and their top concerns. The panelists acknowledged that despite plenty of positive economic signals — increased room nights per capita, record occupancy levels — organizations remain restrained in their spending.
"Companies are really struggling to figure out how best to grow their earnings and where to invest," said Sherri K. Lindenberg, senior vice president of marketing communications for Crump Life Insurance Services. "We're feeling that pressure to do the things we had been doing while spending less, and I don't see that letting up in the slightest."
But she reported that these constraints can drive innovation in event planning. In the case of Lindenberg's team, that meant rethinking the organization's national sales meeting that it had been holding for the past 12 years, and breaking it into a series of six regional roadshows, which led to more directly connecting with a greater number of employees, while spending far less than had been required of the all-hands national meeting. The next program will change again, holding the event at two locations.
"Salespeople still have a need to get together and do a deep dive, but we're saying 'the world has changed, we're not the same company or demographics that we were and maybe our meetings should change, too,'" Lindenberg said. "We're trying to change it up so people don't feel like we cut something; it's just doing it differently."
Making such changes can require a delicate approach, according to the speakers. Fellow panelist Kerry McMahon, director of global sales, Northeast, for AIC Hotel Group, recalled a client who recently faced backlash when the team tried to change the location of its sales meeting from a resort destination to a city.
"Expectations were that it was something of an incentive trip that everyone looked forward to," said McMahon, who emphasized that adjusting expectations early and consistently was key to making any changes to an event program.
The third panelist, Dean Altvater, global sales director for destination management company PRA, described how he's seen the number of attendees at events grow, but clients still expect budgets to remain at the same level.
"We look for creative ways to have a 'wow' factor, but in less-expensive ways," said Altvater.
He described how this could range from selecting a second- or third-tier meeting destination, or finding other opportunities for savings, such as skipping the often costly airport pickup and asking attendees to grab an Uber on their own to the hotel. Altvater highlighted that these changes are not just driven by budget, but by preferences of attendees, with app-savvy younger travelers more comfortable getting their own transportation. Likewise, he pointed out that groups are less likely to expect pricier floral arrangements as centerpieces or decorations, not just as a décor preference but for sustainability concerns.
The panel was moderated by Aran Ryan, director of lodging analytics for Tourism Economics, who began with a presentation of the state of the global economy and what that means for the travel industry. He emphasized that while fears of a recession have largely subsided, like the panelists described from their own experience, organizations are hardly opening the floodgates when it comes to spending. In particular, Ryan pointed to softening business investment in an Oxford Economics survey of CEOs.
"The most concerning trend is this pullback on investment," said Ryan. "Decisions on group events are a sort of parallel decision. Companies are deciding whether they want to invest in getting in front of customers, training people. To see when you survey CEOs that they are continuing to pull back, is something we expect will feed into stagnant demand growth for group business overall."