Budget Financial Meetings: Doing More with Less

Meetings in the financial and insurance sector require outside-the-box thinking

The economy was humming along before the coronavirus hit, but even then the majority of meeting planners in the financial and insurance industries were keeping their budgets in neutral. According to the Fall 2019 Pulse Survey, conducted by Financial and Insurance Conference Professionals (FICP), only one-third (33 percent) of planners planned to grow the size of their meetings in 2020, and just 14 percent planned to expand their incentive programs.

Their conservative approach, of course, is tied in part to the unique regulations that affect meetings in the finance and insurance sectors, rules imposed by the Department of Labor, Securities and Exchange Commission, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners and other bodies.

“Financial and insurance meetings in the U.S. do have a unique set of regulatory guidelines beyond those impacting other sectors,” says Sherri K. Lindenberg, senior vice president of marketing communications for Crump Life Insurance Services, who is also an FICP influence committee member and special-interest group leader. “It’s more important than ever that meeting professionals are connected with their company’s leadership and regulatory teams to make sure programs stay in compliance.”

While budgets may be stagnant, planners are still under pressure to deliver memorable experiences and raise the bar from one event to the next. Overall, uniqueness and the “wow” experience were the most influential factors in planners’ selection of a venue for ancillary activities, according to the FICP’s fall survey. “As an audience, financial professionals may be cautious in their approach to business, but they still expect to be wowed at a meeting,” says Joe Panepinto, senior vice president and strategy director for Jack Morton, a brand experience agency that has clients such as Liberty Mutual, Arbella Insurance and Bank of America.

Below are some ideas for how meeting planners in the financial and insurance sectors can raise the bar while getting more bang for their buck.

Work with Partners—and Haggle

Negotiation is more essential than ever for achieving cost savings, and planners should work closely with partners — including DMCs, hotels, speaker bureaus, and food and beverage vendors — to identify creative opportunities for doing more with less.

“The best way to keep costs in line is to leverage your relationships with your partners,” Lindenberg says. “Be transparent and communicate with respect. It is a partnership, and it is impossible for a planner to be successful without our hospitality colleagues. A collaborative approach will always benefit you in all aspects, including managing costs.”

Keep in mind that negotiation doesn’t have to be about lowering the price if you can get additional services thrown into a deal.

“Saving money starts with contract negotiations and asking for the right concessions; the larger your piece of business, the more concessions you can negotiate,” Lindenberg says. “Items to consider include complimentary internet; discounts on spa, F&B, and AV; complimentary upgrades; discounted staff rooms; discounted or complimentary parking; cumulative attrition; one comp room per 40 utilized; meeting room rentals waived with an F&B minimum; and/or waived or reduced resort fees.”

Timing is Everything

Rather than squeezing every penny out of a budget, consider packing more punch by simply changing the duration of the meeting or event. “Maybe a three-hour event is 2.5 hours,” says Huggins. “Whether it’s venue labor, bus drivers or catering staff, shortening an event slightly can help reduce costs.”

If the timing of an event is flexible, encourage clients to hold their meetings during the “shoulder season” and consider more cities or venues that are off the beaten path. It’s also worth exploring whether venues offer varied pricing on different days of the week.

“We try to share with our clients the peaks and valleys for a particular vendor partner,” Huggins says. “If there’s flexibility, we can come back with multiple cost points for consideration. There are definitely times—in the year, or in a week—that are less expensive.”

Focus on the Overall Experience

Planners should get clarity around their total budget, as well as on specific line items, and then work to find creative ways to deliver a memorable event.

“In the financial and insurance sectors, there’s greater scrutiny on the spend,” says Amberlee Huggins, DMCP, president and chief marketing officer of CSI DMC, a destination management company. “How do they get more bang for the buck? Obviously, we have to be more creative in investing in the experience.”

When a financial services client hired CSI DMC to plan a celebration to mark the merging of two offices, the planners worked with the city government to plan a first-of-its-kind private event in Boston’s Copley Square (a public plaza). They brought in food trucks instead of hiring fancy caterers, and most attendees were able to walk to the event, saving on transportation costs.

“This was not something that could typically be produced,” Huggins says. “It’s about taking spend they do have and saying, ‘How can we do this differently so it’s a once-in-a-lifetime type of experience?’”

Finding creative ways to use (and re-use) meeting and event space can help save money, while delivering greater impact.

“If you can purposefully design the general session space for multiple purposes, you can get more done with less,” Panepinto says. “We utilized inexpensive, synchronized neon lighting on intricate trusses in a general session room to take the experience from day to night, from keynote to after-party. We also recently created a modular wall set that creates an intimate circle for the keynotes and main-stage presentations that could then be used quickly to open up the space in an organic way for an evening awards dinner.

“And a little trade secret – you can get much of the wow factor of projection mapping at lower prices if your team knows what they want and what to ask for. It’s easy to get upsold into 3D projection mapping when you don’t really need it.”

Content Matters

Financial- and insurance-sector planners can help clients generate a sense of value by ensuring their meeting’s agenda is compelling. Bringing in outside speakers, encouraging novel presentation formats and allowing attendees plenty of time for networking can all reduce the “trapped” feelings that result from overly long, dull meetings.

“Attendee engagement is paramount, and creating a sense of place at our events is very important,” Lindenberg says. “If you ask, ‘Was it worth your time to be here?’ and they say ‘Yes,’ then you have success.”

Reaching out to a company’s partners can be a cost-efficient way to bring in new perspectives and liven up a meeting.

“Many of our financial services or insurance clients have significant sponsorships and partnerships that allow them to draw talent for meetings that wouldn’t be possible without a bigger relationship,” Panepinto says. “Drawing examples from other industries, seeking outside speakers with unique points of view and [sharing] customer stories that break the mold are some of the strategies we’ve used to create really unique experiences. And, of course, people love to see the latest technological advances in their industry.”

Infusing creative approaches into a meeting’s agenda can help clients feel they’ve gained good value from the experience. Instead of cramming an agenda with a series of long lectures, consider a more interactive format that engages attendees in conversations with each other.

“We believe in bringing people together for three primary reasons: motivate, educate and relate,” Lindenberg says. “It’s important to make sure that you create great value for every minute spent at an in-person meeting and allow plenty of time for networking. Presentations are more inclusive, and there is an emphasis on learning from each other—for example, roundtable discussions and hiring a facilitator versus a presenter for every session.”

Keep F&B Simple

Food and beverage can be a major drain on a budget, particularly if a planner is looking to create an experience that goes beyond a simple buffet.

“When it comes time to plan the menus, work closely with the hotel to customize menus where possible, especially if there are budget limitations, and look at your budget as a whole versus meal by meal,” Lindenberg says. “This helps the hotel understand what they have to work with and lets them know your priorities with meals—for example, if you want a wow break or memorable final-night dinner. It also allows the culinary teams to be innovative and get excited about what they’re preparing, versus just following the banquet menus.”

Cutting down on alcoholic beverages (or finding creative alternatives) can be a quick and easy way to reduce costs for an event. “Having an open bar for three hours isn’t as important as it used to be,” Huggins says. “Now, we might have wine and beer, and specialty drinks, so when we’re working with catering, we can do a cost cut.”

If a vendor is trying to sell you on a high-concept dish or presentation option, try to find a way to create a more centralized feature element.

“You might have four levitating plates in a display that everyone can see, instead of trying to give levitating plates to 200 people,” Huggins says. “When you do highly specialized, small, intricate food, it’s always going to cost more to produce than attractive stations. If you make the stations decor unto themselves, you’re doing two things at once, and that saves. Everyone’s looking for that Instagrammable moment. But if people can take a photo of it and share it, that’s far more important than whether everybody got served that way.”

Piggybacking Pays

Sharing resources with other meeting groups can be an effective way to save money, especially if you’re working with a DMC that has multiple clients.

“If we have three events in a month with a particular venue, we’ll go into that and say, ‘What can we do for these three events versus one event?’ Then we’ll take that savings and split it among our clients,” Huggins says. “For a company with a limited budget, we say, ‘What else do we have going on at that time that we can leverage?’ If a venue allows a tent to stay up for a few days, we may be able to leverage that for a second client.”

Work with your meeting venue partner to find opportunities to piggyback on what other meetings groups may already be doing.

“Perhaps another group is in-house, and it could benefit you to offer the same lunch menu as they are serving. Then you want something completely different with your food stations for opening night,” Lindenberg says.

Seek Out Win-Wins

When one of their clients needed to find ways to trim its budget, CSI DMC suggested they could lower their transportation costs by creating an incentive program that encouraged attendees to walk to the event.

“Attendees had an opportunity to demonstrate how much walking they did, and the top 10 received a small trophy,” Huggins says. “In addition to saving costs, it helped them be more sustainable, it had a wellness component to it, and it was a fun competition and a better experience for attendees.”

Planning with a fixed budget always requires trade-offs and compromises, but with some creativity, planners can find win-win solutions. The key is to understand where your client is and isn’t willing to give ground.

“How do we flip it on its head, instead of just cut, cut, cut?” Huggins says. “It [requires] thinking about the experience, but then saving money on how the service happens. Those kinds of things are ways to cut costs, but still give an experience that people will talk about.

“If they say, ‘Everyone has to have a levitating plate,’ we’ll say, ‘OK, let’s talk about the lighting.’ If someone is dead set on something happening, we talk about what we can do, and what we can potentially change, to meet the budget. We don’t go in slashing and burning. That takes away from the client experience.”

Think Local

While larger clients may want to bring in top-name entertainment for a special event, hiring famous acts to perform (and covering their transportation as well as food and beverage costs) can quickly impact a budget. This creates a good opportunity for planners to think creatively and work with local partners.

“If they want somebody who is talented and well-known, there may be an alternative that is local and can actually save them money,” Huggins says. “We had a client that wanted a 45-person symphony, but we worked through our connections to put together a smaller version—a 30-person symphony that was more locally based, and that saved the client a considerable sum.”

Do Your Homework

Particularly in the insurance and financial sectors, planners should be mindful of questions around compliance, and do sufficient research to make sure they understand the group and its specific requirements.

“As regulated industries, financial and insurance bring with them an entire layer of consideration and care that has to cut through every part,” Panepinto says. “Instead of cutting out anything in the planning process, make sure you are time-boxing or scoping the effort commensurate with the potential impact on the business. Topics to consider include things like amounts of educational sessions during incentives, values of gifts, qualification rules for contests and proper disclaimer language.”

It’s also crucial, when trying to deliver the wow factor, to understand the nature of the group. “‘Wow’ is a big word,” Huggins says. “If you’re in a conversation with somebody, and they say they want to create an amazing, wow-factor event, you really need to make sure you understand what’s been successful for them before.

“And be sure to ask, ‘What’s the profile of the membership? Is it 70 percent women?’ Women and men typically eat differently and have different habits. Knowing the membership profile, knowing what the wow experience has been in the past, and having a good idea of budget and budget parameters—if there’s flexibility to spend in different areas, or if there are very specific buckets of spend—will change everything about how you go about planning the event.”

Q&A with MPI

Meeting Professionals International (MPI) recently established a community for financial and insurance planners that offers activities and education geared specifically toward them. We reached out to one of the advisory board members, Kyle F. Jordan, managing director of learning and conferences for Financial Planning Association, to learn more.

What does MPI’s Financial and Insurance Planners Community do?

It is designed to be a resource for planners who work in or with financial, insurance or allied companies and the associations that service those markets. The community was formally introduced in 2019, and the advisory board continues to identify opportunities and content that will be beneficial for those planners and their wider constituents.

What, if anything, is different about planning meetings for the financial and insurance sectors, compared to other sectors?

One of the more unique challenges is that our industry and our clients/members are highly susceptible to both major and minor shifts in the economy and the geopolitical climate. This is especially apparent as we’re entering the contentious 2020 election cycle. The markets are currently unstable and we, like many of my corporate colleagues, are currently booking our short-term and long-term meetings a little bit differently. I’ve lowered my room blocks, booking my events later, and am looking at destinations that may be less impacted by shifts in the economy.

An additional consideration that some of my corporate peers have to focus on relates to security around proprietary technology or services, and high-profile or VIP staff, clients and attendees.

What are some things that clients expect that you, as a planner, might suggest cutting to save costs?

We exclusively offer educational-focused meetings, unlike some of my corporate counterparts who often plan more incentive-style meetings. Our members and meeting participants tend to be price sensitive, so we work hard to provide high-quality meetings without a lot of frills. We want our events to be accessible to as many of our members as possible.

What does it take to be effective in risk management and what are the key considerations or factors to keep in mind?

As we look at preparing for all the standard crises and risk potential, including those that are natural and human-made, finance and insurance professionals should also be aware of the significance that political, financial, and economic factors and impacts may have on their meetings. Does your organization need to prepare for different pre- and post-election outcomes? Does your organization need to prepare for a 700-point drop in the Dow Jones?

Changes to the political landscape, swings in the economy, or sudden and unanticipated changes to financial policies and laws can all have a tremendous impact on financial and insurance meetings.

Although I plan meetings focused on the financial vertical, I am keenly aware of the work my colleagues in health care, religious and government verticals are doing around risk management. We can’t let the biggest obstacle of our own crisis- and risk-management planning be having tunnel vision, solely focused on crises in our own industry.

What are some keys for measuring the ROI or business value of an event?

We look at the traditional benefits, or value, over cost calculations, but we also utilize Net Promoter Score [NPS] to help us better understand our brand awareness and position. By using NPS, we can calculate our average revenue per customer, which helps us better understand our projected revenue impact, based on sentiments of participants, such as promoters, passives and detractors.

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