By Steve Winston
If you’ve been in the business of planning meetings for a while, you already know that planning a small executive meeting or retreat is a different kind of animal.
If you don’t plan it correctly, or if you overlook something important, it will affect not just the people who have attended; the effects will actually ripple through the entire organization. Yes, it’s true: The success of a meeting that may have been attended by only 10 or 20 may affect the lives of thousands of others. And it will affect the health of your association as well, often in ways that can’t even be foreseen…and possibly, for years down the road.
Planning a small executive meeting or retreat is actually a very specialized process. And just because you’ve planned big meetings in the past doesn’t necessarily make you an expert in that process.
To find out the dos and don’ts, we’ve spoken with experts from around the country — people with vast experience in planning these meetings. And, while every meeting is different, of course, they’ve given us a road map of some key steps that will help ensure the success of your meeting.
The Five Ws
The Five Ws are as important in planning executive meetings as they are for planning meetings of 20,000 people. (Interestingly, these Ws are the same guidelines that newspaper reporters use to write a story.)
- Why: If you don’t know why you’re having the meeting — the purpose — then don’t bother having it. And if you don’t bother to let the attendees know why in advance, you’re making a big mistake, because they’ll arrive uninformed and unprepared to participate.
- What: What, exactly, do you want to accomplish? It should be spelled out in great detail to anyone who will be attending.
- When: Just as there are optimum times to have your larger meetings and conventions, the same is true of smaller executive meetings and retreats.
- Who: Who will or should be attending? (And why should they be attending?) You’re dealing with large egos here…but not so large that they’re not easily bruised. In any organization, there are invariably political considerations, as well.
- Where: Where will you have it? What type of environment will be most conducive to accomplishing your goals? How hard will it be to get there? How far will it be from the nearest airport? And will it be a compelling enough destination that these busy executives will be willing (and enthused) to leave their offices for a few days?
Unlike journalism school, however, meeting planners working on executive events should also consider an “H”: How are you going to accomplish your goals for the meeting?
|Planning executive events can present different and sometimes more difficult challenges than larger membership conferences.
Photo courtesy of Ponte Vedra Inn & Club
“If you can’t define the specific goal or goals of the meeting, it may not be worth having a meeting at all,” said Francine Butler, Ph.D., CAE, CMP, executive vice president of the Philadelphia-based AMC Institute, which develops best practices and educational initiatives for owners and managers of association management companies. “Is the purpose to brainstorm? Is it to network with other senior executives? Is there a specific problem to resolve? Unless you know how to define success, you won’t be able to determine afterward if the meeting was a success. And unless the goals and the definition of success are clear to attendees as well as planners, the meeting won’t be one.”
Lise Puckorius, CMP, is senior vice president of event services at Chicago-based SmithBucklin, one of the largest association management companies in the world. She believes that planning small executive meetings/retreats presents more difficult challenges than planning larger meetings “because everyone generally knows everyone else. Having a clear objective is basic to the process,” said Puckorius. “We always ask our clients at several points, both before and after the meeting, ‘What does success look like?’?Without an objective, why have a meeting?”
Without exception, every expert to whom we spoke used the word “clear” when talking about goals and objectives. The consensus seems to be that a set of goals, by itself, is not worth much unless all the participants understand the goals…and exactly why they’re going to the meeting.
“Setting up goals without setting up action steps will prevent you from achieving them,” said Phelps Hope, CMP, vice president of meetings and expositions at Kellen Meetings, a division of the Atlanta-based Kellen Company, which plans nearly 300 association meetings annually. “The action steps should be as clearly defined as the goals. And the methodology for measuring whether those goals have been met should be just as clear.”
Butler believes that you need to decide the dedsired outcome before you do anything else; and that this goal should be communicated to participants before they ever arrive at the meeting, and again as soon as they arrive. She said it’s vital for the leader of the group, or the outside facilitator if there is one, to stand up and state “Our goal this week is to...”
“It’s sometimes beneficial to have a facilitator,” Butler said, “because the top executive often doesn’t want to be the leader; he’d rather be part of the discussion. A past president might be a good person to lead things. Or past board members. Or professional facilitators.”
Butler also said that it’s vital to maintain the focus once the discussions start. Often, especially if the debate gets somewhat animated (or heated!), it’s easy to lose sight of why you’re there, and to go off on tangents. She believes that “focus” should always be in the forefront…or else you’re in danger of ending the meeting without accomplishing your goals.
“In addition,” said Puckorius, “your host facility needs to know as well what your goals and objectives are. Then they have a better idea of what they can do to help you achieve them.” She, too, is a big believer in having a facilitator, because they’re objective; they might try to do things a bit differently than before; and because their presence might encourage people to speak more freely than they might to the CEO or chairman. In addition, she noted, if the discussion does, in fact, get hot and heavy, an unbiased facilitator has the skills to keep the group focused, and its eyes on the goals for the meeting.
“In the current economic environment,” she said, “none of us can afford to waste either time or money. I encourage my clients to have a facilitator, not for just a few hours, but for the entire meeting.”
But it’s hard for the “What” to be accomplished without an effective agenda. Our experts agreed that you need to put down on paper what’s going to be taking place, and you need to account for pretty much every minute. They agree that you have to distribute the agenda to every participant beforehand. And, having said that, they also agreed that an agenda should not be set in stone; it should be a living, breathing document that illuminates guideposts. And it should also be remembered that “flexibility” does not mean wandering all over the place — the main guideposts on the agenda should be respected and adhered to.
“My No. 1 tip?” said Richard Cavalier, a well-known authority on productive meetings and author of several books who is based in Los Angeles, CA. “Small-meetings agendas need to be perfectly detailed or the participants will find all the holes…and mark them down! You can’t please them all, so don’t try. Focus only on what’s best for the meeting message.”
Writing an agenda is probably one of the most challenging parts of the entire process. It’s something akin to being a tightrope walker — but without the safety net. You’ve got to make it compelling enough so that people want to go, but concrete enough so that they know they’re going for business. You’ve got to write it so the goals are paramount but, at the same time, you have to be sensitive to every participant’s individual needs and expectations. You have to word it so that there can be an element of flexibility, but so that everyone is clear about the main message. You have to create an agenda with something for everyone, but realizing that the individual is not the important thing here. The organization is!
“You can’t make piano music until you’ve learned to finger the keys,” said Cavalier. “When planning an executive meeting or retreat, there are two things you need to consider before all else: the need for the meeting and the agenda. And you need to state both very succinctly and very clearly.”
Cavalier said that goals and objectives must be stated likewise, in the agenda. As should your intended outcome.
Phelps Hope believes it’s a good idea to interview attendees beforehand, and ask them two basic questions:
What, in your opinion, are three things that are now working well and that we might want to expand? And, what are three things not working well, that we need to drop altogether or change?
To which Lise Puckorius added: “Daily chores. Make sure you’ve allotted some time for participants to call their offices, and to check e-mail and voice mail.”
This wouldn’t seem, at first glance, to be that critical an aspect. But it’s more important than you might think. The timing of a meeting can actually turn out to be very important — often more so afterward, as you look back on the results. And there are a number of questions that should be asked:
- Is the timing of the meeting right for, if not all of the attendees, at least most of them? If you’ve got one or more people (especially senior people) tied up with major initiatives, that wouldn’t be a good time to go. And, even if the head honchos are available, if you’ve got a number of other executives tied up with major projects (especially projects they’ve initiated), that probably wouldn’t be good timing. You might end up with several people who don’t really want to be there, and who have a negative attitude, as a result.
- What about the weather? This one, of course, is pretty much common sense. But a May meeting in one city could be a lot different than a May meeting in another one. In the Rockies, for example, it could be 80 degrees one day and snowing the next.
- When will the host facility be best-prepared? Will it be in their high season, when they may have other guests (or meetings)? Or will it be in low or shoulder season, when the weather might not be quite as ideal, but they may have more resources to devote to your meeting? Are there going to be other meetings taking place there at the same time as yours?
- The time of year also matters when it comes to communicating the results of the meeting to the rest of the association. For example, the onset of the holiday season may not (or may, prior to the new year) be the best time to get the organization fired up about new initiatives. Careful consideration has to be put into not only what you’ll communicate to the rest of the organization, but when it’s appropriate to communicate it.
|Photo courtesy of Aspen Meadows Resort
“You can’t invite every single senior executive,” said Hope. “It’s not necessary. And it’s not appropriate. These should be your thought leaders and your initiators — the people who lay out the vision, and the people who put it into action.”
Hope added that, for the meeting to be successful, every attendee should receive the same treatment: the same type of accommodations, the same amenities. “No one should be above anyone else,” he said. “You need to maintain a flat hierarchy.”
Once the attendee list is confirmed, facilitators can help to design the meeting around the people who are going to be there by communicating with each participant beforehand via phone or e-mail.
“There are so many questions that should be asked,” said Butler, “and there’s so much information out there. It can be overwhelming. But the importance of ‘where’ cannot be overemphasized.”
Among the questions that planners should ask themselves:
- How much of an issue is travel?
- Realistically, how far should we make people travel for a meeting that’s only (most likely) no more than two days?
- How far is the meeting place from the nearest airport?
- Will we need to change planes to get there?
- Do we have any board members who can make recommendations?
- Residential conference center? Isolated getaway? Energetic urban environment? Laid-back natural environment? Resort? Close to outside recreation (i.e. golf)? College campus? Cruise ship? Mountain hideout?
- What about public perception regarding a meeting in a place that might be considered too luxurious or expensive? What about the perceptions of the rest of the organization? Be aware that looks can be deceiving: For example, Las Vegas not only provides tremendous value, but a tremendous meetings infrastructure with hotels and resorts designed to accommodate not just large conventions, but small meetings as well.
- What about political considerations (for example, Arizona, with its current immigration controversy)? Hurricanes? Tornadoes? The safety of a destination? Union issues?
Is the type of site compatible with your goals and objectives?
Phelps Hope also added one other thing to the list of criteria: “Ideally, you’d like to get a five-star property at a three-star price!”
And Don’t Forget The ‘H’
HOW can we generate the desired results?
As Butler mentioned, facilitators are trained to guide the meeting toward its desired outcome, as are planners who are involved from the get-go in the meeting’s strategic objectives.
“Meetings management deals with the communications aspect of the meetings: the message, its practice and protection,” Cavalier said. “Meeting planning, on the other hand, concerns itself essentially with logistics and other advertised elements. These are two very different disciplines. Logistics are important, but are always of less import than the message. Perfectly produced meetings can [still] fail to communicate messages. That’s why they’re called ‘failed meetings.’”
“I believe in the Socratic Method,” said Hope. “You gently pull information from participants rather than forcing your own version on them. You teach them by guiding them.”
“Make sure that attendees are fully briefed before, and make sure they have materials to study beforehand,” Puckorius said. “You’ve got to ensure that they arrive prepared and engaged.”
In short, planners and facilitators must be equal parts magician, juggler, confidante and psychologist: Be flexible, but be firm. Stick to the agenda, but allow some flexibility. Treat everyone equally, but understand there can be only one leader. Build in a bit of free time, but remember that the reason you’re there is to do business. Hold the meeting in a place that’s different, but not too far away. Allow open discussion, but guard against hurt feelings. Solicit a wide variety of opinions and perceptions, but make sure to keep the discussion on track.
Then there’s the “M” word – measurement – without which you’ll have no real way of knowing whether your meeting was a success. But that’s another story, for another time… ACF