SBHD: The purpose of corporate hospitality is to educate and motivate. For the CICA, this involves a complex mix of promotions and events, culminating in its annual sales conference at The Belfry, north Warwickshire, every December.
For those of us who spend the post-Christmas season curled up over our work stations, suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder and slowly warming up into the new year, the energy of John B Thomson seems a little unusual. “All our guys are up and running when they hit the road on January 3,” says Thomson, head of the claims and service department at the Combined Insurance Company of America (CICA). So what’s the secret?
Part of the AON Corporation, CICA was founded in the US in 1919. The UK division is part of an international network of insurance offices, and consists of four departments – Life, Accident, Healthcare and Service Agents. CICA’s UK employees cover five sites across England, with the head office at Kingston-upon-Thames. The company also owns ten training schools that are used for initiating, training and developing sales staff.
Each division of CICA has an active commitment to special events, incentive schemes and training as a means of keeping their employees educated and motivated. Conferences and events are organised individually by each division; the timing of events may differ but the philosophy behind them, and the subsequent activities, are similar.
Thomson has been organising events for the Service Agents division for the past nine years. His background is unusual for the world of incentives, corporate hospitality and conferences – he started his career as an engineer in Clydeside, Scotland – but he maintains these harsh beginnings made him realise the importance of rewards and recognition from employer to employee.
“People love to be acknowledged. In the days of Clydeside, no one ever said a word to me. I was left to my own devices. The management could have seen much better results if they had occasionally offered praise.”
The CICA strategy for conferences consists of a complex mix of promotions and events throughout the year, with the UK finale of an annual sales conference which, for the Service Agents Division, takes place in December every year at The Belfry in north Warwickshire.
“We want to create a team spirit”, he explains. “We are working together to achieve goals, and those goals will be harder to come by if we do not work together. Employees are encouraged to support each other, but it is important that senior management are seen to offer support, encouragement and, ultimately, congratulations for a job well done.”
The sales conference takes place over a three-day period; senior managers meet over the first two days and the third 130 CICA employees and their families arrive.
The purpose of the event is to review the previous year’s results, to give recognition to those who did an outstanding job, and to share goals and plans for the forthcoming year. It is also the forum to launch an incentive scheme, which is put into place in January every year.
“All spouses receive the promotional brochures for this incentive scheme,” says Thomson. “If an employee’s partner is giving 100 per cent support, they can do much more than any boss can achieve. We choose prizes that a family can share; this year it was a selection of electrical goods: microwave ovens, televisions and video recorders.” This first scheme is known as the “fast-start target”, and accounts for the unseasonal enthusiasm of CICA’s sales force.
CICA has strong roots in the US, where razzmatazz in business is much more acceptable. “It was the Americans who started up incentive programmes, and a considerable amount of American influence has trickled through from our colleagues in the US,” says Thomson. “We have refined things slightly to suit the British way, but elements such as glamour, music and audience participation doget everyone involved and enthused.”
This manifests itself with a warm-up to the conference proceedings, hosted by a top-class entertainer who sings and encourages delegates to take the floor, before a moderator comes up to start the more formal proceedings.
When the awards for special achievement are presented, the recipient are met with an appropriate blast of music as they make their way through the audience are applauded down from the audience.Thomson and his staff work hard to match the tune with the person. “If someone is an avid football fan, we will bring them up to the stage with a fanfare of the Match of the Day signature tune; if they like a particular pop group, then that will be their accompaniment. This attention to detail makes them feel less like a number, and more like a person.”
Once they have accepted their awards, winners are put on the spot at the podium, and asked how they have achieved those targets.
Thomson contends that the conference is a careful balance of pleasure and business objectives. “Apart from the glamour of the event, we want to get a message across. We don’t spend all this money purely for entertainment; employees have to reset their goals, and go for them in the months ahead. We anticipate that the sight of their colleagues and friends in the spotlight, basking in applause, will motivate the less successful salespeople to strive for that position”.
Once the new year has begun, Thomson has several schemesto ensure continuing involvement. For example, employees win “success certificates”. The certificates can be exchanged for prizes and activities, ranging from goods at larger department stores to flights and holidays from selected travel agents. “Giving people a choice is all important, particularly where families are involved,” says Thomson.
The annual programme leads up to an incentive international conference. As this event is open to all the international divisions of CICA, space for UK employees is limited, and motivation to gain a place is high. Successful employees and their partners are sent on the trip with all expenses paid if they qualify. Recent destinations for the conference include Cyprus, Portugal and Southern Spain.
Thomson also runs an April incentive programme, based around winning weekends for two at The Belfry. The weekend breaks include options of beauty treatments, golf, private dinners, and other leisure activities. “If you have worked hard, it is vital to relax,” says Thomson. But he adds: “We must have the work before we provide the play.”
The Belfry is the location for the majority of CICA’s UK events, namely the annual sales conference, senior level board meetings and many of the incentive weekends. “It’s an ideal venue for us,” says Thomson. “With 219 bedrooms, it is spacious enough for our major conferences; it has two golf courses, which appeals to many of our executives, and 18 conference rooms of differing sizes which suits us very well for break-out meetings and training courses.”
Amanda Macchi, hotel sales controller at The Belfry, takes the conference business very seriously. “We provide a guest service manager who acts as a right-hand man for the duration of the event. Therefore, the client has just one point of contact, and any small problems can be sorted out with the minimum of hassle.”
The Belfry, a four-star De Vere hotel, is 15 minutes from Birmingham International Airport. Perhaps the biggest attraction for the conference and incentive market is the hotel’s golfing facilities – The Belfry has hosted three Ryder Cup Tournaments. However, the resort also offers extensive leisure facilities, including squash courts, a swimming pool, fitness studio and jogging trail.
The Belfry relies heavily on recommendations from customers, and gets very involved with corporate groups to ensure repeat business. Naturally, with up to 40 events a year, the conference team have got to understand the CICA culture extremely well, and are not averse to joining in themselves.
“Every time CICA has a meeting, the team begins by singing, banging the tables, and creating a relaxed and communicable environment,” says Macchi. “I have been up there myself, singing to the assembled masses, and getting into the swing of things. This outgoing approach might not work for every company, but it seems to work for them – and who are we to stand in their way.”