Paris, Vienna, Palma de Mallorca or Malta – which would you choose? Faced with such options, Malta probably isn’t top of the list for most event organisers planning a European conference, combined with incentive travel.
The cultural draw of Vienna, Mallorca’s relentless sun and tapas, or the romance of Paris seem far more enticing.
The small Mediterranean island, with its Moorish history and more recent British colonial past, has an unglamorous image and a reputation for being expensive. But if, like wound care company ConvaTec, you are selling radical internal change to your own salesforce, then maybe a maverick destination sets just the right tone.
So event managers LMG International, supported by World Meetings, easily persuaded its client ConvaTec to host its first pan-European sales conference on the island. Even taking the 1m price tag into account, client and organiser have now declared the February 1998 event to have been an unmitigated success, both economically and in terms of improved motivation.
Gordon Sutherland, ConvaTec Europe vice-president for wound and skincare, says the unconventional venue fitted the brief for the multifaceted conference. “I wanted a destination where people could leave home on Monday and be back by Friday evening, and somewhere neutral in its political history.”
Graham Keene, LMG International sales and marketing director, says Malta is a surprise destination that is, in fact, a world leader as a conference host. “It’s probably one of the most advanced in Europe in terms of its conference facilities. The quality of hotels was very high.”
ConvaTec, a subsidiary of American pharmaceutical company Bristol Myers Squibb, used the event to bring together its entire 340-strong European salesforce for the first time in the company’s 20-year history, and as a product launch, training forum and incentive all in one. In fact, the conference, themed The Bigger Picture, marked a radical change in approach.
Sutherland explains: “There was quite a dramatic story to tell the salesforce. A complete change in management style, work ethics, bonus plans – everything.”
But why the need for such a high glamour event, including a French TV personality, Chantal Cuer, as the star host? “We wanted to change people’s perceptions and we had to do that in every way possible – the company you arrived at was a different company than the one you left after the event,” says Sutherland.
“We used Malta as a means to raise people’s standards and expectations of what can be done, and to boost the level of output we’re expecting.”
It seems the hype was designed to push the sales team up a gear because, as Sutherland stresses,
ConvaTec had been losing the perception of being the market leader, even though in pure figures it was holding on to the top position. © “In 1997, we started the rebranding of ConvaTec, and 1998 was the polish on that rebranding.”
Keene adds: “The conference was selling that to the salesforce so they could take it to the customers.”
Nevertheless, the glossy high production values, combined with the location, added significantly to the conference cost. Malta’s technical shortfalls meant three articulated trucks full of equipment had to be imported from the UK, including 24 TV screens for the on-stage video wall. Keene says the level of sophistication they wanted was just not available on the island.
“Also we were able to pre-programme the software before we left the UK and that was really important. If we wanted to achieve that quality and level of production it couldn’t have been done on the island,” says Keene. However, a Maltese company gave them technical support during the conference.
A team of ten specialist simultaneous translators, found through a UK agency, also had to be imported. Keene says they needed to be briefed on the specific medical content of the presentations. “Clearly it was a cost, but a necessary one.”
However, Sutherland is unfazed by the hefty bill. “Given the audience and the geographical spread I think that’s a fair price, and what was required.”
ConvaTec’s products are sold exclusively to the professional market. The launch of a new product range in the area of traditional dressings – the hi-tech gauze MultiDress – was a fundamental part of the conference. MultiDress is the company’s first foray into the traditional dressings area, for easy-to-heal wounds. Its other products range from dressings for harder-to-heal wounds through to the relatively new area of skin regeneration.
Delegates – ConvaTec’s sales representatives from 20 European countries, with the largest delegations coming from its five biggest markets: Italy, the UK, Spain, Germany and France – had to be fully briefed on the new product through technical training sessions.
Sightseeing on Malta was fitted around motivational team building and communication games, which involved working without the aid of translators, the launch of a new incentives programme and a final night gala ball.
Logistically, Keene says the event went without a hitch. The flights were ticketed through World Meetings, which has recently merged with LMG International to form World Event Management. “Air Malta was terrific. The airline moved a scheduled flight from London to Paris to pick up the French team. Everybody arrived on time and left on time.”
Keene says much of the credit should go to Malta, the hotel and airline. San Gorg Corinthia Hotel in Saint Julian, 20 minutes drive from the capital, Valletta “did everything we needed”.
Sutherland is measuring the success of the event not only on a cost for cost basis, but also on the benefits of enhanced in-company communication and a breakdown of cultural barriers. Better relationships between countries and a greater willingness to co-operate have resulted in unexpected cost reductions.
“A year ago we would have had five European ad campaigns (for the same product) – now we have one or two. We wanted to break away from that traditional competitive way of working.” He claims clients are now taking the company’s new approach and product range on board.
Staff turnover has reduced, involving considerable recruitment savings, and sales are rising. “It gave a clarity of purpose for all different parts of the company. How do you measure that? Delegates left with an enhanced self belief and a clear picture of where the company is going,” Sutherland adds.
While post-conference responses indicate the clarity and consistency of the message was good, Sutherland thinks there is still room for improvement. He is keen to increase the interaction between countries and focus on linguistic skills. “Next time I would force the European integration even further, do it even before the conference.”
So, having hit on a winning formula, you would think the company was already planning a repeat performance. Yet Sutherland believes reproducing the event somewhere else would be a mistake. “Whatever we do now has to be different. We’ve raised people’s expectations. The feedback I’ve received is that we hit the right vein.
“People have got the message that we are going to be changing as a company, which challenges management, and the people surrounding them.”