Corporate hospitality is a well-used method of strengthening business relationships, but it is also a perfect way to reassure staff – and clients – in more turbulent times.
Mergers and acquisitions and company restructures are cases in point.
Employees rather than clients are the first audience you need to communicate with when there are changes at corporate level. “Clients will be the first to detect if staff are not convinced about a company’s new identity or culture,” says Jeremy Starling, managing director of event management company Eventworks.
“It is essential to get people to tie into the new company – emotionally and intellectually,” says Starling. “Those dreadful glitzy, hyped corporate events with the chief executive on stage accompanied by a light and sound show don’t work. Employees know it is superficial.
“Most of these exercises fail for two key reasons: a lack of buy-in from middle management – if they don’t support it, no one working with them will – and a lack of understanding of the impact on individual employees – their job, who they report to, what they are paid. A dazzling event will not address these issues.”
Eventworks operates on the basis that if you tell an employee they will forget, show them and they will remember, involve them and they will understand. The company recently put this theory into practice for a large insurance broker where a series of mergers had reduced five divisions to one, meaning a radical procedural rethink was required. A spokesman for the insurance company says: “Initially, the changes were badly and inefficiently communicated to employees, resulting in significant resistance and the new procedures not being implemented properly.”
Recognising the need for action, the company went back to basics. The spokesman adds: “We did not change the procedures but gave everyone the opportunity to express their concerns and ideas, and relaunched the procedures through a series of events organised by Eventworks.”
The middle management was asked to communicate problems through various mediums: video, newsletter, and so on. Selected groups looked at the problems and proposed a plan of action, before different groups voted on the plans. These were ratified by the board and, as of January, implemented by staff. “This way, at least half of the division produced the plan,” says the spokesman.
“The mistake we made in the beginning was to redesign the procedures and force them upon staff. It is not the most effective way to achieve buy-in. You can feel a different atmosphere in the office.”
Event marketing specialist McMenemy Hill also worked with an insurance company which had undergone a merger and suffered many redundancies as a result.
Having created an awareness among senior management of the potential problems and how to deal with them, it organised team-building events. The exercise was then repeated with regional managers.
Paul Easty, production director at event management company Clearwater Communications, says: “Such a degree of change is usually mirrored by a change in the way customers use the organisation, so it is essential internal and external communications are consistent. In the end, it comes down to managing consumer relationships and personnel so that you do not create turmoil or demotivate staff.”
This is difficult because mergers and acquisitions inevitably create the need for corporate restructuring, and usually redundancies.
Easty highlights how important it is for everyone to understand what the new organisation represents and how it should be presented to clients. This process starts at the top. “People place considerable emphasis on an emotional and instinctive assessment of leaders and personalities. Get senior management to buy into the concept and a positive attitude will filter down,” he says.
This is true of all change. When Sainsbury’s recognised the need to become more customer-focused, it staged an event for senior management to provide the groundwork for a new culture it hoped would spread throughout the organisation. Nearly 1,200 staff were involved in a variety of presentations and games at the Metropole Hotel in Brighton. The idea was to tear down traditional ideas about the company. “This left employees more receptive to taking on board the new ideas and assessing them rationally,” says Easty.
“A lot of corporate events are so focused on delivering information that they lose track of whether it is absorbed and understood – taken on board both emotionally and intellectually.”
Communicating messages to employees scattered around the country requires a different approach. Simultaneous roadshows are one option, satellite television another, although the latter is less interactive. “The grapevine must not be allowed to spread faster than the event,” says Sean Casey, director of event management at The Travel Organisation.
Roadshow round the regions
Roadshows can move quickly around the country, while videoconferencing can reach a number of regional managers at once.
Casey advocates team-building exercises. Activities such as a game of It’s a Knockout or a sailing regatta break down formal relationships, making it easier for people to express their concerns. “It is essential that directors and top management join in. If you drive a Honda Pilot with the manag ing director, they become more approachable. People see the top person as being more human – someone who may solve their problems,” says Casey.
This is even more relevant when senior management leave in the wake of a merger. “Clients need reassurance in such circumstances,” says Randle Stonier, chief executive of Motivforce/Purchasepoint. “If they used to deal with a managing director who has left, they may be worried about whether they will get on with the new one.
“It is also important to establish whether it is a merger where both parties agree to the relationship and there are few funda mental issues to address, or an acquisition.”
Stonier adds: “The activity must be tailored to the audience, with a specific objective in mind, and should provide the opportunity to address as many potential questions as possible. It is a very sensitive time when companies change the status quo.”
He should know. Stonier is in the process of merging his company, Motivforce, with event management outfit Purchasepoint. “People are essential to a relationship and, when customers and employees are anxious, a company must meet their emotional needs, as well as giving them something positive in the business message.”
Stonier’s initial concern was to inform employees about what was happening. He did this through meetings, and in writing. Fortnightly presentations allowed staff to voice their concerns, and all questions and answers were shared on a bulletin board through the company’s intranet.
Evening social events, and eventually cross-company working parties – mixing hierarchical levels and disciplines – were organised. Once the companies have moved into a single office, regular social gatherings and presentations are planned.
Stonier wrote to clients within four weeks of announcing the merger, and he is meeting as many of them as possible. “Our initial focus is to look after existing clients and talk to them about the new company.
“We will also organise a series of convivial events so we can remain close and talk in an informal environment. This will allow us to concentrate on past experience, while at the same promoting the new culture,” he says. “It is vital to put your personality into events and tailor hospitality to individuals.”
That way, the new company, employees and clients will all emerge victorious.
There were 40 entries in this year’s Corporate Hospitality & Event Association annual awards – up from 32 last year.
Now in their tenth year, the awards are judged by an independent panel of judges made up of buyers and representatives of Marketing Week, which sponsors the awards.
Winner: Cavendish Hospitality (Rugby World Cup)
Sellars Hospitality (Simply Red tour)
Category: Activity operator
Winner: Catalyst (Arcadian Hotels)
Merit: MotivAction (Nestlé)
Commendation: Irvin Leisure (Millennium fair)
Category: Event management
Winner: Elegant Days (Transeuro Warehouse opening)
Merit: MotivAction (Nestlé)
Commendation: Cavendish Consultancy (Symantec corporate event)
Commendation: IDEAS (Manning Selvage Lee Christmas party)
Commendation: Crown Society (Defence Systems & Equipment International exhibition and conference)
Category: Event services
Winner: Owen Brown (Rugby World Cup)
Merit: Incredible Sound & Lighting (ICL)
Winner: A Day in the Country
Category: Small company
Merit: The Incredible Event Company
Commendation: Murder on the Menu