Time for a team talk

Companies wanting to enthuse and imbue their staff with the brand values often turn to formal events. Ian Whiteling looks at how to benefit from an internal conference

It is a short-sighted business, and probably a short-lived one, that fails to appreciate the intrinsic value of its workforce – not only as a living projection of its brand into the market, but also for the simple reason that having the best employees is bound to bestow competitive advantage. And then, of course, there are the considerable recruitment costs that result from failing to hold on to people. Increasingly, companies are turning to internal conferences as one way to make their staff feel valued while helping to ensure they completely understand what their company’s values and objectives are.

Recent research by global events organisation the George P Johnson Company reflects this, revealing that a third of all events held are now internal. What is more, of the 151 leading UK marketers surveyed, 38 per cent claimed internal events are growing in importance.

“Most internal events are designed to communicate, educate, or motivate,” says George P Johnson director of corporate communications Ingrid Brown. “However, whatever its purpose, an internal event in its own right should be a real brand experience. It should motivate an internal audience to become advocates for their company and its brand values. If done well, the event will have a ‘cascading’ effect that will contribute to a company’s bottom line, by improving staff retention, motivating sales teams to sell more and so on.”

The vision thing

Ideally, employees will leave a sales conference, new product briefing or annual review with a clear idea of the vision of their company, confident in the direction it is taking and feeling they are playing a vital role. This, ultimately, should improve the way they interact with customers, as well as encouraging the feeling of belonging that underpins loyalty.

“In a world of frequent downsizing or restructuring, employee loyalty is no longer something companies can take for granted – it has to be earned,” says Nic Cooper, founder and chief executive of events company Sledge. “A company that is seen to value the opinions of its staff, that acknowledges and celebrates their achievements and instils a sense of team spirit is likely to benefit from continuity, greater efficiency and higher productivity.”

The internal events industry has already spotted the commercial importance of the “people factor”, and the Incentive Travel and Meetings Association (ITMA) recently held a forum, entitled Recognising the Value of Human Capital, to examine the trend. “Corporate conferences and motivational events have traditionally been the province of sales and marketing departments,” says ITMA executive director Charles Robinson. “But the great wave of interest in ‘human capital’ is prompting personnel and internal communications departments to use live events to convey vision and values.”

Making sure an internal conference conveys a company’s values and visions involves more than simply stating what these are to the delegates. As with all conferences, the more creative it is, the more engaging it will be for the delegates and the more effective it will be at meeting its aims.

“Maximum success can only be achieved if specific, measurable and achievable objectives are set at the beginning,” says Mark Riches, managing director of events organiser First Protocol. “There would be no point in trying to achieve a more closely integrated team if the whole day is spent with the managing director delivering death by PowerPoint.”

Mirage Events managing director Christian Marryat agrees, saying: “If employees are to embrace and communicate brand values they need to realise how those values have been derived, how they relate to the brand, why it is important to have a distinctive brand and their role as ambassadors.

“If a company claims to be vibrant, dynamic, diverse and innovative, then every aspect of the conference ought to reflect this. Brand attributes should be carried through all the creative work, communication, catering, theming, content, presenters and entertainment.”

The first thing to do when planning an internal conference is to set a clearly defined goal. The event needs a primary aim, which could be any of those previously mentioned, but also secondary targets, which should include delivering the company’s visions and values, measuring its effectiveness and perhaps generating data that can be used beyond the conference. Careful and detailed forward thinking is a must.

“Start planning early,” advises Stephen Philips, senior vice-president of international event company MJM, “and understand your objectives. It’s also important to get management involved from the start, cementing their interest.”

To ensure the company brand is reflected correctly in the event and absorbed by employees, an integrated approach is required.

“Share the ownership of the event with internal communications and personnel and master the art of truly integrating marketing,” says Saskia Diemar, a consultant at brand agency Dragon. “Many companies talk about building the brand, yet have personnel policies that are essentially the same as everyone else’s; or they have the marketing team running brand sessions while the personnel department is trying to promote different values or ways of working.”

On the outside looking in

Once everyone is on board and the goals have been set, it is time to plan the event itself. This is where external advice can help to deliver the creativity that will engage employees and make sure all the aims are achieved. A good organiser should emphasise the need for thorough preparation and the cross-departmental involvement outlined above. They will also be a great help in making sure the event has a professional feel.

“Delegates are used to high- quality data presentation, so companies need to take a professional approach,” says Martin Mackenzie, technical producer and director at events production company APS. “Even small one-day conferences need a set, lighting, stage furniture and technical staff. Remember that the event reflects your company and its senior management, so disappointing delegates is not advisable.”

Mackenzie also believes that the more interactive an internal conference is, the better. “Staff need to be made to feel the conference is for them,” he continues. “They need to contribute to the outcome. Using different interactive techniques, such as a voting or feedback system, workshops or awards ceremonies, also creates variety.”

It is amazing what information can be gleaned from a conference, much of which can be used to assess the effectiveness of the event as it happens, and after the event to reinforce the messages delivered.

“You can gauge how opinions change during the course of a conference through properly organised interactive sessions at the beginning and end,” explains Mackenzie. “This is particularly useful when one of the aims is cultural change within an organisation. Data can also be taken from a conference and analysed. We have even videoed an event and prepared edited highlights to present as part of a post-conference reinforcement programme.”

Professional help can also enable a company to overcome the problem of poor presentation skills. “Staff will still need to connect with their boss and in these circumstances we can set up an interview. Here, the boss is interviewed in a television studio-like set, removing the pressure of a solo address,” says Mackenzie.

Solutions for size

Internal conferences are important, whatever size a company is, but the need to reinforce brand values and make employees feel they are a key part of an organisation grows as a company expands.

“Our research suggests that there is more reliance on internal events in larger companies,” says Brown. “Companies employing 5,000 people or more devote 36 per cent of their events to an internal audience, against 31 per cent for those employing fewer than 500. That said, 71 per cent of the smaller companies say internal events will be just as important, if not more important, to them in the future.

“As a company grows, internal communication breaks down, especially from the leader or figurehead of the organisation, who often drives a company’s culture and environment. This is why internal events have a particularly powerful role to play in a rapidly growing business.”

It is vital to prove effectiveness if a company is to justify spending on a properly organised event. Measurement is very important.

Events company BI uses its own online evaluation tool, Tracker. “It is quick and easy for delegates to complete and enables analysis of an individual’s position before and after participating in the event, by comparing responses to a series on online questionnaires,” explains head of event management Emma Bainbridge. “This process can be used to measure motivation levels and understanding of the messages that have been delivered through the conference, as well as to gather feedback on the event itself, such as its usefulness, appropriateness of content, the choice of venue. It can also determine which groups within the organisation benefited the most or least from the event, delivering an understanding of why this is the case and how it can be improved in the future.”

As the ability to prove effectiveness is now vital for all marketing endeavours if they are to get funding from the board, it is extremely helpful for internal marketers if they have statistics to back up their claims that a particular conference has succeeded in changing hearts and minds – for the better.

International Confex 2005

International Confex will take place from February 15 to 17 at Earls Court in London, with more than 1,200 exhibitors.

The event is split into four industry sectors:

UK venues, destinations and incentive travel

Corporate hospitality and entertainment

Exhibition and conference support services

Overseas venues, destinations and incentive travel

Exhibitors include national tourist offices, hotels, venues, special event organisers, display specialists, catering firms and convention bureaux.

There is a programme of seminar sessions throughout the show, covering everything from the latest news and advancements in the industry to marketing ideas on how to promote events.

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