GIVE US A BREAK

Disneyland Paris: Trip was a Christmas thank-you present for 1000 Saga staff

Every January, contract publisher the TPD Group, holds a Kick-Off meeting where its 100-plus staff are invited to take the whole company apart. The rules are simple: everyone must come up with one idea to improve the business, and attend discussion groups with representatives from the three divisions to get a better understanding of how TPD’s 16m corporate machine works. The conference lasts from Thursday to Sunday and incorporates afternoon leisure activities to ensure staff do not totally begrudge losing their weekend.

TPD is one of an increasing number of companies realising the benefits of removing staff from their day-to-day environment to explain how the business is performing, boost flagging morale, launch a new corporate strategy or simply thank their employees for a particularly good year.

TPD’s turnover has jumped from 4.2m to 10m in three years and after last year’s trip to Florida, it took its 105 European employees to Spain and its 35 US staff to Mexico for Kick Off 97.

“This company grows so fast it is essential we have time to draw breath and so staff can see where we are going. The trip acts as an amazing boost to the company and provides a shot of adrenaline that lasts for months,” says TPD chairman Julian Treasure.

However, such a boost to staff confidence and morale does not come cheap. TPD spent more than 300 per person sending staff to Spain from the contract publishing arm, its multimedia communications company and its computer magazine business. The budget included flights, hotel accommodation and conference facilities, and would have been higher had the company not planned nearly a year in advance to secure the best travel terms.

Any budget allocated to staff away days must be justified, and it is essential that the reasons for any event are understood and accepted by employees – and customers.

Staff must be motivated and excited, yet not regard a day away simply as an extension to their holiday entitlement, while the business element must be stressed firmly enough so clients do not frown on what some may perceive as large amounts of money being spent entertaining staff at, ultimately, their expense.

There is also the sensitive issue of satisfying the Inland Revenue that any trip is “for the business” and not simply a company jolly. There are no hard and fast rules as to how much time should be devoted to conferences or seminars, but many companies allocate between 25 per cent and 30 per cent of their agenda. The lack of an integral business element could result in employees discovering that their trip abroad or day spent team-building in strenuous outdoor activity is defined as a benefit in kind by their local tax office, and they are penalised accordingly.

Despite concerns about how these meetings or brain-storming sessions are perceived, they remain a vital part of many companies’ business plans. Accurate figures as to the size of this market do not exist, but industry estimates put the value of the staff conference and incentive meetings sector alone at more than 1bn.

Nor is a figure for the overall number of events available, says the Meetings Industry Association (MIA), because it is impossible to record every meeting or conference taking place. However, according to a MIA survey of 500 corporate conference organisers, management meetings for less than 100 people © remain the most popular out-of-office event, accounting for 33 per cent of all bookings last year compared with 23 per cent in 1995.

Interest in other sessions does appear to be falling, however, with respondents reporting that sales conferences took up 16 per cent of their events last year, down from 18 per cent; training courses were at 13 per cent, down from 17 per cent; and company presentations 14.5 per cent, a slight dip from 1995’s 15 per cent.

There is also a strong indication that companies are under increasing pressure to achieve maximum value for money by reducing the time employees are out of the office. According to the MIA survey, 40 per cent of businesses held events for one day or less last year, compared with 31 per cent in 1995. The number of businesses taking their staff away for between two and three days dropped from 21 per cent to 16 per cent.

“Companies are cutting out a night’s accommodation or inviting fewer people,” says Peter Rand, managing director of conference event organisers Peter Rand Associates and the MIA’s founding president.

Financial services company Abbey Life has held an incentive meeting for its full-time managers at the four-star Armathwaite Hall Hotel in the Lake District for a number of years and is strict about who can attend. The event lasts a week and 30 managers are invited to each of the two-and-a-half day sessions.

Agency director Peter Mosley says: “The conference is reward-based so managers must qualify to attend. The first day assesses how the company is performing, and the rest of the time is spent on outdoor activities and a dinner. It enables me to see who works well with their peers and who will be the future leaders of the company.”

Away from the traditional management-only events, there are still plenty of companies, like TPD, prepared to invest heavily in a staff event where all levels of employee can mix and work together on neutral territory.

Privately-owned holiday company the Saga Group, for example, took 1,000 staff to Disneyland Paris at Christmas. It was primarily to celebrate a successful year financially, although a short seminar was arranged for the first day.

Chairman Roger De Haan says this was the fourth time the company had taken its staff overseas. “It boosts morale for people who spend their time booking holidays for others. It is very much light hearted and a way for the company to say thank you.”

For companies that remove virtually all their staff from the office at least once a year, it can be difficult finding new venues and to arrange events which not only motivate staff when they attend. But get them in the right frame of mind before they arrive.

In the music industry for example, a record label’s annual sales conference will usually include artists performing in a hotel suite during the day – they know music executives are reluctant to sit through long, corporate seminars.

Sony Music Entertainment’s conference is usually held in a UK seaside town and attended by more than 1,000 staff. In 1995 it used The Grand Hotel in Brighton for the business sessions, while it splashed out 60,000 to hire Brighton Pier for the evening’s entertainment, a coup which closed the pier to the public and prompted a small number of complaints from local residents.

Vice-president communications Garry Farrow says Sony’s staff expect him to come up with something different each year. He adds that hotels are sometimes nervous about accepting bookings from large record companies. “But we take over the bar areas and have set meals so hotels make a lot of money out of us. The conference must be fun as well as business, and is the only time everyone gets together apart from at the Christmas party.”

Another company to choose Brighton to liven up the presentation of its end of year results is direct mail and sales promotions company The Marketing Store. It entertained its 140 staff at The Grand for two days using a seaside theme. Staff relaxed in deck chairs in the conference hall while they heard the results, and participated in traditional seaside activities and games at the hotel in the evening.

“We try to leave staff with a good memory of the event as well as communicating to everyone how the business is doing. Everyone from the receptionists to the directors are equally important,” says managing director Alastair Mitchell.

For businesses that must get all their staff in one place to convey a serious message such as a company takeover or corporate relaunch, it is vital events are well organised and remain informative as well as entertaining.

PPP Healthcare, for example, embarked on an ambitious re-branding exercise last year and had to educate its staff to regard clients more as customers and not purely as an insurance-based risk. Using the skills of event organisers WCT Live, PPL took over the Queens Theatre in London’s Shaftesbury Avenue and used actors to relay the company’s new corporate strategy to its 2,500 workforce.

WCT Live’s planning director, Tom Harvey, says the content of the day had to appeal to staff at all levels. “The message had to be conveyed to employees that had worked for the company for years that PPP was changing, while ensuring the presentation was not patronising to management or bewildering to others.”

WCT Live has also worked with British Airways on a number of large scale staff communication sessions, including hiring a hangar at Heathrow Airport to explain the company’s business plan to more than 5,000 workers. Around 700 staff attended the week-long British Airways Business Fair for a day at a time to learn, for instance, the effect their actions can have on the different departments throughout the group.

For many multinational companies or industries where staff days are regular fixtures on the corporate calender, such as in the financial services or pharmaceutical sectors, some employees can suffer from conference fatigue.

While some staff may be excited about a once-a-year outing, companies must work harder to motivate middle managers and sales reps. Sending brochures illustrating a venue and the activities on offer weeks before a seminar takes place is one technique popular with conference organisers.

Another is to move away from the conventional conference format and involve delegates in different activities such as producing a magazine or commercial on their company. The Eventworks is an agency specialising in what managing director Jerry Starling calls “active conferences”, and he has worked with a number of clients in the pharmaceutical, motor and music industries using budgets of around 50,000.

“Face to face communication in business is happening less and less, and when people get together at conferences they should work as effectively as possible. A motivational, interactive conference where staff are not just listening to theatre-style presentations will help a company’s competitive edge,” says Starling.

The choice of activities and venues for staff away days has probably never been greater, but whatever conference format or event a company chooses they must ensure that it meets their needs, as well as informing and motivating their employees.

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