Preparation is key to staging the perfect business meeting

Companies conducting meetings to promote their products or services can benefit from an organized, successful business meeting. However, a poorly organized meeting can damage a company’s corporate image and impede its chances of gaining new customers or retaining its current customers.
Even with such high stakes, many business owners today still are relying on their marketing coordinators and administrative assistants instead of expert meeting planners to organize events, according to Amy Zellmer, sales director at Olympia Resort and Spa in Oconomowoc.
"The worst thing that could happen is an unprepared meeting planner," Zellmer said. "Someone who doesn’t know what kind of audio/visual they need set up or the number of people attending, and expects the venue to be able to accommodate that at the last minute."
Zellmer said Olympia will work with inexperienced meeting planners, but the novice must be prepared with all of the information about the event before meeting with the venue staff.
"A good meeting planner or sales director of a venue will walk the novice meeting planner through the entire process. We deal with professionals and novices every day," Zellmer said. "A good employee of the venue will ask the questions the novice may have overlooked, like how the room will be set up, meals and break times. We encourage decision-making when working with novices, because the specifics planned determine the performance once the event is taking place. It is what makes a meeting successful."
The best starting point, according to Zellmer, is to determine the object of the meeting and work backwards. Businesses that hold events should know what they want to accomplish for their business and what they want the attendees to walk away with.
Everything else, including the site of the meeting, the room set-up, the length, time of day and even the month of the event can be determined around that objective, Zellmer said.
Once a list of possible venues is made for the meeting, a request for proposal (RFP) is sent to the venues, according to Lori Fuhrmann, director of sales for the Country Inn Hotel & Conference Center, Waukesha. Fuhrmann said RFPs are done to determine if the event is a viable option for both the business and the venue. RFPs should be as detailed as possible.
"When an RFP is not detailed, it results in multiple phone calls for accurate information and to check for appropriate space and pricing," Fuhrmann said. "There is so much detail that goes into planning a meeting that planners need to be more aware of what they are asking for, more realistic with their numbers, and to get most of the details together before they make the initial call."
The Hyatt Web site, www.hyatt.com, offers a broad outline for those new to planning a business meeting, from measuring the value of the meeting to the aftermath of the meeting.
"The best meeting planners actively participate in honing the content to ensure that the meeting furthers the goals of the organization and is consistent with its mission," the Hyatt wrote. "To measure the meeting’s effectiveness, they are prepared to demonstrate its return on investment (ROI) to management."
Both the Hyatt and Fuhrmann suggested meeting planners walk through the venue for a full inspection, from parking accommodations to approving entrances, just to see what the property offers.
"My No. 1 rule, no matter what type of event I am putting on, is making sure the guests have total comfort from the moment they get in their car to attend," Pat Mueller, principal of P.M. Mueller & Associates said.
According to Mueller, problems can begin on the way to the event if directions are not clear or if the venue is not easy to find.
"Put yourself in your attendees’ shoes from the time they leave their office to the moment they walk out of the event," Mueller said. "Do a run through of all of the elevators and make sure the attendees can use them and quickly, what are the restrooms like and where are they located? If they are on another floor or only accommodate one or two people, make a note to give attendees a 15 or 20-minute break instead of a 10-minute break."
Mueller said she always makes sure enough coat checkers and bartenders are assigned. Mueller recommends one bartender per every 80 attendees. However, if there are only 100 attendees and the bar is only open for one hour before the event begins, then two or three bartenders should be on duty.
Mueller also checks on what other events are going on at the same time when choosing a venue.
"Knowing your audience is very important," Mueller said. "If some are diabetic or vegetarian, is something there for them to eat? Focus the meal on people’s preferences and then have a dessert variety."
Mueller makes sure the servers know which meal they are going to serve and the greeters know the event schedule and the names of the speakers if there are any.
Zellmer said planners should schedule meetings very carefully, being conscious that the attendees have needs as well, such as breaks to use the bathroom, make a phone call, have a smoke or just to walk around before sitting down again.
"Do break often," Zellmer said. "Many jobs these days do not consist of a person sitting at a desk without moving. People are used to being busy and on the go, and making them sit in one place for more than an hour will make them uncomfortable, and you will lose their attention. They don’t have to break every hour, but at least throw them a curveball every once in a while."
A flaw Zellmer said she notices in meeting planners is not scheduling long enough breaks. According to Zellmer, no break can be less than 20 minutes, because it is unrealistic that a meeting of 100 people will be back in their seats in time.
"Set expectations before the attendees are released from the room, on printed material and by posting schedules in the hallway, and make it fun by offering awards for those who come back in time," Zellmer said. "Don’t announce it, but give the first four or five people to come back into the room an imprinted water bottle or some candy, and pretty soon it is a buzz, and you can use it as a motivator."
No matter what, make sure speakers start on time, even if everyone is not back in the room, Zellmer said.
Bill Mitchell, executive director of the Waukesha County Economic Development Corp., said a topical keynote speaker is most important from his perspective.
"A dynamic keynote speaker is the cornerstone in our experience of a good meeting," Mitchell said. "And in my opinion, get the highest quality sound and visual aid component that you can afford. I have been to some meetings where the projection screen is fuzzy or people sitting in the back cannot hear what is being said. It distracts from the content and ruins the meeting for some guests."
Mitchell also suggested that if a PowerPoint presentation is done, match any handouts pertaining to the presentation exactly with the slides, so people do not have to flip through pages or rush to write something down that is not on the handout.
A little comic relief can help attendees enjoy a meeting, Mitchell said.
"Humor can add to the audience’s perception of the meeting," Mitchell said. "There is a lot of dry material in meetings and a lot of important material that people don’t think pertains to humor. But humor puts a self-deprecating perception on the speaker, and it improves the meeting. Humor can also be introduced by the facilitator or during introductions."
The time of day to schedule a meeting and the money spent on certain aspects of the meeting also crucial elements, according to Carrie Rhoads, a director of marketing for Paragon Development Systems, Inc. (PDS), Oconomowoc.
"Attendees need to justify their reason for being away from the office," Rhoads said. "Make sure there is value there for the attendee, otherwise you will in the end turn people away."
For instance, Rhoads said, if the event is an educational seminar with exhibition space, do not spend too much money for time on the exhibition.
"The education is what draws people to the event," Rhoads said. "The exhibition is to show people how to get the tools and solutions that they learn about in the educational session. The dollar focus should not be on the exhibition, even if that is where the profit from the event is coming from."
Morning business meetings are generally more preferable, according to Rhoads.
"Mornings tend to work better because there are more things that can take someone away from the event if they go to the office first," Rhoads said. "We have had more success in attendance when hosting a morning event than in the afternoon."
Most planners agreed that communication and logistics between all parties involved make a meeting run smoothly. Contacting vendors to review schedules, having backup vendors in case of last-minute changes, having written expectations between the venue and the organization and obtaining feedback from attendees when the event is over all can help produce successful meetings.
Recipe for a top-notch business meeting
1. Know the objective and goal of the business meeting and work backwards from there.
2. Choose a venue conducive to the objective of the meeting.
3. Provide the venue with a detailed request for proposal (RFP).
4. Put the comfort of the attendees first.
5. Ensure constant communication between all parties involved at all times.
6. Try to avoid any last-minute changes.
7. Schedule breaks with enough time for attendees to take care of their needs.
8. Ask for feedback.
9. If the event is large, schedule backup vendors.
10. Choose the best keynote speaker possible for the meeting’s theme.
Recipe for a disastrous business meeting
1. Unprepared meeting planners.
2. Miscommunication between venue and organization.
3. Overbooking hotel rooms and conference space.
4. Mismatch between PowerPoint presentation and handouts.
5. Choosing a venue for a weekend seminar without planning activities during downtime.
6. Too much focus on profits and exhibitions instead of the education and networking value of the meeting.
7. Speakers that drag on for too long.
8. Room set-up that is not conducive to what is planned for the meeting. For instance, if attendees will be taking notes, make sure there are tables and enough room to spread out.
9. Negotiating prices when not educated on how a conference center works.
10. Planners not envisioning how the event will go through the eyes of the attendees.
The intangibles
Other tricks of the trade for conducting a successful business meeting:
Morning meetings are generally preferable.
Humor is a good thing.
Use quality audio-visual content.
Make sure enough coat-checkers, food servers and bartenders are assigned.
Do a full walk-through of the venue before the event.
August 6, 2004, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI

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Steve Jagler
Steve Jagler, former BizTimes Milwaukee editor.

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