October 01, 1998
Meetings & Conventions A New Agenda October 1998 Current Issue
October 1998
A New Agenda

These days agents want to be educated as well as motivated. Does your meeting have the right stuff?


For Erica Stensgaard, regional event planner for State Farm Insurance Co. in Rohnert Park, Calif., every meeting is quite an education. While team-building events and social gatherings are still important facets of the annual incentive meetings her company offers to qualifying agents, she finds that, for a growing number of attendees, it's the business sessions and workshops that provide the greatest rewards.

"Agents are really hungry to get the knowledge they need, and so education has become a bigger factor at our meetings," she says. "We're greatly expanding our product line, which means agents are not just selling auto insurance, they're also selling health and life insurance and even car loans. At the same time, they have to deal with more state regulations on licensing and continuing education."

So important has education become at State Farm that the company has even incorporated it into the incentive qualifying process. Agents receive points toward incentive rewards for passing exams in continuing education classes and for early completion of company-sponsored courses on business ethics, new products and other topics. "It's not as important as how much they sell, but it's a definite part of qualification," Stensgaard notes.

State Farm is not alone in its push to educate. Meeting planners throughout the insurance industry say they face a growing mandate, both from company management and agents out in the field, to educate as well as motivate. Although business sessions at incentive meetings may have started as a way for companies to meet tax requirements, planners say their purpose has become far more than a write-off. "If anything, people want more business sessions and learning opportunities," notes Terry Christensen, manager of corporate purchasing services for the Principal Financial Group, an insurance company based in Des Moines, Iowa. "The top producers are telling us, 'Give me something that will help me sell more. I'm giving up my time to come here, so make it worth my while.'"

Educational business sessions are becoming a stronger focus at non-incentive insurance meetings as well. "Education is really what's driving meetings in our industry right now," observes Janice Child, manager of field operations for Farm Bureau Insurance in Lansing, Mich. Child says workshops and breakout sessions have become a bigger part of her company's annual convention during the past two years. While Farm Bureau, like State Farm, is striving to keep agents abreast of product changes and new legislation governing insurance industry education and licensing, another factor is the new certification being offered by the Insurance Marketplace Standards Association to companies that demonstrate a history of compliance with business ethics. Qualifying companies can display the IMSA logo in advertisements and marketing material.

"Because we're working toward IMSA certification, we have a greater need to get our agents up to speed on ethics and other business concerns," says Child. "Continuing education and the state requirements governing it are important to us as well. So we're making a concerted effort to keep people abreast of changes in the industry and what they need to know."

Local Talent
Although a strong educational focus may benefit attendees, it raises some challenges for planners, particularly at incentive meetings where the golf course and beach are competing with the classroom. How do you balance education with motivation? Serious business with fun and games? How do you ensure that sessions and workshops will really give attendees what they need to know?

Learning experts and experienced planners say one surefire way to create an educational program that is both attention-getting and relevant is to draw on the talents of those who will be attending the meeting. "For many years, education at meetings operated under the idea of 'the wizard proclaimeth to the dummies,' but that doesn't work anymore," says Ronald Gross, a motivational speaker based in Great Neck, N.Y., and author of Peak Learning and the New Professionals (Jeremy P. Tarcher Inc., New York City). "Attendees are growing resentful of just being passive spectators. They want their energies and talents to be part of the meeting."

State Farm's Stensgaard agrees with this approach and says the most crowd-pleasing speakers and presenters at incentive meetings often are the qualifiers themselves. "People seem to learn best from their peers," she says. "We always get three or four of our top achievers to speak on what works best for them."

Similarly, David Bloyd, assistant vice president for agency sales and promotion at Physicians Mutual Insurance Co. in Omaha, Neb., says half of the speakers and presenters at the company's annual incentive meeting are drawn from among the qualifiers. "We really make use of our most successful agents and division managers on panels and as speakers," he says. "Invariably, it's the most well- received aspect of the program, more than the so-called experts. Our in-house speakers share their experiences, their operating philosophies. People have read about their achievements in the company newsletter. There's tremendous interest in what they have to say."

Although it might be assumed that top salespeople are reluctant to give out their trade secrets, Stensgaard says most are quite pleased to share their ideas. She also recommends acknowledging their participation with a small but personal reward. "We ask them to talk with their direct managers about what would mean most to them. It could be something like treating their family to dinner while on vacation or a day of golf with a spouse."

Principal Financial Group will often team up an agent with an executive from the home office for a joint presentation. "It gives the audience two different perspectives at one workshop, and it's very effective," Christensen says. "At the same time, it helps achieve our objective of bringing the home office and the field people together."

At the Podium
For those speakers who come from the outside, it is becoming more important to find presenters who have a solid understanding of the insurance world. "A few years ago we looked for general motivational speakers, but now we want those who have direct or at least related experience in the industry," says Child. "Our big concern is to offer speakers and sessions that tie in directly with the goals of the company."

But Child admits that finding speakers with such specific knowledge is not always easy. She frequently consults with her company's training manager and other co-workers who may have leads. "What helps is that our department falls under corporate communications - we've got advertising, marketing, training and event planning all working under one umbrella," she says. "We all review speakers' videos and refer them to one another."

Stensgaard also strives to bring in those from related fields who can shed light on new developments important to her audience. With State Farm diversifying its product line to include not only an expanded variety of insurance policies but also non-insurance items such as car loans, a growing challenge at meetings is to educate agents about products they may know little about. For this reason, the keynote speaker at a recent meeting was the president of a bank that is the company's new partner in car loan sales. "It not only introduced people to an unfamiliar area but gave them a connection to the key person behind it," says Stensgaard. "You have to make people feel comfortable with a new product if you expect them to sell it."

But even if there may be a growing demand for industry-specific speakers, that doesn't mean famous sports figures, best-selling authors and ex- presidents no longer have a place at the podium. Yet, it's essential for these speakers to be given a thorough briefing about the industry and the responsibilities of the audience.

Gross says that while planners should do what they can to prepare speakers, they should also be wary of any speaker who doesn't take the initiative to learn or who seems reluctant to give a customized presentation. "It's important for speakers to do such things as read past issues of the company newsletter, look at the company's Web site and consult with key people in the industry," he says. "If the speaker doesn't do these things, chances are you'll end up with a canned, off-the-shelf presentation."

Go Interactive
Everyone knows what it's like to slip into a daydream or, worse yet, nod off while a speaker drones on during a breakout session. That's why some planners are eschewing theater-style seating, which encourages passive viewing, in favor of more informal arrangements designed to keep the audience awake and involved.

Gerry Couture, director of education for the Society of Incentive & Travel Executives, recommends seating the audience in rounds of eight or 10 so that small groups can confer with one another at designated times during a business session.

"At SITE meetings we always start off our plenary sessions with a 30-minute speaker or panel discussion and then give the audience 10 or 15 minutes to discuss the presentation and come up with at least one question for the speakers," he says. "The exchange of ideas within the groups is really important - it stimulates thought and ensures that some good questions will be asked."

Couture also seats the audience in rounds during breakout sessions, with each group able to participate in an activity such as problem- solving or coming up with a creative idea. "This is especially important for any session that runs over an hour," he says. "You have to give people something to do or you'll lose them."

Another effective way to keep the audience alert is to liven up the meeting room with flowers, music, banners and other props, says Gross. "Such devices aren't just fluff, they create an atmosphere and help energize the meeting," he says.

For panel discussions, Stensgaard likes to use a "fireside chat" format in which presenters are informally grouped on the stage in easy chairs with props such as plants and a coffee table. The audience is seated in a chevron format to foster mobility and give access to microphones. "We try to create a loose setting where the speakers are relaxed and can share ideas. Questions and dialogue with the audience are encouraged," she says.

Hot Topics
Some insurance companies are letting attendees themselves set at least part of the agenda. At the Principal Financial Group, one day of business sessions at incentive meetings is in the hands of the Agents Advisory Council, a body of agents elected by regional offices throughout the company. "For that day, they select the speakers and determine the content," says Christensen. "It's been very successful because they know the audience better than anyone. They speak with their peers and really have a grip on what the issues are that people want to know about."

Jerry Schmidt, director of corporate communications at Trustmark Insurance in Lake Forest, Ill., relies on feedback from post-meeting evaluations to determine content for upcoming meetings. "We ask them what was relevant, what was not and what they want to hear about at the next meeting," he says. "Not only is it important for setting the agenda, but it helps us determine return on investment and justify what we do."

To encourage attendees to actually complete the evaluations, Schmidt offers a small incentive, such as a beach towel or other prize, to the first 25 people who return their surveys.

Schedule Smart
How and when to schedule business sessions and workshops is another major consideration, especially at meetings where spouses will be in attendance. At the annual conventions of Farm Bureau Insurance, Child schedules educational sessions in the morning and saves the afternoon for those that have more of a motivational or general-interest focus. "People tend to be more awake in the morning, and so that's when we like to give them the educational content," she says.

Because the convention is heavily attended by spouses, Child wants to provide a schedule that is mindful of their interests as well. "A lot of spouses are involved in the agents' business, but not all," she says. "That's why we try to alternate sessions that are of general interest with those that are more educational. It's important that there not be an all-day dose of the same type of thing."

Scheduling considerations will also vary according to the type of meeting. At Trustmark Insurance, Schmidt takes quite a different approach to scheduling business sessions at sales meetings than he does at incentive meetings, although in both cases education, team building and recreation are part of the agenda. His company's biennial meeting for regional sales managers starts off with two full days of business sessions held near the home office that focus on new products, marketplace trends and changes within the organization. The meeting then moves to a nearby resort location for two days of social events and recreation.

Midway during the meeting Schmidt likes to include an event designed to make an effective transition from the classroom to recess. "On the first evening at the resort, we have a mock golf tournament that gets the crowd mixing and signals that it's okay to relax and have some fun," he says. To truly set the tone, the tournament is a completely non-serious event in which participants play on a mock three-hole course at the practice range, wear blindfolds to hit over hazards and putt into Hula-Hoops.

By contrast, Trustmark's incentive meetings, which are held every 18 months for the top 100 agents, follow a format in which each day is split between business and recreation. "A similar strategy applies in that we balance work-related business sessions with recreation, but at an incentive meeting, where the location is more exotic and the attendees are not salaried employees, you wouldn't want to schedule a full day of business," he says.

And while there may seem to be a clear difference between time spent in sessions and time spent on the golf course, experts say it's important to recognize that all aspects of a meeting can be learning opportunities. At State Farm, the emphasis on peer learning that is predominate at business sessions is also part of outdoor activities. "We're very careful about who we group together at team-building events - usually we'll pair up a top achiever with someone who just made it," according to Stensgaard. "Sometimes the interaction that goes on during social events is just as important as what happens in the meeting room."

Learning Experience
While even the most incentive-oriented insurance meetings are no longer just fun and games, here are some tips for making business sessions and breakouts part of the reward.
  • Get them talking. Create learning opportunities. Get the top qualifiers to share sales techniques and war stories during panel discussions and informal presentations. During team-building events, pair up top qualifiers with those who have just made the cut.
  • Bring in the experts. Find speakers who have some specific knowledge of or background in the insurance industry. Consult with the company training manager or other colleagues for prospects.
  • Brief the speakers. If speakers are from outside the industry, brief them on who the attendees are, what issues concern them and what their jobs entail.
  • Go interactive. Make audience participation part of the sessions and workshops, particularly if they run for more than an hour. Seat people in rounds where they can work on a problem-solving task or devise questions to ask the presenter.
  • Give them a break. If possible, divide up the day between business and recreation. Schedule business sessions in the morning, when attendees are most likely to stay focused, and save team-building events or free time for the afternoon.
  • Content is key. Make sure business sessions and breakouts address what attendees most want to know. Solicit feedback through post-meeting surveys, talk with others in the company and keep up with news affecting the industry. If your company has an agents advisory council or other group for people in the field, get their input.
  • M.L.

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