Meetings & Conventions A New Agenda October 1998
A New Agenda
These days agents want to be
educated as well as motivated.
Does your meeting have the right stuff?
BY MARIA LENHARTF
or 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
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
"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."
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
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
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."
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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