September 01, 1998
Meetings & Conventions: Good Inc. - September 1998 Current Issue
September 1998
Good Inc.

Good Behind the scenes at the Inc. 500 Conference

By Julie Moline

It's 11 a.m. on a brilliant June morning in Salt Lake City. A van pulls up to the Boys and Girls Club with 26 volunteers, all in town for the Inc. 500 Conference, the invitation-only event honoring the fastest-growing private companies in the United States. The conference will be formally kicked off that night with the Governor's Reception & Dinner in nearby Park City, so for attendees, this is a free day. Most participants are fly-fishing on the Provo, hot-air ballooning, playing golf or hiking at Snowbird, but this group has chosen to participate in a day of service organized by City Year, the Boston-based charity supported by Inc. editor in chief George Gendron.

After a brief orientation and a couple of hilarious bonding exercises, three teams are chosen: one to paint, one to lay sod and one to work on a new playground.

Inc. magazine's Ellen Lakey, fighting a splitting headache, waits until the volunteers are happily occupied before heading back to the Salt Palace Convention Center to check on registration. She frowns; Novell, a late-to-sign sponsor, isn't happy with the site it's been given in the registration area for tabletop demos. "They came in very late in the game," she says, matter-of-factly. "We did the best we could." Lakey will return to the club a total of four more times before the day is out and to the convention center at least a dozen times, all the while keeping an ear out for her walkie-talkie the way a new parent tunes in to every squawk and whimper on the baby monitor.

Meanwhile, a camera crew from a local TV station arrives at the Boys and Girls Club. Less than an hour later, on the noon news, the broadcaster reads, "Executives from the country's most prestigious companies are at the Boys and Girls Club this morning, lending a hand..." The group, sweaty and smiling, cheers.

"This is our first time offering a day of service, and it seems to be going well," Lakey says softly. "It seems to be going well" is a refrain she repeats regularly during the next three days, through 35 seminars, six breakfast and luncheon programs featuring some of the country's most sought-after business speakers (Stephen Covey, Jim Collins and James Crupi), an Olympic-champion-themed evening event starring real-life Olympians such as gymnast Kerrie Strug, and a lavish black-tie awards dinner. The worst snafu is that a video projector balked during a keynoter. "We took great pains to make sure this wouldn't happen," Lakey says, "even hiring an outside company in addition to the convention center A/V staff." Though nonplussed, Lakey is clearly displeased. "So much for the best laid plans," she says, while making a note to address the glitch in the post-event analysis.

This is the magazine's 16th annual Inc. 500 Conference and Lakey's fifth. As senior operations manager, it's her job to make sure the event, created and refined over the past 52 weeks, runs like clockwork. She is supremely well suited for the role. In fact, the position was created for her, the better to exploit her 10-plus years of experience in marketing, adult learning and meeting planning, much of it gleaned at Inc.'s one-time sister company, the University Seminar Center. There she orchestrated the mailings, speaker recruitment and marketing for several hundred two-day seminars every year, a feat that required ferocious attention to detail and a constitution impervious to stress.

At Inc., Lakey is part of a crackerjack team of six meeting professionals, each with clearly delineated responsibilities, either in logistics, producing (program development), marketing or customer service. The Conference Group is organized this way, explains director Linda Burton, to optimally function in a high-pressure, high-profit environment. (The group, part of Inc. Business Resources, brings in about 20 percent of the company's revenue.)

"A lot of conference companies assign one meeting planner to an event," she explains, "and that person is responsible for everything -- logistics, programming and marketing, which are very diverse kinds of functions. Handling everything alone can easily become overwhelming; that's why many planners end up feeling like they can't possibly do all functions well. When everyone works in a team with a clear division of labor, each becomes expert in their area. Plus they've learned how to work well together, so the whole generally exceeds the sum of its parts."

Judging from the initial written feedback from the 1998 conferees, that is an understatement. "We have very high expectations from attendees," says Burton. "These are very high-energy, razor-sharp entrepreneurs who do not want their time wasted -- and they're going to vocalize it if they're not impressed." Speakers who score well at other conferences are often given middling marks from Inc. 500 attendees; anyone who scores below the top 25 percent is not asked back.

"This is one tough audience," Lakey says. "So high ratings are a particular point of pride for us."

A twist in the tale
Planning a meeting for 1,000 people, razor sharp or no, is challenging under any circumstances. But the 500 is an especially complex case, not only because it's such a high-profile event -- a strategic marketing tool for the magazine and the flagship event for the Conference Group -- but because of its unusual funding.

Unlike most Inc. conferences, which are supported mainly by "tuition" (usually $995 per participant), most of the Inc. 500 participants attend free of charge. A company that's made the current list is extended two gratis invitations, one for the CEO and the other for an employee or guest of the CEO's choice. Additional employees or guests pay $395; past Inc. 500 winners, who are automatically invited every year, also pay $395. "That just about covers our costs," Burton says.

What makes the difference between breaking even and turning a profit are national sponsors (this year UPS, MasterCard, John Hancock and Compaq) and, especially, a significant (but not divulged) financial commitment by the host state. The Inc. 500 is one of those rare instances when a private company is paid a fee by a member of the public sector simply to bring a conference to its constituency. States vie, sometimes fiercely, for the honor, eager for the chance to show off their assets -- a fertile business climate, an "entrepreneurial-friendly" infrastructure -- to a group of accomplished CEOs who bring with them the alluring promise of future jobs in high-growth sectors, as well as abundant potential tax revenue.

"Remember that the Inc. 500 is an elite list, and that hosts and sponsors are looking for the next Microsoft or Gateway 2000 to impress," says Chris Frey, director of special projects for Inc., who is responsible for site selection negotiations. (For the record, Microsoft first made the list -- coming in at #80 -- in 1984, when it had 342 employees and demonstrated a 1,900 percent growth rate over five years.) At the awards banquet, when Nashville was announced as the next site, the audience burst into thunderous applause.

From the states' perspective, does investing in the conference pay off? According to Rick Mayfield, director of the Utah State Department of Economic Development, it certainly does. "This particular group is [composed of] upbeat, hard-driving, do-it-yourself type of folks, which fits into the spirit of Utah." His opinion is seconded by Governor Michael O. Leavitt, an entrepreneur himself (he owns an insurance company) who has supported the conference twice during his administration.

"The Inc. 500 is an excellent opportunity for the state of Utah to get national recognition as a venue that's business-friendly, with a reliable, well- educated work force and a high quality of life," the governor tells M&C. Besides building Utah's business image, Leavitt adds, "the state is able to show off its appeal as a meeting and tourist destination," an objective of growing importance as Utah gears up to host the 2002 Winter Olympics.

From the corporate sponsor standpoint, the Inc. 500 is a resounding success as well. "One of the most challenging parts of my job is managing the multimillion-dollar relationships with our national sponsors," says Lakey, who was recently nominated Meeting Professional of the Year by Meeting Professionals International. "I consider my most noteworthy accomplishment to be the 100 percent sponsor retention that Inc. has seen over the last four years."

Still, despite sponsor support, conference producers grapple with a finite budget and the challenge of mounting a show that must somehow top itself year after year. We're always looking into ways to add something new, better, memorable to the program. And we probably could make more money if we cut some corners," Linda Burton says, smiling, "but because we have the magazine's prestige to uphold, that's really not an option. It's up to us to be creative, negotiate well and take a lesson from our attendees -- to act like entrepreneurs."

Julie Moline is a free-lance writer based in New York City, specializing in business and travel.

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