June 01, 1999
Meetings & Conventions Do the Right Thing June 1999 Current Issue
June 1999

Great Expectations

No longer can assumptions be made about what your attendees’ guests want, or even who they are.

By Marilee Crocker

When the Federation of Societies for Codings Technology in Blue Bell, Pa., noticed three years ago that participation in its spouse programs had declined dramatically, it sought to attract more participants by beefing up its agenda, offering more options and meatier programming, including lectures and enhanced tours.

Meanwhile, the Construction Specifications Institute in Alexandria, Va., discovered that spouses and guests paying the flat fee for its programs were failing to show up for the tours, which were the heart of its offering. But instead of enhancing the agenda for guests, it scaled back its formal guest program considerably and made its tour program separate.

The Project Management Institute, a Philadelphia-based association, took even more radical action after logging more complaints than praise for its annual convention’s guest program: Deciding it was impossible to satisfy the needs of both its baby-boomer and Generation-X attendees, it eliminated guest programs in 1997.

The divergent steps these three associations took to respond to the changing demands and profiles of their attendees’ guests drive one point home: No longer can assumptions be made about what guests want, or even who they are. If there ever was a time planners could rely on a cookie-cutter approach to planning spouse or guest programs, those days are long gone.

The Changing Scene
Guest programs are no longer the exclusive domain of wives or even women, as evidenced by the change in nomenclature, from “wives’” or “ladies’” programs to “spouse programs” to the current “guest programs.” But for planners, factors other than gender come into play as well. Participants now demand programs of substance that will enrich their lives, contribute to professional development, help them cope with modern stresses, give them an insider’s look at a destination and provide a bit of pampering.

Moreover, in these times of economic stability, some participants are more apt to have a “been there, done that” attitude, making it harder than ever to please them. Many industry professionals say guests’ expectations are higher, and the pressure is on to organize increasingly innovative programs. “You have to be more and more cutting edge, more and more creative,” says Kathryn Jurgensen, owner of Premier Meetings, an independent planning firm in Irvine, Calif.

Raison D’Etre
In the face of such demands, why offer guest programs at all? Although they typically are break-even (at best) financial ventures for associations, many consider them an essential member service. Furthermore, association planners say, guest programs can promote attendance and contribute toward other organizational goals.

“Spouses play a large part in the overall success of the meeting,” says Jim Whitman, senior vice president of associate member programs at the National Association of Chain Drug Stores in Alexandria, Va. “The registrant is bringing his spouse or companion for the opportunity for business as well as an opportunity to spend some time together away from the hectic pressures of their lives.”

By contributing to the appeal of an event, guest programs also indirectly boost attendance. Ann Godi, CMP, president of Benchmarc Meetings & Incentives Inc. in Norcross, Ga., says, “We have so many choices today available to us about what we are going to participate in that sometimes [the guest program] might be that extra something that will clinch the deal.”

At the Washington, D.C.-based American Society of Association Executives, meeting manager Laurie Lowe says programs for delegates’ guests and children have positive effects on ASAE’s internal culture. “We want ASAE to be like a family.”

Victoria Graves, the Federation of Societies for Codings Technology’s director of meetings and conventions, says a quality guest program can enhance relationships with exhibitors. “We’ve found that exhibitors are buying the spouse passes to give to their customers, so it really does have a level of value that we can’t ignore.”

Adapting to the Times
Graves says the notion of guest programs’ driving attendance prompted the federation to reconfigure the programs at its annual citywide conventions. There had been a time when as many as 600 guests accompanied delegates to the federation’s conventions, but, by 1997, guest participation had fallen to a low of 300, and overall attendance had dropped, although not as steeply.

“We realized something needed to be tweaked,” Graves says. “It used to be a program that involved a fashion show and things geared to the assumption that the people attending were not employed. It’s moved to become a little more diverse, to include things such as wellness issues. And to respect the diversity of the group, we now have a lot of options.”

Today, in addition to city tours, Graves says, “we have a social lounge that is operated during our exposition where spouses have a chance to reacquaint with one another. And they can partake of informal lectures: stress management, financial management, how to select antique jewelry, wines of the area, things like that.”

The response? Last year, according to Graves, participation in the guest program at the federation’s annual meeting in New Orleans hit 439 considerably fewer than its peak, but “at least we’ve seen an increase.”

Corporate Concerns
Although guest programs are a longtime staple of association gatherings, they are a rarity in the corporate world, except in conjunction with incentive programs. “It’s just not part of our corporate culture,” one planner says.

Benchmarc’s Godi, whose clientele includes a number of Fortune 50 companies, says, “Corporations look at [spouse attendance] as a distraction, especially if they’re trying to have teamwork or other internal programs.”

DeAnna Ballard, vice president of client relations and business development for Meeting In-Site Corp., a meeting management and consulting firm in Hoboken, N.J., says she has seen a decline in guest programs among her firm’s corporate clientele because of competitive pressures and time constraints. “They used to go for five days and throw in a little pleasure,” she says. “Now they want [meeting delegates] there for two-and-a-half days, from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.”

But some forward-thinking corporations have found guest programs to be good for business. Jurgensen of Premier Meetings says about 20% of her corporate clients actually integrate spouses and guests into the main programming and team-building exercises. “If the spouse or significant other learns the business, they’re more likely to encourage that family member to succeed or excel,” Jurgensen says.

More traditional corporations that offer spouse programs see them as supporting business needs in other ways. “A corporation June have a real need for an educational perspective; for instance, teaching spouses how to dress appropriately, how to work a crowd or how to support the spouse in a business environment,” says Helen Moskovitz, owner and CEO of Helen L. Moskovitz & Associates, an independent planning firm and destination management company in Nashville, Tenn. In some industries, spouses have long played a key role. For example, Moskovitz notes, “in the insurance business, a spouse can be part of the sale.”

Meeting Fundamentals
What can meeting professionals do to create programs that satisfy guests and boost participation? Begin by adhering to two fundamental principles of meeting planning: Know your group, and study its track record.

As Carol Krugman, owner of Krugman Group International, an independent planning firm in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., says, “Now we have such diverse groups that, in the same way every planner should have detailed profiles of the attendees, it’s very worthwhile to get profiles of the guests.” Planners charged with designing a guest program need to know the ages, sophistication and socioeconomic levels of participants. It also is essential to take into account where groups have visited previously and what they liked and did not like about earlier programs.

A group’s history plays an important role in determining program content. For example, Moskovitz says, “if a group has been to the Napa Valley the year before, I’m not going to take them to see a Tennessee winery, whereas a local Tennessee group might be interested [in that].”

To learn their group’s preferences, some planners conduct interest surveys or informal polls, as Graves did for a recent board meeting in Scottsdale, Ariz. “We came up with 15 different touring options that might be attractive [to the guests],” she recalls. “Then we put those out in a survey to our board members in January and asked them to name their top three choices. That’s how we put the program together.”

Another suggestion: During the annual meeting, post descriptions of activities being considering for next year, and ask guests to indicate what might interest them.

Whitman of the National Association of Chain Drug Stores says, “You just try and keep your finger on the pulse of what’s going on in members’ internal worlds and external worlds.”

Smartening It Up
What else can planners do to create guest programs that sizzle? Following are a few tips.

  • Appeal to the group’s interests. If you know your guests are interested in antiques or churches, customize your program accordingly. That is what Marie Alexander, president and owner of Philadelphia Made-to-Order, a destination management company, did for a guest group that was interested in art. “There is a conservation center in Philadelphia one of the best in the world that conserves paper documents, like the original Treaty of Paris and works for national archives, museums and individual collectors. We did a program where guests visited the center and met with the conservator.”
  • Make it educational. Tour programs can have an educational component, with demonstrations on local culture and cuisine. Or planners can arrange lectures on topics such as investments, retirement and estate planning, using the Internet and setting up Web pages, and breast cancer awareness.

    Bill Boyd, president and CEO of Sunbelt Motivation & Travel in Dallas, says the most successful sessions he has offered lately involve technology and financial planning. In particular, he says, a hands-on laboratory on Microsoft’s Office Suite software that was “unbelievably popular.”

  • Make it relevant. Guest programs that dovetail with the overall purpose of a group can be especially powerful. Moskovitz recalls a luncheon she arranged some years ago for a meeting of the U.S. Trademark Association that featured as a guest speaker the late Sarah Cannon, a.k.a. country music artist Minnie Pearl. “She discussed the history of country music and told the story of how she trademarked the name ‘Minnie Pearl,’” Moskovitz says.
  • Spotlight the destination. In the effort to be creative, do not overlook the tried-and-true favorites of a destination. “There’s no getting away from it. When you come to a city, some people want to see the things that city is famous for,” says Cris Canning, who teaches meeting planning at the University of California in San Diego and is director of sales for Charter Connection in Coronado, Calif., a yacht charter firm that caters to convention groups. However&
  • Enrich the basics. It is not enough to offer a city tour that a guest could book through any tour operator. “Do something uniquely suited for the group that they couldn’t do on their own, something the average traveler wouldn’t be exposed to,” Godi advises. She cites as examples a program in Colonial Williamsburg in which historians and restoration leaders spoke with a group about their preservation work, and a tour of Asheville, N.C., that augmented sightseeing and shopping with presentations on the redevelopment and revitalization of the downtown area.

    For groups meeting in Nashville, Moskovitz has introduced guest programs in which prominent country music stars such as Naomi Judd give talks about their personal lives and experiences. “In one program, the stars come to a luncheon, and each one sits at a table; as we change courses, they move around to different tables.”

  • Keep it fresh. Alexander of Philadelphia Made-to-Order runs basic tours for groups offering their first guest program in the city. But for associations and corporations that previously have met there, “we offer something like Philadelphia for the Aficionado,” she says. “They’ve seen the Liberty Bell. They want to get into the art collection that’s hard to get into, or they want to go to the orchestra and get prime seats.”
  • Address quality-of-life concerns. Programs that promise to enhance the lives of participants are especially popular in these fast-paced times. “We’re seeing a lot of programs on aromatherapy and stress reduction, where you’re talking about regaining health with the help of natural healing,” Moskovitz says.

    The Construction Specifications Institute has run successful programs on topics such as nutrition, getting organized and how to plan well, according to Lisa Derby, manager, convention and exhibits. A humorous talk by a motivational speaker on life’s lessons and even a session on how to pack proved very popular, she says.

  • Make guests feel special. “They want to be pampered, so try to give them that sense that they’re being taken care of in a special way,” says Graves. “Don’t just go to the museum and have the same tour. Have something about it be a little different so they feel they’re VIPs.”
  • Schedule carefully. Plan the guest program so it does not compete with general sessions and keynote speeches that are likely to be of interest to guests. Similarly, if the guest program includes an exceptional event that might draw delegates away from business activities, do not schedule it during a pivotal session.
  • Be gender-inclusive. Create programs that will appeal to both men and women. Many tour programs fit the bill in this regard, as do sessions on topics of mutual interest, such as financial planning. Planners also can redefine traditional programs to give them a more universal appeal, notes Boyd of Sunbelt Motivation & Travel. “Ten years ago, we would have a spouse program that was a garden tour or a tour of the private home of a famous lady. You can still do something like that, but you have to be careful that it’s not just oriented to females.”
  • Price it properly. There is nothing more annoying to a participant than finding a guest program’s tour is more expensive than a similar one offered to individual travelers through a hotel concierge or tour desk. To avoid that scenario, Lowe of ASAE advises checking the prices of guest tour offerings against those available through the hotel or tour operators.
  • Keep guests informed. It is advisable to provide representatives in various locations. Typically, organizations set up a tour desk in the registration area, staff a guest lounge with representatives from the DMC and/or the destination’s convention bureau, and have DMC representation at the loading area for bus tours.
  • Solicit guest feedback. Whether they do it formally or informally, planners say obtaining participant feedback is key to future successes. In addition to tracking attendance, Graves says she tries to meet buses as they return from a guest outing to speak with participants about the program. Other planners have their destination management company hand out evaluation forms at the end of each tour program or include forms in guests’ welcome packets.
  • Promote the program. By providing detailed and enticing descriptions of guest programs in preregistration packets, planners can boost participation and advance registration for tour programs. It should be noted, however, that although most organizations allow on-site registration for tours, some will cancel tour options if a minimum number of people do not sign up by the time advance registration for the convention ends.
  • Open your mind. With so many diverse factors influencing the success of guest programs today, the advice of Barb Taylor Carpender, an education and training specialist in the hospitality field, seems wise. “Think in nontraditional ways. Don’t cubbyhole your resources,” counsels Carpender, who is president of EduTraining International in Denver. “Don’t think you have all the answers. The answers can come from the most surprising sources.” Bringing the Kids
    Although overseeing programs for the children of attendees has become an accepted part of many planners’ job descriptions, it still is not commonplace. Whether an organization encourages bringing the kids depends largely on its culture.

    The Construction Specifications Institute in Alexandria, Va., offers a children’s program because “we know most of our members pay to come to our convention out of their own pockets, so they make it their family vacation,” says Lisa Derby, manager, convention and exhibits.

    At the Alexandria-based National Association of Chain Drug Stores, Jim Whitman, senior vice president of associate member programs, says few children attend the group’s gatherings. Even so, “at our annual, we do have a children’s program that’s run by the hotel, and in our evening functions, children are welcome.”

    Successful children’s programs are both entertaining and educational, but Whitman says that one of his main considerations is safety. “What do parents want? They want their kids to be safe, well-supervised and nearby in case they want to see them. Start with those ingredients, and you’re fine.”

    Other factors to consider when contracting or planning a children’s program are the ratio of staff to children, staff training, programming creativity, the age-appropriateness of programming for attendees’ children, and check-in and checkout procedures.

    Planners should think twice about promoting a children’s program if attendees will be tied up in meetings and business functions day and night. As Kathryn Jurgensen, owner of Premier Meetings in Irvine, Calif., says, “There’s nothing worse than doing a program, having the family come along, then not having time to spend with them.”


  • Back to Current Issue index
    M&C Home Page
    Current Issue | Events Calendar | Newsline | Incentive News | Meetings Market Report
    Editorial Libraries | CVB Links | Reader Survey | Hot Dates | Contact M&C