by Lisa A. Grimaldi | October 01, 2013
While the volatility of the recent past has steadied, financial and insurance events being planned for 2014 will be affected by higher hotel rates and airfares, a dearth of hotel space at desirable times and the need to accommodate attendees' 24/7 work schedules. These and other trends are outlined on the following pages, along with insights from leading experts on what's behind these developments.

Budgets are flat
One of the most notable factors financial and insurance planners now face is that their budgets are not growing. According to a survey conducted last year by the Financial & Insurance Conference Planners, the Chicago-based industry association, budgets were the same in 2012 as they were in 2011 (on average, $3 million per event), and respondents predicted just slight increases for 2013. The increases did not come to fruition for many firms, and industry experts expect budgets to remain flat in 2014.

After the economic instability of recent years, the fact that budgets have stabilized isn't bad news. But meeting elements such as hotel and air transportation costs have continued to rise. Moreover, according to Carlson Wagonlit Travel's 2014 Travel Price Forecast, U.S. airfares could rise by as much as 1.2 percent during the year, while hotel and transportation rates might climb as high as 4.9 and 1.3 percent, respectively. Thus, those flat budgets essentially are buying less.

One way planners can work with changing market conditions is to reconsider their traditional meeting patterns, such as dates and seasons. "Some of these financial and insurance firms have traditionally held their events during the same month or week of the year, and during the same days of the week, such as Sunday to Wednesday," says Jim Schultenover, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Krisam Group, which supplies national sales support for some 250 hotels and destination management companies in 90 destinations. If these companies consider shifting any of these components, Schultenover explains, they have a better chance of getting the hotels they want at a better rate.

Another way groups are coping with higher costs is by trimming their events by a day, typically from four to three, according to Marty MacKay, president of the international destination management company Hosts Global Alliance.

Space is tighter and decisions are quicker
As the hotel market rebounds, financial and insurance groups are facing more competition for space in the resulting sellers' market. Colleen Brzozowoski, director of sales for the Krisam Group, which recently hosted its annual Insurance Advisory Council at the Bacara Resort & Spa in Santa Barbara, Calif., says hotels now are cracking down on a "first option" courtesy they typically extended to groups prior to a contract being signed.

In the past, hotels would allow a group a week or two either to sign a contract for agreed-upon dates or else release those dates, provided the group was first-in to request that time period. But now, says Brzozowoski, properties increasingly are holding such groups to a time frame of just 48 to 72 hours to accept the contract, if another group requests the same dates and is ready to sign on the dotted line.

Work time is on the agenda
An interesting new trend is that attendees' pressing day-to-day work concerns now are often factored into financial and insurance events, so attendees can keep up with their endless stream of emails and other business matters -- and avoid multitasking during sessions.

To that end, Tom Wilson, division vice president and financial services sector lead for Fenton, Mo.-based Maritz Travel, says some companies are setting up work stations, scheduling longer breaks or otherwise providing more flexible schedules for attendees to take care of the business they left behind.

Technology is gaining traction
In M&C's last look at the industry, in July 2012, financial/insurance lagged behind other industries in adopting technology and social media at meetings. As we reported then, an FICP survey revealed that just 15 percent of members used social media for their events. While the study has yet to be updated, today FICP leaders and other industry experts say that number is increasing.

Maritz's Tom Wilson notes a major shift in how people want to receive information about an event. "We are seeing a big increase in text messaging," he notes. "Just two years ago we collected data about attendees' interest in receiving texts, and the numbers were around 30 percent; today, 80 to 90 percent of attendees prefer them."

Wilson also finds that technology and social media are being used to enhance various elements of financial and insurance incentive programs, including program announcements, the tracking of participants' standing during contests and post-program videos.