. Seven Trends in Financial-Insurance Meetings | Meetings & Conventions

Seven Trends in Financial-Insurance Meetings

Luxury returns, along with other signs of recovery

The road has been rocky for financial and insurance events in recent years, with meetings and incentives canceled or scaled back, and luxury properties and long-haul destinations avoided. But by 2011, when M&C last profiled this sector, the industry was on the brink of recovery, and today, with no new major economic or public fallouts, it continues to stabilize and even prosper. Some changes, such as booking top-tier properties, reflect a return to tradition. Others, like concerns over negative publicity and more scrutiny of spending, have become the new norm.

For a real-time check on the trends shaping financial and insurance meetings, M&C sought insights from top industry pros and secured preliminary research from the Chicago-based Finan­cial & Insurance Conference Planners' Economic Impact Survey, the first comprehensive study of the industry to be conducted since 2006, due to be released later this summer.

Luxury is back Today's financial and insurance event landscape is a far cry from the no-frills, strictly business environment that prevailed in the aftermath of the federal government's Troubled Asset Relief Program and the recession, causing groups to shy away from luxury chains and resorts. "There were policies put in place and certain brands were called out; that has softened," says Tom Wilson, division vice president, sales, at Fenton, Mo.-based Maritz Travel.

Dave Akin, director of marketing at the 210-room Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale (Ariz.) at Troon North, sees the sea change reflected in his property's business. "Definitely, more insurance and financial firms can meet at luxury properties now. Some clients had put out mandates and moratoriums against using us; those have mainly been lifted," he says.

Among other luxury chains, Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. and Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group report a strong resurgence in 2012 and beyond in group business from this sector.

Mary Bussone ITA GroupAnother reason luxury is back on the map: Finan­cial and insurance companies want to retain their top performers and provide them with rewards commensurate with their efforts and expectations. "They are not short-sighted; they want quality associated with their brands and want to give their best performers a top experience," says Steve O'Malley, senior vice president at St. Louis-based Maxvantage/Maritz.

Mary Bussone, senior vice president of the ITA Group in West Des Moines, Iowa, agrees. "These companies are requiring greater effort [of their employees and channel partners] today to achieve their goals, whether it's in sales or service. The higher goals require a higher-perceived reward experience, typically at a luxury hotel."

Budgets have shifted According to the FICP survey, which gathered information from 91 senior meeting executives at North American financial and insurance firms, the average annual budget for events this year is $3 million. While the majority of those polled said their budgets were flat, nearly a quarter reported healthier budgets this year over 2011, and looking ahead, most expect a moderate uptick for 2013.

Mary Bussone reports that her clients' budgets have increased slightly over last year. She attributes the modest boost to two factors: the shift from a buyer's to a seller's market when it comes to hotels and airlines, driving up those costs, as well as companies adding more business-related activities to incentive programs, requiring speakers, educational materials and, often, high-tech systems like virtual polling.

Dave Akin says that most of his financial and insurance clients' budgets are flat, but their spend allocations are different now than they were in the pre-TARP and pre-AIG-effect days. "They're spending less on décor," he notes, "and putting that money in areas with more substance, such as speakers and production."

Aiken also has noticed a growing trend: More firms are looking to their strategic partners -- e.g., credit card and other financial/insurance-related companies -- to offset their meetings' costs. "They allow [such partners] to sponsor meals and sessions, similar to the way associations operate," he says.

"We see financial and insurance clients being more conscious of value," adds Kristi Cavanaugh, director of sales and marketing at the 179-room St. Regis Aspen Resort in Colorado. "Instead of holding events during peak months, they are buying shoulder months." Cavanaugh also notes that "dinners are not as opulent. Now, they'll serve a good wine, but not the best wine."

Content is key Today, it's rare to find a meeting or incentive program -- regardless of the industry sector -- that does not have some educational component. Companies increasingly are using events to discuss important changes in the marketplace or introduce new products or practices.

For example, education has a role in all the events organized for Maxvantage's financial and insurance clients. "It's not just management that wants it; there is an appetite and desire from attendees to bring home something they can use in their daily jobs," says Steve O'Malley. In this regard, according to Maritz Travel's Wilson, one financial client is holding a series of regional meetings at major universities around the country with the participation of top economic professors.

Fairmont Scottsdale PrincessThe increased emphasis on education has led the 649-room Fairmont Scottsdale Princess to build a second conference center, set to open in October, to accommodate financial/insurance clients -- its number-one group market.

"Many of those clients outgrew us because we didn't have enough conference space," notes Michele Zwirek, director of sales for the Fairmont property. The new $20 million facility will add approximately 52,331 square feet of meeting space to the hotel, for a total of 150,000 square feet. Plans call for numerous flexible breakout rooms, a need that was pinpointed by the planners with whom the sales team consulted when designing the space.

More are eyeing overseas destinations Preliminary results from the FICP survey show that respondents are holding fewer international events than they did in 2006, but industry insiders are beginning to see an uptick in interest in overseas destinations.

"Some companies see the value of currency exchange rates and, in light of the tight hotel supply in the U.S., are finding more availability in international destinations," says Tom Wilson.

"If they are looking outside the U.S., it is to the Caribbean," notes Tracy Norum, strategic division manager, incentive services, at Meetings & Incentives in Caledonia, Wis., of her insurance clients. In fact, the Caribbean is the most popular international destination for all types of U.S. firms to hold incentives, according to research compiled for  M&C's "2012 Global Planner" supplement.  

European suppliers also are experiencing an uptick in business from U.S. groups. Ken Lyons, sales manager at the Ritz-Carlton, Powerscourt, in Ireland, notes that while the market has been slow for the past few years, in 2012 about 25 percent of the property's group business will come from U.S. insurance/financial firms.

For her part, Cindy Hoddeson, director, meeting and incentive sales, at the Monaco Government Tourist Office, has seen a resurgence in incentive business from North American firms. "This year is strong, and we already have two confirmed insurance groups for 2013 and one for 700-plus participants booked for 2014."

Events are lengthening The average financial/insurance event runs for 3.5 nights, according FICP's survey findings. Sources say new bookings are going even longer.

Maxvantage's O'Malley reports that the average duration of his clients' typical meetings and events has increased by fully 10 percent, from 4.2 days to 4.4. "Some firms have expanded their incentive programs by a day. It increases the value of the event to the winners, but the costs aren't significantly increased," he notes.

Michele Zwirek at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess notes that "we are seeing a slow but steady increase to three days" for meetings that had been shortened from four to two days in recent years.

Use of technology is surprisingly sluggishSteve Bova"One of FICP's goals," according to executive director Steve Bova, "is to focus more on technology." In fact, the association featured its first technology showcase for members last November at its annual conference held at the Grand Hyatt San Antonio. Accordingly, FICP's survey asked several tech-related questions. And the results were eye-opening: Just 15 percent of respondents used social media for their events, and only 15 percent organized hybrid meetings/events.

Steve O'Malley is not surprised by the latter point. "As much as we thought virtual events would be highly embraced, it hasn't been the tidal wave we thought it would be three years ago, because clients say they still see the value in face-to-face events," he says.

Low profiles still prevail Signs emblazoned with company monikers and logos have gone by the wayside -- or gone undercover. "More and more these days, meetings and incentives are posted under a generic name rather than the company's name," says Dave Akin of the Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale at Troon North. For example, he notes, "today an event might be called the Golden Circle or 2012 Executive Council, rather than the X-Company Executive Council."  

Maritz Travel's financial and insurance clients also go incognito and avoid possible negative attention, according to Tom Wilson. "It's a best practice that is here to stay," he states.