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Lead Spam and the Increasing Commoditization of the Meetings Industry

It started with a stream of tweets earlier this summer by PYMLive, the live event Twitter account of Plan Your Meetings (PYM), a “free educational and social resource for people who plan corporate meetings and events”:
What's going on with hotels: 2 yrs ago they were sucking wind. Today, RFP volume has increased by 300% from 2006-2007
Despite having 300% [increase] in demand, hotels only close 1/5 of what they had closed- less than 3% of RFPs [because] of lead spam! 
Lead spam is crushing hotel sales teams!
Hoteliers get the same lead from multiple sources because of third parties. It wastes time to answer all those leads
When I questioned what, exactly, was meant by “lead spam” @PYMLive explained:  “eRFPs [are] sent out to 18-20 properties [instead of] 4-8. One hotelier said that they'll sometimes get the same RFP from 3 [different third-parties].  The author was reporting from one of the Plan Your Meeting (PYM) Live 2012 event at the Westin in Charlotte, NC.

This got me thinking… was this yet one more sign of the increasing commoditization of the meetings industry?  So I posted a poll on LinkedIn asking, “On average, how often does your hotel, meeting venue or CVB receive the SAME lead from multiple channels or sources?”

With only 17 respondents, this poll won’t give us more than a tiny glimpse into the state of the industry.  But I thought it was revealing that none of the respondents said that lead spam was NOT a factor.  Two-thirds (11 of 17) said they encountered lead spam on average once to three times per month.  Three people said they faced this issue one to four times per week, and another three said five or more times per week.

Admittedly a few responses to a poll or posts on a social media platform do not make a trend.  But where there’s smoke, there is fire…

One-on-one conversations with colleagues and clients put a different spin on the story.  One corporate director of sales & marketing of a major hotel brand said her central reservation group desk is plagued with multiple leads for what is obviously the same piece of business.  She complained that it wastes countless hours of her staff’s time, and demoralizes them because they see responding to these leads as an almost total waste of time.  Processing these leads also erodes the group desk’s credibility with their hotels because very few ever convert to definite business.

At property level, one Midwest hotel director of sales confided that he had instructed his sales managers to ignore leads from certain third-party site selection companies.  “Especially when the group history doesn’t indicate a pattern of travel to the Midwest, why would we waste our time responding when we know they’ll likely go to Vegas or Orlando?”

The issue seems to be affecting hotels much more than Convention and Visitor Bureaus (CVBs).  This could be because some CVBs are measured on the volume of leads they produce, versus the number of room-nights they close.  Lead spam in some cases could be favouring some CVBs’ position.

I see this as an ethical issue that sooner or later should push the industry to action:
  • Is it ethical for third-party planners or site selection firms to field RFPs if they have not been given the mandate by the end user?  I realize this is how some firms position themselves to get the business (“Let me get this out to our partner suppliers, and then you make the decision to hire us”), but is it right?
  • Do end users – corporate, association and government groups – realize what burden this issue is placing on suppliers, potentially increasing the cost of doing business?
  • What are industry associations, MPI, PCMA, and others, doing to open up the dialogue and bring attention to the issue?
  • Lastly, but more importantly, what are the recipients of lead spam willing to DO to counteract this trend?  Will hoteliers finally stand up and say, “No more” or will they continue to bow down and hope to scrape by?  What should assertive meetings industry suppliers, those that don’t want to play these games, do to attract business that is genuinely qualified?
Stay tuned for next week’s post for some answers!

Generation Next: Are Demographic Shifts Having an Impact on Meetings?

Since 2011, when the oldest baby boomers turned 65, an average of 1,000 Canadians are reaching retirement age every day.  In the U.S. Pew Research reports 10,000 Americans are retiring each day -- a figure that makes sense since the U.S. has roughly 10 times Canada's population.  In both countries the recession may be delaying some leaving the workforce, but by 2014, the retirement wave is expected to hit.

While younger generations, commonly referred to as Generation X and Y, together outnumber boomers, they do not have the experience or aren’t necessarily interested in replacing boomers in certain sectors.  Industry groups from tourism to petroleum are warning of labour shortages starting as early as 2013.

So what does this have to do with meetings? If bringing people face-to-face is meant to facilitate learning and change, motivating and engaging employees, demographic shifts may represent important challenges to the way meetings and events are planned.    

In both her books, Rock Stars Incorporated (2007) and The End of Membership as We Know It (2011), American generational expert Sarah Sladek of XYZ University offers colourful descriptions of the factors that distinguish each generation at work.

Resistant to Change

She describes boomers as growing up in a time of affluence, “reared to pursue the American Dream.”  They show a preference for face-to-face communication and an appreciation for meetings. Boomers, Sladek says, generally assume “no news is good news,” managing their work accordingly. Because they’ve held a dominant position in society for so long, they may be somewhat resistant to change.

Canadian author Cheryl Cran echoes many of Sladek’s observations in her book 101 Ways to Make Generations X, Y and Zoomers Happy at Work. By comparison she says Generation X grew up with political and economic uncertainty, with Watergate, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the 1990s recession. As children of divorce, they grew up self-sufficient and most hate to be micro-managed at work. Many saw their hard-working parents dismissed by employers, so GenXers insist on balancing work and family, looking at meetings that infringe upon their private time with a jaded eye.

Tech Savvy

Both authors similarly describe Generation Y: They grew up with a full schedule of activities, being rewarded “just for showing up.” Preferring frequent interaction with peers and supervisors, they are easily hurt by negative feedback. They are used to group problem-solving, expect to have a voice at meetings and to use the technology they are so familiar with. Just as with GenX, GenY workers “work to live” and not the other way around.

So what are younger generations looking for in meetings?

Last May a study funded by the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) Educational Foundation weighed in with results about what the “millennial generation” (GenY) prefers in their meetings, conventions and events. This research was based on a survey of over 2,000 GenY respondents, making it the largest study dedicated to what the younger workforce prefers in events.

It found that younger meeting participants favour a content-delivery style described as “edutainment”; engaging speakers who deliver shorter, quick-paced audio-visual presentations, peppered with opportunities for audience members to use mobile technology and games to interact with presenters and other attendees. The study found this “is consistent with research that indicates that [younger participants] often have short attention spans, hence the desire for concise, entertaining meetings.”

Seek  Benefits

The study also identified the need by younger meeting attendees to understand the purpose of an event. Asking “what’s in it for me?” they want to know what the meeting will bring them financially (scholarships or rewards), professionally (networking, advancement or job opportunities) or socially (community service projects or destinations with many activities and fun social events).

Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be much research documenting what employers are doing to engage younger generations in meetings, to improve knowledge transfer and relations between generations. In our inquiries with meeting professionals, few could point strictly to generational differences for specific changes to their meetings.

Some believe value-based generational differences are over-blown. In a LinkedIn discussion on The Future of Meetings, corporate team building executive Kenny Zail insisted that “where people are in their life cycle is more important than what ‘Gen letter’ they are.” We turned to the field and asked Canadian meeting and event planners how their meetings may be evolving.

Some saw no impact. Jessica Ward, CMP, Manager, Events and Groups at MKI Travel & Conference Management in Ottawa says: “My clients have never asked me to tailor to Gen Y.  My medical events have very few Gen Y in the audience (if any). Government events, these days, are simply more focused on keeping costs down.”

Les Selby, CMP, CMM, of Planning for Success in Toronto, thinks younger generations are having some impact. “When I was at Aimia (formerly Carlson Marketing), I saw corporate client meetings getting shorter, not just to save money, but also because people are not willing to give up their personal time.”

Expect Perks

Technology seems to trump demographic shifts for some changes in meetings. “The biggest change that I see is in the demand for complimentary, fast, and dependable wireless internet,” says Ottawa-based Claire Fitzpatrick, CMP, CMM of CF Conference & Event Management Services. Many planners agreed with the PCMA study findings and felt that younger workers disengage if not allowed to use their mobile device at a meeting. “And they are shocked to be asked to pay extra for WiFi,” added a hotel manager on the promise of anonymity. “They see it as a right, not as an amenity. It’s tough when we try to get them to settle their bill upon check-out.”

Shawna McKinley, Director of Sustainability at Vancouver’s MeetGreen adds: “[WiFi] applies to the venue, and guest rooms. Mobile applications are also becoming an expectation. No one wants to pack an event program, or have to collect cards and collateral anymore. They are learning to rely on the app, and expecting it to be integrated with social media.”

Only a few planners felt that social media is being used effectively to promote meeting attendance.  More are using networks such as LinkedIn groups to encourage information sharing, said Les Selby. “I think GenY drives a lot of this change; they don’t want to be sitting in a dark room and having someone speak AT them. They expect to be contributing, want to give their opinion.”

More Interaction

Selby added that he has seen bigger budgets being invested in communication, some for more social media, some for content capture. This is to give participants the opportunity to interact. He observed attendees posting to discussion groups – “I did this and it didn’t work. Any advice?” This helped increase learning and the return on investment from information sharing at meetings.

Adrian Segar is a Vermont-based organizational consultant and author of Conferences That Work. He says he’s organized more participative events, for all ages, for the last 20 years. Unwilling to say these are driven for or by GenY, Segar sees the need for spaces that are more conducive to interactive and networked events, offering a variety of session formats versus auditorium-style.

The use of social media and more participative meeting styles may be more a function of the corporate culture, says Helen Van Dongen, CMP, CMM, National Director, Event Management at KPMG in Toronto.  In a conservative environment such as a professional services firm, there are still many meetings that deliver content in a lecture-style format and that eschew sharing information on Twitter or anywhere else.  “If I worked with a media company, we’d probably be having a completely different conversation,” she adds.

Changes Coming

Still, Van Dongen admits to some changes on the horizon. For an upcoming senior management meeting, they will be moving to a TED Conference delivery style where speakers have only 18 minutes to present, pushing presenters to be more dynamic. “It will either be a spectacular failure, or something that moves us forward on a new path.”

Most planners agree that they are more conscious of healthy and sustainable food and beverage choices. Fitzpatrick has found that, “in the past this was due in most part to cultural requirements but now it tends to be driven by young health and socially conscious attendees.”McKinley adds: “There’s an emerging focus on healthier options and food that is better for learning, stamina and wellness. I think in future as prices rise we may be forced to seriously look at new and different options, and evaluate portion size.”

While the verdict about who exactly or how younger generations are driving different meetings, one conclusion is certain: planners are best to execute events that suit the culture of the organization and its meeting objectives, with an eye to engaging all participants as much as possible.

This article was originally written for Corporate Meetings & Events Magazine, and was published in their Fall 2012 issue.  I have modified it for this blog by adding the U.S. references and links to each planner's public LinkedIN profile.

Six Tips to Effective Email Marketing for #Eventprofs

Our Camping Trip
In a recent article, Matt Wesson of Pardot offers a compelling case for email marketing as one of the most effective investments in B2B marketing. Not only is email marketing one of the oldest methods, it is also one of the best forms of digital marketing available.

Meetings industry marketers often shy away from it, however, because many of their Customer Relationship Management systems (CRMs) don’t interface with email software or they may not have the technical and creative support. Email marketing is not quite as cut and dry as sending an e-mail.

Yet there are enough third-party, Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) systems to overcome the “I-don’t-have-a-system” excuse: Constant Contact and MailChimp at the low end, and more sophisticated, full-service marketing automation software, like Pardot, Eloqua and Marketo, at the high end.

Email marketing works as long as you use it wisely. Wesson presented six points in this infographic, which in our opinion really hit the mark. Here they are below, along with examples of how a hotel, CVB or other meetings industry marketer should use email marketing:
  1. Create Compelling Content: It’s tempting to focus your e-mail marketing on rate or promotion-driven campaigns. But do these packages offer value to your customers? If it’s just about you, your hotel or destination, you’ll be quickly tuned out. Make sure your content is informational and helpful for the recipient. (See our Sept. 4 blog, Six Tips to Successful Content Creation). One of our clients sends two types of e-mails on a monthly basis: a promotional offer and an enewsletter with tips to help “occasional planners” plan better meetings. Although promotional offers bring in leads, the tips and best practices build trust and strengthen  relationships, as shown by the fact that these almost always generate a higher open rate. 
  2. Use the Right Tools: If you don’t have a programmer like we’re fortunate enough to have here at Greenfield, look for software that offers you a WYSIWIG Editor (a user interface that lets you change the layout in a word editor versus actually hard-coding). But you will want to find a tool that offers you utility as well. Things like the ability to view WHO opened their email, who clicked through on links and who opted-out. This functionality will allow you to determine the success of your campaigns globally and with which prospect. You may even tie your email marketing deployment to a follow-up phone blitz to call people whose emails bounced, for instance. That way you’ll keep your database clean and you’ll get to forge relationships with new contacts right away.
  3. Test Your Deliverability: As Wesson explains, “Even the best email in the world won’t be effective if it never reaches your audience.” If your message isn’t landing in your prospect’s inbox, they could easily forget about you and book their business elsewhere. So how do you test deliverability? “In three simple ways, Young Padawan,” replies Jeff, our programmer (yes, he’s a big Star Wars fan):
    • Compatibility: Your email tool should enable you to test your message in every browser and mobile platform. While it’s difficult to make it look great in ALL systems, you should aim to get it right in the main ones.
    • Format: All e-mails should be also have a text version, so if a client has disabled HTML he/she will still get your message. Jeff mentioned this in last month’s blog in point #2.
    • Spam Analysis: Your e-mail marketing software should alert you to potential spam triggers. This includes using exclamation marks, ALL-CAPS, the word free and other practices that may inadvertently flag your message as spam. For more tips on this, see Hubspot’s Ultimate List of Email SPAM Trigger Words.
  4. Segment Your Audience:  Consider splitting your audience depending on their needs, geography and, in some cases, purchasing power. Hotel chains often are at a disadvantage here. For instance they may be running a promotion for a particular area, such as a rate offer for their properties in Arizona. But because they can’t readily access their clients’ destination preferences in their CRM, they blast out to everyone in the database, upsetting recipients who think they "should know better," causing them to unsubscribe. In this case it may be better to make promotions less specific, or to  include at least one educational or valuable reference, regardless of destination preference. Also, set up a preference centre landing page so your prospects can tell you what they want and when.
  5. Get Your Timing Right: Stay informed about open rates and email traffic through research from organizations like Marketing Sherpa or Mashable. If the lowest open rate is reported to be at 4pm on a Friday afternoon, would you really want to be e-mailing then? Look at different sources and establish a baseline for yourself by splitting your list and send at different times. See if it makes a difference. Make sure to check the dates of major events in your industry. You don’t want to get caught sending an e-mail during a big trade show when everyone is out of the office!
  6. Track, Analyze & Adjust: Tracking is a very important step in the process, but it doesn’t stop at just looking at what your email message is doing. It’s being accountable to make changes and try new things. Think through ahead of time that, “If we have not achieved X by Y we will do Z”. This will help you ensure you don’t fall into the trap of doing things by rote.
One final tip: don’t give up. It’s easy to get discouraged when you don’t get the desired result on a particular campaign but it’s all part of the learning process. And in the world of e-mail marketing the learning process is as important as what you actually know!

This post is by Jeff Chabot, Web & E-Marketing Programmer and Doreen Ashton Wagner, Chief Strategist, at Greenfield Services Inc.

Six Tips to Successful Content Creation for #EventProfs

A key element of a successful inbound marketing program for a hotel, CVB or other meetings-industry supplier is content generation. This entails the creation of educational material that your target market will find relevant and valuable.

Far from being a one-off or occasional activity, content generation is a process that best happens on an ongoing basis. Producing content that can be used on a blog, in an electronic newsletter or on your website as downloadable content will help you showcase your expertise in social media, and increase your inbound leads.

The two essential elements of successful content generation include solid content and regularity.
While we certainly cannot claim to have found the absolute secret to successful content generation, at Greenfield we have enjoyed increased exposure, and the notice of our target market with regular content publishing. Often we are asked, "how do we do it"?

Here is our list of tips:
  1. Establish a Regular Schedule: it is far easier to maintain a regular schedule if you set deadlines. In the case of the two blogs we maintain at Greenfield, the Membership Engagement blog and this one, we initially set out with a twice a month schedule. Gradually this has increased to almost once a week for each blog.
  2. Establish an Editorial Calendar or Topic List: My colleague Meagan Rockett is a master at this.  She picks a topic for a particular month and produces 3-4 posts around that theme.  Her "New Sheriff in town" series on Canada's Anti-Spam legislation earlier this year garnered her accolades and lots of re-tweets! 
  3. Look Out for Current Events or Happenings in Your Industry: you can comment on current events or use it as an analogy in your content creation. Current affairs and related titles will help your click through rates when you post new content and social media. For instance, some of this blog's most widely read posts included a commentary as a first-time attendee to the Green Meetings Industry Council annual conference and a tribute The Sutton Place Hotel Toronto, a place which I called my professional home for five years.  The plus to both these posts were that they were relatively easy for me to write!
  4. Have a Back-Up Plan: Content generation is not easy.  For times when you have to deal with overloaded to-do lists, travel schedules and personal agenda, I recommend having guest blog posts. That's how earlier this summer I was able to take a bit of a break from contributing to this blog.  The boon was that some of our guests are more widely read authors than I am so we had a spike in traffic with articles such as Art Sobczak’s What Losing Weight and Sales Have in Common and  Cara Tracy’s Advice from a Meeting Planner to Suppliers.
  5. Know the Best Circumstances for YOUR Content Creation: You have to write when the inspiration hits you.  I have been fortunate to experience success with a dictation tool. Often I will get an idea for a post so I grab my iPhone and blurt recite my thoughts into it. I then email the text to myself and look at the post when I'm back at the office. Alternatively I have sent my spontaneous creations to an editor for review and editing (see next point below).
  6. This brings me to the last key point: not everyone is a writer, but with help you CAN look like one. I enjoy writing and I've been told I get my point across relatively well in the written form, but I am not a professional writer.  So I work with a team of professionals to see my through those busy periods when I either cannot find time to write myself.  I work with a writer who will produce an article based on just a phone conversation/interview we have on a topic.  My editor is just as wonderful: I can send her my rough, dictated text and she will edit my ramblings to publishing quality!
Content creation is one of the surest ways your hotel, CVB or meeting services organization will ever have to showcase its expertise to meeting and event planners, thus generating more inbound leads.

So remember to make sure your material is focused on the specific needs of meeting and event planners. While it is acceptable to create some content that covers leisure or consumer-related topics, you will be more successful if you make your material related to your B2B prospects.