Sunday, 25 April 2010 20:00

Opening the vault

Stop for a minute or two and think back to what you learned about the banking industry during your childhood. Your parents probably introduced you to the concepts of deposits and checks and balances. You learned how to make the numbers work. Now think about what you learned about the industry during your years on campus and in the classroom. Some professor probably lectured to you about loans and liens and interest. You learned enough to earn a good grade and get out in the business world. And what did you learn about the industry after you established yourself in that world? You probably learned that a relationship with your banker is important, that surprises are bad and that communication is the key to just about everything.

Well, good. Keep all of that information in mind because so much of it remains relevant and important today. But so much more of the information that you learned during your childhood and your education and your years in business is now better left in the past, thanks to the lingering memories and results of the financial fiasco that rocked the economy for the better part of two years.

As we climb out of the fiscal wreckage of 2008 and 2009, the banking industry is in the middle of a new landscape. After what seemed like one bank sale, merger or closure after another, there are now fewer banks across the nation. And after thousands and thousands of businesses defaulted on their loans, banks of all sizes became more prudent in their lending practices.

The financial future continues to improve, but the present might be difficult for some business owners.

“Banks put a lot of importance on financial information, and rightfully so, because 2009 was not a robust year, and when you look at those financial statements, a lot of them show red ink,” says Dave Hammer, regional president, Huntington National Bank. “It makes a bank look at things harder, quite frankly.

“I was talking with one client who saw their revenue base drop 40 percent last year. That’s big, and, clearly, it has an impact on banks. Banks have to ask whether this revenue situation is going to turn around in 2010. It’s questions like that that we have to be comfortable answering.”

Ask the right questions

Communication with your bank and your banker is as important today as it was 10, 20 or 50 years ago — and, of course, with smart phones and the ability to talk almost immediately with just about anyone anywhere in the world at any time, communication has never been easier, either. But sitting down with your banker in person rather than over the phone remains the best and most effective means of communication, even if it might feel like some sort of lost art. That goes both ways, too; you should want to meet with your banker in person, but he or she should also want to meet with you.

“I think it’s incumbent on a bank to be proactive with their clientele and with their prospective clientele, to tell them what’s new and what’s exciting and what the banks think a particular business may need,” Hammer says. “At the same time, I think it’s incumbent upon a business by being proactive, by saying, ‘Here’s what’s coming, here’s what projects are coming,’ and, probably most important, when a business sees some bumps in the road that may be coming. That gives a bank much more lead time to react to potential problems, because we all realize that businesses do not move in a linear fashion, straight up.

“Communication is the right word, but be very proactive, very robust, very timely, so everyone trusts each other on both sides of the table.”

It’s important for you to ask the right questions, too, especially if your bank merged with another bank during the recession or if it closed its doors and left you looking for a new bank.

For example, what will the bank offer you in terms of its resources? Will you work with one banker or with a team? As your business grows and changes, will the bank be able to help you meet your evolving needs? And how will the bank support you during your growth or expansion? Will the bank and your banker be proactive and visit your offices or locations in order to learn more about your company and provide trusted advice? Or will the bank offer nothing more than answers to your banking needs?

Think of that first conversation like a first date, of sorts. You want to learn as much as possible so you can determine whether to go out on a second date. If all goes well, maybe those dates will turn into a long-term relationship.

“The better your bank knows you, the better they’ll know your business,” says Todd Barnhart, senior vice president and manager of deposits, PNC Financial Services Group Inc. “It’s important to keep an open line of communication at all times, not just when it’s necessary to conduct your business. At minimum, businesses should consider sitting down with their banker for an annual business review. This serves as a good venue to discuss the upcoming year and any expected changes to the business.”

Prepare for economic change

On the surface, at least, the economy has started to turn. You need to look no further than the Bureau of Labor Statistics for proof of that. The unemployment rate either held or dropped each month from October 2009 through February, down to 9.7 percent from 10.1 percent. But talk with enough bankers and the picture comes into clearer focus.

Banks are still lending money. Banks want and need to lend money. It is, after all, one of their major sources of revenue. But according to a panel of experts, the number of loans and the amount of money requested during the last 12 months dropped significantly, and among the businesses that continued to request loans, more defaulted than normal. That led to banks examining financial statements and trends more closely. It also led to the perception that banks were holding onto their money.

“Loan demand has been down industrywide,” Barnhart says. “We want to ensure that we are helping as many small businesses obtain credit as possible. Many businesses are likely coming off of one of their most challenging years in a long time, and we’re encouraging our business bankers to proactively engage their customers in conversations around their financial results so that we can be in a better position to work with them and help them through the current economic cycle.”

Now, with fewer banks in the marketplace, some banks can be more selective. But most are actually more open now to lending and are more forgiving. Ask around and you might find that many are breaking down the last year of financial statements for businesses seeking a loan, examining each month in search of positive trends, rather than just glazing over negative numbers from the last two or three years. Other banks are adding business bankers. Still more have recently committed billions to small and medium businesses.

The time is right to work with your bank. Just ask.

Published in Philadelphia
Sunday, 25 April 2010 20:00

3 Questions

William R. Cave is president of U.S. Bank’s operation in Orange County and the Inland Empire. Cave leads a team of commercial bankers who work with businesses in the region and also facilitates the collaboration across all U.S. Bank lines of business as head of the region’s leadership team. He has more than 28 years of industry experience.

Q. How can a business develop a strong relationship with its bank?

It is critical for businesses to work with a bank that has that track record through thick and thin times. The financial industry certainly has its ups and downs, and trying to find that bank upfront that will be there is critical. It’s also important to work with lenders and bankers who are really looking out for your business as more of a strategic partner, rather than as someone to whom they can sell another product. The biggest thing is you should always be thinking ahead. Having regularly scheduled meetings is important, at least on a quarterly basis, and the companies should ask for them if a bank is not scheduling them.

Q. What has changed during the last year in how a business works with its bank?

As businesses try to realign themselves, that discussion about fine-tuning and coming up with the right size of credit facilities is more important now than nine or 12 or 18 months ago when businesses and banks were retrenching. Over the last six or nine months, we’re starting to see a shift because the credit cycle is now changing. People talk about business cycles and we have seen that the industry as a whole overextended itself. The reins have been pulled back and we’re all starting to see some improvement there as the strong banks continued to perform and the weak ones got their house in order. So there is more lending that is starting to occur now.

Q. Is it any more difficult now than it was last year for a business to obtain a loan from a bank?

The credit market seems to be back in good stead again for those companies that can qualify for a loan. So I don’t think there’s an issue about credit availability.

Published in Orange County
Sunday, 25 April 2010 20:00

Opening the vault

Stop for a minute or two and think back to what you learned about the banking industry during your childhood. Your parents probably introduced you to the concepts of deposits and checks and balances. You learned how to make the numbers work. Now think about what you learned about the industry during your years on campus and in the classroom. Some professor probably lectured to you about loans and liens and interest. You learned enough to earn a good grade and get out in the business world. And what did you learn about the industry after you established yourself in that world? You probably learned that a relationship with your banker is important, that surprises are bad and that communication is the key to just about everything.

Well, good. Keep all of that information in mind because so much of it remains relevant and important today. But so much more of the information that you learned during your childhood and your education and your years in business is now better left in the past, thanks to the lingering memories and results of the financial fiasco that rocked the economy for the better part of two years.

As we climb out of the fiscal wreckage of 2008 and 2009, the banking industry is in the middle of a new landscape. After what seemed like one bank sale, merger or closure after another, there are now fewer banks across the nation. And after thousands and thousands of businesses defaulted on their loans, banks of all sizes became more prudent in their lending practices.

The financial future continues to improve, but the present might be difficult for some business owners.

“Nationally, our economy is still a little bit stagnant, so we’ve not seen a lot of change there,” says Michael Newbold, regional president, Huntington National Bank. “But I think we might begin to be seeing a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel because a lot of the small businesses we’ve talked to have indicated that in the next 12 months they’re looking to hire more help. That’s a positive sign and is very different from what we heard a year ago.

“In Indianapolis and everywhere else, small businesses are the fuel that drives the big engine. As small businesses go and grow, so goes the rest of the community. That’s very much a good sign.”

Ask the right questions

Communication with your bank and your banker is as important today as it was 10, 20 or 50 years ago — and, of course, with smart phones and the ability to talk almost immediately with just about anyone anywhere in the world at any time, communication has never been easier, either. But sitting down with your banker in person rather than over the phone remains the best and most effective means of communication, even if it might feel like some sort of lost art. That goes both ways, too; you should want to meet with your banker in person, but he or she should also want to meet with you.

“I cannot emphasize enough the fact that you cannot communicate too much in a relationship such as the one between a small business client and a bank,” Newbold says. “One of the pieces of guidance I always give to small business clients is to find and develop that close circle of trusted advisers that you need to run your business. From our perspective, use the bank not just as a lending conduit but as a resource for information.”

It’s important for you to ask the right questions, too, especially if your bank merged with another bank during the recession or if it closed its doors and left you looking for a new bank.

For example, what will the bank offer you in terms of its resources? Will you work with one banker or with a team? As your business grows and changes, will the bank be able to help you meet your evolving needs? And how will the bank support you during your growth or expansion? Will the bank and your banker be proactive and visit your offices or locations in order to learn more about your company and provide trusted advice? Or will the bank offer nothing more than answers to your banking needs?

Think of that first conversation like a first date, of sorts. You want to learn as much as possible so you can determine whether to go out on a second date. If all goes well, maybe those dates will turn into a long-term relationship.

“We look for companies that recognize we’re in a difficult time and are looking for ways to cut costs, and we’re looking for ways to help them cut costs,” says Kevin Hipskind, senior vice president, commercial lending, Fifth Third Bank, Central Indiana. “Those that have maintained really strong balance sheets and have cut costs to address some of the economic issues are seeing a lot of opportunities, and we’re looking for ways to help them grow. There are a lot of opportunities out there for growth. It really is a fun time to be out there talking to businesses. As much as there are challenges, there are great opportunities, too.”

Prepare for economic change

On the surface, at least, the economy has started to turn. You need to look no further than the Bureau of Labor Statistics for proof of that. The unemployment rate either held or dropped each month from October 2009 through February, down to 9.7 percent from 10.1 percent. But talk with enough bankers and the picture comes into clearer focus.

Banks are still lending money. Banks want and need to lend money. It is, after all, one of their major sources of revenue. But according to a panel of experts, the number of loans and the amount of money requested during the last 12 months dropped significantly, and among the businesses that continued to request loans, more defaulted than normal. That led to banks examining financial statements and trends more closely. It also led to the perception that banks were holding onto their money.

“If you’re a company that’s managed the balance sheet, maintained moderate leverage and has a decent asset base, there are a lot of banks that are really trying to grow loans right now,” Hipskind says. “We’re in a unique environment where deposits are heavy and loans are light, and we make a big part of our money as banks by loaning out money.”

Now, with fewer banks in the marketplace, some banks can be more selective. But most are actually more open now to lending and are more forgiving. Ask around and you might find that many are breaking down the last year of financial statements for businesses seeking a loan, examining each month in search of positive trends, rather than just glazing over negative numbers from the last two or three years. Other banks are adding business bankers. Still more have recently committed billions to small and medium businesses.

The time is right to work with your bank. Just ask.

Published in Indianapolis
Sunday, 25 April 2010 20:00

Opening the vault

Stop for a minute or two and think back to what you learned about the banking industry during your childhood. Your parents probably introduced you to the concepts of deposits and checks and balances. You learned how to make the numbers work. Now think about what you learned about the industry during your years on campus and in the classroom. Some professor probably lectured to you about loans and liens and interest. You learned enough to earn a good grade and get out in the business world. And what did you learn about the industry after you established yourself in that world? You probably learned that a relationship with your banker is important, that surprises are bad and that communication is the key to just about everything.

Well, good. Keep all of that information in mind because so much of it remains relevant and important today. But so much more of the information that you learned during your childhood and your education and your years in business is now better left in the past, thanks to the lingering memories and results of the financial fiasco that rocked the economy for the better part of two years.

As we climb out of the fiscal wreckage of 2008 and 2009, the banking industry is in the middle of a new landscape. After what seemed like one bank sale, merger or closure after another, there are now fewer banks across the nation. And after thousands and thousands of businesses defaulted on their loans, banks of all sizes became more prudent in their lending practices.

The financial future continues to improve, but the present might be difficult for some business owners.

“The real difference and the real litmus test to determine a good bank is that we are even more proactive about getting out and being in front of our business customers,” says Chuck Bowman, senior vice president, retail and business banking manager, Amegy Bank NA. “There are a lot of questions in their minds that aren’t even related to their banking relationship with us, questions that have more to do with the economy and with their outlook.

“Our customers want to sit down and talk about the challenges they’re faced with, and a lot of time, their challenges are our challenges. Banking is a business, too, and is faced with similar challenges.”

Ask the right questions

Communication with your bank and your banker is as important today as it was 10, 20 or 50 years ago — and, of course, with smart phones and the ability to talk almost immediately with just about anyone anywhere in the world at any time, communication has never been easier, either. But sitting down with your banker in person rather than over the phone remains the best and most effective means of communication, even if it might feel like some sort of lost art. That goes both ways, too; you should want to meet with your banker in person, but he or she should also want to meet with you.

“It’s unfathomable to me how a banker can say they can do a good job for a business owner when they don’t take the time to sit down and talk with a business owner face to face and understand what the business owner’s goals and objectives are and where they’re at,” Bowman says. “It’s important to have a banker who’s really more of a partner to really help you through those cycles.”

It’s important for you to ask the right questions, too, especially if your bank merged with another bank during the recession or if it closed its doors and left you looking for a new bank. Take advantage of this challenging but also unique, economic environment to refocus your relationships with your advisers.

For example, what will the bank offer you in terms of its resources? Will you work with one banker or with a team? As your business grows and changes, will the bank be able to help you meet your evolving needs? And how will the bank support you during your growth or expansion? Will the bank and your banker be proactive and visit your offices or locations in order to learn more about your company and provide trusted advice? Or will the bank offer nothing more than answers to your banking needs?

Think of that first conversation like a first date, of sorts. You want to learn as much as possible so you can determine whether to go out on a second date. If all goes well, maybe those dates will turn into a long-term relationship.

“There’s an increased emphasis on relationship and the importance for a small business owner of having a relationship with the bank and not to view banking as a commodity, because when times get tough, you really need to have that relationship,” says Matthew R. Wyner, senior vice president, business banking, Greater Cleveland district, KeyBank. “From a banking standpoint, there’s been an increased emphasis on the importance of rolling up your sleeves, getting down in the trenches with customers and really understanding the challenges they’re facing and what they need to be doing to be successful.

“If a company is being proactive in communicating that and making sure there are no surprises, those are the relationships we’re able to work the most effectively with.”

Prepare for economic change

On the surface, at least, the economy has started to turn. You need to look no further than the Bureau of Labor Statistics for proof of that. The unemployment rate either held or dropped each month from October 2009 through February, down to 9.7 percent from 10.1 percent. But talk with enough bankers and the picture comes into clearer focus.

Banks are still lending money. Banks want and need to lend money. It is, after all, one of their major sources of revenue. But according to a panel of experts, the number of loans and the amount of money requested during the last 12 months dropped significantly, and among the businesses that continued to request loans, more defaulted than normal. That led to banks examining financial statements and trends more closely. It also led to the perception that banks were holding onto their money.

“Obviously, bankers have gotten a rap in the press about not wanting to lend money to small businesses and not wanting to help small businesses,” Wyner says. “But I think the opposite is true. Many of my peers are actively out there looking for opportunities to work with people. I think there’s a greater sense of the importance of the relationship on both sides.”

Now, with fewer banks in the marketplace, some banks can be more selective. But most are actually more open now to lending and are more forgiving. Ask around and you might find that many are breaking down the last year of financial statements for businesses seeking a loan, examining each month in search of positive trends, rather than just glazing over negative numbers from the last two or three years. Other banks are adding business bankers. Still more have recently committed billions to small and medium businesses.

The time is right to work with your bank. Just ask.

Published in Houston
Sunday, 25 April 2010 20:00

3 Questions

John T. Gavin is Wells Fargo & Co.’s regional president for Dallas-Fort Worth. Gavin is responsible for 2,900 employees and leading retail and business banking in 233 banking stores. He has worked in his present position since 1997 and has more than 31 years of experience in the industry. In 2002, he was named outstanding banker of the year by the Fort Worth Area Bankers Association.

Q. Any tips about raising capital in today’s tight credit market?

When approving loans, lenders increasingly rely on credit history and clear demonstration that you have the ability to repay the loan. Be open and honest about past credit issues and take the necessary steps to resolve any blemishes on your personal and business credit history. One easy way to improve your credit score is to always pay your bills on time — and online bill payment services are a great solution.

Q. Let’s assume that a small business has excellent credit history. What else can it do to increase the chances of raising capital?

Identifying and correcting any cash flow problems will help you trim expenses, save for your next big project and improve your ability to secure financing from lenders. Talk with your banker about financial services that can help improve cash flow. A thorough analysis of your business’s cash flow will help you identify opportunities for cost savings and pinpoint areas to improve operational efficiencies.

Q. What about business owners who don’t have a great credit history?

Ask your lender about the possibility of alternative financing through micro-lenders, the U.S. Small Business Administration or state or municipal government agencies. You should also check with your local SBA office to see which lenders are SBA preferred lenders and which have qualified for SBA Express status — which allows the lender to offer SBA Express loans, which are often easier to obtain for small businesses.

If you are not able to raise the capital you need through a loan or alternative financing, consider partnering with another investor or establishing a joint venture to inject capital in your business.

Published in Dallas
Friday, 26 March 2010 20:00

Automation domination

This is a short story about a wonderful return on investment. Everyone loves a return on investment, especially if that investment costs hundreds of thousands of dollars.

There is a small manufacturing company in Arkansas that installed and implemented an enterprise resource planning system last year. The industry in which the company works is not particularly important. Neither is its geographic location. But the fact that the company, call it Company A for the purposes of this story, decided to move forward and install an ERP system is particularly important. It will change the fortunes of Company A in rather short order.

Prior to the installation and implementation of its ERP system, Company A shipped about $200,000 in inventory per week and it stored about five weeks worth of inventory in its warehouses. But executives at Company A figured there was a more efficient way to run the warehouses and, in turn, the business of the entire company.

So after months of research and planning, after working with a top technology firm, after moving forward to install that ERP system — and, in particular, a handheld wireless scanning system to better handle its inventory management — Company A did find a more efficient way. It was able to decrease its amount of stored inventory to about three weeks worth of items. That allowed Company A to free up about $400,000 in working capital, more than the total cost of investment in the ERP system. And that allowed Company A to restructure a large swath of the way it now does business.

What is ERP? You might know, but even if you have a grip on the technology, it has certainly changed since its introduction to the business world in 1990, and it has changed even more during the last couple of years.

“The industry has really transitioned from 10 years ago,” says Brad Ferguson, director of business information services, Meridian Partners. “Today, that analysis has been integrated into more of a user-friendly front end. The information is presented in such a manner that having an understanding of the data is less important now than it was back then, and a business can analyze the data and focus less on structuring the data.”

Plan, then plan some more

ERP is an integrated system that is used to manage the resources and automate the processes of a company. It can be used to automate and improve just about any process that deals with manufacturing, with supply chain management, with human resources, and with financials and data. It has been referred to as “the present of computing,” “the future of computing” and “an invaluable part of business” by a panel of experts and software developers and designers across the nation. There is a longer definition filled with more technical details, but if that doesn’t provide a sense of what ERP can do for your business, well, just read the simple success story of Company A one more time. Then take a long look at the processes in your own business.

“Business intelligence solutions tend to allow you to integrate information from multiple systems and integrate that data into an environment that is conducive for a better understanding of how your enterprise is operating,” Ferguson says. “It positions you and your organization to make better decisions — both tactical, day-to-day solutions and long-term strategic decisions.”

The installation and implementation of an ERP system is neither an inexpensive nor a short project. The cost can vary depending on the number of your employees and the revenue size of your business, the depth and scope of the system you want to install, and the amount of training you want during the process. A simple system for a small business might cost less than $10,000. An average system might cost somewhere between $50,000 and $100,000. A much larger system for a corporation that has thousands of users and stretches around the world might cost millions of dollars. But an average cost, especially for small and medium businesses, is somewhere between $3,000 and $5,000 per end user, including the implementation, from the day you start installation to the day you are running live in production.

Similarly, the installation time varies based on multiple factors. For smaller systems, plan for at least three months, including end training. For larger systems, plan for at least six months to one year.

And the training is important. Consider it an insurance policy, of sorts, to make certain that your employees endorse the system and want to use it. If they reject it, you have not only wasted your money but have also taken a step backward toward different departments in your business speaking different technological languages.

“It is important to have the primary users be trained well,” says Prasad Akella, vice president of SME Solution Marketing, SAP. “If you don’t invest in that, you could see them rejecting it. As a company owner, I would hate to have my troops reject it after all of the investment.”

Close your doors

Perhaps your largest concern with the decision to either install or upgrade your ERP system — other than the considerable investment of money and time — is security. Your data will not likely be susceptible to external hackers, even if you opt for cloud computing and store your data on a server outside of your offices, but there is always the concern that your own employees might attempt to tamper with the system.

“If you have an on-premise solution that you keep within the walls of your business, your security concerns are more internal in terms of access for your employees,” Akella says. “You don’t want the guy running your supply system to be able to cross over to your HR system.”

In other words, assign each user a unique access name and password, much as you or your IT staff would for any office system of considerable size and importance, and allow each user access to only the parts of the system that he or she needs to use for his or her assignments. There are always concerns, but if you set up the security in advance, you will better protect your data and your business.

The other concern, especially after hearing the relatively sudden successes of Company A, is when you will earn back the money you put into the system. Depending on the speed of the installation and how quickly you and your employees implement the full range of process automation, you could see a full return within two years, and perhaps even just one year. But the consensus is that ERP has evolved so much during the last couple of decades that it is a sound investment, no matter your industry, business size or needs.

“The ROI is that consistency for organizational performance, but it also ensures that we are all looking at one consistent set of numbers,” Ferguson says. “You eliminate the confusion and the inconsistent reporting measurements. Now that the organization is working with one set of numbers, you can more accurately look for areas where you can increase margins, increase revenue or decrease cost.”

ERP can, after all, help you improve the processes and efficiencies of your business. And it can change the way you do business.

Published in Florida
Tuesday, 23 February 2010 19:00

Strike up the brand

During the course of the last year, executives at a large company in one Midwestern city scheduled an event to thank their present clients for remaining with them through the recession and to reach out to potential clients in an effort to prepare for growth. They rented a hall in a beautiful building for the morning, hired a speaker with a prominent name and attracted a crowd of about 2,500 people.

Nothing out of the ordinary. Perhaps, you have even scheduled a similar event.

But as the event neared, the executives realized that they had a large problem. They had scheduled the event during the middle of the week, and with hundreds of thousands of other people already in the city, there was no parking anywhere near the building. So they scratched their heads. They worried. They wondered how they could have overlooked such a simple detail. They wondered how they might solve the problem. And only then did they call an event management firm.

When the recession started to rock the financial world in 2008, internal event management personnel were among the first to be laid off. Many then planted roots with independent firms or started firms of their own. Less than two years later, a December 2009 feature in U.S. News & World Report posited that a position as an event manager or event planner ranked among the 50 best jobs for 2010. The industry has transitioned and is positioned to grow a projected 16 percent between now and 2018.

That might be good news for you and your business because the odds are high that, at some point, you will want to hold some sort of event, and unless you have an event manager on staff, you might find yourself in a situation every bit as sticky as those Midwest executives with thousands of guests and no parking spaces.

“Now, more than ever, executives are realizing that their focus needs to be on growing and building their existing business and outsource in areas where they’re not experts,” says Kelly Schirber, owner and event management specialist, Plan Ahead Events San Diego Metro. “Hiring an event manager can be an efficient and effective way to create impactful events that create strong return on investment for companies.”

Plan in advance

Event managers are more than just party planners. In fact, those words are like nails on a chalkboard to many in the industry. Event managers aim to feature your message and work with you to help you reach your goals for each event. They are able to save you significant amounts of money and time, measure the returns on your investment, and, of course, coordinate an event that will be effective and leave your employees and clients talking.

“I always ask my clients, ‘What do you want your guests to be saying in the car on the way home?’” says Nicole R. Matthews, principal and founder, The Henley Company LLC. “When you’re in the car driving home with somebody, there’s always some dialogue about that experience.”

Just look at those Midwest executives, for example. During the 24 hours after they called the event management firm, the firm started to contact all guests to relay the parking situation, then paid parking lot fees to ensure there would be available spaces somewhere within the city limits, hired buses and created a route to the building. All of that would have taken weeks if an internal employee with little event management experience had handled the task. It took the firm a couple of days. On the morning of the event, those thousands of guests parked at remote lots and were shuttled a couple of miles on city roads. It was hardly ideal, but it worked.

It also cost the company an extra $20,000.

“One way to save money is to consider when you are holding an event,” Schirber says. “Maybe schedule for the down season instead of peak season when all the hotel prices are higher. Just go when the prices are a little lower and the traffic is a little less.”

Many firms also have considerable influence at hotels and venues and with vendors. Because they direct so much business and so many sales to those outlets, they often receive a discount somewhere between 10 and 20 percent, which they normally pass along directly to you. Their knowledge of your city — and the state, nation and world, for that matter — allows them to track down the lowest prices in a matter of hours or minutes, as opposed to days or weeks.

There are four primary reasons to work with an event management firm. First, you will save a little more money in the end, even if you spend a little more at the beginning. Second, many businesses no longer have the internal resources necessary to handle events. Third, companies often need fresh ideas for old events, and an objective pair of eyes can provide those new thoughts. And fourth, it does simplify your work.

“If you’ve saddled someone with another company event and that’s neither his or her expertise nor a priority because of many other things on the schedule, the planning can take longer,” Matthews says. “This can be a timesaver for you.”

Open your doors

Just as with any business partner who provides value-added services, you need to develop a relationship with your event management firm. It is not enough to call once and spend a couple of minutes determining when and where you should hold the annual sales meeting.

The more your firm knows about you and your business, the more it will be able to implement continuity in your events from one year to the next. The firm will also be able to understand how each event fits into the larger scope and culture of your business and be able to remain on budget throughout the year.

“If an event planner is doing their job correctly, they are entrenched in an organization to understand the structure and to identify potential needs that can be incorporated into an event,” Schirber says.

They can help keep you up to date on newer technology, too. Online event registration has proved popular during recent years because of low costs and the relative ease with which event attendees can sign up. Virtual events are also popular, especially now that travel budgets are reduced and fewer people are flying extensively. And social media is gaining momentum. Event management and social media work hand in hand. Whether promoting an event or a product launch or just sending out bursts of information, many event managers embrace the technology because of its ability to all but eliminate marketing costs while also reaching a much wider audience.

“The social media is huge, and it lends itself so beautifully to the event world,” Matthews says. “What a dynamic way to get your message out there at a very low cost. You don’t even know who winds up getting your message. For event companies to be shying away from social media, that doesn’t make sense to me.”

The world is smaller. Your events might be, too, but keep holding them. Maintain your public image. The business world, after all, might not be a party right now, but it is an event not to be missed.

Published in National
Tuesday, 23 February 2010 19:00

3 Questions

Shannon Gardner is the president of Accent on Indianapolis and an event management industry veteran. The company was founded locally more than two decades ago and remains committed to providing a comprehensive range of customized services to the association, corporate and incentive markets. She is a member of the Association of Destination Management Executives.

Q. Why should a business work with an event management firm?

Many businesses today are facing cutbacks while combining job responsibilities, forcing employees to perform a multitude of job duties, many of which are outside their normal areas of expertise. By contracting out event and meeting planning services, companies can focus on specific meeting content and day-to-day business while relying on the experts to manage the event. I’d like to think a company wouldn’t rely on an administration or human resources executive to perform plumbing or electrical duties, so why ask them to manage meetings and events without any experience?

Q. What important values and assets can a firm provide for a business?

An event management firm’s expertise and vendor relationships are key when planning and executing events. Good event planners are prepared for Plan A, B, C and so on. We plan for the worst to happen and are prepared if it does. We have relationships and contacts with vendors and individuals that enable us to call on favors that a one-time planner or business executive wouldn’t have access to use.

Q. What are some of the newer services and products a firm can provide for businesses?

In today’s economy, the perception of hosting meetings and events can appear lavish and excessive to the general public. Businesses can utilize event firms to negotiate and plan on the business’s behalf without the vendors ever knowing the end client. The need for ‘generic’ meeting services is now more popular than the previous years of over-the-top branding. Businesses are looking for creative but budget-conscious ways to introduce internal branding strategies and define new internal infrastructures due to cutbacks. Businesses are looking for ways to market to not only their customers but employees, as well. We’re seeing a need for team-building activities to help boost employee morale.

Published in Indianapolis
Tuesday, 23 February 2010 19:00

Strike up the brand

During the course of the last year, executives at a large company in one Midwestern city scheduled an event to thank their present clients for remaining with them through the recession and to reach out to potential clients in an effort to prepare for growth. They rented a hall in a beautiful building for the morning, hired a speaker with a prominent name and attracted a crowd of about 2,500 people.

Nothing out of the ordinary. Perhaps, you have even scheduled a similar event.

But as the event neared, the executives realized that they had a large problem. They had scheduled the event during the middle of the week, and with hundreds of thousands of other people already in the city, there was no parking anywhere near the building. So they scratched their heads. They worried. They wondered how they could have overlooked such a simple detail. They wondered how they might solve the problem. And only then did they call an event management firm.

When the recession started to rock the financial world in 2008, internal event management personnel were among the first to be laid off. Many then planted roots with independent firms or started firms of their own. Less than two years later, a December 2009 feature in U.S. News & World Report posited that a position as an event manager or event planner ranked among the 50 best jobs for 2010. The industry has transitioned and is positioned to grow a projected 16 percent between now and 2018.

That might be good news for you and your business, because the odds are high that, at some point, you will want to hold some sort of event, and unless you have an event manager on staff, you might find yourself in a situation every bit as sticky as those Midwest executives with thousands of guests and no parking spaces.

“Especially now that companies have cut back and are working with as lean a staff as possible, if they hand off event management responsibilities to internal employees, something is not going to get done effectively,” says Kavita Melwani, owner and director, Plan Ahead Events Plano. “Usually, the event will not get done effectively because people want to do their job well [and] there are only so many hours in the day.”

Plan in advance

Event managers are more than just party planners. In fact, those words are like nails on a chalkboard to many in the industry. Event managers aim to feature your message and work with you to help you reach your goals for each meeting, each conference, each event. They are able to save you significant amounts of money and time, measure the returns on your investment, and, of course, coordinate an event that will be effective and leave your employees and clients talking.

“Events are a really good marketing tool,” Melwani says. “You want to be on people’s minds.”

Just look at those Midwest executives, for example. People were certainly talking about them during the 24 hours after they called the event management firm. That was when the firm started to contact all guests to relay the parking situation, then they paid parking lot fees to ensure there would be available spaces somewhere within the city limits, hired buses and created a route to the building. All of that would have taken weeks if an internal employee with little event management experience had handled the task. It took the firm a couple of days. On the morning of the event, those thousands of guests parked at remote lots and were shuttled a couple of miles on city roads. It was hardly ideal, but it worked.

It also cost the company an extra $20,000.

“There are ways (that) you can have the event at a lower cost and with a lower budget,” Melwani says. “And some of it is as simple as the event management firm talking with and negotiating with the venue.”

Many firms also have considerable influence at hotels and venues and also with vendors. Because they direct so much business and so many sales to those outlets, they often receive a discount somewhere between 10 and 20 percent, which they normally pass along directly to you. Their knowledge of your city — and the state, nation and world, for that matter — allows them to track down the lowest prices in a matter of hours or minutes, as opposed to days or weeks.

There are four primary reasons to work with an event management firm. First, you will save a little more money in the end, even if you spend a little more at the beginning. Second, many businesses no longer have the internal resources necessary to handle events. Third, companies often need fresh ideas for old events, and an objective pair of eyes can provide those new thoughts. And fourth, it does simplify your work.

“Many companies certainly know their own marketplace but not outside marketplaces,” says Nan Lyons, vice president of sales and marketing, Nth Degree Inc. “With an outside firm, you do get that perspective that you wouldn’t otherwise have.

Open your doors

Just as with any business partner who provides value-added services — your attorney, your accountant, your banker — you need to develop a relationship with your event management firm. It is not enough to call once and spend a couple of minutes determining when and where you should hold the annual sales meeting.

The more your firm knows about you and your business, the more it will be able to implement continuity in your events from one year to the next. The firm will also be able to understand how each event fits into the larger scope and culture of your business and be able to remain on budget throughout the year.

“What many smart event management companies in our position do is to really embed ourselves in the businesses of our clients,” Lyons says. “We look at the event side but also at what their objectives are, what their business goals are, and really understand that.”

They can help keep you up to date on newer technology, too. Online event registration has proved popular during recent years because of low costs and the relative ease with which event attendees can sign up. Virtual events are also popular, especially now that travel budgets are reduced and fewer people are flying extensively. And social media is gaining momentum. Event management and social media work hand in hand. Whether promoting an event or a product launch, many event managers embrace the technology because of its ability to all but eliminate marketing costs while also reaching a far wider potential audience.

“Social media is just a better, faster, cheaper version of word-of-mouth,” Lyons says. “But how is that Twitter post better? Who owns that dialogue? How do you manage it? We definitely have that full integration.”

The world is smaller. Your events might be, too, but keep holding them. Maintain your public image. The business world, after all, might not be a party right now, but it is an event not to be missed.

Published in Dallas
Tuesday, 23 February 2010 19:00

Strike up the brand

During the course of the last year, executives at a large company in one Midwestern city scheduled an event to thank their present clients for remaining with them through the recession and to reach out to potential clients in an effort to prepare for growth. They rented a hall in a beautiful building for the morning, hired a speaker with a prominent name and attracted a crowd of about 2,500 people.

Nothing out of the ordinary. Perhaps, you have even scheduled a similar event.

But as the event neared, the executives realized that they had a large problem. They had scheduled the event during the middle of the week, and with hundreds of thousands of other people already in the city, there was no parking anywhere near the building. So they scratched their heads. They worried. They wondered how they could have overlooked such a simple detail. They wondered how they might solve the problem. And only then did they call an event management firm.

When the recession started to rock the financial world in 2008, internal event management personnel were among the first to be laid off. Many then planted roots with independent firms or started firms of their own. Less than two years later, a December 2009 feature in U.S. News & World Report posited that a position as an event manager or event planner ranked among the 50 best jobs for 2010. The industry has transitioned and is positioned to grow a projected 16 percent between now and 2018.

That might be good news for you and your business, because the odds are high that, at some point, you will want to hold some sort of event, and unless you have an event manager on staff, you might find yourself in a situation every bit as sticky as those Midwest executives with thousands of guests and no parking spaces.

“When you’re spending that amount of money in this day and age, the message and the environment you create is critical to the overall success of your event,” says Tom Kann, president, Integrated Event Management. “That’s why you want to hire a production company.”

Plan in advance

Event managers are more than just party planners. In fact, those words are like nails on a chalkboard to many in the industry. Event managers aim to feature your message and work with you to help you reach your goals for each event. They are able to save you significant amounts of money and time, measure the returns on your investment, and, of course, coordinate an event that will be effective and leave your employees and clients talking.

“A lot of it is really thinking out of the box,” Kann says. “You sit down with a client, and they say, ‘Tom, we did this last year, but we can’t do it this year. Come up with some new ideas on how we can present our ideas to our membership or to our employees.’”

Just look at those Midwest executives, for example. During the 24 hours after they called the event management firm, the firm started to contact all guests to relay the parking situation, then paid parking lot fees to ensure there would be available spaces somewhere within the city limits, hired buses and created a route to the building. All of that would have taken weeks if an internal employee with little event management experience had handled the task. It took the firm a couple of days. On the morning of the event, those thousands of guests parked at remote lots and were shuttled a couple of miles on city roads. It was hardly ideal, but it worked.

It also cost the company an extra $20,000.

“Meeting planning is very time-consuming,” says Marsha S. Reynolds, president and owner, Reynolds Meeting & Event Management. “You have to plan months and years in advance, and people who don’t have departments that do that are taking away valuable time and resources to do things like this. Instead of using internal resources, this is helping them by having an outside person handle this.”

Many firms also have considerable influence at hotels and venues and with vendors. Because they direct so much business and so many sales to those outlets, event management firms often receive a discount somewhere between 10 and 20 percent, which they normally pass along directly to you. Their knowledge of your city — and the state, nation and world, for that matter — allows them to track down the lowest prices in a matter of hours or minutes, as opposed to days or weeks.

“I’ve been doing this a long time, and I pretty much know every hotel in the United States — and many outside the United States, too,” Reynolds says. “If somebody tells me what they need, I can immediately come up with ideas.”

There are four primary reasons to work with an event management firm. First, you will save a little more money in the end, even if you spend a little more at the beginning. Second, many businesses no longer have the internal resources necessary to handle events. Third, companies often need fresh ideas for old events, and an objective pair of eyes can provide those new thoughts. And fourth, it does simplify your work.

Open your doors

Just as with any business partner who provides value-added services — your attorney, your accountant, your banker — you need to develop a relationship with your event management firm. It is not enough to call once and spend a couple of minutes determining when and where you should hold the annual sales meeting.

The more your firm knows about you and your business, the more it will be able to implement continuity in your events from one year to the next. The firm will also be able to understand how each event fits into the larger scope and culture of your business and be able to remain on budget throughout the year.

“What many smart event management companies in our position do is to really embed ourselves in the businesses of our clients,” says Nan Lyons, vice president of sales and marketing, Nth Degree. “We look at the event side but also at what their objectives are, what their business goals are, and really understand that.”

They can help keep you up to date on newer technology, too. Online event registration has proved popular during recent years because of low costs and the relative ease with which event attendees can sign up. Virtual events are also popular, especially now that travel budgets are reduced and fewer people are flying extensively. And social media is gaining momentum. Event management and social media work hand in hand. Whether promoting an event or a product launch, many event managers embrace the technology because of its ability to all but eliminate marketing costs while also reaching a far wider potential audience.

“Social media is just a better, faster, cheaper version of word-of-mouth,” Lyons says. “But how is that Twitter post better? Who owns that dialogue? How do you manage it? We definitely have that full integration.”

The world is smaller. Your events might be, too, but keep holding them. Maintain your public image. The business world, after all, might not be a party right now, but it is an event not to be missed.

Published in Atlanta