It’s never easy for a leader to let go and pass the torch on to the next generation, but honesty, transparency and communication can help make the process easier.
“It’s a transparent change of leadership. People don’t want revolutionary change, they want evolutionary change,” says Ed Kitrosser, who, on June 1, handed over the office managing partner position at Moss Adams LLP to Carisa Wisniewski.
The partner team laid out the transition plan, which began last October, and following the handover, Kitrosser will stay on through the end of the year as an audit partner.
The key to a successful transition, says Wisniewski, is respect for one another, the support of partners and staff and, above all, constant communication, not only between the two people directly involved in the transition but between them and the entire team, as well.
“The two of you have to be in constant communication so that people feel if they’re communicating with one of you, they’re communicating with both of you. They know they can get a decision that the other one will uphold so that you’re being consistent in your decision-making and making sure you’re transparent,” Wisniewski says.
Smart Business spoke with Wisniewski and Kitrosser about how to make a smooth transition of leadership that inspires the confidence of your staff and provides the least disruption possible to your company.
How important are communication, honesty, trust and transparency to ensure a smooth transition?
Wisniewski: I think communication is the most critical factor, both in leading people and in giving them the comfort that it’s going to be a smooth transition. Leadership requires that you communicate information that is necessary, not everything. The individuals transitioning need to speak about everything very openly: What are you thinking here; what is your approach?
You have to be willing to put everything on the table with each other. It’s very much a learning experience.
As you go through the hard decisions, you ask what the other person would do. Sometimes it’s better if your perspectives are unique, because then you’re able to see both sides of a decision and you can evaluate, ‘Do we continue the way we’ve been doing it, or do we evolve it into something else?’
Kitrosser: If you don’t trust each other explicitly, it’s not going to be a smooth process. You’re not going to agree on everything, but when you disagree, you have to know why you disagree and you have to respect each other’s viewpoint.
Acknowledge to each other that you’re going to have differences of opinion, you’re going to butt heads, you’re going to get angry with each other, but that’s healthy. It’s part of the process, and you compromise when you need to compromise.
You also have to be really careful with the staff. From a staff standpoint, if you’re not completely transparent, it would cause them discomfort.
How can a new leader operate effectively while the soon-to-be former leader is still there during the transition?
Kitrosser: As the incoming leader steps up more and more and assumes a larger role, the outgoing leader steps back and assumes a lesser role. Nothing happens overnight; it has to be a gradual, evolutionary change.
The incoming leader becomes more and more visible every day, and the outgoing leader becomes less visible, so that in any decisions that will affect the future, people are looking to the new leader to make those day-to-day decisions.
How do you get employees to begin to rely on the new leader?
Kitrosser: If people are asking you as the outgoing leader to make decisions that affect the future, it’s not appropriate to continue doing that because it will affect the time when the new person is the leader. The new leader needs to make those decisions, and the staff needs to see that person making those decisions.
What are the benefits to drawing out the transition process instead of making changes overnight?
Wisniewski: The mentoring that the outgoing leader is able to do is crucial. The incoming leader continues to learn more of the process month to month so that he or she gets a complete cycle of decision-making and doesn’t have to start from scratch. You can learn from the things the outgoing leader had done.
You both have to be very effective and engaged through the entire process, and that takes foresight and planning.
What advice would you give a leader who’s having trouble backing off and letting someone new handle decisions?
Kitrosser: Don’t let your ego get in the way. There will be some things going on where you don’t think you would have made that decision, but you’ll find that that decision is actually better than the decision you would have made. You learn to accept that. It’s new ideas, new thoughts, new vision, and in some ways, it’s going to be better, just because it’s a new way of looking at things.
The most important thing is to check your ego at the door. And be open, honest and transparent.
Carisa Wisniewski is office managing partner at Moss Adams LLP. Reach her at email@example.com or
(858) 627-1402. Ed Kitrosser is former office managing partner at Moss Adams LLP. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (858) 627-1416.
When several people at a company are working with the same client, information can get lost and opportunities can be missed.
But with a customer relationship management (CRM) program, all of your data are in one place, keeping everyone who works with that client on the same page.
“When you have a lot of people interacting with customers, those people aren’t necessarily talking to each other every day and not everyone knows everything about the customer,” says Eric Stoll, director of technology at Arke Systems. “CRM brings it all together and makes all that information available to everyone who needs to look up that
Smart Business spoke with Stoll about how CRM can help you grow your business and the first steps to getting started.
What is the benefit of CRM?
CRM is software that allows businesses to manage their entire operation with a more customer-centric approach by employing a central database. The database tracks all of their customers’ information that’s relative to their business and also helps manage the business processes to interact with those customers.
A lot of people use it to focus in on sales and marketing and servicing those customers. Once you have your business focused on a CRM platform, you can go back and start analyzing how your business is doing and how effective you are at each of those stages and with your interactions with customers.
Can CRM work for a business of any size?
It is effective at all levels. Smaller
companies really gain a benefit in their sales because their resources are limited, and following up with every one of those leads and opportunities that they come across can be difficult. CRM keeps you honest and makes you accountable for following up with everyone. That makes a quick impact on increasing your revenue.
Larger organizations can really benefit from keeping track of everything in one place and having a more 360-degree view of the customer.
What is the first step to get started using CRM?
You can’t implement the entire thing in one step. First, you need to figure out where CRM is going to make the biggest impact in your business. A lot of people start in the sales area, building out and automating some of their sales processes.
Many companies already have a sales process and different stages in that process that define how they’ll follow up with each of those customers. Analyzing these processes will also help them project their sales pipeline.
You need to figure out which area is going to bring the most bang for your buck. To start, you want to collect that data and start using it to make sure you’re following up with customers and actually doing what you’re supposed to be doing in the business.
Is it time-consuming and expensive to get a system up and running?
It depends on how well the process has already been defined within the business. Some companies have a very well-defined sales process and they just happen to manage it on spreadsheets or a whiteboard. Moving something like that into a CRM doesn’t necessarily have to be expensive or time-consuming.
If a company lacks these front-end processes, it will need to invest time and money into developing them before the company will be able to implement them through CRM. The first 90 days of using CRM is the critical period. With everyone on board and using CRM, a company should be able to start to see the benefits of using CRM at about the 90-day mark. In the first 90 days, CRM may not affect every part and angle of business, but you should be able to see where it will have the most impact. You should re-evaluate how you are leveraging CRM to get more information out of it for your business.
How does CRM software help salespeople better target potential customers?
You can watch where your marketing is more effective, what verticals and industries you are getting more sales from, but you can also look from a service point of view and find out where the most repeat business is coming from. You can then make sure you’re focusing your sales toward the areas you’re better at servicing.
You can also look at where sales have traditionally been made faster or where you’ve had bigger sales and focus it on those areas.
Eric Stoll is the director of technology at Arke Systems. Reach him at (404) 812-3123 x130 or email@example.com.
In today’s economy, many employers are choosing to suspend their contributions to their employees’ retirement plans or terminate their plans altogether. But before following suit, make sure you understand your actual savings and the consequences of making the cuts.
“In some cases, terminating the plan might be the right decision, but keep in mind that you can also save quite a bit of money reducing or suspending your match until your bottom line improves,” says Paula Lewis, QPA, QKA, director of the retirement plan design and administration department at SS&G Financial Services, Inc.
“Some companies are terminating their retirement plans altogether when there may be better alternatives available, especially when considering the intangible effects of the termination.”
Smart Business spoke with Lewis about what to consider when thinking about suspending retirement plan matches or terminating a plan altogether and what risks you could face with either option.
When looking to cut costs, should a company suspend contributions to employee retirement plans or terminate the plans entirely?
A lot of companies are looking at their retirement plans for ways to reduce costs. Some companies are reducing or eliminating 401(k) matches while others are terminating the plans altogether. Additionally, in a down economy, employees may be cutting back on their 401(k) contributions to have more money in hand, which can imply to employers that it is unimportant. So how do you know what decision is right for your company?
You need take a step back and look at how much you are really spending annually on your match and your retirement plan administration to determine what you will be saving. Your plan administrator should be able to help you determine the cost of your match and your plan as a whole. Are you saving what you had thought? Do you need to suspend your match entirely or would reducing it do the trick? Are you going to save enough by eliminating the match or do you need to get rid of your plan all together? It is important to determine your monetary goals before deciding what to do with your plan.
If you decide to make a change, suspending contributions is obviously less drastic than terminating your plan, especially when business might turn around in a year or two. Another thing to keep in mind is that if you terminate your 401(k) plan, you cannot just start it back up again when the economy turns around. You are required to wait at least 12 months to restart it without facing penalties. In addition, when you restart your plan, you will have to pay initial start-up costs again.
How can an employer suspend contributions or terminate its program and remain in compliance with the law?
For most plans, you can stop matching contributions at any time, but there are certain requirements you must meet. For instance, if your plan document has a specific formula listed (the company matches 50 percent on the dollar up to 6 percent of compensation), you must amend your plan documents to indicate that the company will no longer match contributions.
If your plan documents are set up with a discretionary match, which gives an employer more flexibility, you do not have to do a formal plan amendment, but are required to notify plan participants.
All companies should give employees the opportunity to change their election based on a change in the match.
What should companies keep in mind when communicating plan changes or terminations to their employees?
If you are going to suspend your match, typically you are required to give 30 days’ notice to all participants. It is important to communicate openly with your employees what the company is doing and the reasoning behind the decisions, especially if suspending the match will help you avoid laying people off or reducing salaries. Develop literature explaining the changes, hold a company-wide meeting to let people know what changes are being made, and give all employees the opportunity to ask questions and express concerns.
If it is a temporary suspension, make sure that you clearly communicate the timeframe for renewing/revisiting the decision and reassure everyone that the match will be reinstated once things get back on track. Also, let everyone know that it is effecting every level of the organization, including management.
What intangible effects should be considered when deciding the future of your company’s 401(k) program?
Cost-cutting measures often result in intangible consequences that must be considered. You must always consider the message that you are sending employees. Possible intangible effects include a decrease in employee morale, a decline in employee retention and a more difficult time with employee recruitment, especially with the elimination of a 401(k) plan. While most employees understand cost-cutting measures in this economy and appreciate the fact that the company is doing everything it can to ensure they have a job in the future, there may be a few employees that feel a decline in job satisfaction due to the loss of benefits. Try to put a positive spin on the reduction of benefits (no decrease in salary, keeping other key benefits, etc.) and remind employees that it is temporary, if applicable, to minimize intangible effects.
At Flight Options, every customer is treated as a VIP and is considered a member of the Flight Options family.
And to ensure its employees understand that, two years ago, the fractional jet ownership company headed by CEO S. Michael Sheeringa began working with a five-star luxury hospitality company to transform the business into a more customer-centric, service-based organization.
With the company as a consultant, Flight Options developed “Service on a Higher Plane,” an eight-hour training class focused on internal and external customer service. Every Flight Options employee has attended the class, and the company is now developing the second phase of the curriculum.
The Flight Options team follows five principles, called “The Five Non-Negotiables,” which include passionate attention to detail and continuous improvement. These principles hang on posters around the company’s headquarters, and all team members have a copy, as well, gearing them toward a collective goal of providing exemplary customer experiences in all that they do.
This training is critical, because there are times when maintenance and weather things employees have no control over can affect service, but the staff does everything it can to minimize the impact. For example, when weather forces a crew to land at an alternate airport, crew members have rented a car to drive their passengers to their original destination.
But the company’s superior customer service isn’t only the result of training; it all starts with hiring employees with “service hearts” and retaining them by treating each person with honesty, professionalism, kindness and dignity. Flight Options also matched employees with positions that challenge them and allow them to grow professionally and encourages them to treat others with honesty, professionalism, kindness and dignity.
HOW TO REACH: Flight Options, www.flightoptions.com
The engine and component manufacturer gives back to the community through financial support and volunteer contributions, and as of the beginning of August, had given 436 hours of service to organizations including Camp Cheerful, the Metroparks, Parkworks, Cleveland Botanical Garden and Ranger Headquarters.
The Cleveland Manufacturing Site contributes in the areas of education, health and welfare, civic affairs, and arts and humanities, with an emphasis on education.
Within the area of education, it has contributed to Berea City Schools, Berea High School, Cleveland Junior Achievement, Cleveland Scholarship Program, the Cleveland State University Science Olympiad and Cleveland State University ACE, the Great Lakes Science Center, Inroads, Look Up to Cleveland and Ohio Youth in Government.
In civic affairs, it has been involved in NAACP, Parkworks and the Retired Senior Volunteer Program.
In health and welfare, it has contributed to the Berea Children’s Home, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Cleveland, Catholic Charities, City Mission Hunger Fund, Cleveland Foodbank, Cleveland Jaycees Christmas Shopping, Cops and Kids, Cory Kitchen, Hunger Network, Parkview Areawide Seniors, Salvation Army Hunger Fund, St. Paul Shrine Hunger Center, The Emergency Hunger Center, The National Conference, United Way Services, University Settlement and Volunteers of America Hunger Fund.
In the arts and humanities, it is involved with the Cleveland Botanical Garden, Healthspace Cleveland, Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Cleveland Opera, Cleveland Playhouse Square, Cleveland Playhouse Theater, Cleveland Zoological Society, Great Lakes Theater Festival, Cleveland Orchestra and Western Reserve Historical Society.
It is a member of the Better Business Bureau, the Brook Park Chamber of Commerce, the Employers Resource Council and the Quality Communities Partnership.
And this year, it has made one-time contributions to the Cleveland Hearing & Speech Center, the YMCA, the Disabled American Veterans and WVIZ Ideastream.
How to reach: Ford Motor Co., (216) 676-7762
Now in the second year of the five-year plan, Kerscher believes the company will not only meet that goal but exceed it.
The Hudson-based medical publishing company provides leading-edge technology solutions to health care professionals through the development, maintenance and enhancement of information products.
Lexi-Comp was established to create custom reference books for clinical hospital laboratories and has since evolved into a major medical reference and custom publisher. Its primary areas of focus for health information content include pharmacology, diagnostic procedures and laboratory tests, natural products, dentistry, infectious diseases and patient education.
Thirteen of the top 17 hospitals, as ranked by U.S. News and World report, use Lexi-Comp's databases and technology. Its Lexi-Interact, a drug interactions product, received the highest rating among nine companies in a study published in the American Journal of Health-Systems Pharmacists. And it received the highest overall rating in an Ohio State University study evaluating five online pharmacology services.
The company is also attracting attention beyond American borders. With clients in 81 countries, Lexi-Comp was recently chosen by the U.S. Department of Defense to develop the Iraqi National Formulary, a critical element in rebuilding the medical infrastructure within Iraq.
Moving forward, Lexi-Comp is finalizing plans for adding 14,000 square feet to its facility in two phases, which includes adding as many as 140 staff positions. With the completion of both phases, it should be capable of supporting more than $40 million in annual revenue, according to Kerscher. How to reach: Lexi-Comp Inc., (330) 650-6506
From its first book in 1992 -- "Cleveland Public Golf Courses," currently called "The Cleveland Golfer's Bible and now in its fifth edition -- to "Dick Goddard's Weather Guide for Northeast Ohio," "The Cleveland Orchestra Story," "The Corpse in the Cellar," "Omar!" "One Tank Trips" and the recent "LeBron James," Gray's books cover the gamut of Cleveland past and present.
David Gray, president of Gray & Co., grew up in Shaker Heights but began his career as an unpaid intern at a Boston publishing company.
"I did a good enough job that they offered me a job there," Gray says. "I started as an intern and wound up as the general manager of a 15-person company, basically by working through the business end.
" ... I learned everything from book design to royalty accounting and accounts payable and all the boring basic business things that are not the things that attract a lot of people who want to get into the publishing business. That's how I was able to get a job, keep job and move up fairly quickly, by doing the things other people didn't want to do."
After six years, he left the company with no other plan than to "travel for awhile and waste my meager savings." He says he left that job because although he was in a position of responsibility, he didn't have enough authority.
"I wasn't able to make changes in the business in order to improve and to grow," Gray says. "In the No. 2 or No. 3 position, you're not going to become No. 1, because the owner is No. 1. And you are working with someone whose personality is responsible for a lot of the decisions that are made. If you have a basic conflict with the vision for the company, there's not much you can do about it."
Smart Business spoke with Gray about being the boss, marketing books and expanding his company to other markets.
How did Gray & Company, Publishers, get its start?
I wound up back in Cleveland for the Christmas holidays in 1990, and, having spent all my money (traveling), took a job in a bookstore to earn money so I could buy Christmas presents. While there, I noticed there was a small supply of books about Cleveland that sold very well, and that's where I came up with the idea. I thought if there were good books about Cleveland, they'd sell even better.
At the same time, I was filling in for Enterprise Development, and they ran a business incubator. ... They fostered entrepreneurism, so it was a really good environment for thinking about starting a business. Then you find out it's a lot harder to keep the thing going once you start it. I mistakenly thought it would be easier to start a business than just go look for another job.
How do you find the subjects and authors for your books?
It's a mixture. At first, I had roster of ideas that I went out seeking writers for, because at that time, there was not a commercial book publisher in Cleveland. Writers weren't shopping around book ideas because there was no one to shop them around to.
So I had to get started finding people who were interested in writing books. At this point, having published 50 or more books and having been around for a dozen years, a lot more people find us. And that's a good thing, because I obviously don't have a corner on the market for good ideas for books, and some of our best ideas have come from outside the company.
Is it easy to convince national chains to sell books on local topics?
Luckily, yes. In the book industry, there's been a long enough tradition of local interest ... that the retailers understand that it's an important component of their inventory. So you go into a Borders or a Barnes & Noble, and one of the more prominent sections you'll find is local interest.
Local interest sells well, and it also helps them establish their credibility with the local market. They're a national chain, but they carry products of particular interest to us. You won't find that in the music industry.
How do you advertise your product?
Book marketing is essentially generating word-of-mouth publicity. Any given book doesn't sell enough copies or generate enough revenue to reward much market research. You just have to publish it and figure out how to make it sell.
You don't see much advertising in publishing because there's not enough money to be made per book that you can lay out much for traditional advertising. That makes sense if you've got a product or a business or a store that you're trying to get repeat business to, but we're trying to sell a $15 product one time to a person.
(The best advertising is) when one person says to another, 'Hey, I just read this great book, I think you'd like it,' or when someone says, 'I heard this person on the radio talking about ethnic restaurants, that (book) sounds like something we ought to get for mom.'
We focus a lot of our marketing energies on trying to generate word-of-mouth publicity, and a lot of that is done through news media. And luckily for us, with our type of product, these are interesting, creative works by interesting, creative people. We're not just trying to plug a product through the media; we try to find good fits where our authors are newsworthy or featureworthy because they've got stories with good value.
We get authors out doing interviews, doing talks before library groups, interesting things they have to say about the topic that they share with other people. And they tell two people, and so on.
When we work with authors, because we're local and they're local, we really are active partners in the promotion of the book. And certain authors, who are either knowledgeable about their subject matter or just interested in self-promotion, tend to do better than authors who aren't as interested in promoting themselves.
A lot of writers are not promotional types. They're writers. But when you combine the two, that's when we're more likely to have a hit.
Are there plans to expand to markets outside of Cleveland?
I'd like to. As with any business, the plan sometimes tends to stretch out a little further than you initially expected. We've been growing with very little capital, a small capital investment at the start of the business from a number of individuals, and no additional capital since that time.
Growth will require either significantly increased revenue and profit in this market so we can self-fund, or another round of fund-raising to take the next step.
Right now, I'm still trying to show to the investors and to myself that we can make money in the Cleveland market. At this point we're making money, but it's not guaranteed every year, and it's not enough.
I'd like to expand to do more. We can't expand infinitely in Cleveland because sooner or later, we'll be sick and tired of books about Cleveland. There's not enough market for that. Certainly a lot of the books we've done here could be done for other cities, too. How to reach: Gray & Co., Publishers, (800) 915-3609 or www.grayco.com.
"The management team is critical to deployment," Eltzroth says. "It's easy for a company to say, 'I'm going to send you to sales training, but if the sales manager doesn't know the process, it's going to fall apart. It has to be throughout the organization," from the sales manager to the sales support team. "Everyone involved has to be following the same process."
Skilled salespeople may be reluctant to attend training, preferring to use the same techniques they always have, says Eltzroth. But even your best salesperson needs occasional formal training.
"You get into a routine," he says, "and you sometimes forget tactics. Sales training almost always enlightens every person. In every class, you have people who say, 'I know that, but I'm not doing that.' It's a very good reminder."
While some companies rely on their top sales staff to train other salespeople, that is not always a good idea.
"Even if someone has very natural talent and they're very successful, it's still very difficult to explain it to someone else," Eltzroth says.
Sending salespeople to formal training programs can help you reduce proposal time, increase the number of salespeople hitting quotas, reduce the cost of sales, optimize customer satisfaction and revenue and improve your ability to accurately forecast sales.
Eltzroth recommends sending sales reps to a formal program every two to three years if there isn't much turnover, and that you always send new salespeople to a training program "that is consistent with what the company has adopted."
"Sales training takes the mystery out of sales," he says. "It's really a process. It doesn't need to be a mystery."
But just putting your sales staff through training isn't enough. After the program, reinforcement is vital.
"It's an ongoing, day-to-day process," Eltzroth says. "Management should encourage the use of those skills that they've been taught. Otherwise they will not use them, or will forget them or ignore them."
The kind of training you choose to send your salespeople to depends on what your goal is. While Effectium caters its training to companies in difficult selling markets -- intangible products, complex products, those of large value or those which may not be clear to the buyer -- other programs, such as Carnegie, focus on communications skills, which are useful in all types of sales.
When choosing a program, Eltzroth recommends that you not only investigate the program but also to talk with the instructors to determine whether they think their process will be effective for what you want to accomplish. And avoid instructors who are condescending.
"That turns students off," Eltzroth says. "And once students shut off, they may never come back."
When searching for a program, also look for a small teacher-student ratio, which allows students to practice the tactics they're learning.
"If you want them to practice what they're learning, it's easier to learn in smaller groups," Eltzroth says. How to reach: Effectium, (877) 452-8387 or www.effectium.com
"We ask leading questions," says Craig Decker, sales and marketing director at Made From Scratch, a catering and event planning firm. "What are your expectations? What kind of concept have you come up with? If someone says, 'I see us having hamburgers and hotdogs in the backyard and having something like wagons and such with a Western theme,' that makes it easy for us to understand that they want a very inexpensive, very casual environment, versus the client who's saying, 'I want seafood items.'
"That leads us to a different type of customer, with higher expectations and higher associated costs."
Once you determine the theme and food, it's time to consider beverages. Even if you don't know what your guests will drink, the caterer might.
"We have a database where I can punch in how many people you have, how many hours long your party's going to be, and I can tell you within five minutes how many bottles of vodka you'll go through, how many bottles of wine, how many red, how many white, how many Budweisers ... I can tell you pretty much down to the glass exactly what the average party will consume at any event," says Decker, who is a co-creator of the best-selling wine Arbor Mist.
Decker, who appears on the Columbus TV show Cooking with Jonathan, says the age of the guests gives him a good idea of what to serve. "If they're all 50 to 60 years old, then ... they're going to be drinking a lot of brown liquor," he says. "If I've got a lot of 30- to 40-year-olds, they're going to gravitate toward Heineken and wine, versus someone on the younger side, who is probably going to gravitate toward beer."
The rule of thumb is one drink per person per hour. Decker says it's usually more economical to have a host bar, paying one price per head with unlimited consumption, vs. paying per drink.
And if you want to hold the event at your business, a caterer can legally serve alcohol there. "As long as your party is not open to the public, it's private invitation and you're not charging anything to attend -- which means you can't charge for books, an entrance fee or a donation. Because when you charge to come to that event, the law says you are charging for the alcohol that's contained in the event, even though you're giving it away. You can give alcohol away all day long, but the minute you start charging is the minute you start having problems." HOW TO REACH: Made From Scratch, (614) 873-3344
"It's like any other business," says Mary Vanucci, event specialist at Ernst & Young for the Lake Erie region. "You need to know who's coming and plan. If you know your market and get all the details right, it will be a success. Basically what I do is put myself in the role of who is coming to the event and what that person would need if they were coming to my event."
Knowing your target market will also help you determine which venue is most appropriate for your event. When selecting a site, meeting planners have a wide variety of options, from hotels and convention centers to Cleveland Browns Stadium and state parks.
"With high level executives, you might want a more high-level venue. For an education seminar, you'd need something a little simpler," Vanucci says.
Francis Girard, president of the Forum Conference Center, which hosts about 1,400 events a year, says it's important to know what you want to accomplish at your meeting so the venue you choose can set up the best possible space for your needs.
"We always ask them what kind of a meeting it is," Girard says. "What are you going to do? Is someone just going to stand up in front of the room and lecture all day, or is it going to be interactive? Are there going to be discussion groups vs. everyone in just one big group?"
The devil's in the details
If you need to hold a meeting but your company doesn't have a full-time event planner, using a place such as the Forum can save you both time and aggravation.
"We do everything in-house," Girard says, from food service to set-up to providing audiovisual equipment.
That saves the person in charge of planning the meeting from having to call several different places for food, for equipment, for materials and for anything else that may be needed.
And while the meeting planner provided by the venue can be invaluable, Vanucci says it's very important for the person in charge of the budget to keep control of the situation.
"While I welcome suggestions from my event planner (at the venue) because they know the chefs, they know the venue best, it's also my budget," she says.
Vanucci advises breaking down your budget into catering, technology, rental, cost of material and other necessities.
"Sometimes you have to be very creative," she says.
Girard adds that even if your top venue choice seems out of reach because of budget concerns, sometimes a facility will work with a planner to accommodate the meeting.
"We'll say, 'Tell me what your budget is and tell me everything that you need, and we'll try to go backwards into it. Usually we can work it out," Girard says.
The time it takes to plan a meeting varies by the size and type of the event, but unless it's just a short meeting to make a simple announcement, it's difficult to plan in just a week or two. Some venues are booked years in advance, and putting off booking the event could lock you out of a place that would have been perfect.
Because Ernst and Young's Entrepreneur Of The Year annual event includes nearly 500 guests, planning for next year's event begins as soon as this year's is over.
"It is actually becoming almost a year-round event," Vanucci says. "We just finished up and we are already booking dates for next year, talking about the theme. It really is a very large and complicated event."
Girard says it's important to lock in a space as soon as you know there's going to be a meeting.
"Get the space locked in and you can worry about the details later," he says.
The Forum can sometimes accommodate those who call on Friday to set up a last-minute meeting for Monday, but meetings there are booked an average of 45 days in advance, and some groups plan years ahead.
"The ones that book that far out are usually the really big ones, where they need the whole place," Girard says. "We do a lot of annual shareholders meetings. Those, by their bylaws, need to be done, say, the fourth Tuesday of April at 10 in the morning. Knowing they have to have that day and that time, they'll just book three years out."
But although planning a large meeting may take more time than planning a smaller one, the process doesn't change much.
"The process is basically the same," Vanucci says. "It's like planning a dinner party for 10 vs. 20. It's just more chairs and more food. It takes more time to do the budget, get the venue and do promotion," but the process doesn't change.
The payoff in all the planning comes from a successful event.
"It's extremely stressful, but there's nothing like opening day. It's an adrenaline rush," Vanucci says. "When someone comes up to you and says they had a great time at your event, or they got so much out of your seminar, you know your work over the past month, or six months, or year was worth it." How to reach: Ernst & Young, (216) 861-5000; Forum Conference Center, (216) 241-6338
Eat, drink and be merry
When choosing the food and alcohol to serve at your meeting, look at the demographics of the people who will be attending, says Francis Girard, president of the Forum Conference Center.
"If you bring in people who are office workers and lower management, they eat differently than upper management," he says. "Upper management people tend to eat less, but they want different kinds of food, they want higher-end food."
He says age also matters -- "If it's an older group, eating habits change for those people" -- as well as gender -- "Eating habits are quite different for men and women."
Another consideration is the ethnic makeup of the group.
"We ask if there are going to be any minorities in any number, and it's not just a black and white issue," Girard says. "We have a lot of people coming in from India now and the Orient, so we've got to be sure the buffets will cater to those people so they don't find they don't like any of the food we have. Those questions are becoming more important as the United States becomes more diversified."
Food can also be customized to a meeting theme, such as hotdogs for a baseball-themed meeting.
And if there's going to be alcohol, take a close look at who will be attending, Girard says.
"The age group is important, but where they are, their stature in the organization, is very important," Girard says. "The really high-end people will drink mixed drinks or a glass of wine, and not too much. As you come down (the ladder), there's more beer drunk, and more of it.
"A lot of that is because the higher up you get, you're out a lot and you go to a lot of these things. It's not, 'Oh wow, I finally get to go out.' For the lower levels, it's more of a social thing, and they drink more."
Planning for disaster
A hurricane, a flood, a major snowstorm, even an act of terrorism, can disrupt an event you've spent months planning and thousands of dollars on.
Mary Vanucci, an event specialist for Ernst & Young's Lake Erie region, recalls being in San Francisco for an event in 1989 when the Loma Prieta earthquake hit.
"They didn't have insurance, and because of the crisis, they had to cancel the conference," Vanucci says. "It cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars. They got insurance after that, because you never know what's going to affect your event."
That's why many event planners, usually those of large national conferences, are now buying event cancellation insurance, which usually covers large, otherwise unrecoverable, upfront expenses in case of a catastrophe.
Below are several types of meeting/event-related coverage, according to Aon Association Services.
* Cancellation. All-risk coverage for the loss of revenue or expenses due to a cancellation, interruption or postponement. Also provides coverage for reduced attendance to a postponed event.
* Terrorism coverage. Covers cancellation or postponement of an event due to terrorism. Limitations include the site of the terrorism in relation to the location of the event.
* Labor disputes. Coverage for the cancellation, interruption or postponement of an event due to labor disputes.
* Physical loss of personal property and registration receipts. Covers property in transit to or from an event and at the venue, and registration receipts at the event or en route to the bank.
* Failure to vacate the facility on time. Covers expenses incurred for failure to leave the premise on time in accordance with the contract. How to reach: Aon Association Services, www.asaenet.org/services/insurance