Matthew LaWell

Wednesday, 26 May 2010 20:00

Creating a wellness program

Imagine an office where employees walk laps during lunch, their pedometers clipped to their waistbands, clicking off each step up and down the stairs and through the halls and around the cubicles. Imagine an office where employees snack on fruits and nuts rather than candy bars, where employees drink water instead of another can of soda, and where employees have managed to kick that pack-a-day habit.

Imagine an office where health and wellness are a priority.

Is this anything like your office? It should be. Perhaps it will be during the months and years to come.

There is little doubt that health and wellness are, if nothing else, a hot topic across the nation. Just turn on the television and watch a reality show about weight loss or any of what seems like a dozen syndicated talk shows where a photogenic doctor fields questions and concerns. Or pick up a magazine and read the features on wellness recently published in Time and The New York Times Sunday Magazine. Or just turn your eyes to Washington, D.C., where President Barack Obama signed the health care reform legislation in late March.

Our parents are overweight. Our children are overweight. We are overweight. And as we work our way through the recession, our days are packed. We tend to eat poorly and not exercise or even move nearly enough. We are in the dregs of a pandemic. All of our poor decisions are costing not only our bodies and our minds but also our health care costs and our office productivity. A wellness program just might help to turn the overwhelming tide of fat and frustration.

“A wellness strategy is really a subset of a human capital strategy,” says Paul Martino, vice president, health and wellness solutions, WellPoint Inc. “I think if an employer has a long-term horizon and views human capital in a particular way — that it is valuable, that you want to retain your highly valuable and efficient people — you want to allow people to be at their job and functioning well.”

If you do not have a program up and running, pun intended, at your business, why should you bother to install one now? Or if you do have a program, why should you aim to improve it as we continue to move through 2010? Well, because plenty of research proves that healthier employees are more productive and actually cost you and your business less in total costs. Oh, and there is an impressive return on the investment, especially after a year or two.

But you have to plan and install the program first.

Take the first step

Are your employees overweight? Are they obese? Do they smoke? Not long ago, you would have been well within your rights to avoid the answers to any of those questions. If your employees worked hard and produced, who cared about their health? But after years of medical research, those are all important and relevant questions, and if the answer to any is yes, you will want to consider a wellness program.

But why do you want to install a wellness program?

There are no wrong answers, of course, but if there is no why, if there is no vision, the program will flounder. And if you and your executives do not support the program from its first breath, neither will your employees, so take the time to work with a private company for you and your employees to take a health risk assessment and a biometric screening.

“It’s important to step back and gather some data from the employees,” says Laura Poland, executive director, The Rite Bite. “Completing health risk appraisals with employees and find out what their health risks are and what’s going on in the workplace. That can reveal specific areas of interest that an organization should pursue.”

HRAs and biometric screenings highlight symptoms and conditions that might develop into larger problems in the future, both among individuals and your employee base as a whole. If you work with an outside company, the information will also be anonymous and in compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

HRAs are often free, though if performed in person rather than on the Internet, they can cost between $5 and $25 per employee, depending on the quality and depth of the analysis. Biometric screenings typically cost anywhere between $50 and $150 per employee. You might also need to offer your employees an incentive, like a gift card or cash, for them to give their time to take the tests — because anything less than 70 to 80 percent participation leaves the results skewed and of less use for your business.

That cost might seem steep, but the information that is revealed can change your business. Do you want to know the overall health risk for your employees? Their weight and body mass index? Their exercise, nutrition and smoking habits? Even their levels of stress at work and at home? All those figures are available and can help lay the groundwork for what you need to know to start a wellness program.

Consider an outside company — and your employees

When you have the results of the HRAs and screenings, you’ll want to work with your insurance company to perform an annual claims review. At that point, you’ll be able to plan for the installation of a wellness program.

But you might not want to keep that plan under your own roof.

Because of compliance regulations and the general complexity of HIPAA laws, you might be better off turning to an outside company to ensure that your burgeoning program remains legal. After all, you already work with a law firm to handle your legal matters, an accounting firm to handle your numbers and a bank to keep everything in order, so why not work with professionals when it comes to the literal health of your business?

“You can use a combination of a third party coming in, but you still have to have representation throughout the business,” Poland says. “HR is actually a good partner in these programs, because they do have knowledge of everyone’s job in the business — they should be a big part of it.”

No matter your choice on that matter, your employees do need to feel a sense of inclusion in —and perhaps even some sliver of ownership of — the program, so involve them as early as possible. Tell them about the program as you develop it, and if you build a wellness planning committee, make sure you bring in people from as many departments as possible. And when the program is prepared to launch, make sure you pass along that information well in advance.

“Employees are always thinking, ‘What’s in it for me? What is the benefit for me?’” Poland says. “You need to communicate that as part of any program you do, and you have to have good marketing behind anything you do. Be good about marketing to get the programs across.”

The key to increased participation is to offer an incentive, especially now as we continue to recover from recession and every little bonus bears the glint of gold. Perhaps your employees would react to paid time off or reduced premium costs. Both are common incentives, according to a panel of more than two dozen industry experts.

Monitor results and look forward

The fruits of an effective wellness program will take some time to develop and spread throughout your business. Just remember, when you start to work out or return to the gym, you don’t see a noticeable difference after one day or even after one week or one month. A wellness program is a lot like that trip to gym. Give it a couple of months to notice the first signs of change, a year to really see an improvement and a couple of years to watch as new habits spread from employee to employee.

Those new habits, of course, are part of the return on your investment. There are other intangible returns, too, including employee reports that they feel better and lo ok better and now have a success story to tell their friends and family. But without hard numbers, all of those intangibles are nothing more than what one expert referred to as “warm fuzzies.”

Good thing a wellness program is far more than warm fuzzies. After a couple of months or a year or two, you can measure the collective pounds lost, the drop in body mass index, and the decrease in cholesterol and blood pressure levels. You can also measure the decreased rate of absenteeism because of injury or illness, improved productivity, and perhaps even lower figures for workers’ compensation claims and turnover rate.

“Where all the cost is in the system is for people who are at risk for either a chronic illness or acute episodes,” Martino says. “Those are the people who cost all the money, so if you point programs at them, it’s much easier to get a return on the investment. If you look at people who are your working well, generally about 80 percent of the population, those are the people who, because they aren’t sick and don’t have as high a risk for illness, they naturally have lower costs.

“It’s harder to get a return on a program that is intended to serve the entire population. The working well, if they’re not managing their health correctly, will end up in one of the other groups. People who are moving toward more sedentary lifestyles as they get older, those things will lead to the chronic and acute problems.”

And there are the dollar figures for the return on your investment. Those are as important as any number on any scale.

Similar to those first trips to the gym and those first months of the program, you should not expect to see any sort of large return during the first year or so. The program might pay for itself during that first year — thanks to employees being able to work more hours and to a possible decrease in health care costs — but you will likely have to wait until the second year, perhaps even early during the third year to see any real positive return.

“Some recent studies show that it takes two to three years to change the culture and to see solid results,” Poland says. “They also show that for every dollar invested, that nets about $3.50 in return per employee. Now, that is two or three years down the road.”

When that change starts to filter in, you might be surprised at what you see. Over time, the average wellness program will be worth about $3 toward your bottom line for every $1 you invest. Some experts say you can expect more than that, $5, $6 or even $8 for every $1 you invest. But $3 is a fair figure on which most experts agree.

“If you believe in the value of your human capital and you want to keep the people who are healthy now healthy in the future, then keep them engaged,” Martino says. “Keep them happy at work.”

Wednesday, 28 April 2010 20:00

A guide to open enrollment

Prepare yourself for the feeding frenzy.

That is, at least, the advice provided by one managed care organization expert when asked what employers should do in advance of the MCO open enrollment period, which is scheduled to start May 3 and run through May 28. The open enrollment period will be the only time during the next two years that MCOs will be able to market themselves to employers as the ideal conduit to provide medical case management and as the perfect organization to provide support and guidance in the wake of workers' compensation claims. That means that representatives from each of the almost two dozen major Ohio MCOs will knock on your door, arrive in your waiting area, dial your phone, mail plenty of direct correspondence to your offices and, in general, make themselves as prominent as possible to you during what amounts to the busiest four weeks of their biennial.

The open enrollment period is their Super Bowl, their sweeps week, their holiday shopping spree, all rolled into days and weeks and one furious month of work.

And, yes, at times, it might appear to be a feeding frenzy. At least in the figurative sense of the term.

"This is a very short amount of time," says Karen Conger, CEO, Ohio Employee Health Partnership. "That's why, all of a sudden, it might appear we have all lost our minds."

If you're satisfied with the recent performance of your MCO, there's no law that says you are required to switch now. Indeed, if you are satisfied, make that clear to other MCOs as early as possible during the process. Heck, you might as well stop reading now. No reason to busy yourself if the next month will be business as usual.

But if you do want to switch providers - or even if you think you might want to switch providers - there are steps to take to ensure the process moves along as smoothly as possible and leaves you and your business happy with your decision.

"Even if an employer believes they're satisfied or is comfortable with what their MCO has been doing, it still is important that they objectively evaluate how their MCO compares to other MCOs in terms of performance," says Richard J. Poach, president and COO, CareWorks. "They may be perfectly happy, but they may be able to get something better at no additional cost."

Read the report card

Before you sift through one piece of informational literature or talk with one MCO representative, take a couple of minutes and read the report card.

The Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation publishes a relatively simple report card on its Web site at least once every two years, and it always publishes one just prior to the open enrollment period. The report card doesn't have any A's, B's or F's, just statistical information about each of the MCOs in the state. There are the number of their employees and the number of recent claims they handled, of course. There are their First Report of Injury (FROI) timing and FROI turnaround figures, both measures to reflect their efficiency during the last decade or so. And there is a measurement of their optimal return to work performance, which is important because it tells employers how quickly an MCO is able to get an injured worker back to the office.

"I would start as soon as that report card is out on the BWC Web page," Conger says. "The report card, although it is in some ways vague, has good measurements. And that's where it starts, because that's where the BWC has ranked the MCOs. Then ask specific questions. Let's say, for example, you look at the report card and one of your employers sees that another MCO has scored higher in a particular measurement. You would call your MCO and ask, 'Why is this ranking like this? What is it that they do that you don't?' Ask questions, ask any questions, and see what they say."

And though almost all Ohio MCOs publish and provide reams of information in order to assist you during your process, the BWC report card is the only truly objective information available. There is no fluff, only hard numbers that are as accurate and as uniform as possible.

"Not all MCOs offer the same reports, the same services, the same medical discounts," Poach says. "So it's important if an employer's not happy that they talk to other employers or they do their homework in looking at the BWC report card and previous BWC report cards to get a feel for overall MCO performance."

Want to read the BWC report card right now? Just log on to www.ohiobwc.com, then click on BWC Library, BWC publication, Ohio employer publications and MCO Report Card. In four easy clicks, much of the information that you need can be in your hands.

Examine your own MCO needs

After you read the report card, consider your own needs. No matter your business, your industry, even your financial standing as the economy continues to recover, your MCO needs are likely similar, if not identical, to those needs of thousands of other businesses across the state.

First, if an employee is injured while working, you want your MCO to help get him or her to return to work as soon as possible. If the employee misses less time, you miss fewer work hours - or work days, weeks or months.

"If somebody gets injured and the MCO is able to get that injured worker back to work quickly and safely, it's going to help the employer control future premium increases," Poach says. "And by getting injured workers back to work quickly and safely, the MCOs can help employers control their lost productivity, as well."

Second, you want your MCO to help you save some chunk of money, either thanks to discounts now or those reduced premiums later. Because the BWC pays each MCO a certain percentage of the premium, the cost you pay is often fixed. But you always want some sort of savings.

"There are MCOs who have provider networks as part of the health partnership program, and many MCOs offer a discount below BWC schedule for fee services that are rendered within their provider network," Poach says. "So it's important that employers understand whether or not their MCOs offer those discounts and to what extent or degree those discounts fall below the bureau fee schedule."

And third, you want to be satisfied.

"One of the things that some employers overlook in looking at their MCO is finding one that truly understands them as a company," Conger says. "We're all kind of in this puzzle together."

Talk often - and early

In order to take full advantage of any relationship, you need to talk on a regular basis. You need to talk with your attorney, of course, and with your accountant and with your banker. And you need to talk with your MCO representative, too.

Because the more you talk, as with so many other relationships and business deals, the more you or your representative might recognize an opportunity.

Say, for instance, that you own and operate a manufacturing plant. You might want to ask whether an MCO has experience working with other manufacturing businesses or, in contrast, does it specialize more with city, state and white-collar businesses? You might also want to ask about the MCO's process to provide you with information and how often it provides that information, whether it'll meet with you to discuss your claims and whether you'll be able to talk with your case manager and your medical director. Ask how the MCO plans to work with your third-party administrator, how it assigns case managers and whether it can tailor its program to meet - and perhaps even exceed - your needs. Any of those questions and subsequent answers could lead to greater efficiency, a better return-to-work rate or even lower premiums in the future.

"Ask them the simple questions about how they work, because not all MCOs fit every employer," Conger says. "Some MCOs may do things differently or their processes may not fit."

Because of the lack of time available for MCOs to reach out and provide their pitch and information, it's important that you prepare yourself for May 3 as early as possible and have an idea of which MCOs interest you. And if you narrow the field early enough to two or three or four, you can even pick up the phone and call them.

"Employers are allowed at any time to contact an MCO, even if it's not their own MCO, to request information, to request a face-to-face meeting, and they can do that even outside of an open enrollment period," Poach says. "Employers do have an opportunity to reach out now. The sooner they start that, probably the more MCOs they'll be able to interview and seek information from, and the more informed they'll be in making their MCO selection."

Understand that costs are driven by performance

Unlike so many other business partners and services, MCOs cannot bid for your contracts or your money. Because the BWC pays each MCO - and because that payment structure is fixed and based on performance standards - the dynamics of your relationship with your MCO might be a little different than with other folks who show up at your offices for a meeting.

Once the BWC approves a claim, the MCO takes control and starts to coordinate every aspect of the claim and toward getting the employee back to work. MCOs work with the injured employee, the employer and the provider to develop a plan for treatment, review treatment requests, monitor the cost and quality of care, and establish those goals for the employee to return to work.

"It's important for them to understand the MCO's role is the medical management of the claim," Conger says. "We have nothing to do with the allowances or with adding to the allowances. That's still the role of the bureau and, sometimes, I think they get confused, thinking we're the ones who make the allowances or the ones who deny the allowances when it comes to the injured workers, and we're not. We're just the medical experts."

And they are still a business. The recession has not battered their industry, but it also hasn't provided a very clear path for many MCOs.

"Most of the companies that we work with are still feeling the struggles and the challenges of the economy," Poach says. "Even though we're getting a bit of a rebound here, most companies are operating leaner than they have in the past, and their financial margins are more challenged to achieve what they've achieved in the past.

"As we look forward, it's more important than ever that companies be able to control their workers' compensation costs."

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.

“In the last six months, banks were spending a lot of time reacting to the problems businesses were having as well as some of the problems in their own shops and in the financial markets,” says Kevin Hipskind, senior vice president, commercial lending, Fifth Third Bank. “So banks just didn’t have as much time to be out there working proactively with their clients on a lot of things. That left a lot of companies underserved.”

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.

“The first thing that companies can do is sit down with their relationship manager and discuss all the products and services that are currently being provided to them,” Hipskind says. “We try to do that every year because products and services tend to change as far as their relevance and their cost-benefit.

“The companies that have weathered the storm have significant upside opportunities, and the banks are having discussions on how to leverage this. Are there acquisitions that need to happen? Are there clients you can take on from your competitor who went out of business? What kind of working capital do you need to do that?”

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,” Hipskind says. “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.

“I believe many clients would say that credit underwriting is certainly more conservative. In reality, that has been the case for much longer than nine months,” says Gary Dowell, regional vice president, commercial markets, RBC Bank. “I hope that our clients would say we are willing to listen and help them through down cycles. Many banks, weakened by the economy, are simply unable to assist their clients with certain credit requests or other bank services. That has forced clients to look beyond their primary bank for financial assistance and banking services.

“The banker can help educate the client on specific credit criteria used by the bank. Those facts will help the client understand the reasons behind a particular credit decision.”

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.

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. Now might be the time to consider installing and implementing your own ERP system, or if you have one in place, adding newer software, like the type of warehouse management system that changed Company A.

“By integrating a solution that runs on the same platform as your ERP, you’re able to recognize the benefits of tying together applications and sharing data without having to buy or learn to manage new hardware,” says Paula Susemichel, senior consultant, DPS Inc. “That’s a particularly attractive reason to look at added solutions.”

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.

“There has been a maturation process that businesses have gone through,” says Prasad Akella, vice president of SME Solution Marketing, SAP. “ERP is a commodity now, and businesses recognize that they need it and that they need to invest in it.”

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 you have also taken a step backward toward different departments in your business speaking different technological languages and a possible loss of productivity that could affect all aspects of your business.

“In today’s environment, there are a lot more compliance and documentation requirements,” Susemichel says. “Those are tremendous challenges to meet. Without the benefit of an integrated infrastructure solution, where you’ve got the ERP talking to the warehouse management talking to a document system, it’s tough to stay up with that.”

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 and related systems have evolved so much during the last couple of decades that they are a sound investment.

“In terms of IT spending, it will require a pretty quick ROI before a lot of people will be interested at all,” says Dan Barrow, president, DPS Inc. “We don’t see a lot of people going out and changing their ERP systems. They try to maximize the investment they’ve already made.”

And even the system you have can, after all, help you improve the processes and efficiencies of your business. It can even change the way you do business.

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 general reason for deploying one of those applications is really around process optimization, process efficiency,” says Ken Burns, industry communications manager, Hyland Software Inc. “These are the applications that run the core administrative and operational processes of many businesses, so you have the accounting applications, the general ledger, human resources. In many cases, it can be the tool that manages your inventory and connects you to your supply chain partners. They really are designed to be the hub of your business, in terms of where you’re putting most of the quantitative data about how your business operates.”

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.

“You probably need to consider a set of technologies,” Burns says. “People don’t like to admit that, but every technology has a gap, and you need to recognize the gaps and approach it more holistically than simply buying one application at a time.”

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’s amazing how people become accustomed to the ways they’ve always done things, even if those ways are inefficient,” Burns says. “If this new technology makes life harder for them in any way, they will abandon it and try very hard to work around it.”

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,” says Prasad Akella, vice president of SME Solution Marketing, SAP. “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, the Arkansas manufacturing company that trimmed its stored inventory by about 40 percent, 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.

“There has been a maturation process that businesses have gone through,” Akella says. “ERP is a commodity now, and businesses recognize that they need it and that they need to invest in it.”

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

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, and it will likely change even more in the future.

“Today’s ERP systems have more off-the-shelf availability to customize and tweak them to your own liking, without having to pay outsiders to come in and do any programming work,” says Kevin Martin, president and shareholder, Martin and Associates. “That functionality to automate processes wasn’t really there in the early 2000s. Because you’re using the existing tool set, your future upgrades are easier. An upgrade from 2010 to 2012 will be easier than an upgrade from 2000 to, say, 2004.”

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” and “the future of computing,” “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.

“Where you are going to see the most benefit of having an ERP system is having your data be available, shareable and leverageable by all of your employees, from the accounting department to the purchasing department to sales and business development, in order to grow your business,” Martin says. “You have fundamental and total control of having all your data in one place, and you have protection for your information.”

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.

“The key users who will handle many modules; they will have an investment of 45 to 70 hours of training during implementation,” Martin says. “The workers who are more focused on one module will typically have 16 to 20 hours of training.”

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,” says Prasad Akella, vice president of SME Solution Marketing, SAP. “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.

“There has been a maturation process that businesses have gone through,” Akella says. “ERP is a commodity now, and businesses recognize that they need it and that they need to invest in it.”

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

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 even scheduled a similar event.

But as the event neared, the executives realized 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.

“Any time a business makes a decision to have an event, they’re not just having it because they want to throw a party,” says Casey Mahaven, owner, Casey Mahaven Events. “There is an ultimate goal. It might part of their marketing strategy, it might be part of a long-term campaign to build brand awareness or part of a fund-raising goal, but there is an underlying goal there.”

Plan in advance

Event managers are more than just party planners. 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.

“Businesses might wonder why they should spend money on an event planner, especially if they don’t even know if they can have an event,” says Ashley Moss, marketing and event director, Hello Productions. “What we can do is take whatever budget they do have and see where we should allocate the most money.”

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 of the event 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. All of that would have taken weeks if an internal employee with little event management experience had handled the task. 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 certain times that are less expensive, times when we can get a lower rate because of either the day or the time of year,” Moss says. “There are some vendors who offer lower rates. Get assistance wherever you can.”

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 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’re planning an event, especially a large event, it’s a big time constraint you and your staff,” Moss says. “If you’re using that time to plan an event, that takes away productive time from running your business. Using a firm really makes everything less stressful.”

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 in the larger scope and culture of your business and be able to remain on budget throughout the year.

“When I’m working on an event, I’m a part of their team,” Mahaven says. “I’m an extension of their brand, their company, their purpose and their mission — and it’s not just me, it’s my team of people I have working on it, too. They’re able to access our resources — media contacts to promote the event, vendors who can help provide the best price, even just knowledge of contracts.”

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

“It can be used to promote an event, to build awareness about an event through Facebook and Twitter, and to have that instant feedback from the attendees at an event,” Mahaven says. “If you are dealing with a limited budget, you are looking to social media, because it’s inexpensive, it’s accessible and everybody is on there — you can reach your target audience.”

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.

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.

“In today’s environment, destination and event management firms help companies do more with less,” says Christopher Lee, CEO, ACCESS Destination Services. “They save time and stress by leveraging their expertise, experience and extensive local knowledge and connections for their client’s benefit in planning and producing corporate events.”

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.

“The best way to ensure that you are working with a professional event manager is to check their professional credentials, memberships and references thoroughly,” Lee says.

Just look at those Midwest executives, for example. They worked with a good professional firm, and during the 24 hours after they called the event management firm, the firm started to contact all of its guests to relay the parking situation, 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. 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.

“I don’t want to contribute to the misnomer that it’s going to cost you less to hire us than to do your event,” Lee says. “But if you add up the true cost of doing it yourself, including your time and the time of your employees, then we are definitely saving you money. You have to look at the whole cost.”

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 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, companies often need fresh ideas for old events, and an objective pair of eyes can provide those new thoughts. Third, it does simplify your work. And fourth, many businesses no longer have the internal resources necessary to handle events.

“Most companies see the value upfront and understand that they don’t have the manpower or the resources or they may not have a person on board who has that expertise,” says Greg Jenkins, partner, Bravo Productions.

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.

“Once you gain their trust, you do receive some inside information, and there is that trust and partnership,” Jenkins says. “You need to know certain things so you’re not making any mistakes. It goes down to the smallest kind of things, but if you don’t have that information, it defeats the purpose. You can only give as much as the client is willing to give.”

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.

“There is a responsibility in social media,” Lee says. “We have clients now who are putting wording in the confidentiality section of their contract that applies to their company and ours. No one is allowed to put information about the company on Facebook or Twitter, what they’re doing at their event, who they’re having there.

“Social media is now being held to the same standard as professional e-mail, in terms of confidentiality.”

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.

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 the need for their staff to be focused on growing their existing business and outsourcing in areas where they are not experts,” says Nicole Krizner, owner, Plan Ahead Events. “Hiring an experienced event planner is an effective and an efficient way to do that.”

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.

“We can bring a value-added service and help events be profitable,” Krizner says. “When you have that third party coming in, you can just go along with your day-to-day routine.”

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.

“You can save money by thinking far enough ahead to be able to take advantage of the sales window,” says Margy Judd, president and owner, Executive Arrangements. “Because an event planning firm is usually pulled in for any sizable meeting or event six to 12 months prior, there’s a lot of negotiating room. All the good deals can be booked very early.”

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, the 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.

There are four reasons, Judd says, 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.

“You typically have just one point of contact,” Judd says. “It makes your life easier when, as a business owner, you’re not wearing multiple hats.”

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 in the larger scope and culture of your business and be able to remain on budget throughout the year.

“Well-trained event planners are experienced with developing appropriate budgets to meet today’s economic conditions,” Krizner says. “In many cases, we work with our customers on revenue-generating events. We can help the client not only subsidize their event but to generate profit.”

Event management firms 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 really infiltrating meetings, and people will pull up Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn and show how effective that communication can be,” Judd says. “It used to take 10 days or 10 hours for a message to get around the world. Now it takes 10 seconds.”

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.

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, events give you the opportunity to remain in contact, and that never goes away,” says Kay Nelson, owner and president, eventsetc Inc. “They allow you to show your appreciation for the people who have helped you get business or the people who have helped you grow your business.”

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.

“The experience we end up creating is always crafted with the intention of achieving a clearly identified set of goals,” says Aaron Reiff, director of sales and marketing, Accent on Cincinnati. “Events can do almost anything. The question is: What do you want to do?”

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.

“A good event company should be able to advise a client on how best to spend the budget they have,” Reiff says. “There are elements to every event that are of critical importance. People without a deep understanding of how events work — how they are structured and why — often make the mistake of emphasizing elements that are ultimately going to be lost on their attendees.

“A good event firm will save you money simply by helping to direct the budget wisely and with maximum impact per dollar in mind.”

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 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.

“They have one person to answer to instead of seven vendors they don’t know,” Nelson says. “They have one check to write. They build a relationship with one person, so there is that trust there.”

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 in the larger scope and culture of your business and be able to remain on budget throughout the year.

“If events are a part of what you do, then you want to work with an event specialist who understands you and your organization’s value system,” Reiff says. “We have numerous clients at this point who can simply call us up, tell us what they want, and we execute.”

Event management firms 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.

“With technology today, the use of social networks and the ability to reach out to people electronically all enhance that,” says Marc Stout, president, Stout & Gallant Associates Inc. “It is something that will have a significant or positive impact on the meeting.”

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.