Top tips for a successful corporate meeting
Part I

So you've been given the job of organising a company meeting. Maybe the boss calls it a conference, a presentation, a product launch, a seminar, a recognition event or any one of the dozens of other words used to describe such events. Whatever it's called, it involves bringing a group of people together in person or online so the company can communicate a message.

If this is your first event, it might seem daunting as you read this. It doesn't need to be like that. Some of us even get to enjoy the process, especially when everybody is standing around after it has finished and saying how good it was.

If you're an experienced professional, you've probably gathered a few mental scars on your way but the fact that you're experienced shows that you also know how to put together a successful event.

Either way, it's worth having a look at our top tips for a successful corporate meeting.

1. What is it for?

We're guessing that somebody has told you the purpose of the event: it might be to tell the sales team what they have to achieve over the next twelve months; maybe you're launching a new product; perhaps there's an incentive programme for the dealers… there is a vast range of reasons for spending time and money on a meeting. The key thing is to understand right up front what it is you're trying to achieve.

It would be good if it was a simple as that. The chances are that there are other, less obvious factors to take into account. Maybe the boss has to address the attendees (even if he or she has nothing to say). Maybe the service department or the training team have to be included.

The key point is that you need to understand all of the expectations of your senior management so that you can choose a venue and create a programme that will meet (or even exceed) those expectations.

In order to be able to do that, you have to understand what those expectations are. If you haven't been told, ask. If you don't get a satisfactory answer, you might have to come up with a statement of purpose for yourself.

However you get there, you need to know what it is you're trying to achieve with this meeting.

2. How much can you spend?

One of the easiest ways of getting it wrong in the meetings business is to spend too much money. But how much is too much?

You have two options on this question: ask your boss for a budget. If that doesn't work then option two is to come up with a figure yourself.

There are software programs that can be used to organise a meeting and some of them include a budgeting module. It depends on the event but you can probably do just as good a job with a spreadsheet. You just need to remember everything that will have to be paid for.

There are various headings you might need to include in your budget such as:

  • Travel costs
  • Accommodation costs
  • Venue costs (including all the extras)
  • Catering costs (that's food and drink)
  • Print costs
  • Supplier (e.g. registration company, production company) costs
  • Cost of temporary staff
  • Technology to support the event
  • Insurance

If you're organising an in-house meeting for the sales team, you probably won't need all of those headings. If you're organising a major product launch, you'll probably need all those and maybe a few more such as video production, photography, goodie bags and so on.

The best way of working out what headings you need is to walk through the event like one of your attendees. Suppose it's an in-house meeting for the sales team. They'll arrive in the morning. You might provide coffee or leave them to use the machine in the corridor. You'll be using a company meeting room so there won't be any venue hire costs. If they're going to be given any printed material to take away, that'll probably be supplied from company resources. There probably won't be any outside suppliers, especially if the sales director will stand at the front of the room and talk to them. You might give them lunch or, again, leave them to their own devices. For this kind of meeting then, your budget might be very low and very simple.

It's a different matter at the other end of the scale. Maybe you're organising a product launch for the dealers in an overseas location. Then the attendees might have to be flown to the location either on scheduled or charter flights. Who pays for the flights? If it's the company, the cost has to be built into the budget. They'll need to be transferred from the airport to the hotel and accommodation provided. You'll probably find that a local agent will be invaluable but their costs have to be included so all of that will need to be part of the budget. You might leave them 'at leisure' on that first evening which is code for 'find your own dinner' or you may have a welcome dinner.

Provided you know how many attendees you're going to have and how many nights they're staying, you've got a fighting chance of being able to calculate how much the attendee part of the event is going to cost.

But even then, there is scope for errors. Have you included the number of company people who will have to be there? If you're using a professional crew, how many of them will there be? How many nights will each of these groups be staying? There'll be breakfast the following morning, coffee before the start of the event, maybe coffee at a mid-morning break, lunch and so on.

Don't forget to include a contingency allowance. There may have been a corporate meeting that didn't incur unforeseen costs but we haven't heard of any.

The best approach to the whole budgeting process is to be as structured and as thorough as possible. It's also worth bearing in mind that you might be able to generate some income. For example, suppliers may be prepared to pay to have access to your attendees. If your is a big corporation another division might be prepared to chip in if they're given a slot in the conference. In some cases, even the attendees can be persuaded to pay towards the cost if the event is attractive enough.

You also need to understand how your finance department is likely to react. It's quite common for finance departments to cut budget submissions by, say, ten per cent. If that's the case, canny meeting planners inflate their budgets.

One way or another, your aim must be to define the budget that you are working to and to make sure it includes everything you're going to have to pay for. That's challenging enough but, once it's agreed, you have to stick to it. On a big event, that's a whole different challenge. You'll have to get used to telling people (even senior directors) 'We don't have enough budget for that'.

3. Where will it be?

In broad terms you'll have two choices for your venue: in-house or external. Whichever option you're using, there are a few golden rules.

You must visit the venue. You can look at plans and photographs or even a virtual walk around but you may only discover the drawbacks to a venue when you visit it. There used to be a conference centre that was in the same building as a public swimming pool. Attendees were unlikely to appreciate the all-pervading smell of chlorine.

On your visit make sure you check all of the facilities you'll need. If you're going to be using breakout rooms, check them out. If your attendees are going to check in and be given a badge, where can that be done? Is the area big enough for the numbers of people who'll be arriving? What about a conference office? With a major conference you'll need a base to work from. If equipment has to be got into the venue, how easy will it be? There used to be a hotel in Manchester with a meeting room on the third floor. The only way to get the conference equipment into the room was to carry it up the main staircase.

In other cases, the seating capacity of rooms have been calculated on the basis that the front row of seats was close to the front wall and allowed no space for a lectern. Ask to see a seating plan that shows the room laid out for the format you want to use – theatre, classroom, boardroom, separate tables or whatever you want.

If you're going to be using a hotel and they've offered one section of a ballroom with a partition between it and the next section, check the sound transmission through the partition, especially if the staff are going to be laying up lunch while your meeting is progressing. You don't want distractions from teaspoons being placed in saucers. Worse still is to have somebody else's meeting happening in the next section when they're playing a video with an ear-drum bursting soundtrack.

While you're doing your recce of the venue always ask to see whatever you're told can be supplied. One venue had windows all down one side of the meeting room. The sales person promised they could be blacked out. It wasn't until the get-in that the planner found that the blackout was to be achieved with black bin bags. They didn't work.

Generally speaking, never rely on the venue's own sound system. The microphone access points will probably not be in the right place for you and the controls will be in a cupboard somewhere, often outside the meeting room. Added to that, the system probably won't be very good.

If you're going to use the venue's data projection system, make sure there's always a technician on hand to fix it when it goes down.

Will the attendees be staying overnight? If they are and you're providing the hotel rooms, will they be in the same building as the meeting? If not, how will they get from their hotel to the venue? You might need to provide buses.

Be sure you know what is being booked. One conference was to take place on a Sunday. The set was built in the hotel ballroom on Saturday morning ready for rehearsals that afternoon when the hotel manager announced that he had a gala dinner in the ballroom that night. He agreed that the room had been booked for the meeting all day Saturday and all day Sunday 'But nobody said anything about Saturday night'. The set had to be pulled out and rebuilt in the early hours of Sunday.

If you're planning a major event, there will be a lot to think about when looking at your venue. The trick is to approach it logically and to be as structured as you can.

4. Who's coming?

Whether it's a straightforward internal meeting or a big international product launch, you'll need to know how many people are coming. The easiest way to establish that is to use an online registration system. You need to consider a few points in relation to these.

First is the question of data security. You'll obviously need to comply with current data protection legislation so you need to check that the online system you're using provides good enough security. If you work for a big corporation, you might even want to organise penetration testing for the company providing registration services. Apart from that, remember that you should keep the data only as long as necessary. For the average corporate meeting, this will probably only be for a few weeks, possibly a couple of months. Obviously if you need to keep a record of attendance for regulatory reasons, you'll need to keep data for longer but the point is that you need to decide when the data should be deleted.

When you're deciding what to ask people registering for your event, ask only for the information you need. For example, you obviously need their name and email address but do you really need their postal address? If you're not going to use it, why ask for it and store it? The best thing to do is to look at the last registration form you used and make sure that all the information requested was used.

If you're hosting an international audience, does the system you're using recognise the special characters that are used in many languages? For example, we all know about the characters in French and German that don't appear in English but some languages such as Turkish have many more.

You might also want to take account of national sensitivities such as the expectation in Germany that all of an individual's titles be used. This could mean that the registration system might have to enable an attendee to have 'Herr Professor Doktor' on their registration.

There's also the fact that more people seem to have hyphenated names these days. In addition, if you have people attending from the Middle East, you might want to allow for the fact that individuals in that part of the world can have multi-part family names. In both cases, you need to make sure the badge production software can print very long names. Some truncate long names and that can cause offense.

Then you may need to think about how attendees can book additional elements such as breakout sessions, external visits and all the other activities that may be part of a meeting.

It might seem that online registration is simple and, providing you choose the right system, it should be. It's just a question of identifying exactly what you should be looking for.