by Padraic Gilligan, VP, Industry Relations, MCI
I’m sitting at Gate B4 at San Antonio International Airport, waiting for my flight with American Airlines back to Chicago and onwards home to Dublin. I’m surrounded by the anodyne, bland and deeply annoying ubiquity of Kenny G, an entirely inappropriate and unfair symbolic conclusion to a stimulating, energising and profoundly inspirational few days in the company of other meetings and incentives professionals at the Incentive Research Foundation (IRF) Annual Invitational held at the JW Marriott. The irritating impact of Kenny G negatively disposes me to an airport that deserves more – the American / United terminal here is spacious and un-crowded, the security staff is Texan-polite and pleasantly light- handed when my carry-on screening reveals a forbidden bottle of water. Best of all the WiFi is fast and free, precisely the way it should be.
The IRF now programmes over 6 hours of education into what used to be a pure golf / networking fundraiser. The golf and the networking, as always, did what they’re supposed to do: existing relationships were renewed and reinforced, new relationships were forged, we all drank Bloody Marys on the Tee Box at 6:45am etc. The education, however, delivered way more than some industry fora whose sole purpose is education.
IRF Trustee, self-styled contrarian and master of re-invention, Jim Feldman, donated 15 minutes of his encyclopaedic knowledge to introduce our plenary speaker, the super-bright mathematician-turned-researcher Dr Michael Wu. Feldman’s slick and polished presentation was supported by the now-fashionable minimalist PowerPoint deck – impactful, sometimes implausible imagery with limited text – and at least 3 beautiful sound-bytes crafted in an secret, upscale laboratory located somewhere in Chicago, high over Lake Shore Drive. “Make it, master it, make it matter!” was Feldman’s alliterative exhortation followed by the even more memorable tri-syllabic manta “Innovate, imitate or evaporate”.
Dr Michael Wu shares more than a handle with his namesake Dr Wu of Steely Dan’s peerless 70s album, “Katy Lied” . Both emigrated from China and immediately elevated the IQ of Ivy League America with their undeniable genius. Wonderfully, the younger Dr Wu has applied his vast intellectual prowess to the field of gamification and delivered a 2 hour presentation to us with more take-aways than a Murray Raphel seminar. Dr Mike’s premise for gamification is: we all love to play games and to be rewarded – think FourSquare, Angry Birds etc. We all have responsibilities to do things which fundamentally we don’t like or want to do. So can we use “game attributes” to facilitate, encourage and motivate desired behaviour? Dr Mike’s research says “Yes, we can” and points to some compelling case studies from BestBuy, Sephora and others where the application of gamification theory (NOT game theory, which, Wu points out, is a mathematical discipline) deepens engagement, sustains loyalty and on-boards new users.
The afternoon education session on day 1 was equally compelling. Stephen Perry of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau presented an update on his work on the Brand USA initiative, a project started by executive order of President Obama. Since the heightened security protocols around entry into the US introduced in the wake of 911, the US has lost 30% of its inbound tourism visitors. Brand USA sets out to create a National travel and tourism strategy aimed at delivering 100 million incoming visitors and $250 billion in revenue by 2021. The initiative is systematically addressing all of the present barriers to entry, particularly the VISA situation in potentially lucrative markets like Brazil and China and is self-funded thanks to the ESTA fee now levied from each and every visitor. Steve spoke passionately about the project and conveyed a deep faith in the real and true value of travel experiences from the dual perspectives of economic impact and personal enrichment. A qualified archaeologist who has studied in Russia, Steve knows the value of history and heritage and has experienced how travel is the “ultimate tool in diplomacy”. Brand USA, incidentally, has its own theme song – confirmation surely of the power of music in destination marketing which I wrote about in a previous blog post.
The day concluded with a fast paced session presented by Rodger Stotz, Chief Research Officer at IRF and Mike Ryan, IRF trustee and Senior Vice President at Madison Performance Group. Assisted by some very cool hardware and software courtesy of IML Technologies, this highly interactive session provided expert commentary on 10 hot topics for incentive and meeting professionals. Both Stotz and Ryan came across as true thought leaders in our industry, capable of stating the undeniable value of reward and recognition programmes in front of any corporate agnostic or sceptic. The kaleidoscopic marketplace in which we find ourselves, where today’s emerging patterns quickly mutate into tomorrow’s new paradigm, was the background to a discussion that accepted the reality of constant flux while being certain that some things don’t change: people are people, relationships matter and incentives work!
The final education session, scheduled somewhat hopefully after golf on day 1, provided direct access to the views and visions of 3 corporate buyers from the financial, ICT and recruitment sectors. Expertly moderated by Lynn Randall of Randall Insights, this was a compelling session both for gaining an insight into how live meetings and incentives are perceived within the corporate environment and also how they are procured. Janis Heaney, VP Incentive Management at Ameriprise Financial candidly shared how she now bypasses intermediaries and procures hotels and other service providers direct through her own in- house team. Ken Welch documented Cisco’s transition away from a single live Global Sales Meeting for 14000 to a hybrid model involving virtual and live components. He also spoke about the rise in importance of round table discussion between qualifiers and Cisco leadership and about the primacy in his programme design of structures which promote personal development. Dahlton Bennington, IRF trustee and Director Meeting Services at Randstad related how she, too, uses round table formats with company officers to solicit feedback and engagement from associates but then creates white papers from these discussions which are used for learning purposes.
Melissa Van Dyke, President of The IRF, is gradually and effectively stamping her brand on this event bringing the research and education element more front and centre without compromising its undeniable soft values. This is only one dimension to a multi-dimension event which also featured great networking opportunities, access to world class golf experiences, amazing evening functions – see next blog post for a report on those proceedings.
Padraic Gilligan is VP Industry Relations at MCI, a globally integrated association, communication and event management company 47 offices in 23 Countries. With Patrick Delaney he also heads up the Destination Services practice at MCI which is branded as Ovation