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ON THE MOVE / CAROL SMITH

Executive Travel : Meeters Want More for the Money

October 27, 1994|CAROL SMITH | CAROL SMITH is a free-lance writer based in Pasadena

The days of business meetings that offered a leisurely break from the office or a chance to golf with colleagues are long gone.

Nowadays when companies send people out to powwow, they want a return on their investment, according to a study by Hyatt Hotels Corp. in Chicago. That means attendees are being more selective and working harder.

In a survey of 502 middle managers and 100 chief executives, about 75% of the respondents cited the "potential for increasing business productivity" as an essential factor in picking meetings.

When comparing their free time to that of a decade ago, only 11% said it had increased; 42% said it had decreased. More than half the middle managers surveyed (53%) said they spent what little free time they did have catching up on office work.

The lack of free time may reflect higher attendance at sessions. Less than half (46%) the respondents skipped sessions. Men were more likely to duck out of meetings than were women (52% compared to 38%). However, those who did play hooky missed only about 13% of the scheduled sessions.

People want to attend meetings that will have the most effect on the corporate bottom line, said Kimberly Fischer, resource center coordinator for Meeting Professionals International in Dallas. "They're getting rid of the fluff kinds of meetings."

Indeed, while the number of meetings has decreased slightly, more people are attending those that remain.

According to a just-released report by Meetings & Conventions magazine, 1.02 million business meetings were held in 1993, compared to 1.03 million in 1991. At the same time, meeting expenditures have increased, from $35 billion to $40.4 billion, and attendance has risen from 80.8 million in 1991 to 84.5 million people in 1993.

What attendees hope to get from these meetings, however, varies according to their status in the company. According to the Hyatt study, mid-level managers and executive vice presidents felt pressure from their chief executives to come back with new client contacts and business leads. They also said they felt pressure to justify the meeting's expenses by producing immediate bottom-line results.

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To get those leads, middle managers said, they passed out an average of 17 business cards per meeting and collected an average of 15.

However, when senior officers were asked what they expected of employees they sent to meetings, they said only that they wanted them to "learn something new." The chief executives were also more inclined to feel that the benefit of a meeting came from gathering information and focusing on long-term results, rather than from producing tangible short-term profits.

Not surprisingly, then, CEOs spent more time socializing with both employees and clients than did middle managers, who spent more time cultivating business leads.

Improving corporate results may be the stated purpose for attending a meeting, but it isn't the only measure of success. About a third (34%) of executives said they evaluated a meeting in terms of how many new job leads it produced.

About 5% of respondents said they felt finding romance was important to the success of a meeting.

A primary reason people attend meetings, especially those sponsored by their professional or trade group associations, is for education and training, said Bill Taylor, president of the American Society of Association Executives. In a recent survey of its membership, more than 50% of association executives who responded said they planned to hold more meetings in 1995 than in 1994.

"When the economy improves, people have more meetings," Taylor said. "There is a pent-up demand for education and training."

Meetings will apparently continue to be a mainstay for business travelers, despite the burgeoning use of new communications technology to create videoconferences.

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According to the Hyatt study, for example, 37% of middle managers and 47% of chief executives said they don't expect videoconferences to replace face-to-face meetings. About a third (31%), however, said they expect videoconferencing to help eliminate unnecessary travel. Teleconferencing can work both ways, Taylor said. It may cut down on travel, but it may also encourage more people to attend meetings.

"Teleconferencing will bring speakers to meetings who wouldn't be able to come otherwise," he said.

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