ATLANTA – A tantalizing question is emerging from the raging debate over incentive meetings, employee retreats, and the appropriate use of U.S. government bailout dollars:
Can the principles and practice of corporate social responsibility (CSR) help reassert the legitimacy of meetings, the industry that plans them, and the client organizations that are now weighing whether to abandon the benefits that meetings deliver?
The story so far is familiar to anyone who heard the discussion at MPI’s MeetDifferent conference in Atlanta. Incentive meetings organized by companies that had received bailout money from the U.S. government led to a flurry of questions and attacks—aimed not only at incentives, but at any meeting organized by any company receiving government funds.
The problem for the industry is that the public reaction is hardly surprising. If meeting professionals have been slow, and not always entirely clear, in highlighting the jobs, economic spin-offs, and tax revenues we deliver to local economies, why are we surprised when politicians (or our friends and neighbours) miss the point?
There’s a middle ground that comes straight from some of the informal hallway conversations that took place during MeetDifferent. (You’d almost think those crazy meetings people are onto something when they insist on the power of face-to-face discussion to shape solutions to tough problems.)
The conversations went something like this.
What if a company listened to the tone of the times and opted for a different kind of incentive?
Instead of offering top sellers a week at a casino resort, why not assemble a list of smart, responsible, sustainable incentives that recognize the precariousness of daily life: like a share of a child’s college tuition, or three months of mortgage payments, or a generous donation in the individual’s name to the charity of his or her choice?
But no, one colleague replied—incentives work because they create lasting memories that participants would never have sought out for themselves. Fair enough. But look no farther than Tim Sanders’ account of the Timberland Co. visit to the Ninth Ward in New Orleans for evidence that the most memorable experiences needn’t take place at a blackjack table, a golf course (sorry, Andrew), or a ski hill.
There will always be high-performing executives or sales reps who are genuinely motivated by the promise of a traditional incentive trip. But what if it became standard practice to offer a menu of options that included the glitzy destination, but left it to each employee to choose the incentive that was most meaningful to them?
Companies would quite legitimately earn kudos for taking a more responsible approach.
Over time, incentive planners (and their critics) would get to test their assumptions about the reward programs that are needed to drive business results.
And if the industry as a whole showed its courage and audacity by proposing such a socially responsible approach, it would be a whole lot more difficult to cast meeting professionals as the evil, profligate villains in an age of scarcity. Rather than just asking our communities and stakeholders to listen to our words, we would be inviting them to watch us take action and judge the results for themselves.