Monday, 10 June 2013

Top 10 tips to avoid ‘Apprentice’ teambuilding day

On the face of it anyone watching the mess that the BBC apprentice teams made of organising a team-building day could be forgiven for buying into the prejudices around Team-building that were re-enforced.

The reality however for the observant viewer was quite the reverse.  The task was introduced by the show’s host Alan Sugar as “an away-day for corporate clients – not a jolly, you understand, but an exercise in team-building, and communication and listening skills”. 

I can only assume that the apprentice candidates had already switched off at this point because the solutions they provided came straight from the David Brent School of management development.

The briefing meetings with their blue chip clients so clearly re-enforced Lord Sugar’s message about outcomes that when it became clear the 2 teams, Evolve and Endeavour had totally missed the point I began to wonder how much of the program I could endure.

It certainly made good TV but most of all, once I had managed to get over my discomfort, it shows just how dysfunctional teams can become without good communication and listening skills.

Filling a day with activities without understanding how to turn that experience into learning is, without doubt, a complete waste of time and money.  No shock then when both clients on the show asked for significant cash back for a complete failure to satisfy the clearly expressed desired outcomes.

In spite of the show I hope, dear reader, you will still want to explore the opportunity to develop your team through experiential teambuilding so let me provide some thoughts to help you get the most out your investment.

  1. Decide how you need your team to improve, what do those improvements look like?
  2. Chose a team-building provider with a proven track record.
  3. Talk to a senior representative of the provider.  If they haven’t listened to you and cannot give you total confidence in their understanding of your agenda – move on to another.
  4. Ask to speak to at least one other client of theirs who is willing to recommend them.
  5. Make sure the event includes the services of an experienced facilitator.
  6. Meet the facilitator to ensure the chemistry will be right for your team.
  7. Only use a provider that can demonstrate results, ideally they should assess and record your team’s performance before, on the day and at agreed intervals after the event.
  8. Ensure that ALL of the team attend the event.
  9. Create expectations for them in advance; full participation is key – even for the cynics.  A good facilitator will help you achieve this.
  10. If it’s worth doing don’t skimp, your team will feel valued if it’s clear you have invested in them.

If you are still sceptical about the value of teambuilding contact me, I will do my best to persuade you and answer your concerns. Good luck. 

For more on Teambuilding check out

Monday, 8 April 2013

A changing landscape for hotels and venues?

A quick dip into recently published news and opinion from the meetings sector seems to indicate that things are changing.  The very good Grass Roots Meetings Industry Report 2013 by Alan Newton hints at a swing in the balance of power away from the meetings buyers and towards suppliers although Alan emphasises that at the moment this is a US led trend.

So what might be behind this trend and can we see any evidence that it might be seen in the UK? 

Looking first at the demand side of the trend, Alan reports that “our clients in the UK, USA and Asia are all showing a modest increase in meetings activity and slightly higher budgets than a year ago.  The mood is quietly positive,’

But what is happening on the supply side?

It will not have escaped followers of the hotel transactions news that a couple of deals have recently been done by UK banks that had found themselves holding hotel assets as a result of their lending binge and the subsequent repossessions following the recession and crash in hotel values.  Big losses have been sucked up and canny private equity and venture capital investors have bought at what might prove to be the bottom of the market. Principal Hayley and Malmaison have both been ‘moved on’ and rumours surround other brands such as DeVere Venues.  As the market commentator Hotel Analyst puts it on page 117 of Sleeper Magazine; “Are we finally at the point where deals start in earnest? The short answer is no. But it seems highly likely that there will be more movement than we have seen for some time.”

This then begs the question what will this smart money do with hotel and venue assets picked up cheap from the banks? Some are now under-invested following their stint under bank ownership but it seems likely their new owners will be far more careful about pouring more new money in without some very careful analysis.  It’s possible that one or two of the worst performing hotels and venues may be moved on or re-developed for other uses.

So what about new supply?  Melvin Gold's UK Hotel Construction Data report says that although there has been a gradual uptick in new hotel openings since the low point of 2010 this has been dominated by the budget sector so it seems fair to assume that the overall supply of meetings hotels and venues is adapting to a lower level of demand.

Availability and rate are very strongly influenced by supply/demand in the meetings sector so maybe there are signs that the landscape is changing.

It will be up to hotel and venue operators to ensure that any hardening of the market doesn’t lead to greed and profiteering and bring our industry into disrepute.  As Alan Newton puts it ‘interesting patterns have started to develop.......(these) may be considered more alarming if they are not managed professionally.’

Although at Sundial Group we have only experienced slight season changes in demand so far I am proud that our high number of long standing and loyal clients can trust us to take the long view and protect our reputation for fair pricing and value for money should these trends indeed tip the balance of power away from the buyer.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Face to Face or Facebook?

Technology has increasingly been forging a role to make business communications easier.  More and more businesses are using email, video conferencing, live chat and social media networks to communicate and build working relationships, all from the comfort of their own desks and, even, homes.

As liberating as this is, there remains, perhaps more than ever, a need for face-to-face meetings to help cement these virtual links and also to provide something more. 

Mary Beth McEuen, @marybethmcuen vice president and executive director of the Maritz Institute, published as part of recent Cornell University research, her observations on how successful leading companies are choosing to use both virtual meetings and face to face ones (as well as a hybrid of the two) in combination to create effective business outcomes. 

Whilst it must be acknowledged that face-to-face meetings require more financial and time investment (and naturally with that, hold the most expectations), they can work better strategically to achieve three key things:

  1. Capture attention – particularly when a business wants to initiate something new or different.

  1. Inspire a positive climate – helping to catalyse collaboration, innovation and performance

  1. Build human networks and relationships – information can easily be shared virtually, but it is people relationships that are the most valuable

They also offer people the opportunity to share and respond to body language and facial expressions, providing more social interaction and bonding, which virtual channels can only go so far to do.  In my view, it is these social, psychological and emotional benefits to real personal proximity that no amount of remote communication can replace.  A shared meal or drink, walk in the grounds or after dinner, ‘hair down’ discussions add texture and trust to relationships that can really transform a team or working relationship.

Also, in an age when multi-tasking is a common part of all working practice and held in such high regard, face-to-face meetings actually serve to challenge the productivity of doing many things at once.  Face-to-face meetings encourage individuals to down-tools and focus their attention on one task or point.  McEuen argues that real meetings enable people to switch off autopilot and open their minds up to new experiences and situations. This helps generate fresh creativity and blue-sky thinking.

With the benefits of face-to-face meetings clearly outlined, there still remains the difficult question of cost. Face-to-face meetings no doubt cost money to arrange, to travel to and also impact the environment. Furthermore, MPI research predicts that large face-to-face meetings will become more complex in their nature, and involve strategic alliances of organisations or consist of multiple formats happening within one location.  Therefore meeting planners will have a harder task on their hands as they work to achieve return on investment.  A focus on strategy, with clear business outcomes has never been more important to ensure their efficiency and effectiveness.

Organisations often give great weight to venue charges when choosing the location for their meetings, sometimes overlooking the overall benefit.  I have no doubt that the comparatively small premium attached to using the right venue to deliver the more subtle benefits of face-to-face meetings is well worth the investment.

At Sundial SOS, we help meeting planners find the right meeting venues for their business needs and budget. A free service; our venue finding team has first-hand knowledge of hundreds of venues across the UK and can support with any element or level of event management.  For more information and guidance on getting the best out of your face-to-face meetings, please visit:

Thursday, 8 November 2012

What can Strategic Meetings Management Programmes learn from TripAdviser and the coffee drinkers of Totnes in Devon?

So, what is a Strategic Meetings Management Programme (SMMP), why is it important and how are they changing the way large organisations plan, measure and control their meetings?

In truth the principles of SMMP have been around for some time but only in the past few years has the process been articulated and benefits more widely understood.  A great place to start if you want to understand SMMP is the recent HBAA white paper, available at

The HBAA report (for obvious reasons) focuses largely on the contribution of specialist meetings management agencies and procurement professionals.  However, at the risk of upsetting these important and influential vested interests, I want to establish that any successful strategy must serve the interests of the meeting ‘owner’ and their audience not the intermediaries, their job is to facilitate the process and add value.

There is an absolute requirement for good practise but the tendency toward mediocrity that an inflexible, commoditised process, designed to make life easier for the agents and accountants must be resisted.

So, what can meetings profession learn from TripAdviser and the Totnes Story?

You may have seen recently that the coffee drinkers of Totnes successfully appealed to mega brand Costa Coffee to stay out of town in defence of their independent local coffee shops. Whilst I am not suggesting that the independent venue sector needs protection I do think that a debate needs to be had about how best to serve meeting planners when developing processes such as SMMP.

The job of procurement is to save cost and the job of agents is to book the best venues but both of these roles should remain subordinate to the needs of the meeting planner.  If this were indeed the current situation how can it be that SMMP ‘preferred supplier’ lists are dominated by the major hotel brands and based on special commissions, volume incentives and availability of automated booking processes?

This may sound like sour grapes from the CEO of an independent venue group but I offer in evidence the proof that independent venues consistently score higher than the big brands in the approval ratings of event hosts.

The only independent, benchmarked, national event feedback system (which compares 20 meeting venue categories and brands and has collected many thousands of client reports) consistently scores the big brands significantly lower for ‘Net Promoter’, Overall Satisfaction and Value for Money. In spite of this clear preference, strategic meetings management programs and the large agency policies and processes push ever increasing volumes of corporate meetings to the big brands.

It’s time that these programmes take user feedback on board if they are going to deliver the best results for their meetings.  Agents and procurement professionals need to realise that they are driving commoditisation, mediocrity and supplier consolidation.  To maintain healthy competition and improvement in quality they have a responsibility to support variety.  Consolidation of suppliers will work against them in the future. Without realising it, the agents are facilitating their own demise, if they cannot add value to their clients by their specialist knowledge of niche providers because they have killed them off they will soon be bypassed - hotel big brands will be only too pleased to deal direct with corporate procurement.

Meeting planners need to learn from the coffee drinkers of Totnes and take back the control of venue selection but they also need to have access to the data about venue performance, maybe it’s time for a meetings equivalent of TripAdviser?

Its interesting to see what affect TripAdviser has had on the individual traveller market and the choices those buyers have.

If you go to the hotel feedback site and look at the rankings for any town or city it soon becomes obvious that people prefer the service and value for money they get from independent and boutique hotels.  Good independent and boutique hotels are thriving.  This is now driving the big brands to launch small scale brands that try to emulate the personality of their successful competitors.  Choice is undoubtedly increasing.

The industry needs to launch SMMP 2.0 and close the feedback loop to drive quality and preserve variety and choice.  The Agent and Procurement processes need to answer to the consumer and reward the best suppliers.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

A Rose By Any Other Name

Internationally, a conference is widely regarded as a small to medium sized meeting, whilst the terms convention and congress are reserved for events attended by larger numbers of people; confirmed by a search of ‘conference’ in APEX (Accepted Practices Exchange) Glossary from the Convention Industry Council.

Sundial Group has long been involved in the International Association of Conference Centres which represents venues around the world that provide a dedicated environment for small to medium sized meetings. Indeed I have been honoured to hold the post of Global President and in that role built relationships with members from both English speaking and non-English speaking nations. Ironically it is the ‘mother country’ which has the greatest confusion over the use of the words ‘conference’ and ‘conference centre’.

Unfortunately the wider population in the UK tend to use the term ‘conference’ to cover the whole range of meetings. Indeed, we are currently in the ‘conference season’ according to the news channels with the political great and good and their lobbying organisations swanning off to out of season seaside towns. Interestingly the only organisation to use the correct terminology is the TUC which recently held their ‘congress’ in Brighton.
So why does this really matter?

Conference Centres are a specialist and dedicated niche provider which enjoy a loyal following from meeting planners in the know. Unfortunately many people charged with booking a meeting venue are not so well informed and so, like the rest of us in 2012, type terms that spring to mind into their search engine in the hope of finding what they are looking for. Recent research has found that internet search engines are the most popular venue selection process used after personal experience.

Although no doubt technology will find a solution in due course, the 2012 internet is not good with semantic confusion. If you don’t know what a conference centre is when you look for it you probably won’t find it. If you want a dedicated venue for an important small meeting but the first thing that springs to mind when you hear conference centre is the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in Westminster (Capacity 2,500) you will probably type something like ‘meeting hotel’ or ‘meeting venue’. These names cover a far wider spectrum of spaces available for meetings and, given the massive SEO and digital marketing budgets of the major hotel brands are unlikely to render a first page listing of the best (in my view) environment for a meeting.

I think we need to start a campaign for the correct use of the word conference. Let’s get the news channels to rename the autumn party political meeting period the ‘convention season’, or, slightly less mid-Atlantic, the ‘congress season’. Come on QE II fess up and rename yourselves a congress centre.

Friday, 10 August 2012

An Event To Make Us Proud

At the risk of contributing more to a surplus of London 2012 content I have an overwhelming desire to record my views as we approach the end of what looks like an historic benchmark in global events.  I was lucky in the first ticket draw, way back in 2011 and in the past few days witnessed the boxing and athletics.  What I hadn’t expected was the quality of organisation and incredible atmosphere.

LOCOG has staged an event to make everyone in the UK meetings industry proud.  To compliment what, in my experience, was faultless organisation and logistics has been an atmosphere of hospitality and welcome that might have seemed out of character for London.

There were almost too many positive angles which, taken as a whole, created this once in a lifetime experience.  The stunning setting and structures of the park (witness the flower meadow in my family photo), the fabulous success of our athletes and the magnificent coverage by the BBC all played major parts. However, the masterstroke was the recruitment of a massive army of volunteers who set an infectiously happy and relaxed tone to the proceedings.

The fact that someone took responsibility for creating this hospitality demonstrates how much smart thought went into the planning.

This confirmed once again that successful events are not just about facilities and content, a host must also take responsibility for creating the atmosphere to complete the experience. 

Thursday, 24 May 2012

The single most important factor?

The sun has finally got his hat on, hurrah!  Its wonderful to see our guests at the three Sundial Venues opening windows and doors and taking advantage of the wonderful setting, enjoying the fresh air, sunshine and outdoor spaces.  Seeing people energised like this put me in mind of one of my favourite LinkedIn groups, The Brain Friendly Learning Group, which recently carried an excellent discussion with the title 'The one most important thing about physical learning environment?'. I was fascinated that in these days of presentation technology and connectivity the consensus focussed on natural light and access to the outdoors. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.

Stella Collins posted a link to a Neuroscience News article, Let there be light: it's good for our brains, well worth a read.The fact seems to be that there is no substitute for the quality and intensity of natural daylight.  Caroline Lewis added that having to work in a basement was just too depressing and Delia Fletcher is certainly one for the outdoors, encouraging the breaks at her events to hit the exit.

Obviously we don't have a monopoly on meeting spaces with plenty of natural light and easy access to relaxed outdoor space.  However, I will certainly be reminding our teams to highlight the benefits when in discussion with event planners who might also be considering urban venues or letting themselves get pushed into inappropriate spaces such as basements or other rooms without windows.