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Get Some Face Time With Your Customers

It's a buyer's market for business travelers, so get out there and meet.

This conundrum of this year's economy makes business owners wonder which way to turn. For many, undue concern has led to virtual paralysis. But this is no time to let rigor mortis set in. It's time to get on a plane, visit your customers, meet with your employees, and above all, take advantage of new opportunities before your business gets left behind.

Make no mistake: Times are still hard. For entrepreneurs, small businesses and startups, survival has meant layoffs, tight credit and squeezing the most out of every dollar. Productivity has ratcheted up to unheard-of levels. Companies continue to find ways to do more with fewer employees, even as employees (and managers) are burning out.

Business may seem to be in a holding pattern. But like a plane during a thunderstorm, sooner or later the pilot must make a decision. Savvy managers know now is the time for action.

Spring is the perfect time for face-to-face meetings--reaching out to your employees, customers and new business prospects. And despite the constant news emphasis on airline fees, full flights and higher fares, business travel and meetings overall have never been more affordable.

A Buyer's Market for Meetings
To paraphrase the Chinese philosopher Sun-tzu, "Keep your enemies close, and your employees, customers and prospects closer." Where to begin?

Going into the summer meeting season, you can host a meeting--large or small--for less than any time this century. You'll have the element of surprise on your side plan your meeting now, when it's least expected, and you'll find it's quite the buyer's market for hotel rooms and meeting space.

If it's been two or more years since your last company-wide event, gather your trusted leaders and plan a retreat or meeting away from the office where you can interact with your employees. Present your plan to jump-start sales. Highlight new products and services. Invite discussion of new ideas from attendees which may have been lost in that great inbox of corporate life.

Even if you just spend a day or two reconnecting, you'll let employees know they are valuable and that they are integral to the future success of the company. Get your employees together, get them off of e-mail, encourage interaction through well-designed workshops and above all, listen to what those on the front line have to say. Take this unique opportunity to execute a well-planned face-to-face meeting and renew the spirit and determination of your employees.

Keep Costs Low, but Get More from Each Dollar
To minimize the cost of your next meeting, it's worth spending a few minutes analyzing the most cost-effective venue for the program. Selection of the destination should not be based on where someone wants to go for a vacation. Because studies show the cost of air travel can account for between 40 and 50 percent of the total cost of a meeting, figuring out where airfares are lowest makes a big difference to your bottom line.

Today, it's not uncommon to find top quality four-star (and even five-star) hotels at bargain prices, especially if you can be flexible with your dates. You can find quality properties for about $100 a night this summer, and often receive other concessions to boot.

That same luxury class hotel charging $295 a night for individuals on vacation might just be available for half that rate when holding a meeting with breakfast and lunch daily. Discuss your budget openly with the hotel sales staff, and don't be afraid to ask for discounts on food and beverages as well as AV and meeting room rentals.

After all, until everyone recognizes that things are getting better, it's still a buyers' market out there.

Visit Your Customers and Keep up With Your Industry
Many executives discount the value of personal relationships, but they are critical to the success of smaller businesses. As an entrepreneur, you must leverage your existing customer base, make new contacts, and never forget to ask for referrals.

Did you skip major industry events last year? Understandable. Did you cut back on travel? Rest assured, almost everyone did. But now it's time to invest in your business by attending a trade show or maybe even exhibit at a show you've never attended before.

Get on an airplane and visit your best customers face-to-face. Let them know what services you offer--you may be surprised to learn even your best customers have needs you know nothing about. At a recent meeting with a customer we've been doing business with for years, we were told we were the first vendor to visit their offices in three years. The trip cost real dollars, but we came away with a project we didn't even know the client was considering.

If you're tight on staff or don't have an experienced planner on staff, consider retaining a professional meeting planning company to help produce your meeting. While you concentrate on the content of your program, meeting planners earn their fees by negotiating special rates at top properties.

Balance the level of luxury with careful consideration of how your event will be perceived. There's nothing wrong with using a five-star or resort hotel, but footing the bill for spa treatments or serving Dom Perignon at the reception might send the wrong signal. During this period of financial recovery, expenditures should reflect bonafide business purposes, rather than create a perception of waste.

Travel isn't free, but these days, it's one of the most affordable investments you can make. Rekindle those business relationships now--while your competition is still hibernating.
 



Joe and Rob Lipman are the CEO and Executive Vice President of Summit Management Services, an industry leader in the design and logistical execution of world-class business meetings.

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