How Fresh Ideas and Fundamentals Can Improve Annual Conferences
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How Fresh Ideas and Fundamentals Can Improve Annual Conferences

From Caribbean cruises to child care services to survival exercises in the Antarctic, franchisor-sponsored franchisee conventions are changing.

Franchise organizations cite these conventions as a vitally important part of their success. Traditionally, the meetings have provided an opportunity to bring franchisees together regularly to share system information and offer training. But these "family" get-togethers are continuing to evolve as franchisors look for new and refreshing ways to attract, motivate, and energize their franchise operators and send them back to their stores full of information and inspiration.

It remains important for conventions to be characterized by presentations, meetings, workshops, awards banquets, networking, and team building. It's a once-a-year chance to unveil the latest franchise info and newest developments to a large group of franchisees. It's a perfect venue for vendor trade shows that give franchise owners an opportunity to interact with strategic suppliers. And, depending on the vendors and their relationships with the franchisor, the cost of a franchise convention can even be reduced through vendor participation.

All of these elements are important, according to Nick Vojnovic, president of Tampa, Fla.-based Beef 'O' Brady's. But he believes franchisors need to offer something truly fresh and unique to attract franchisees each year. That's why this year, Beef 'O' Brady's conducted its annual "partner convention" aboard a cruise ship bound for the Caribbean waters and the island of Cozumel, for about 300 Beef 'O' Brady's franchisees, executives, and vendors.


"We have three main goals each year for our conventions," says Vojnovic. "First, make it like a vacation, make it fun; second, use it to improve the culture of the organization and to increase interaction among franchisees; and third, provide essential workshops and training." He says the cruise concept was the perfect convention venue and that franchisee feedback on the cruise convention has been extremely positive. Even better, the format is a natural fit for the Tampa-based company where executives can plan, execute, and set sail right from their home base.

The group kicked off the convention with a one-day exhibitor/vendor trade show in Tampa prior to setting sail. "This is just a great way to connect suppliers and franchisees, while helping us to offset the costs of the event by having these suppliers sponsor at different financial levels," says Vojonvic. The fees paid by these vendors help keep convention costs down and within budget not only for the corporate franchise, but also for the franchisees who attend.

Following the trade show, franchisees boarded the ship to get down to business and fun. Vojnovic says Beef 'O' Brady's conventions generally include a state of the union address from the CEO, a presentation from the marketing department covering any new tools available, guest speakers (former NFL quarterback Joe Theisman), "funshops" (the company's term for workshops), breakout sessions, and moderated panels. Workshop and session topics run the gamut from basic training-related issues to marketing and advertising developments.

"It's important to make it interactive," adds Vojnovic. "We organize committee meetings and advisory boards to allow for discussion and interaction."

An awards dinner recognizes outstanding achievement on a number of levels. Also, lots of prizes and gift bags are handed out to franchisees throughout the event.

But even on a cruise ship, all work and no play could make for a dull time. That's why Vojnovic and his crew orchestrate a "theme" for each year's meeting, to keep things fresh and exciting. This year, the group developed a takeoff on the American Idol television reality show, called Beef's Idol. "It was a great, fun time where franchisees sang and competed for the Beef's Idol title. Some of our folks were so good that some of the ship's crew asked if this was a real contest," laughs Vojnovic.

And of course, free time is important to offer franchisees, and what better way to do that than with the sand, sea, and sun found on a Caribbean cruise?

Vojnovic says the company puts a lot of thought and planning into each convention, garnering feedback from franchisees and using it to improve the events each year. "We do a follow up email asking our franchisees how we can improve the event and where they would like to go next year," explains Vojnovic. "Based on that feedback, we're already planning next year's convention to include even more funshops." He says it's important to promote the event year round. "Our people in the field promote it. They talk about what happened last year and things that are planned for next year. They ask why franchisees didn't come and encourage them to come next time."


You might expect an organization that caters to kids to be sensitive to its franchisees' children. That's exactly what Scottsdale, Ariz.-based The Little Gym does at its annual meetings, called "Reunions."

The group incorporates a Kids' Club into the annual events, explains CEO Robert Bingham. When franchise owners head off to the first meeting of the day, they can drop their kids off at the Kids' Club. The children fill their days with activities such as arts and crafts, sports, story hour, and a movie. The group even offers Saturday-evening pajama parties so parents can attend banquets or enjoy a night on the town. Other activities, such as scavenger hunts, are not only great team-building events for the franchise operators, but even bring parents and children together.

The Kids' Club is a novel concept and an effective approach that seems to be working. More than 400 franchisees, an estimated 70 percent of the system, attended this past year's convention in Mount Snow, Vermont, in July.

"We know that by combining fun and work and allowing our operators to bring their children, that we're making the reunion a very real value and investment for them, and we're seeing the attendance numbers increase," says Bingham. Over the past few years, the company has seen a 15 to 20 percent increase in attendees and Bingham says about 75 percent of those who attend bring their kids. Bingham was actually right in the middle of his company's convention when he participated in this interview.

As for the nuts and bolts of the convention "reunion," it typically begins on a Thursday night with an evening reception. It's a chance for old friends to get together socially and for new friendships to be kindled. Friday is characterized by general sessions, speakers and an exhibit hall. "You've got to provide meat at the convention," explains Bingham. "It's good that it's a fun, family-focused event, but these operators need tools, training, product introductions, training systems, new marketing materials and plans. And this is where we can give that to them."

Good knowledgeable speakers are important at conventions. And according to Bingham, who's more knowledgeable concerning the day-to-day operations of a Little Gym franchise than the Little Gym operators themselves? That's why the company actually utilizes, and pays, some of its operators to lead breakout sessions during the conventions. These operators are great resources for topics such as how to manage staff, or how to increase enrollment. There were 16 breakout sessions at the most recent convention.

Like Beef 'O' Brady's, The Little Gym charges exhibitors/suppliers to come show their wares. Bingham says it's not meant to make a profit but to help offset the costs of the convention. About a dozen or so vendors typically make the trip each year.

As for the venues, Bingham says the company chooses ski resort areas, like Mount Snow, Vermont, and Park City, Utah, because they offer cool summer weather at the high mountain altitudes, and the pricing in the off-season makes the resorts very attractive and budget-friendly.

Like other franchise organizations, The Little Gym solicits franchisee feedback following the events and tries to implement as many of those requests as it can. For example, Bingham says, "We've identified over the past two years that we need bigger hotels." Not a bad problem to have.


A plane has just crashed in the icy cold Antarctic, 30 miles off course. Seven survivors must decide which items in the wreckage will help keep them alive - but what will they choose--matches, a compass, sleeping bag, water? It's all part of a "survival exercise" given by Stan Friedman, partner and senior vice president of Wing Zone in Atlanta. Wing Zone franchisees got to take part in the exercise earlier this year at the group's annual convention.

"The culture in your franchise is so important; you must develop and use interdependency, everybody has value," emphasizes Friedman. That's one of the keys to the survival exercise. And it's why he strategically places a wide mix of franchisees and executives together, especially if there has been some kind of problem between certain individuals. The exercise forces the groups of six or seven individuals to work together. It compels people to build trust, belief, work as a team, value each other, and build relationships - all necessary components of a successful franchise.

The inspirational and motivational survival exercise is so popular that Friedman has been doing the exercise for other companies for more than a decade now.

Outside of the unique survival exercise that usually kicks off the convention, Friedman says Wing Zone subscribes to a set of fundamentals when it comes to its conventions. "Make them interactive meetings, not just what I call podium puke. Make it two-way and offer meaningful knowledge," he says. "Your goal is to get people together and get them focused." He says the agenda should be set based on franchisee and franchisor input because both parties bring something to the table. "Intellectual capital" is what Friedman calls it.

Friedman is a strong believer in awards and recognition ceremonies. "They recognize those who deserve it and build aspirations in others," he adds.

He says Wing Zone also conducts a "town hall" meeting during its annual convention where all franchise executives leave the room and let franchisees have the floor to vent or discuss issues with each other. Another idea is a "best practices drawing" from a fish bowl. Friedman says each franchisor can pay to submit an idea into the bowl. Later in the convention, all the ideas are reviewed and a winner is chosen by the franchisees and that person receives a cash prize. It builds interest and excitement and creates some great best practices ideas.

Friedman says Wing Zone has found that the location of the event is very important. "It shouldn't be the same old same old," he explains. "We have discovered that more isolated locales provide fewer distractions for the attendees." As a result, the company looks for cities, venues, and resorts that are off the beaten path.

Ultimately, it comes down to consistency, according to Friedman. "Present a strong and informative message 365 days a year, not just for three or four days at an annual convention," he says. "If you're doing it right all year long, people will want to come to the conference, and they'll be committed." Those are words that every franchisor longs to hear.

Published: October 25th, 2005

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