Author: Ali Kott

Our 25th Anniversary: Wellington CEO Shares Lessons Learned, the Word That’s Shaped How We Do Business

In 1994, a gallon of gas cost $1.04. The Channel Tunnel opened between England and France. The Netscape Navigator web browser debuted. And on July 1, 1994, Joan Wells and Jada Hill founded Wellington.

“Jada and I were both K-Staters and both worked at Proctor & Gamble,” Joan says. “When I was there, I was frequently put on special assignment to develop unique and creative ways to produce our sales meetings and contests.”

That’s when Joan had a light bulb moment: it’s these meetings, contests, events and experiences that provide value not just to a sales organization, but also to the entire company. And so she made a deal with herself.

“My husband and I lived in St. Louis at the time,” she says. “He got a job back in Kansas City, and I was interviewing for a job at Hallmark. I told myself that if I got the job, I’d take it. And if I didn’t, I’d start my own event planning company.”

Together, Joan and Jada set out to put their own spin on the meetings and events industry. That includes keeping pace with—and often leading the way—in an industry that’s undergone a momentous shift.

“We’ve taken the gamut of live experiences and morphed that to really refine the industry,” she says. “Instead of meetings and events being what they were in the 80s and 90s—you produce an event, you create an event—we realized our clients wanted more. As a result, we’re owning the whole live experience.”

That’s a key word: experience. As you’ve no doubt found in your own meetings and events, attendees want experiences. They want to engage, discover and share, both within the attendee population and to their larger networks through social media.

That focus on experiences has also impacted segments within the meetings and events industry. Take gifting, for example. With the explosive growth of eCommerce sites like Amazon, consumers have more buying power than ever. That means that once-coveted gifts like high-end backpacks or luggage make less of an impact. As Wellington worked more frequently with gifting clients, Joan spotted another opportunity to lead the way.

“We added a full-service gifting division in 2001,” she says. “We create the customized experiences the gifting occurs within. By changing gifting to an experience, you create a psychological resonance that also helps build the power of your brand.”

There’s so much to celebrate in this last 25 years. But there’s been a fair share of challenges, too. Joan remembers receiving an unsettling phone call in 2000 after years of working with a major auto manufacturer.

“They said, ‘Just so you know, there are 250 companies like yours that people in Ford have worked with over the last decade,’” Joan says. “They told us they narrowed that list to six companies, and Wellington wasn’t on it.”

Rather than accept defeat and focus on finding a new line of work, Joan and Jada took a proactive approach to the unexpected obstacle. They asked their existing clients in the auto company to lobby for them. Then, they secured an appointment with the company’s executive team. After a successful presentation, Wellington was approved to oversee the company’s global events. And in recent years, they’ve proved their value and staying power.

“Throughout the years, the other companies either went out of business or were removed from the program,” Joan says. “Now it’s just Wellington and one other company. It would have been devastating to lose that business, but instead, it shows a part of who we are: we’ll hop on a plane and pitch to anyone, anywhere, any time.”

That willingness to meet with and pitch to anyone, regardless of location, played a pivotal role in how Wellington weathered the mid-2000s recession. Instead of putting prospective business on the back burner, Joan and the Wellington team were out talking to companies about what they wanted to accomplish once the economy recovered.

“When the companies received their budgets, they called us and we hit the ground running,” she says.

Now, Wellington is in the midst of another strategic pivot: association management, which now has its own division within the company. Just as meetings and events have shifted from purely logistical to experiential, association management companies are more focused on moving away from operating simply as a membership model and instead toward a role as a community builder.

“We’re helping people in the association management industry understand that community building is experience,” Joan says. “It’s tied to the association management company’s brand, programming and experiences that add value to these associations.”

In addition to building Wellington’s association management division, Joan says technology continues to be a top priority. Plans for several pieces of proprietary technology are in the works, which will reduce the need for third-party platforms for engagement-building event tools like mobile apps and registration websites. It’s mind-boggling to think that, when Wellington was founded, there was no Internet—just fax machines and phones!

Yet if anyone can stay ahead of a fast-moving industry curve, it’s Wellington. No matter how much the industry has changed, the company stays committed to the core values that Joan and Jada helped establish in Wellington’s early days. Joan and Jada also remember the early lessons they learned that continue to guide the company today.

“When we first started Wellington, a man interviewed with us but we didn’t hire him,” Joan says. “Yet when his father-in-law, an international scientist, needed help with producing an event for 5,000 global attendees in Seattle, he gave his father-in-law our names. Things fall into your lap that way because of those personal touch points. You never know who you’re talking to and how they might help you when you least expect it.

We’ll be celebrating our 25th anniversary throughout 2019, so stay tuned to our blog for more lessons learned, success stories and company milestones. Here’s to the next 25!

The Top Gifting Trends for 2019 at CES, PPAI

At Wellington, we work hard to ensure we’re not just keeping pace with industry trends—we also want to help lead the way. That’s why members of our full-service gifts division spend time each year at two key industry shows — the Consumer Electronics Show and the Promotional Products Association International Expo — to see what products and trends are making waves. We recently caught up with David Frazier, Wellington’s Director of Gifts, to share more about what he saw at each show.

 

Consumer Electronics Show: Affordable AI

CES draws nearly 200,000 attendees each year to Las Vegas to see the latest and greatest in technology and tech-related products. David says artificial intelligence (AI) was among the top trends for two key reasons.

“One of the big things at CES was 5G, which is really 8K technology — it’s lightning fast and allows AI to be embedded in products,” he says. “And now that AI is more prevalent in the marketplace, it’s affordable.”

Consider one of David’s favorite items from CES: a smart suitcase. Thanks to embedded AI technology, the suitcase is equipped with a handle that recognizes the owner’s handprint. Once activated by touch, the suitcase wheels next to you, hands-free! And if someone tries to swipe it or the suitcase falls over, it sounds an alarm and also updates your phone with its location.

“The suitcase rolls itself at up to 5 miles per hour, so if you’re running to catch that last-minute flight, it comes with you,” David says. “I can’t wait to get one and walk through the airport while people watch it!”

To David’s earlier point, AI’s prevalence in the market has helped dropped the price for many AI-enhanced items. The traveling suitcase retails for $499, which makes it more attainable for more people. And for companies considering high-end gifts that leave a lasting impression, something like the traveling suitcase could be a big hit.

Health and wellness continue to dominate both conversation and consumption, so it’s probably not a surprise that AI’s having a big impact there, too. David saw products like a smart mirror, an AI-equipped mirror that scans your face, tells you how you’re aging compared to your peers, points out areas of your skin to pay attention to and also shares cosmetic and skincare tips.

“You can also program it to share positive affirmations like ‘You’re an amazing person!’” David says.

Other attention-drawing AI applications include AI-equipped drones that are controlled by hand motions, plus bike helmets that compile and deliver data including maps, speeds, heart rate and calories burned. David even spotted a smart toothbrush at CES!

 

Promotional Products Association International: Travel, home are tops

 If you work in the promotional products industry, there’s a good chance you’ve been to the PPAI Expo. The annual event showcases everything happening with promotional products, and David says he spotted several key trends.

First up? Travel, including accessories like bags, cases and portfolios. What’s more: many of the travel items are stylish yet affordable. And customization is becoming a must-have.

“The ordering processes are built around lots of variations,” David says. “You can customize colors, engraving and branding directly at the vendor level. Not too long ago, you’d have to find a third party to provide that customization. Now, many companies offer it in-house.”

Another popular category is home, including décor and accessories like pillows, throws and candles.

“Oh my gosh—candles were everywhere,” David says. “They’re available in great scents and high quality.”

Just as a demand for experiences is driving pivotal changes in the events and meeting industry, those in the gifts industry are also looking for ways to deliver not just a gift, but a gifting experience. David saw a number of vendors at PPAI that will set up on-site at an event or business to create experiential gifts.

“I saw a company out of Redwood, Calif., that takes slices of redwood trees and a carving machine on-site to create caricatures, signatures or images directly on the wood,” he says. “They also laminate and cover it, all within a 20-30 minute period.”

And if you thought AI was only big at CES, think again! Remember those digital photo frames that would connect to your digital photo library or social media profile and scroll a variety of pictures? David spotted AI-equipped artwork that you hang on the wall and, at the touch of a button, can change the art that’s displayed. You can also connect the display to WiFi, so you can share your favorite art with your network.

Consider the information and insight that David collected and consider how you might refine your own gifting strategy. You don’t necessarily need to go AI or go home, but if a technology-enhanced experience fits your attendees and your brand, this is an ideal time to explore options that will deliver a big impact without derailing your budget.

Don’t hesitate to reach out to our gifts division if you need ideas or are looking for ways to take your gifting strategy to the next level. David and our team have no shortage of ideas and creativity that will delight your recipients and help deliver on your business goals, too. Maybe David will bring his self-rolling suitcase!

Crisis Planning: Six Things To Do When the Unexpected Happens

As if corporate event and meeting planning isn’t challenging enough, you may find your event disrupted by a crisis.

How you deal with the situation will be somewhat influenced by the type of crisis. Is it an internal company disruption? An unforeseen problem with an event venue or vendor? A natural disaster?

Ideally, you’ll already have at least a basic crisis plan in place to more quickly resolve the situation and move toward a positive outcome.

But as all of us at Wellington have found out firsthand, you can’t always plan for every crisis situation. We recently sat down with one of our account executives, Monica Evans-Lombe, who knows a thing or two about navigating a crisis. She helped one of our clients successfully scramble to find a new venue for an international event. And did we mention that Monica and our client team had a little over a month to essentially re-plan the conference?!

Based on that experience, Monica helped us develop a list of six things to do to help steer your company or client through a crisis. Let’s dive in!

Six Steps to Take During a Crisis

Make a plan, then act: When a crisis occurs, it’s natural to want to immediately scramble and do what you can to fix the problem.

Yet it’s better if you can stop, think through your next steps and collectively decide on a course of action.

“You can freak out and start running around, or you can gather stakeholders, have a conversation and make a plan,” Evans-Lombe said. “When we found out about the event venue, we ended up pulling in another team member to work on planning the event — we needed someone who could quickly and efficiently oversee the next steps.”

Leverage your network: Depending on what you need to move forward, look for opportunities to tap into your network and its resources. Evans-Lombe said one of the relationships that proved invaluable in this particular situation was a tourism bureau.

“One of our saving graces was our relationship with this organization,” she said. “They helped provide ideas and gave us support.”

Pull a few people together and brainstorm individuals, groups or companies that can help you when you’re in a jam. And if someone does come through with assistance, be sure to send a thank you note or even a small gift once the crisis has passed to let them know how much you appreciate the help.

Know your priorities: If you’re dealing with a crisis that affects your event or meeting’s logistics, understand that you’ll likely have to make some compromises, especially if you’re working on a tight schedule.

Revisit your initial event or meeting strategy to take stock of your top event priorities, then do what you can to still deliver on those elements.

Evans-Lombe and her team had to make some tough decisions. They found two possible replacement venues, but each location offered its own set of challenges. They ended up sacrificing proximity to the city center and ambiance in favor of almost immediate accessibility to the airport, which, with hundreds of worldwide attendees, was much appreciated.

“Many of the attendees felt the new location was more convenient and removed the scare factor of having to navigate a foreign city,” Evans-Lombe said.

Be ready to travel: If circumstances allow and you’re dealing with a crisis that affects your event logistics, do what you can to get people to the host city. For Evans-Lombe and her team, that meant unexpected overseas trips.

Yet if you find yourself needing to quickly scout new venues, meet with clients or other stakeholders, or research new vendors or service providers, it’s often easier to navigate those tasks in person. Of course, crisis situations often come with unexpected costs, and you don’t necessarily want to derail the event budget with unplanned travel. But if you can make at least one pre-event or meeting trip happen, you can make the most of that face time while other team members focus on details back at the home office.

Create meaningful messaging: You’ll likely want to keep attendees informed about what’s happening, especially if there are any last-minute changes to the event logistics or agenda.

This is another opportunity to step back and make a plan before you simply dash off a mass email and hit send. You’ll want to consider the details of the crisis, how it’s affecting your event and what questions or concerns your attendees might have, among other factors.

Information sharing and communications were pivotal parts of Wellington’s crisis response, Evans-Lombe said. They considered how much information to share with attendees, as well as how to communicate the last-minute changes with a positive focus that wouldn’t deter people from attending the event.

Understand legal basics: Having at least a basic grasp of regulations, guidelines and other legal stipulations that could affect your meeting or event can be a huge help in a crisis situation, especially if you’re dealing with an international location.

It’s also important to understand your company or client’s internal governance structure. For example, our client’s organization is overseen by a board of directors, so as Evans-Lombe pointed out, it was imperative to gather that board at the onset of the venue crisis to keep the new plan moving forward through the proper channels.

“Our normal contracting process would have more people involved, but we knew just a couple of people needed decision-making authority so that we could act quickly,” she said. “We were able to sign a contract with our new venue in just a few days.”

If need be, enlist legal help to navigate applicable situations like a breach of contract. And if you’re planning an event or meeting in another country, make it a priority during the planning process to identify possible legal contacts. Hopefully you won’t need them, but this sort of proactive due diligence can be a huge asset if a crisis arises.

Here’s one of the most important takeaways in crisis preparation: no matter how proactive you are, “you can’t plan for everything,” Evans-Lombe said.

The panic, the scramble, the anxiety — those are natural parts of dealing with a crisis. That’s why, no matter what you’re facing, it’s so important to take a step back, assess and make a plan before you dive into action.

And if you’re worried about the size of your team or available resources, we’d be happy to chat with you about working together to fill in the gaps.

“If you’re a small team or organization, you might not always have all of the resources you need readily available,” Evans-Lombe said. “The benefit of working with Wellington is we have a variety of resources and expertise that we can pull in at different times to help you resolve the situation.”