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How to Hold an Epic Annual Meeting

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Anago’s founder David Povlitz was a hit as Darth Vader at this year’s annual meeting.

Each year Judy Walker, vice president of marketing for Anago Cleaning Services, tries to make the annual conference for franchisees better than the last. This year’s will be hard to beat.

“We dressed our chairman up in a Darth Vader costume, and he walked in with his light saber to the Imperial March theme from Star Wars,” she says, and then Chairman and Founder David Povlitz delivered his only possible line. “Anago, I am your father.”

The reaction? “They loved it. They were clapping and hooting and everybody went wild,” she says. Walker isn’t alone in her task to host an annual conference that draws more franchisee attendees each year than the last, despite busy schedules and the typical arrangement that franchisees pay for their own airfare and hotel rooms.

The vast majority of franchisors hold such a conference, several sources said, although no one seems to keep an actual count. How to keep people begging for more? Here are five ways to hold an epic conference.

‘A big deal’

For Donnie Carr of Christian Brothers Automotive, the key is to create an event to envy. “We want to make it something that the franchisees are upset if they miss it,” he says. “We want them to know they’re a big deal. We want them to know we’re investing in them.”

A highly desirable destination is chosen, at a venue with “remarkable service,” Carr says. Swag bags are handed out, with things like iPad minis or “amazing” house slippers from L.L. Bean, at a gift budget alone around $500 per person.

Beyond the goodies is a desire to model the service culture they’d like franchisees to instill at their automotive repair shops. “One of our culture things here is, if we’re going to ask you to do something, we need to stay to the same standard. We want to be held to the same standard of accountability. This is one of our opportunities to do that,” he says.

All home office team members have assignments at the conference, including two who become local experts on the destination, discovering dining options, activities around town or the location of the nearest drugstore. During the conference the pair wears matching visible outfits so attendees can easily find them to ask questions.

First-time attendees are assigned a home-office team member who calls them before the event, meets them when they arrive, and introduces them around during social events.

Carr inherited responsibility for the annual conference when he joined Christian Brothers eight years ago. Then, there were 46 franchises. Today, there are more than 150.

The budget for the conference was much tighter then, too. Today, the franchisor spends $25,000 to $50,000 on the event, and they schedule the next events three years in advance. Last year 250 people came to the conference, and Carr expects more each year.

Sometimes, Carr says, the best ideas cost just a little, like the year they taped Nerf guns at every table. “In our first large group session we had everyone look under the chair, and then a small firefight did break out,” he says.

Avoiding past sins

Sam Rothschild, COO of Slim Chickens, has been in franchising for 40 years, from a diverse background of brands. Now that he’s with a young system—Slim Chickens has 25 restaurants as of August—he feels he knows the good, bad and the ugly of annual conferences.

“My team and I call it avoiding the sins of the past,” he says, when planning their conference, with best practices in mind. These four items are among the most important to franchisees, he believes.

No. 1: Send them to a city that they want to go to, and make it logistically easy. Slim Chickens is based in Fayetteville, Arkansas, so that’s automatically scratched off the list because it’s hard to reach.

No. 2: Make it an efficient use of people’s time and money. “So when they arrive and when they leave, they say this is a great use of my time,” he says.

No. 3: “You need to have a meeting that’s relevant to the issues of the day, and you need to work with the franchisees on the agenda,” he says. “I think at times franchisors forget that. It’s not our agenda as the franchisor; it’s everybody’s agenda for the brand.”

No. 4: “Make sure your materials are relevant, and never, ever put a chart up on screen that nobody can read,” he says. His team reviews all charts and presentations in advance, and works with speakers for a polished presentation every time. “You have to make sure you have credibility.”

Slim Chickens conference was set for mid-October, in Dallas, for a day and a half, and was expected to draw about 50 people. “Our intent is to make this a dialogue,” not a monologue, he adds.

Aligning theme with message

“For me, the franchise conference is just one more brand touchpoint,” says Susan Milkowski, vice president of learning and development at Buffalo Wings & Rings. “So it has to represent who we are as a brand, and it has to represent our culture.”

That means aligning the theme of each conference around the latest initiative the franchisor is promoting. For example, in 2010 the franchise rolled out its “service promise” to which everyone is expected to adhere.

“The theme was Summer of Love,” she says, and corporate staff ramped up the service, personally greeting every franchisee who arrived, at whatever time, with gift bag in hand. If someone in the crowd said they could really use a beer about now, a corporate staff member showed up with one on a tray. “These were little touches that we emphasized our service promise,” she says. “It was subtle, but it was fun.”

Milkowski has two rules: Know your audience, and know your limitations. “You can’t be all things to all people,” especially with budgets and logistics to take into account.

‘All the shiny stuff’

Sylvan Showcase, which displays the franchisor’s latest technology along with product managers to explain it, has become the star of Sylvan Learning’s annual conference, says Alan Catlett, vice president of the Baltimore-based brand.

In the beginning, the tech showcase was an afterthought, a place for franchisees to go on a coffee break, perhaps. “About three years ago we said this is a really critical part of what we do every day,” and it’s now part of the planned program.

Sylvan shows off everything from back office products to marketing systems, so franchisees can talk to the specialists who manage the tools and gain hands-on learning about how to use them. Sylvan’s conference this year opened September 1, in its hometown of Baltimore, and Catlett said the new STEM curriculum in engineering would be a major exhibit.

“It’s worked out really well,” Catlett says about Sylvan Showcase—almost too well. “When we do our post-conference surveys, people say it’s tough to compete with the Showcase, because they have all the shiny stuff.”

Begin again

“The minute that we finish one seminar, we start planning the very next one. It takes an entire year to put it together,” says Judy Walker, with Anago Cleaning Services.

An inventive theme is key, like this year’s Star Wars theme. “Last year we had it in Nashville, and it was all about Music City. We’ve gone to Disney and we’ve created Disney-type scenes,” she says.

Keeping things fresh is a challenge. Anago’s first conference was about 12 years ago. “You get better and better at it, but at the same time you have to get more and more creative,” she says.

Anago draws between 50 and 60 people for the conference, from 37 master territories across the United States and internationally. The cost is in the low to mid-five figures.

A big change for Anago has been content. In the early years members of the corporate team stood up to talk about different topics relating to the brand. “We discovered that what our franchisees really wanted was to hear from their peers, more than they wanted to hear from the franchisor,” she says. Now a roundtable format is the rule, with franchisees sharing best practices with each other.

Walker also suggests raffles, especially first thing in the morning to encourage on-time attendance. “We give out gift cards, iPads, and as a matter of fact at the Star Wars conference we announced the night before we were going to be giving away a Toyota,” Walker recalls. “The crowd just went wild.”

The next morning she handed over the prize to the winner, “and it was a Toy Yoda (the wise character from the movie).” Was the audience mad they’d been duped? “No. I thought, ‘Is someone going to throw something at me,’ but luckily it went over really well,” Walker says. “When you stop having fun, you should stop doing conferences. That’s what it’s all about.”

More ideas for annual meeting hosts

  1. Christian Brothers Automotive uses a website called SmartSheets, where franchisees rate every activity and every meal from 1 to 10. Shortly after the conference, the entire corporate staff gets together to read the feedback and make plans for changes.
  2. A new addition for Christian Bros. is a service project in the community on the arrival day, when participants build bicycles for Girls’ or Boys’ Clubs, or put together care kits for the military stationed overseas. “Doing things for others is a great way to bring people together,” says Christian’s Donnie Carr.
  3. Make sure to hire a photographer, to “capture those famous moments,” advises Anago’s Judy Walker.
  4. Anago likes to include a motivational speaker to pump up the crowd, but the cleaning franchise takes care to educate the speaker beforehand about the audience, the brand and important messages to relay.
  5. Slim Chickens likes to be sure there’s enough time built into the program for socializing, so people can get to know each other. “A lot of these folks don’t talk to each other on a regular basis,” Slim’s Sam Rothschild says.
  6. Susan Milkowski at Buffalo Wings & Rings advises to pay attention to the level of service at potential venues. She always does site visits before selecting, and she’ll watch for subtleties: does the housekeeper greet her, for instance. Recently a workman was laying tiles during a renovation when a guest asked for directions. The workman stopped what he was doing and walked the guest to the location. “To me that says wow, there’s something that’s happening throughout the venue, not just as a part of salesmanship,” she says.
  7. Consider a technology showcase, a la Sylvan Learning, at your annual conference, where franchisees can ask questions of product specialists and gain hands-on learning. Plus everyone likes to try out the shiny toys.


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