As a veteran of various CSO/CRO/CCO roles, I always felt that the sales kickoff meeting (SKO) was the single most important event of the year, both to prepare my teams for success and to engage in high-quality team building. And I’ve spoken with a number of clients recently who are genuinely excited about finally bringing teams together in 2023. Yet just as the urgency around live event health and safety is receding, a new threat — an impending economic downturn — has put cost containment front and center again.
Budgeting will be the most confusing and contentious part of SKO planning due to the event’s one-off nature and high variability. This can be particularly challenging if your CFO perceives the kickoff as one big corporate-funded party. So following my tips and tricks will help you fight for and supercharge your live SKO while still keeping the finance team happy.
Venue Location: Venue selection contributes more to budget optimization of the SKO than practically anything else.
- Choose a city that is drivable (or via train) for a realistic portion of the team, and nonstop or one-stop flying for the rest.
- Ideally, select a city with a company office location nearby to help maximize conference room space, headquarters staff support and — most importantly — optics. While Las Vegas may be cost-efficient in many ways, this location doesn’t reduce the “big party” perception.
- Conduct your SKOs at least partially at the hotel by selecting one with suites to use as breakout rooms. Just ensure the beds are out of sight (i.e avoid “studios”). And while an in-room conference table is best, informal seating with a whiteboard is fine.
- Negotiate the inclusion of breakfast and bottled water (and internet) in the room rate. More on this below.
- Likewise, lean toward hotels that have free shuttle services and/or are near public transportation.
What about room-sharing? I am personally and professionally against the practice (snoring complaints, assertions of privacy invasion, etc.). However, your culture and organization will vary, so you could always test some options — such as asking for volunteers, putting a premium on single rooms, or use other options to keep lodging costs down.
Food and Beverages (F&B): My F&B prioritization may surprise you, but I have found it both expensive and logistically challenging.
- Negotiate F&B — like water and breakfast (cocktails?) — into the room rate, then insist your team utilize these amenities. Bonus: You can make meals an aspect of team-building by grouping various reps so they can get to know each other.
- Avoid other hotel-supplied F&B except coffee and pitchers of water. Just do the math on in-hotel catered lunches or fruit, cookies and ice cream at 3 p.m. You will thank me!
- Instead, bring in external refreshments. Nothing fancy, but why have your team expensing branded bottled water and granola bars at a 300% markup? Take 20 minutes to grab a couple cases of water and mixed assortments of snacks. If they don’t like the spread, change it up the next day. Make it a point of discussion. Trust me, your team will appreciate that YOU did the heavy lifting.
Transportation: This will be one of the largest expense line items and comes with high logistical hurdles. If you’ve selected a strong venue following my earlier guidance, it’s much easier to manage. But now you will be tempted to just defer to your company T&E policy, WHICH IS A MISTAKE. Instead:
- Control airline expenses almost to the point of micromanaging by securing tickets well before the 21-day window. Doing so will eliminate the heartburn caused by automated “T&E out of policy” emails bouncing around to finance and HR.
- Repeat after me: “No rental cars.” If my advice is gaining traction (excuse the pun), your location is walking, shuttle, metro and ride-sharing friendly. You will save on parking and gas, avoid accidents and give back an hour of travel time to your reps.
Pro Tip: Work with finance to create an SKO-specific T&E policy to drive cost containment.
Speakerships: While you can optimize this expense using internal resources (CEO, A-Players, etc.), you must not eliminate it. Dynamic speakers will take your SKO to the next level. Align speakers with the theme of your SKO, then get creative with selecting the resource(s). I favor using outside speakers that bring unique perspectives. For example, an SKO I conducted had the theme “Moving to Mastery.” I brought in a renowned “Close-Up Magician” rather than a high-priced author who’d charge me tens of thousands for their time (and their books!). We set up close-in seating and video cameras focused on his hands as he spoke about “the power of practice and repetition.” I also supplied a script of theme-aligned questions to weave into his act — “Do you see how practicing over and over forms habits that will help with your objection handling?”
Team Building (and Engagement): This is another area we tend to over-budget then quickly eliminate when questioned on costs, throwing bowling (!) or “team dinners” onto the agenda, declaring “Good enough.” By taking the time to align team-building with your theme, and combining it with your engagement activities, you will supercharge your SKO while still containing cost. For example, at the above “Moving to Mastery” event, I used playing cards throughout the meeting. Participants could earn (or lose) cards through attendance, visiting vendor booths, answering questions, nailing role-plays, etc. Each day, the best poker hand won a meaningful award in front of the group. And at the end of the meeting, regional managers could win by using their team’s cards to build the highest house of cards, so they were incentivized to keep people engaged.
Remember — if we leave budgeting to someone else, we won’t have the resources we need to bring our SKO vision to life. So if you haven’t created an SKO budget yet, do it! If you haven’t submitted yet, bulletproof it! If you’ve already submitted, evangelize it! If you’re getting push back, defend it! If cuts are unavoidable, rebuild it!
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