The best board meetings, says Ninan Chacko, CEO of Travel Leaders Group, are those where the board helps the chief executive “refine, adjust and pressure-test where the company is heading.” Making that happen is as much art as it is science, notes Chacko, whose $21 billion-company is headquartered in Plymouth, Minnesota.
For Chacko, planning a successful board meeting begins with building an agenda that is both engaging and instructive. But the agenda is just one piece of a puzzle that involves a surprising number of decisions—everything from choosing the right venue to planning seating arrangements.
“For board meetings, the smaller details really come into play,” notes Terri Woodin, senior director of global meeting services for Meeting Sites Resource, a meetings-management firm headquartered in Irvine, California.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
When John F. Barrett, CEO of Western & Southern Financial Group, sits down with his team to plan the Cincinnati firm’s board meetings, one not-so-small detail that’s top of mind is venue. “When working with very busy board members, it is extremely important for our meetings to be held in locations that are easily accessible,” he says. That translates to a hotel, resort or conference center relatively near an airport served by frequent direct flights. “Second, we want our board members to be relaxed and comfortable in the facility, so they can bring their full focus to the specific agenda items but also continue informal discussions throughout the meeting schedule,” adds Barrett.
“The best board meetings are those where the board helps the chief executive refine, adjust and pressure-test where the company is heading.”
CHOOSE ONLY THE BEST, BUT . . .
Given the status of board meeting attendees, the venue must be of the highest caliber—generally four-diamond or better. “It’s not just because they’re executives and they deserve it,” notes Woodin. “You need to be guaranteed a certain level of quality. You can’t have the Internet breaking down; the conference phone has to work. You want things to run smoothly, efficiently and effectively.”
But high-caliber doesn’t necessarily mean lavish. “The venue needs to be upscale and fresh—but not too upscale,” says Paul Tessitore, director of American Express Meetings & Events, citing current concerns about the optics of such meetings. “It can’t give the perception of being too over the top.”
The need to avoid the perception of opulence is especially true if your company or industry is getting a lot of attention in the news. As Woodin says, “You don’t want to end up on CNN.” When it’s necessary to fly under the radar, Woodin favors independent hotels or independents associated with a chain. Tessitore prefers smaller properties for board meetings for a different reason. He wants to make sure that the gathering is the hotel’s primary focus, “so we’re not vying for their attention or overpowered by large meetings nearby.”
Typically, Western & Southern Financial Group will choose an executive retreat-style property that has golf and tennis and perhaps a spa onsite. “The majority of the time is used for business and collaboration, but we do try to go to a location where there’s a little leisure activity,” says Kathy Roche, director of meeting planning, travel and events.
THE MEETING SPACE: MORE THAN A ROOM
The meeting space itself is of paramount importance. Because of the confidential nature of board meeting proceedings, privacy is crucial. Ideally, the meeting room is situated apart from other meeting rooms in an area where there’s not a lot of foot traffic, such as at the end of a corridor, on its own floor or even with a private entrance. “You need to make sure there aren’t people within earshot of anything going on,” says Tessitore. “These conversations tend to come out into hallways during breaks.”
Some meeting planners look for boardrooms that have a sitting area off to the side to allow for sidebar conversations. Roche usually books two meeting spaces—one for the meeting itself and a separate room nearby. “I keep that a private, high-level conference room, with a phone, so that any time the board needs to step away, they have a room handy.”
Atmosphere counts too. You and your board members don’t want to be stuck in a cramped boardroom, which can happen even at the nicest hotels. “The environment needs to be stimulating enough that participants can get away from day-to-day business and think clearly, without distraction,” says Lisa Meller, director of Worldview Events, a division of Worldview Travel Corporate Services in Irvine, California. “Our clients look for a high-end resort property where there’s a lot of natural light and a pleasant view from the meeting room. The room needs to be warm and residential; the lighting needs to be conducive.”
Access to nature is a big plus, says Chacko. “Especially for multi-day meetings, finding an environment where you’ve got the ability to see the outdoors breaks up the monotony of board meetings. Encouraging people to gather outside, have sidebar conversations and take a breath of fresh air gets the best out of people and promotes dialog.”
“Encouraging people to gather outside, have sidebar conversations and take a breath of fresh air gets the best out of people and promotes dialog.”
Depending on your organization’s culture, you may want to opt for a less formal meeting setting and room setup. “Many groups like traditional boardroom settings, but we’ve seen some meet in a more casual living room setup,” says Rhonda Chesney, Chicago-based regional director of worldwide sales at Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts. She’s even seen groups use beanbag chair seating. “At resorts, the sky’s the limit as far as different offerings,” adds Chesney. “In our Orlando resort, we have a couple of spaces where you can do meetings by the lake, meetings on the beach, so it’s more casual. That sets the tone for engagement, where the attendees are a lot more comfortable, where they can get up and walk around and have more connections than they would sitting around a board table.”
CRAFTING A POWERFUL AGENDA
While many aspects of planning a board meeting will be left to the meeting planner, when it comes to designing the agenda, the CEO plays a pivotal role. It’s a task worthy of time, energy and attention, cautions Chacko. “The folks who sit on boards bring a wealth of experience along with them. The worst thing one can do is have a rote, one-way flow of information. If you’re going to get the best out of people, you want them to participate in a way that leverages what they bring to table.”
Rather than something to dread, board meetings can—and should—be fun. “It has to have pace, to move along; the materials have to be interesting; and, hopefully, the board members will get something out of it,” says Chacko. “That involves focusing on the things that matter, whether that’s raising money, the structure of the company, strategy or the competitive aspects of the business.”
When there are controversial or hot-button topics on the agenda, board members should be prepped ahead of time, so they’re not taken by surprise. “The worst thing you can do is discuss an issue with which board members are not familiar. You want them to reflect in advance,” advises Chacko.
Even when the list doesn’t include controversial topics, the agenda and related materials should be sent to board members early so they have time to do their homework. “There needs to be a clear expectation that the board will do the requisite work prior to the meeting—to read and digest materials in advance—so they’re prepared to have an engaging discussion,” notes Chacko. “That’s really one of the most important dynamics.”
Meller echoes that view, noting that board members need to come to the table prepared to discuss solutions, “so people feel like they’re actually accomplishing something.”
Balancing the itinerary so that attendees don’t end up sitting for hours on end is also key. “It’s important to get up, to move, to change the environment,” says Meller, who suggests consider-ing breaking for an outdoor lunch or scheduling an early morning netwalking event where attendees pair up with a partner to walk and talk about a topic that needs to be resolved. Some board meetings build in short teambuilding or creative-thinking exercises.
During the meeting itself, it’s incumbent upon the CEO to manage the flow of discussion, giving everyone an opportunity to speak and adapting the agenda as needed, rather than sticking to a fixed timeline. “It’s a little bit of a ringmaster act,” Chacko says.
FEEDING BODY & MIND
Rather than an added expense, consider great food and drinks an investment. “When you’re sitting in a meeting and trying to give it your best, it’s important to be happy and comfortable there,” says Chacko.
“A DINNER THE NIGHT BEFORE USUALLY SETS THE TONE FOR THE EVENT.”
Travel Leaders Group typically hosts a board dinner the night before the meeting itself, using the occasion to set the tone for the entire event. “It’s promoting open, interactive conversation in an environment where the board gets a sense informally of where the company is and where it’s headed,” says Chacko, who urges CEOs to take the time to get the dynamics of the board dinner—from table shape to ambiance—right. “Picking the right venue, the right kind of quiet place that’s fun, having the right participants and deciding who sits where, all matter.
“Sometimes, when we’ve had multiple tables, we’ve encouraged people to move around between courses. It’s all a means of changing the dynamic.”
The quality of the food, drink and downtime activities also shouldn’t disappoint, adds Tessitore. “These are folks used to nice restaurants, good wine,” he says. “We need to manage food and beverages to that standard.”
Offering healthy menu selections, including vegetarian fare, and exercise options is increasingly important to today’s attendees—and has a side benefit, notes Roche. “When you eat a healthier breakfast and lighter lunch, your mind is more effective. The trends are more exercise, healthier food and more vigorous activity.”
Board Meeting Know-How
…attend closely to technical concerns. Tech requirements (i.e. glitch-free A/V, video and telephone conferencing) tend to be straightforward, but you still have to get them absolutely right.
…be vigilant about security. Your firm’s director of security should meet with his or her counterpart at the hotel to address privacy, confidentiality and security.
…arrange for private car transfers. “Very often, folks are getting off a plane and getting right on a call, Therefore, it’s wise to have private cars, so they can take these calls,” says Paul Tessitore of American Express Meetings & Events.
…take a single thing for granted. Even when staying at five-star hotels, you can’t assume the property will do everything right, warns Tessitore, who advises covering “every detail, from arrival to departure.”
…get shut out of the hotel you want. Booking early is essential. To help secure space, consider being flexible on dates, entering into a multi-year or multi-event agreement or working with a site selection firm that can leverage volume and expertise.
…don’t make attendees ask. Build profiles of repeat attendees’ food preferences, dietary restrictions and other likes and dislikes so that hotels can accommodate those needs.