Store manager conferences can be a powerful business tool to motivate as well as reward if the right approach is taken

With a workforce geographically spread all over the country, annual store manager conferences are a vital business tool for sharing company strategy and motivating the key people on the frontline.

Get it right, and the benefits can last for the whole year ahead. Get it wrong, and a retailer can end up in the headlines, as Sainsbury’s learnt in June 2007 after a lurid account of the actions of some of its staff at its annual event were reported in the Sunday Mirror.

Tales of debauchery are not uncommon, because, as well as the serious elements, most annual managers conferences conclude with an alcohol-fuelled chance for managers to let their hair down and get to know each other.

But with the correct balance and objectives, store manager conferences can be a powerful business driver. “They really can make a difference to your business,” says Aurora Fashions chief executive Mike Shearwood. “If you create the right environment at your conference you can use it to create emotional engagement with the brand by taking staff on an emotional journey through the day,” he says.

Jeremy Starling, managing director of employee engagement agency and conference organiser Involve, says such conferences are essential. “I can’t understand how you would get away with not having one because it’s the only time of year that you’ll get all your store managers in one room,” he says.

A meeting of minds

Ian Hopkins, director at alternative fashion retailer Pulp, agrees that it helps to bring a fragmented workforce together. “Store management is sometimes a lonely role and communications to and from central operations can be confusing or misunderstood, so at Pulp, we get managers together on a quarterly basis to help re-connect both parties with each other and focus on what the business needs to deliver,” he says.

As well as helping managers be clear on the corporate culture of the business, one of the major reasons for such conferences is to show staff new products, particularly those that are going to be big sellers at Christmas, often in conjunction with, and funded by, suppliers. “Generally, the main reason is to get everyone pumped up to sell in their key trading period,” says Starling.

Both HMV and Waterstones held their annual conferences earlier this month in preparation for Christmas.

Such events are costly and budgeting can be a sensitive issue - Peacocks called an end to store manager conferences about six years ago because of the cost involved.

In the past, many retailers have focused on lavish events or trips abroad but they aren’t necessarily the best way to spend cash. “We used to fly out to destinations like Spain, France and Turkey and it was a combination of reviewing how we had got on, and a big social element and a thank you,” says HMV head of communications Gennaro Castaldo.

For the past two years, the retailer has held its annual conference at the HMV Hammersmith Apollo in London - partnering with a nearby hotel for supplier presentations and company speeches.

Starling says the mood has changed. “The days of big budgeting where everyone was going crazy have long gone.”

Shearwood believes short and sweet can work wonders. “You can deliver as effective a conference in one day as you can in three days in an exotic location,” he says.

Of course, like Peacocks, retailers could abandon the cost of such conferences completely but it can be a dangerous tactic. “There are many ways of engaging with your workforce, but I strongly believe there’s no better way than conveying important messages face-to-face. Admittedly, non face-to-face activities are seen as more efficient and lower in cost, but looking into the whites of someone’s eyes helps you to achieve stronger emotional buy-in from your employees,” says Advanced Performance director Simon Clarkson.

To get the most from its conferences, Asda ensures there is enough variety to keep staff engaged. “We adopt a flexible agenda with a mix of auditorium sessions led by the executive board, an awards dinner for recognition and celebration as well as product-led syndicates to engage our managers in the trading focus,” says Ally Mackle, part of the colleague communications team that organises the supermarket’s conferences.

“Every minute is carefully planned out with a variety of formats, interactive content and opportunities for discussions. We listen to our managers’ feedback every year and build their suggestions into the plans,” she says.

Achieving buy-in at such an event is about involvement - though some retail heads resist this. “Some think about it as a huge sheep dipping exercise, which it is not,” says Starling. “You have to empower your staff so that they really take ownership to deliver in-store,” he says.

“Success at a store manager conference is about having clear messages and actions to take away from the event. Investing time with store managers and divisional teams is crucial and can motivate, inspire and engage the teams in our company strategy − but there must be a purpose and every session should be aligned in delivering this message,” says Mackle.

John Lewis head of internal communications Jane Beine agrees that ensuring everyone is involved is vital for a successful conference. “It is important to make the event democratic - don’t allow it to simply be an information download from head office,” she says, adding that events should include break out sessions to share thinking and best practice, gather feedback and discuss new ideas, concepts and proposals. “They are brilliant for building networks, particularly the break out groups or the social element over dinner,” she adds.

As a general manager of supermarket retailer Booths in Preston, Simon Fenwick agrees that involvement techniques are key - creating participants in the conferences rather than just an observing audience. “Allowing time for questions throughout the conference can create a level of involvement, but also encouraging one-to-one feedback after the meeting can appeal to those who are not comfortable with asking questions there and then,” he says.

Equally, however, involvement can be as subtle as a presenter making reference to a store or group of stores for their encouraging sales, new concepts they are pioneering or a trial they are testing for the company, according to Fenwick. “Those people involved with the said stores will feel involved and engage with the content of the meeting. This kind of involvement may also encourage discussion after the meeting with other stores, thus potentially leading to other benefits eg, sharing of best practice and ideas,” he says.

Speak to me

When choosing the speakers at conferences, some retailers will lean towards outside speakers such as motivational speakers but these aren’t always ideal. “If you don’t have motivational leaders in the business they shouldn’t be leading the business. It’s about getting the emotional link with your staff and you need to be able to do that internally,” Fenwick says.

Starling agrees. “I’ve never seen an external speaker that added any value apart from entertainment - it’s much more important to hear from suppliers, customers and heroes within the business,” he says.

“We try to find heroes within the business and get them to share their stories.”

But it is possible to combine both. At HMV, the appearance of music celebrities at its annual conference not only helps to boost staff interest and engagement but also brings a feel-good feeling that the retailer has enough cache to secure such names - with the likes of The Charlatans and Manic Street Preachers appearing at HMV’s evening event and popstar Duffy interviewed by HMV chief executive Simon Fox at the day conference.

Bringing customers to a conference - whether real or an actor playing the part of the retailer’s typical customer - can also be useful. “That helps to bring that customer to life,” says Starling.

But knowing how to talk to staff is key. According to Fenwick, it is honesty and openness that works best. “Some of the most memorable and motivational meetings I have attended have involved a presentation without any aids, delivered with passion, honesty and straight from the heart,” he says.

Starling agrees: “There has to be some presentations but we try to do that in an exciting way and to keep the strategy simple,” he says. Such tactics allow managers to more effectively cascade the message when they return to store. “You need to find a way where a manager can get his people standing around him and get them as pumped up as possible too,” says Starling.

At Asda, providing easy to share information resources is key. “It’s vital to invest as much effort into the onward briefing process by providing our managers with the tools and materials to take the key messages back to store and inspire their teams,” says Mackle.

Themed events also help to strengthen the message. “It doesn’t have to be beholden to that, but a strong under-current allows you to gather everything together into an over-arching theme, helping people to learn by association and retain that detail,” says Clarkson.

At the start of the recession Focus’s annual conference was themed around going to war. “The staff were the troops, they had to do basic training then battle strategies and so on,” says Starling.

Of course, a conference isn’t just about work. “It’s essential to balance learning and education with inspiration for change, together with entertainment and fun. A successful event should combine all three elements,” says Clarkson. “If it’s just learning and education you want - without the inspiration and entertainment - then you’ll struggle to get your message to stick,” he says.

The balance, however, has to be right, after all you want staff to remember the conference rather than simply the drunken celebration that followed. “We try and teach the clients to make the business day the highlight and spend their money and effort on the day and have a fairly chilled, laid-back evening,” says Starling.

Store manager conferences are about a thank you but Starling stresses that retailers also think about what their objectives are from such an investment. “Then it becomes a business tool rather than just a reward trip,” he says.