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MAKING FRANCHISEE CONFERENCES WORK

by Philip Horrocks,
last updated 29/01/2010

In any franchise, the annual conference is always a major event. Here are some tips from an experienced franchisor on making the most of getting everyone together.

One of the highlights of the year for every franchise system should be its annual conference. A conference represents a chance to get the franchisees together with the franchisor team, to learn, improve skills, build teams and have fun together. So why do so many franchise conferences fail to deliver?

At Provender, we have been holding franchise conferences for 15 years. In the early days we had our share of failures and disappointments, but we have learned from those errors and these days our conferences are not just the highlight of the year – they provide us with a source of ongoing information the whole year round. The conference is a key part of our strategy of continuous improvement – and it’s hugely enjoyable, too.

Purpose

When planning your franchise conference you must first define what its purpose should be - just getting together for the sake of it is not sufficient. You need a clear focus on what the outcome should be for the franchise system and the people within it. Once you have that, everything else will follow.

My personal experience is that conference is not a good time to seek solutions to problems within the system. For a start, problems need to be addressed immediately they are recognised, rather than waiting for conference. Secondly, problems can be made to seem bigger than they really are if they become a conference topic, and can actually be divisive. Keep your focus on future improvements.

Planning

We start planning our conference immediately the previous one has finished. Doing this means that it is fresh in our minds, that we can analyse what worked and what didn’t, and we can bring up any new ideas immediately and work them into our planning for next year.

We generally stick to the same time every year. March is good for us – in February everyone can suffer a bit of post-holiday blues, and since the winter is one of our busiest times then everyone can get fired up to make the most of it. A regular date also means people can build it into their planning, and of course timing it just before the end of the financial year means you can maximise the deduction.

In our system, the franchisees are fully involved in the planning through the Franchise Advisory Council – we devote one meeting plus part of two others to the conference, and the FAC chairman is also part of the special conference committee, along with our business managers and executive assistant. We do all the accommodation and logistics internally, but we employ a travel agent to co-ordinate the air travel.

The location has to be convenient and economical. Over 50% of our franchisees are based north of Taupo so we now tend to stay in that area. You want to make it as easy for franchisees to attend as possible, but you also have to be conscious that people from outside the upper North Island like to feel central too so sometimes it’s a good idea to go elsewhere. We don’t usually go back to the same place every year, but there’s no real practical reason for that.

Funding

For many franchise systems this is a very tricky point – who pays for franchisees to attend? It is obviously in everyone’s best interests to get as close to 100% attendance as possible, but if franchisees have to choose to spend money on the conference or on something else then, sadly, you will always have some who will not attend.

We therefore meet the full conference cost out of our marketing fund: airfares, accommodation, meals, drinks, speakers, the lot. This way it is a ‘no-brain’ decision to attend, and there is also a ‘use it or lose it’ aspect. My advice to any franchisor would be to set it up this way, as part of the marketing fund contribution – we used to have a separate conference fund with a separate levy, but it was unnecessarily complicated. This way franchisees perceive it as an added-value part of belonging to the franchise, and the fact that some have contributed more than others because of the percentage levy is just not an issue.

However it is funded, franchisees need to be sold on the conference well in advance. They need the date a long time ahead, and we let them know the venue about six months in advance. We then do a build-up via our weekly newsletter, seeking input, collecting ideas and asking for opinions on speakers. The more involvement franchisees feel they have the more they will get out of it.

Content

One of the benefits of having run conferences for 15 years now is that we have been able to evolve them to suit our particular people and our particular style. In addition, the debrief session immediately after each conference gives us a good steer for the following year. We have found that for us, each of the conferences needs to have a mix of the following elements:

  • A special uniform or shirt so that everyone is dressed in ‘teamwear’
  • Franchisee-led workshop sessions
  • Social time
  • Team building activities
  • External input/guest speakers
  • Supplier presentations
  • Internal awards
  • A really good party

Our conferences start Friday afternoon with an ‘icebreaker’ session designed to mix franchisees and get them all talking to each other. Friday night is an informal meal and, if possible, is held on a boat or other venue that keeps the group together. That way, alcohol intake is controlled and we can all start on time on Saturday at 8am, run through to 3pm then have the rest of the afternoon free. We have a 30 minute break for morning tea, 45 minutes for lunch and no afternoon tea. There’s a limit to what people are able to take in in one go. If the sessions are interesting, valuable and relevant, then people will go on discussing them in the less formal time. Whatever we plan, we try to leave ourselves 15 minutes of ‘elastic time’ every two hours so that we can explore new ideas a little more or make up time if necessary.

We find the Saturday afternoon is a good time for any team-building activities which help everyone to get re-acquainted before the evening party (and wake them up after lunch!). We’ve done a variety of activities and always try to keep them a surprise. Quiz sessions for small teams are always popular and can reinforce knowledge relating to the business. Games are also popular, although you have to be careful as most franchises have people of varying levels of fitness. Clever games are better than physical games.

Team building is very important to us. Our franchisees work in isolation a lot of the time, so we want to encourage people to ring each other and chat rather than just wave as their vans pass. That’s hard to do – New Zealanders are not great communicators, but if you can get people to relax together at conference then it becomes easier. We followed up on that last summer by running an internal game called The Great Escape. We grouped up franchisees as teams of four who collected points for selling cold drinks. The winners received an all-expenses-paid trip to the Gold Coast with the whole team and their partners all travelling together. The results were announced at the conference, heightening awareness and promoting the sense of fun. Sales went up, too!

Saturday evenings we meet up for drinks, then we have our Franchise Owner of the Year (FOOTY) Awards. These are serious awards which cover quite a wide range of achievements and people, and then everyone can relax and celebrate over dinner. It turns into a really good party with a disco or a band. We have had a number of themed parties and last year’s Wild West party at Wairakei Resort was a phenomenal success. There were a number of different ‘booths’ sited around the perimeter of the conference room with activities such as knife throwing and pistol shooting being very popular. However, seeing suppliers and franchisor staff being thrown off a ‘bucking bronco’ was definitely the highlight for most franchisees.

Presentations

We try to minimise the franchisor role at conference – we don’t want people to feel that they are coming to conference so we can tell them what to do. We like to introduce guest speakers and do a wrap at the end, but most of the content comes from franchisees, speakers and suppliers.

For example, if we want to introduce a new merchandiser we won’t stand up and tell people why it’s wonderful. We will have gone out well in advance and asked some franchisees to test it out in their market. They will then be asked to run a session about it at the conference, with support from a member of the Franchise Management Office so they feel comfortable. They can discuss what they physically did and what the results were. What was the customer reaction? What was the effect on sales? Was the effort worthwhile financially? Are there any potential areas of difficulty and, if so, how do we overcome them?

To have franchisees presenting ideas to other franchisees and advocating them is a lot stronger and encourages far greater buy-in. Of course, if an idea is a flop you aren’t going to devote valuable time to talking about it, but good ideas can take off much faster with franchisee advocacy.

Supplier presentations are kept to a maximum of four 15 minute slots on Sunday. Franchisees want to know that they are important to suppliers and hear about the facts and figures and trends. It’s also helpful from the team point of view to hear about suppliers’ investment in our business.

We also use external people to add vibrancy and stimulate people to think about their businesses from a different angle. It’s important, though, not to get someone along just to give a ‘standard’ presentation. We give them a brief in advance so they can overlay their specialist knowledge on our business. We get them to speak to franchisees and their customers at least three weeks in advance, and sometimes to go out with a franchisee for an hour or two. We don’t want ra-ra motivational speeches – we want them to give franchisees ideas they can actually apply in their businesses. Among the really excellent people who have participated in this way are Brett Rutledge, Brenton Bai, Geoff Wake and Australian franchise specialist Greg Nathan.

Issues

As an example of what an external person can do, we’ve had Greg Nathan as MC at a couple of our conferences and he really helps get to the heart of matters. Many years ago we had a few contentious issues at conference that could railroad the conference away from the planned agenda. Using Greg proved to be the best decision we ever made.

At one conference the first thing Greg did was get everyone to write down what they wanted to have achieved when they left on the Sunday evening, and then discuss it at their table. Everyone had positive goals, so we put them all up on the wall and ranked them to ensure that we actually addressed the most important issues. It set the tone of the whole conference just like that – brilliant! These days we’ve moved beyond that, and now we handle any issues individually on an ongoing basis – that’s where a weekly newsletter is wonderful.

Benefits All Year Round

After 15 years, we view our conference as more than an annual weekend of stimulation – to us, it’s an information-gathering exercise which has value over the whole year. Harnessing the day-to-day knowledge of franchisees and feeding it back out is one of the biggest challenges franchises face, and conference is a prime opportunity for that.

We take copious notes during the conference – we have office staff there, use electronic whiteboards and flip charts, and we also encourage every table of franchisees to make notes which we type up immediately after the conference. We end up with a lot of information, but we don’t send it all out at once. No-one is going to read a big, thick manual. Instead we feed it out in small quantities, usually via the weekly newsletter, so franchisees aren’t swamped.

For example, a session on selling coffee will be really good but the time to remind people about it is at the beginning of winter when consumers are more receptive than in summer. Capture information when it’s fresh, deliver it when it’s relevant.

You will never get 100% attendance at your conferences whatever you do – people have family weddings or long-awaited overseas trips to attend. We get about 95% attendance these days, and we are very pleased with that. But, more importantly, we can use the knowledge gained through conference for the benefit of 100% of franchisees. That’s what being a franchise is all about.

This article was first published in Franchise New Zealand magazine Volume 16 Issue 1

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