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Insurance & Financial Meetings Management:Making Wellness A Meeting Priority

By: Maura Keller

As meeting and event attendees become more health conscious, crave nutritious foods and request meetings that don’t require sitting for hours at a time, meeting venues and planners alike are working hard to incorporate health and wellness components into their offerings. In fact, researchers are increasingly saying that “sitting is the new smoking” when it comes to health outcomes.

FLEX, the Financial Leadership Exchange, is hosted annually in Sun Valley, Idaho. Attendees are CFOs and financial leaders in the food service industry. In addition to inspiring and educational presentations, FLEX includes engagement opportunities in non-traditional settings and takes wellness seriously.

“We encourage collaboration and growth through community and wellness,” says Luke Kircher, vice president of Exchanges for Revelry Group, a Certified B Corporation that hosts FLEX annually and creates shared value for its partners in the food, beverage and hospitality sectors. “Studies show that spending time outdoors is one of the fastest ways to improve your health and happiness. It’s been shown to lower stress, blood pressure and heart rate, while encouraging physical activity and lifting your mood and mental health. We see the results during each Exchange.”

According to Ashlee Mueller, business development manager at Minneapolis Northwest Tourism, companies are making overall wellness a focus throughout meeting and conference culture.

“Work/life balance has become a necessity to people as they choose their positions and the companies they want to work for,” Mueller says. “Things have shifted and it’s easy to see why when most of the large Fortune 500 companies now have gyms on-site for their employees to utilize. This attitude has been spilling into conferences for awhile now with healthier meal options, mindfulness or ‘stretching’ breaks and energy-boosting teas and shakes.”

These days professionals will likely select events that include a wellness program not only because it can be replenishing and help reduce stress, but because that event is sending a strong secondary message to the attendee that their well-being matters to that company.

“When companies invest in professional wellness, employee productivity, work satisfaction and retention increase, burnout decreases and employees generally feel they have new tools to manage stress and work/life balance,” says Megan Gunnell, LMSW, founder and director of the Thriving Well Institute, who is also a psychotherapist of 23 years and international retreat leader.

STRATEGIES TO TAKE

Kerry Wekelo, chief operating officer at Actualize Consulting, a financial services firm, is an expert on integrating wellness into her company’s meetings. The company’s off-site Intentional Leadership meetings often include breathing for stress management and clarity. “We start our financial meetings by putting the focus on our people first, and how they have helped us to be successful and meet our goals,” Wekelo says. “When we first started the firm back in 2003, we would spend over one hour discussing our financials while putting people to sleep. Now we send out the financial data ahead of time and make it available in-person. We discuss successes centered around our team’s achievements. People care about each other and how well we are doing, not the actual numbers. It’s wellness through our people’s successes.”

For more complex wellness programming, Wekelo uses daily principles of wellness at Actualize Consulting, focusing an entire meeting/event around wellness.

The principles are:

• Breathing. Use breathing techniques when you change topics in your meetings to help the listener transition with a clear mind.

• Movement. Incorporate movement into team-building activities such as hiking, bowling, yoga, table tennis, etc.

• Nourishment. Offer healthy food options throughout the event to support nourishment.

• Daily routine. Have a session on the importance of personal care during their daily routines. When Wekelo’s team is stressed, the first question asked is, “What are you doing that you love or inspires you daily?”

• Challenges/Communication. Discuss protocols to handle conflict directly, openly and immediately.

Healthy meetings have been a growing trend for years — from 15-minute nature hikes to meditation sessions and geocaching — and there are several key ways to incorporate both simple and more elaborate wellness aspects into meetings.

Gunnell says there are a few key elements every wellness event should have.

Take a holistic approach. “It’s imperative to cover mind, body and soul. It’s also a must to have experiential components for people to have a chance to experience what well-being feels like,” Gunnell says. Typically Gunnell’s one-day wellness programs begin with an invitation for participants to let go of what happened yesterday and what they’re worried about tomorrow and allow themselves to be in the moment of the event. Sometimes Gunnell opens with a simple yoga practice or if they’re hosting a wellness retreat on location, they’ll walk the beach or hike in the mountains.

Taking the time. The hardest part in adding a wellness activity to a meeting or event is finding the time. But part of getting everyone to meet out of the office environment is to ‘hit the reset button’ and recharge. Allowing time in the morning or afternoon for their attendees to relax at a group yoga/meditation class or a group bike ride helps everyone bond, collaborate and come into the next meeting with their blood pumping and ideas flowing. An easy way to incorporate wellness into your event is taking brain breaks to recharge both mind and body. Offer attendees a five-minute meditation break and encourage them to unplug and rest their eyes.

“One of our biggest challenges in pulling together the agenda for FLEX is ensuring the right balance of workshops, activities, presentations and down time,” Kircher says. “We are committed to at least two hours of group outdoor activities every day.” This could be hiking, fly fishing, pool parties in the summer and fall or skiing, snowshoeing, or cross-country skiing in the winter. When planning the meeting, Revelry Group also has made adjustments over the years to bring together work and play in their activities — for example, attendees bike from one session to another.

Location, location, location. “We’ve also found that choosing a location that supports your meeting wellness goals is important,” Kircher says. “We’ve carefully chosen Sun Valley because it is a magical place, off-the-beaten-path and surrounded by nature, but if you don’t give your attendees the opportunity to immerse themselves in the experience, we think that is a mistake.”

Age-appropriate activities. Meeting planners need to consider who the majority of attendees are and together with the wellness professional, decide what offering would be most beneficial for those participants. “For a varied audience, meeting planners could consider offering breakout session choices where some attendees could select a more strenuous offering like hiking or zip lining and others could select more restorative sessions of massage or body work,” Gunnell says.

Julie Marie Palumbo, CEO and founder of Best Whole Self LLC, often works with conference and meeting planners to incorporate wellness components into each day. “Different age groups have different needs when it comes to their health so it is important to offer programs that address those of the audience,” Palumbo says.

For example, young professionals often suffer from burnout and keeping late hours, so it is important to address not only their physical health, but mental health, as well. “Those who have been in the workforce for 25+ years often ask me to coach them on maintaining higher energy as well as the physical stamina to keep up with work and social demands,” Palumbo says. “They also have needs more specific to chronic illnesses and internal health as opposed to their physical appearance.”

Mueller also says it’s important to select an active-centric location from which to host a meeting. “Find an event space that offers outdoor activities and amenities for groups,” Mueller says. “You can even get in the water and do an activity like kayaking, canoeing, stand-up paddleboarding and SUP Squatch, a unique, six- to 10-person paddleboard. Or gather your group on the green at a golf course.”

Healthy food options. Meeting planners also are always looking for new ways to offer sweet treats to attendees, while making sure they also have healthy items. Offering a ‘superfoods break’ provides items such as fresh smoothies, super grains and antioxidant shooters. One simple wellness technique is to offer healthy snacks and then nutritious options at every meal. Consider swapping out high-carb, sugary foods for energy-boosting options that prevent fatigue and increase focus. Also have water on hand to stay hydrated. Offering ‘spa water’ can make hydration more appealing. This can be as easy as just adding cucumber slices or another fruit such as berries, melon or citrus in the water dispensers.

Spa experiences aplenty. One key way that many meeting planners incorporate healthy options into an event is by offering spa treatments to attendees. Spas come in all shapes and sizes — just like those who visit them. Spas also come with different kinds of strengths, such as fitness or pampering, and their styles run the gamut from low-key and inexpensive to luxurious and high-priced. And as more companies recognize the need for their employees to embrace health and well being, they are incorporating spa treatments as part of their meeting and event agendas.

Perhaps the most popular of spa treatments being used to help relax and refresh attendees is massage therapy. It may have started as a seemingly fleeting trend for those looking for a periodic escape into the world of pure relaxation, but massage has proven to have serious medicinal power for millions of men, women and yes, even children. This ‘healing power of touch’ can dramatically rejuvenate an individual’s mind, body and spirit by reducing muscle tension, improving joint flexibility, and promoting faster healing, in young and old alike.

Nowhere is the spa phenomenon more evident than in the cruise industry. According to Leysi Sabates, global business development manager, corporate incentives, meetings and charters with Celebrity Cruises, the company strives to create a holistic wellness journey like no other on land or at sea.

Examples include: The Spa on Celebrity Edge, a 22,000-sf refuge for participants to renew, restore and reinvigorate. Featured aboard their Solstice and Millennium class ships is the Canyon Ranch Spa, where attendees can simply unwind in the tranquil Persian Garden and where they’ll enjoy a variety of new fitness classes, seminars, exhilarating spa treatments and salon services. They also offer Spa café — which offers a creative take on healthy cuisine such as salads, soups, proteins, and juices.

Holistic exercise programs. Of course, it was only a matter of time before overworked and overstressed workers discovered the power of holistic approaches to reducing stress. As a result, meeting planners are integrating the mind and body into exercise programs to restore equilibrium to their body and eliminate the negative affects of stress. Yoga is popular for people in search of something new. In addition to increasing concentration and flexibility, yoga offers a sense of well being, while stretching, toning and increasing muscle endurance. Some of the more interesting ways to bring wellness to the forefront is to promote a ‘steps contest’ for the meeting, rent exercise balls in lieu of chairs, and teach desk exercises that attendees can incorporate when back to the office. Mini yoga breaks can focus on stretching, breathing and mindfulness.

Meditation room or guided meditation sessions. Teaching attendees how to breathe and meditate is a great way to manage stress, anger and anxiety. Whether it’s personal or work related, this could make a huge overall impact on everyone. Abby Phon, a certified holistic health and wellness coach who has done wellness programs at large companies like Google and WeWork, says benefits include greater ability to focus on the day’s sessions and increased emotional intelligence during networking opportunities during and after scheduled events.

“If an all-day meditation room isn’t an option, scheduling 10 to 15 minutes at the start of the day to help attendees center and focus themselves is a great option as well,” Phon says. “Many conference venues have local wellness centers they partner with, but there are iPhone/Android meditation apps that work great too.”

Stretch breaks. Having stretch breaks is especially important for people sitting at a computer all day and staring at a screen, or sitting in an auditorium or conference center listening to lectures. “Opportunities to move your body keeps you focused and engaged on the task at hand,” Phon says. “Your creativity is also enhanced when your body as well as your mind is engaged. Aim for no more than 50 minutes of passive content with five to 10 minutes of stretching, movement or yoga in between.”

Giving back feels good. Business volunteerism, often referred to as corporate social responsibility (CSR), can take many forms and it can be a quadruple win. Everyone involved — the organizations that provide the employee volunteers, those where employee volunteers help out, the wider community and the employees themselves — has something to gain. Such efforts offer a low-cost, low-risk, high-impact way of making the knowledge, skills and experiences of the business sector accessible to the nonprofit sector while building understanding, employee skill and community goodwill. And experts agree that business professionals who volunteer during meetings and events find their experiences inspiring, empowering and sometimes life changing — all key wellness components. They are giving the opportunity to practice service and compassion for those who need it most.

EMBRACING A FUTURE OF WELLNESS

If a meeting planner wants to offer a wellness avenue to a meeting or event, experts agree they need to thoroughly research facilitators. Do they have experience? Are they a legitimate, licensed professional? “Meeting attendees want to receive high-value information and are searching for an experiential wellness component that will help them imprint the significance and therefore the likelihood of continuing this technique or an aspect of it once they return home,” Gunnell says. “I’ve seen conference organizers really miss the mark on this by hiring a mediocre comedian or an entertainer instead of a wellness professional who is trained to know how to facilitate an offering that feels safe and meaningful to explore. Attendees should have a clear understanding of what the wellness component goals are both from the conference organizers as well as the facilitator.”

Whether it’s an activity they participated in on the property, a seminar they attended about stress relief through meditation or a fresh and healthy meal they ate, attendees can leave feeling energized and take those healthy ideas home or back to the office.

“The main purpose of a conference is often to enhance the performance of employees, increase their excitement and dedication, and teach them skills to become more valuable assets to the company. But without incorporating a wellness component, many of the skills they learn will not be implemented if they are not feeling their best,” Palumbo says. “Physical and mental health is just as important to companies’ bottom lines as the skill sets required to perform tasks, so it is critical that more wellness programs are components of conferences going forward.” 

See the full Insurance & Financial Meetings Management article here.

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  • Minneapolis Northwest CVB