Corporate hospitality can be a great way to get to know your clients – and win you more business. But how do you ensure a successful result for all involved?

Whether it’s an industry dinner, an evening at the theatre, or a lavish day spent at a premium sports event, entertaining clients has the potential to help secure new or existing business.

But after a recessionary 2009 when, for most brokers, marketing budgets were squeezed, how can firms make corporate hospitality pay? Are a few drinks at your local enough to consolidate the broker/client relationship, or is more imagination, and expense, necessary? And how do you tempt busy clients to your event in any case?

With its seemingly intangible benefits, ensuring corporate hospitality is a worthy investment of time and money requires careful thought, but for most it is still an investment worth making.

Judging the business value

Bluefin’s head of marketing, Peter Elliott, says: “Getting away from the usual business environment and taking time to talk to clients about the issues affecting them is hugely valuable. The better we understand our clients, the better we can understand what they need from us.”

For Bluefin, corporate hospitality is about deepening the company’s relationship with its existing clients and showing appreciation for custom already placed with the firm. Hospitality is also, ultimately, underpinned by the clear business objectives of demonstrating the firm’s expertise and winning more work.

As Lynn Richards-Cole, Perkins Slade’s associate director with responsibility for group business development, says, hosting an event, whatever its nature, should always provide scope for clients to learn more about what the firm offers. “Corporate hospitality is about extending our business proposition as well as maintaining good client relationships, and we judge the business value of any event before we go ahead with it.”

Broker Network’s head of business development, Mike Rogers, also sees corporate hospitality as a chance to show off the company’s expertise, particularly to clients who are otherwise hard to reach. “Where you have a financial director client spending £300,000-plus on an insurance portfolio, you need to make sure this person knows exactly what range of products you offer,” Rogers explains. “These types of people don’t shop around; they like to do business with people they can trust. You can’t cold call them.”

Getting it right

But what kind of event offers the chance to demonstrate your capabilities, while at the same time being an attractive proposition for your client? The consensus is that, unless you are dealing with very big clients or have particular reason, over-indulgent events like extravagant dinners and premium sports weekends, are to be avoided. With many sectors yet to emerge from the recession, public shows of exuberant corporate spending can be inappropriate and, as Bluefin’s Elliott says: “The last thing you want to do is make your client feel uncomfortable.”

The key is to align the event to the interests of your client and on a scale proportionate to their size. Perkins Slade’s director of sport, Richard Doubleday, explains: “We only attend a handful of events each year and these are selected carefully for their relevance to our clients.” He adds: “We deal with a range of national governing bodies for sports, and they are not cash rich. It would be morally offensive to lavish money on hospitality that our clients could not reciprocate.”

Making the event personal and relevant to the interests of each guest is more important than splashing cash, according to most marketing professionals. Perkins Slade’s Richards-Cole says that there has to be “something in it for everyone”.

“Once I’ve worked out my target guests, I then might try to find, for example, an eminent economist who is prepared to talk about the future prospects of the economy, because I know this will be of interest,” she says. A breakfast seminar costing £25 a head is a good bet and everyone can be back at the office by 10.30am.”

Using your imagination to come up with a memorable event is also more important than a large budget. South Essex Insurance Brokers deputy chairman Barry Fehler says:“Corporate events can blur in your memory. By doing something a bit different, you can make your event stand out. I was once offered a trip in a light aircraft, which was great fun and I met some interesting people.” For Fehler, it makes sense to consider what events have been successful from your point of view as a guest.

“I have been to prestigious events and, because of the lack of senior people there to network with, they have been a waste of time,” he says. “It is far, far better to plan out a smaller event carefully and make it a genuine opportunity to network.”

Return on investment

It is just as well that low-cost hospitality events can be effective, because marketing budgets are likely to continue to see cuts, according to Judy Kellie, who runs marketing consultancy Intelligent Marketing Partnership. “Although we’ve just had the news that the recession is technically ‘over’, the effects will continue,” she says, “not just because the economy will take time to pick up, but because budgets have been set for the year against the background of the downturn.”

So the pressure is on to ensure value for money from any corporate event. But how do you evaluate your return on investment from a half-day spent with clients? There are no fast rules: some companies use feedback forms, while others add new information about their guests to a customer relationship management database. This then forms part of a long-term strategy to deepen the broker/client relationship. “The important thing is to constantly watch your budget and make sure that any business you hope to secure as a result of the event is a sufficient multiple of what you are spending,” Broker Network’s Rogers insists.

With a growing emphasis on value for money, corporate hospitality has moved away from its association with jollies enjoyed at the firm’s expense. Both hosts and guests expect to see clear benefits for giving up their time. But if you get the event and content right (see box), hospitality can still pay dividends. As Rogers says: “A broker needs to know his or her top 20 clients extremely well and develop personal relationships with them. These clients need to like and trust you, and spending time in a non-insurance context will help that relationship develop.” IT

Making corporate hospitality pay

Set yourself clear objectives. Why are you hosting the event? Is it to secure existing business or promote the company to a new audience? Once you have decided on your objective, make every invitation count.

Make it personal and proportionate. Ensure the event is relevant to your invitees and on a scale commensurate with their business. Corporate hospitality is not always about big budgets.

Shop around. An upshot from the recession is that there are some good deals to be had. Intelligent Marketing Partnership’s Judy Kellie says: “Some hotels have held or even reduced their prices for functions in order to get the business.”

Use your imagination and ingenuity. Clients need to be tempted away from their office. “Invite people who your clients would want to meet themselves,” Perkins Slade’s Lynn Richards-Cole advises.

Monitor and evaluate the event. What was the return on your investment? What kind of feedback did you receive? What did you learn about your guests?

Follow up the event with a thank-you note and add new information about your clients to your customer relationship management database for future reference.