COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- The Controlled Casual Conference (CCC) format is the heart of the GM and HBC marketing conferences, produced by the General Merchandise Distributors Council.
It's a format that many believe was first conceived by the GMDC and has been duplicated by other associations. Why? "Because it works," said Kathy Zorman, the director information services who has been with the GMDC for 23 years and helps schedule an average of 14,000 individual appointments during a four-day conference.
"Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, and we are proud of that," said David McConnell, president and chief executive officer of the GMDC. "I can't think of a business climate where this type of all-business format was more universally demanded by the trade. With consolidation and downsizing on both sides of the trading table, time-pressed executives need to be able to attend an event that facilitates communication, partnership and an excellent ROI for the time and money they invest."
While the CCC format is a simple concept -- forging buyer-supplier relationships through face-to-face meetings with senior executives -- it is complicated to organize and facilitate. The process has been given a big productivity boost by becoming Web-enabled via the CCCnet, which is embedded on the GMDC's Web site (gmdc.org).
Michael Winterbottom, GMDC's vice president of information technology-chief technology officer, has spent the last four years developing Web-based tools that allow members to register, set their appointments and agendas, and then follow up -- all through the Internet. "Our focus was making our core competencies that much more productive," he said.
Here's a basic look at how the process works:
GMDC members log onto the Web site for information on the conferences where they can register. A confirmation of registration is mailed within seven to 10 days. On CCCnet, suppliers and wholesalers/retailers can view companies attending the conference. There is an appointment solicitation period whereby suppliers can request appointments with specific wholesalers/retailers. CCC scheduling comes next. Wholesale/retail companies select suppliers whom they want to have eight-, 16- or 32-minute appointments. Buyers agree to fill 85% of the available time slots. Selections are sent electronically to GMDC where the CCC schedules for all attendees are computer-generated. Schedules then are securely posted in the Web site. There is a preparation phase that enables trading partners to communicate agenda items and exchange resources before the conference meetings take place. After the meetings, there is follow-up. Participants can record notes from their CCC appointments, outlining follow-up activities and commitments made during the conference.
Besides making the CCC Internet process more productive and time-efficient, it has forced participants to come prepared and ready to discuss specific issues. It has given smaller, less known suppliers a mechanism to solicit appointments and has made follow-up easier.
Said Charles Yahn, vice president, nonfoods division, Associated Wholesalers, York, Pa., "It allows time to look at a lot of companies that we might not look at normally and decide if we want to pursue them. CCCnet is very easy to use. We can let people know what we like to see and if we have any special issues they need to address before we ever meet."
"You can cut right to the chase," said Gary Crawford, director of nonfoods, United Supermarkets, Lubbock, Texas. "You go right to the problem or opportunity that you need to address and you get it done."
The challenge now is to get a higher rate of CCCnet usage that GMDC officials put at about 50% of all conference participants. "Agenda setting has taken awhile to get traction, especially on the supply side," said Winterbottom, "but people who use it say it has changed the way they come to conferences." Instead of coming to the table with questions, the questions are answered and specific points of discussion are already agreed upon before the meetings.
Zorman, who has seen the format evolve over the years, said the process is now the best it has ever been. She doesn't see resistance to the system, but she said it is just a matter of time before all participants begin using it to their benefit.
"CCCnet will carry us into the next 20 years in a much more efficient manner. It will allow things to happen faster and information to be passed back and forth more accurately. It will become a new form of communication that will be part of everyday business," she said.
For those who have invested the time to learn the Internet process, it appears to be paying off. At last year's GM Marketing Conference, participants were surveyed on the effectiveness of CCCnet. Of those wholesalers/retailers who used the Web-based program to set agenda items for their CCCs, 98% said they felt their efforts in doing so had led to a higher level of preparation on the part of the suppliers who met with them at the table. Similarly, 77% of all suppliers who took advantage of the agenda-setting facilities felt that they had led to an increased level of preparation on the part of their wholesaler/retailer trade partners.
The next big hurdle for CCCnet is to incorporate product data into the system, said Winterbottom. "On a UPC level, there is no imagery for products. That would be a big improvement to put into the system not only for preparation for conferences but for follow-up."
With all that can now be accomplished through the Internet, why not go completely to a virtual tabletop session? "We won't ever do away with face-to-face meetings," said Zorman. "That's what makes GMDC so special. It's about the relationships you build and the partnerships you form."