When approximately 6,500 attendees come together for the 2019 edition of Chick-fil-A’s annual NEXT conference, they can expect to be served some content that isn’t part of traditional program fare. The three-day event (whose dates and location were confidential at the time of print due to company policy) will go beyond product announcements and outlines of new business initiatives for the quick-service brand.
Sure, the program aims to educate thousands of owner-operators of the restaurant’s locations and Chick-fil-A’s headquarter employees about the vision for the company. But Mike Fleming, a partner at Prophet, the brand and experience consulting company that designed the event, told Convene that one of the most unique characteristics of the company’s strategy is that it aims to help clients see beyond the traditional boundaries of their business.
“We’ve had guests from other companies come in and see how the company approaches the event,” Fleming said. “One of the most common observations is that there is an intention to look beyond what’s happening in the business. There is a great deal of content about leadership and personal growth.”
Six years ago, all that content looked very different. The event — which was called the Operator Seminar — had been running for nearly half a century. “The company felt that the program had kind of lost its way,” Fleming said. “It had become all about the brand and less about what the company could do to equip these operators to be the best leaders they could be.”
Fleming and Prophet began working with Chick-fil-A to develop the NEXT branding, manage content strategy for the event, and oversee the run-of-show [see video below]. “The program,” Fleming said, “needed to be heavy on inspiration.”
One of the reasons for the big dose of motivational energy is that the audience includes the operators’ spouses, too. “All the business content might not be relevant to spouses, but we hope they find [some] content relevant and inspiring as well,” Fleming said. “There is a big focus on personal development, so speakers might address some of the challenges of raising kids or offer tips for better time management.”
The approach also has caught the attention of vendors at the event. Justin Harris, COO at the leadership development company Wildsparq, noted the difference in a LinkedIn post.
“Chick-fil-A chose not only to invite operators and all corporate employees, but their spouses as well,” Harris wrote in “Five Takeaways from Chick-fil-A’s Annual Conference.” “Healthy cultures understand that employees’ lives outside of work impact their performance at work. As a result, Chick-fil-A spent double what they normally would to make sure their operators and employees felt seen, appreciated, and cared for as human beings.”
Meat of the Matter
Of course, the event is more than a feel-good gathering. NEXT must include plenty of tangible takeaways for the operators who run more than 2,200 franchise locations around the country. The conference also helps support Chick-fil-A in its goal toward becoming the third-largest quick-service chain in the U.S. by 2020.
With only one opportunity each year to get the entire network of operators together to understand the company’s vision, NEXT offers three educational formats. The Common Ground area is similar to a main stage or general-session environment, and Fleming said that it’s where the big talks from Chick-fil-A’s C-level executives and outside speakers occur. However, the program aims to avoid what Fleming calls the “sitting and getting” approach to education.
“When we designed the environment, we were striving to avoid having people sit for six hours in a big auditorium,” Fleming said. “We want them to have conversations about the future of the company.”
Those conversations begin in Labs, which are designed like breakout sessions and run an average of 45 minutes long, and they continue in Garages — the most non-corporate element at the corporate event. “We thought about the analogy where the garage is the room in your house where things aren’t perfect,” Fleming said. “It’s okay to get messy.”
There are two Garage sections — the Now Garage and the Future Garage. The environment is comparable to an exhibit area, with the distinction being that some offerings in the Future Garage are speculative and may never actually be produced. “The Now Garage includes anything that might arrive in the next 12 months, such as new uniforms or new menu items,” Fleming said. “But the Future Garage is where attendees know that there are ideas that may never come to fruition. The company wants feedback, and they want attendees to be part of the work in the garage.”
Attendee feedback has made it clear that the mix of personal inspiration and professional education at the event is a winning formula. Eighty percent of last year’s participants indicated that they will make a change in their businesses or their lives because of NEXT.
The 2019 edition of the event will focus on engagement, both internally and externally, a nod to the chain’s aim to get operators to connect with team members and guests on more than a transactional level. “It’s never just about the new nuggets coming to the menu,” Fleming said. “The event is very much balanced with Chick-fil-A’s aim to help the whole person.”
David McMillin is an associate editor at Convene.
Spreading Its Wings
As Chick-fil-A expands, the chain has added many operators outside of the Southeast, where it was founded. In 2019, the first non-U.S. location will open its doors in Toronto. As the Chick-fil-A network continues to grow, the company’s NEXT conference will need to adapt to meet a different set of needs, said Prophet’s Mike Fleming.
“The needs are more diverse now than they were just a few years ago. They have longer-tenured operators, and they have operators from areas where the brand is less established. They don’t all need the same lessons, so the content strategy will need to be more flexible.”