Who is planning, facilitating and managing the attendee’s experience at your conference and events?
Is it the job of the meeting professional? The education or marketing departments? The conference organizers? The attendee?
Often no one person or group that is involved in organizing the meeting is actually taking a holistic approach to facilitating the attendee’s experience. Typically, the meeting professional is in charge of the logistics and the education department may oversee the content. So, who intentionally designs the experience of the attendee? Who watches how the pieces–content, education delivery, logistics, schedules–fit together and its affect on the attendees’ experience?
In most organizations, we have reduced the planning and organizing of a meeting to a series of unrelated tasks as if it’s a factory assembly line. The goal is a final product to sell for consumption without much thought given to the consumer’s experience.
The result? Some conferences have become sterile venues where the attendee interaction and community building falls flat. The experience feels cold and there is a lack of emotional engagement. Some attendees have information indigestion from cramming too many lectures during a day.
Like a good cook who knows the effects of various ingredients on flavor–sweet and sour, salty and spicy–we need to understand the characteristics and effects of various meetings formats, schedules and sessions on attendees’ experiences. We need to grasp what happens when we give short 15 minute breaks and cram a day full of sixty- or ninety-minute lectures without time for reflection. We need to realize the impact of providing a lunch that is full of talking heads, videos and sponsor announcements without allowing attendees time to chat with each other.
The meetings industry needs our own Chef Ramsey who steps in and says, “Oh, come on. What were you thinking?”
I’ve been thinking about this concept a lot lately. So here is some more of my fuzzy thinking about the need to focus our meeting planning with the end in mind to create a great attendee conference experience. This led me to the idea of a new role: the meeting steward.
A Working Definition Of The Meeting Steward
Emerging from the convergence of social media, the Great Recession, technology advancements, community building and the ability for anyone to build a tribe is a new role for meeting professionals which I call the meeting steward charged with stewardship of the attendees’ experience.
This new role as I see it implies new functions, practices and identity. It is about helping meeting owners construct and nurture suitable meeting habitats. It’s about creating and facilitating the best attendee experience possible. It’s about managing the meetings resources with a focus on the outcome of the attendee’s experience. This definition is meant to clearly distinguish between the meeting steward and the traditional logistics meeting planner.
I think it requires a new kind of literacy–a flexible understanding about how to cultivate and develop opportunities for maximum learning, person-to-person connections and community-building. This is about more than learning from lectures, participating in networking sessions and providing awards ceremonies. It’s about the overall meeting experience.
The Role Of the Meeting Steward
Meeting stewards mold and shape the intersection of the meeting’s logistics, its content and the attendees’ meeting experience. They often bridge two or more departments that have roles within the conference: meetings, education and marketing. In some associations, the membership department is also involved.
Meeting stewards adopt a community perspective to help organizers choose, configure and use the best type of meeting formats and experiences for ultimate community building, person-to-person connections and learning. A good example is noticing that a conference attendance has become so large that people have a challenge connecting with like minded individuals. A meeting steward steps in and designs smaller-niche based meetings within the larger conference.
Meeting stewards need to have a clear understanding of adult learning, communication, community building, group dynamics and person-to-person connections. They need to fully grasp and be able to apply the dynamics of participation, peripherality and legitimacy within a conference or meeting format. They need to adopt a perspective that is sensitive to the many different social and meetings issues and develop a language to give this perspective voice and precision.
Meeting stewards know how to enable large groups to share information and ideas with each other onsite. Similarly, they can facilitate the meeting of smaller niche groups that have narrower, more specialized and differentiated areas of interest within the larger meeting’s community.
Face-to-face meetings extend and reframe how communities organize and express boundaries and relationships. The meetings steward becomes more skillful at anticipating the effects of new meetings strategies and formats on a community and its attendees. Like a good cook who knows the effects of various ingredients on flavor a good meeting steward understands the ingredients of a conference in terms of attendees’ experiences.
So what do you think? Is the role of a meeting steward needed in today’s conferences and events? What has been your experience attending conferences and events?
Meredith Martini says
Jeff, you just described perfectly my ideal job descrption!
eventjp (on twitter) says
I’ve used my association volunteer advisory board members as event ambassadors. I schedule them to welcome attendees at registration, at the doors to the general session, and at the entrance to the exhibit hall. Assigning times of 15 – 30 minutes seems to work without making it dull and laborious for them. Attendees like it; so do the ambassadors. (Makes sense why WalMart employed greeters – to create a welcoming experience.)
Adrian Segar says
Meeting steward par excellence? That would be you, sir.
I like your idea of the meeting steward, and your description of a steward’s abilities is comprehensive and really useful. But there’s something about the word steward I don’t like. Perhaps because the word has been co-opted by flight attendants and sommeliers (oops, second French appearance alert).
I’ve been using the term facilitator for my role during Conferences That Work and I think I’ll stick with that.
However, the word stewardship describes the process you describe and that’s attractive to me. Peter Block’s beautiful book of the same name makes an eloquent case for the practical application of stewardship to real world problems.
Perhaps we could describe ourselves as providing stewardship of our meetings?
Anyway, whatever my quibbles about job title, I appreciate your definition of the responsibilities of this position, and agree absolutely that it’s needed, and usually not filled.
Jeff Hurt says
Great, you now have the ideal job description for your next role! Thanks for sharing.
Great tip that is easy to apply and is beneficial to everyone involved. Love that and thanks for adding it.
Yes, I struggled with the appropriate word for the role too. Your connection to the role of stewardship is exactly the connection I was trying to make.
A meetings facilitator has specific meaning to the meetings industry as a moderator, intructor type. Usually when a meeting professional is looking for a meetings facilitator, they’re looking for someone from the education or organizational development arena that understands the functions of facilitation for a specific session, not the overall conference design. That’s why I didn’t use that term.
Thanks for adding your perspective.
Jon Wollenhaupt says
We have many clients across various industries, for profit and not-for-profit, who still don’t have a clear idea on how to manage or assess the attendee experience. As aptly stated, the problem is due to the fragmented nature of conference production; typically, there is no is single conductor who is responsible for orchestrating the needs of the organizations and its attendees. The role of the Steward or Executive Producer is critical- this person should be the champion of the attendee experience.
Jeff Hurt says
Thanks Jon for adding to the conversation. You bring up a great point that managing and assessing attendees’ meeting experineces are critical. We’ve got to find a way to be able to assess the attendees’ experience onsite and make changes as necessary to improve those experience in real time when possible.