February 19, 2013 by Jeff Hurt
I think the meetings and conference industry has reached a plateau.
For years the industry has focused on the logistical side of the meeting including registration, food and beverage, contracts, venue space, room sets, schedules, SMMP and more. The industry has matured and many meeting professionals have become very good at the details.
Yet, the improvements in those details have not taken the meetings industry to the next level. In fact, many conferences are still suffering because the attendee experience has not changed in 30-50 years. It’s become stale, predictable and status quo.
It’s time for the industry to make a intentional and radical leap to take the meetings professional out of department silos and into a more holistic, strategic and creative planning professional.
Currently, most conferences and meetings are planned by an array of people each within their own silos. The meetings department is focused on the minutia of the meeting. The expo department focuses on tradeshows. The sponsorship and development department focuses on sponsors. The marketing department focuses on promotion and marketing of the event. The education department focuses on the programming. And in the nonprofit world, the membership and chapter relations department focuses on volunteer involvement and committees.
We have more silos for our major conferences than the traditional farm. Unfortunately, the conference silos are not used to store nourishment that leads to outstanding education and networking.
Our conference planning silos have created a fractured and broken attendee experience. Without a major conference planning champion, a clear and articulated vision and strategy, and a more holistic approach we have left most conference experiences up to the luck of the draw. Frequently, the odds of the attendee walking away with a transformative experience and high ROI are better at the black jack table then the conference.
The meetings industry is facing major disruption. People no longer attend to get the most current information–they can get that online. They don’t look to the conference as the primary source for networking as they can do that online too.
Attendees spend more time in the hallways setting up meetings with the people they want and need to see. They don’t go to general sessions or breakouts yet we’re spending millions of dollars on production, AV, speakers, room sets and more to create those education sessions. Attendees say that their conference highlights are the parties and offsite experiences often planned by those outside of the conference team.
I believe that if the meetings industry wants to make a major impact on conferences of the future, they need to go in new directions. Here are some of the areas that I believe that strategic meeting professionals must embrace and do differently:
Most organizations will say they have programming and education talent. We have to ask ourselves if it’s the right programming talent! Can that education department design a creative, unique memorable opening general session based on what science tells us works to change attitudes and behaviors or is that department nothing more than a scheduler of speakers?
For meetings to go to the next level, the meeting professional must embrace how to design effective education and networking experiences. They can’t let it default to others.
Do our organizations really have the creative talent we need for the meetings industry to create and foster innovative experiences? It’s time to take some lessons from the events industry on creativity and creating experiences.
While focusing on the details uses one side of the brain and focusing on the creative uses another side, we have got to merge the two sides of the brain as well as the two tasks. We need meeting professionals that can easily jump between logistics, strategy and creative.
Most meeting professionals are not very good at research and analytics of their events. Sure they can spout inputs and outputs including attendance, expenses and revenue. Yet few are good at comparing years of data, interpreting trends and identifying the right audience for each experience. Fewer still are willing to watch global trends, analyze them and interpret how they’ll impact their conferences. Analysis needs to evolve beyond merely analyzing inputs and outputs into deriving core insights to inform decisions like how to spend meetings dollars.
Few meeting professionals understand and know how to apply today’s pull economies. Most are stuck in push marketing strategies where we bombard potential attendees with interruption marketing. Few can leverage the power of today’s technology tools and use content properly as a conference marketing strategy. We have got to be more nimble at applying earned media strategies, social and mobile. Why? Our attendees have become more tech savvy and content hungry they we are.
I think it’s time for a meetings industry revolution. The question is will our current meetings industry organizations lead us there or do we need to leave them behind?
Hat tips to thought leader David Armano who’s recent post about changing PR profession helped me solidify my thinking about the meetings industry.
What other areas do today’s strategic meeting professional need to embrace? For how long do you think people will pay to attend conferences that are average at best?
Filed Under: Event Planning
Jeff, your article is on the money. That said, how do we get our organizations to buy into a brand new structure? While I can bring information to the table, I will be asked for the science based evidence that supports that structure. I am at a loss as to where to find this information as so much is anecdotal and will not be accepted as the foundation for change.
The process of reinventing the meetings industry is upon us. I meet plenty of mavericks, innovators and status-quo challengers in my travels.
What most are missing is a roadmap to success. They are missing the timeline, key steps and roles/responsibilities for creating the meeting of the future. While some have a roadmap, they are missing the stamina and communication toolkit to deal with objections and turn a no into a yes. Once they run out of energy they put the ideas on the back shelf until next year.
Last week, we put together one of these events of the future for a Financial services company and their customers. The hardest part was getting everyone to stop being afraid of doing something new, something fresh and something innovative. It required explaining and explaining and explaining over and over again.
The meeting of the future requires the planners, their partners and their clients to all work differently. It can be highly disruptive and challenging for people who like control, hate risk and dislike change.
But your readers should know this. The end result is highly rewarding not only in terms of experience, but business results. It’s worth the journey and the 2nd, 3rd and 4th times are much easier.
Thanks for being awesome Jeff!
The issue for me was always time. I had more to do than I could ever get done, even when just doing logistics and what I call the logistics of the education program — corresponding with speakers, collecting their paperwork, etc. I always say, “the meeting will happen whether you are ready or not, so you better be ready!” It took all I had to be ready, just doing the logistics.
What you describe sounds like the meeting planner should be doing it all. I’m not arguing with the results you are suggesting at all; I guess I’m wondering what the new team will look like (vs. the “team” in silos you described). I guess that is still to be figured out. I can’t expect you to do it all either!
As always you are a strategic thinker and give us plenty of food for thought.
(Anne) Carey, CMP
Meeting & Event Professional – Chicago
i’m w/ sam on this. this is a change management issue at its heart. and there are a number of models out there that break it down to the tactic-level, which is where the focus needs to be. there’s a process for that but the fear of change sam identifies is THE greatest barrier to change.
i saw a young boy on the climbing wall at the health club the other day. he cried all the way to the top. courage is acknowledging your fear and climbing anyways. it was awe inspiring.
it’s also, as jeff notes, that leaders aren’t leading so much as managing (which is not really what they’re being paid the big bucks for). regardless of whether we’re talking about for-profit or not-for-profit – the boards they serve are not holding them accountable. neither are their customers (internal or external).
what we’re left with is bottom-up change, which is why the pace of change is so slow. the changes that folks like sam and jeff advocate for aren’t so much radical as intuitive, which is why they’re perceived as beneficial, for the most part.
i’d like to see more emphasis on change management…and a lot more courage.
I agree with the comments posted, that a change in the MEETING and MEETING PROFESSIONAL are upon us. What I would like to add to the conversation is the need for the education and certification promoted in the industry to tie back to the core competencies and change management brought up by Jeff.
What I see as a key gap in the equation is the education that is being leveraged in the industry to illicit a change management culture. Not only is it evident in the conferences meeting planners produce. It is also evident in the training that they consume. So, in essence, they produce what they learn.
What I see described in Jeff’s silo scenario is a potential lack of an individual planning the meeting who understands those aspects and can bring them all together to produce a successful meeting. This is all logical and I think some certifications cover a broad enough spectrum of each of the areas mentioned to understand the components and produce an effective meeting. Where I think the gap exists is in the certifications keeping up with the change management Jeff describes.
If the recertification requirements changed with thelandscape of technology and business practices we would have more dare I say “qualified” professionals doing the job of meeting planning. We can look at the ethereal, but we must also look at the practical applicant of what we are discussing.
If the training is not there a suitable roadmap does not exist for professionals to follow. Certification provides a roadmap, but it must tie in all the pieces Jeff mentioned. The concept can be quantified. Now it needs to be pursued.
Thank you Jeff.
Thanks for chiming in and raising an important question.
How do we get our organizations to do this and where do we find the evidence of the science? There are tons of books and articles written about the science of learning today. Consider some of the following books: What’s The Purpose Of Lectures by Bligh, Evidence Based Training by Colvin Clark, Brain Rules by Medina to get you started. Another organization to follow is the Neuroscience Leadership Institute which discusses how to apply the science to our every day lives. They have some great posts about learning and conferences too!
Yes, yes, yes. It’s about finding a champion at each organization that will herald the why and how of changing the process. It’s important to have a vision and a goal that is used to remind people why they are making the change.
Thanks for reading and adding to the discussion.
Yes, time is always the challenge. What I find is that if we don’t get out of the constant treadmill of the logistics and start looking at the meeting from a more strategic, holistic position, we will never make these changes. Of course someone will still manage the logistics. However, we need someone to ask the difficult question for everything we do, “Is this in the best interest of our conference participant?”
IMO, the new team will have a meeting steward or voice of participant who is the champion of designing a meeting experience first before we ever start looking at the logistics. The team will not be siloed in different departments but working together and it will be more horizontal than vertical with everyone understanding the entire goal.
Thanks for reading and asking a valuable question about time, organizations and teams.
I think it’s time for our meetings industry organizations like MPI, PCMA, CIC, ASAE and others to lead this initiative. As long as they only focus on logistics and details, our meetings and conference will continue to remain flat. They need to lead the charge and give the meetings industry hope as well as tactical ways to make these changes.
Thanks for reading and reminding us that we need emphasis on change management and the courage to tackle change!
Amen, amen, amen! You’ve hit an important part of that changement process that Sam and John discussed right on the head. As long as our certification programs are outdated and only focus on the logistics (and the education sections focus on myth instead of evidence) we will continue to be caged mice running wheels that go no where!
Thanks for reading and adding your insights.
Great discussion points following a great post. I remain optimistic that this will happen as we continue to use the information at hand to create better meetings and break the status quo. The revision 9 that Mariela McIlwraith is acting as Executive Editor (title very likely wrong) for the CIC Manual is going to be vastly different from the first 8 versions as it focuses much more on strategy than on logistics and will force the new CMPs to shift this way also as they align so closely – love this shift and can’t wait to see the results.
I had the pleasure this week of finishing another conference where we included subtle scent, changes to the way we used technology including lighting colors, and the most thoughtful programming I have seen in years to leave people thinking differently. Yes, they had a lot of “here’s where we are” topics to cover, but they trained their presenters to use storytelling techniques – and they were miles more engaging than in the past. And… the presenters found the experience of presenting more comfortable! I feel very fortunate to have clients who trust that we can create better meetings using neuroscience and its associated ideas. and am LOVING seeing them in action. For me it has entirely refreshed how I can reshape my career focus and stay aligned to my belief that meetings can change the world – when we consider the objectives first and back it up with best techniques in knowledge sharing and connection. As always, thanks for being amazing and succinct.
Thank you for adding another layer to the discussion. My concern about the CMP designation is that the manual and test includes outdated and incorrect (myth) information about learning and education. I’ve tried multiple times to let them know that they are using information based on a fad and not evidence but they continue to perpetuate a well-proven mythical theory. I’m not a confident as you are that an organization that’s been around as they have will catch up fast to today’s strategic needs in the meeting profession. I’m crossing my fingers though.
Thanks for this thought-provoking article, Jeff (well, thought-provoking for some only…).
Needless to say I agree with the need for change and the issue of change management. Like Tahira, I feel very lucky that I’m working with clients who are very open-minded and say yes to almost every crazy idea I suggest! And the efforts are paying off (one of the events was sold out in just 3 weeks, which shows how hungry people are for change!). But I understand why the change is slow. For starters, I think many meeting planners may not be inclined to learn this new set of skills, don’t you think?
Jeff- how do speakers play a part in revamping meetings? Nowadays everyone claims to be a “conference speaker” – but many are giving 8th grade book reports. What’s your thoughts? (Maybe that is a difference post)
Technology, audience polling, dazzling visuals, incorporation of licensed movie scenes are not being used well.
Death by PowerPoint and poorly crafted objectives, increased travel and lodging costs, refinement of on line meetings, workshops, etc. have added competition to the need to travel to a meeting.
Many meeting planners are afraid to use replicated ideas and borrowed methods.
To be successful meeting planners, as well as speakers, need to be open to innovative thinking and innovative procedures.
It’s time to think ‘inside the box’ where the problems reside. Too often planners are so far removed from the componets
because they are ‘outside the box’ which hampers the ability to see how to make shift happen.
It’s time to look beyond the obvious and create audience centered solutions.
Great question “How do speakers play a role in revamping meetings?” and I think you already know the answer.
When organizations see their speakers as partners in the experience, they can share the goal with them and the speaker will help drive that engine. Speakers also need to move to being more consultative with their clients and really designing customized, unique experience. Just presenting the same content from conference to conference will not help improve the experience. However, if a speaker can share their thoughts on how to align their content and expertise with the conference’s goals, then you have the real win!
Thanks for asking and reading Thom.
I like what you said that “…meeting planners, as speakers, need to be open to innovative thinking and innovative procedures.” Great point and thanks for adding it.
We all know that words do not teach. Experience teaches. Very few people will actually implement what they learn at any breakout session. They leave with good intentions. However, within hours they are entrenched in their daily habits. It takes time out of a session, but if facilitators would set up accountability partners at the end of a session and have people report in within five (5) days on what they actually did as a result of attending the session can be one step in the direction of helping people help themselves.
Love this posting, thread, and your blog. Yes, this is a big cultural shift for the meeting planners, speakers, vendors and….the attendees. And until you have been to an architecturally sound conference, you just don’t know what you don’t know. It’s hard to replicate something you have never experienced.
But the “word” is getting around…I have faith that the meetings world will be like a bag of microwave popcorn. Takes a while to heat up, get one or two kernels popping, which incites other kernels around them.
Jeff, as a thought leader in this transformation, keep on sharing ideas and inciting us to change the way we look at meetings!
Awesome reflections about the meetings industry. Kind regards from Spain
As an entrepreneur starting a company that will host focused (i.e., small) scientific meetings, I started with a completely blank slate. I’ve been going to science conventions for 30 years, and they all look essentially the same – if there’s a cultural shift coming, it’s likely to reach science last. Everything else has, as I know from running another business that consults on management practices in science – practices that haven’t changed since the time of the Pharaohs.
You’re right that things should change, and I especially agree with James Feldman that we need inside-the-box changes. The world has moved on a lot, and is filled with good science and innovative ideas that have never been applied to the way we get together and talk about our work. Here’s a few things I’ve discovered that we’re applying to our own meetings:
-TED talks and Pecha Kucha have demonstrated the importance of SHORT talks, as they increase the engagement of both speaker and audience. The audience doesn’t have time to get bored, can’t afford to stop paying attention, and the speaker can’t ramble.
-These same formats demonstrated that speakers need help, both strict rules and boundaries to guide behavior and content and presentation assistance to refine visuals, pacing, and content.
-Participatory is the new black. If you subsist on talking heads in darkened rooms, participants will spend a lot of time in hallways and sipping coffee while checking email. Speakers need to be corralled into small groups where trainees can ask questions unfettered by fears of looking foolish and the time constraints of tight speaking schedules. Peer-to-peer connections need to be moved out of the hallways. People need to be connected.
We’ve surged into a world where we can connect with others in an amazing variety of ways – it’s time to bring that to the meeting.
Loved finding this article and all of the different points of views and ideas. I’m an entrepreneur who is starting my business focused on getting entrepreneur’s out of hotels and giving a whole different type of experience when it comes to attending events. People are so tired of the big hotel rooms. Love reading discussions about how to change this in the world. Feel sometimes like I might be hitting a wall as some people like the “normal way”.
Keep pushing back on people to change when they push back on you and want to revert to the normal way. Challenge them that the real fruit is out on the limb, not the trunk.
Thanks for reading and commenting too.
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