Dutch mayors are a headstrong lot. Nobody knows this better than executives at the Association of Netherlands Municipalities, who spent years trying to coax some cooperation out of their members at the group’s annual conference. But the event often descended into chaos, with attendees making phone calls during the keynote address and fleeing the plenary session to socialise in the exhibit hall. Instead of bonding mayors and strengthening the association’s mandate, the conference was becoming a laughable waste of money. So several years ago, the association’s chairman turned to an expert for help: Eric de Groot, one of Europe’s most innovative meeting planners.
De Groot, a managing partner at MindMeeting in the small Dutch city of Leeuwarden, prefers to call himself a meeting architect. A pioneer in this field—whose practitioners are sometimes also known as meeting designers—he doesn’t concern himself with logistical details such as hotel rates or audiovisual rentals. Instead, he works with clients to define desired business results and carefully choreograph attendee experiences to achieve desired outcomes.
In this case, he started by visiting six of the country’s most influential mayors and asking them what they wanted to discuss at the annual conference. When he mentioned the meeting’s theme “green,” to reflect city parks, several mayors laughed him off. What they really wanted to discuss, he found out, was how cities could pay for parks by making smart deals with real estate developers. In essence, the mayors wanted to talk about money. So de Groot’s first step was to revamp the agenda.
Next, he hired sumo wrestlers painted red and green—to reflect the battle between “green” spaces and “red” real estate—to open the plenary session. De Groot says he wanted to shock attendees out of their comfort zones and open their minds to new ways of thinking.
Perhaps most importantly, he completely changed the structure of the plenary session. Instead of letting the mayors sit back in a large forum-style discussion, which rarely produced much participation, he forced them to sit in small groups, discuss controversial talking points and come up with a single opinion on how best to resolve the conflict between the desire for green spaces and the need for financing. The result was stunning: The association managed to get a vote from the mayors on their preferred approach, and the vote was then presented to the federal government as a unified message from the association.
“The meeting industry comes from the tourism and hotel sphere, where you facilitate stays for guests, but you don’t go into the hotel room and say ‘Hi guys, what are you doing in here?’ Meeting planners have it in their genes not to go into the meeting room,” de Groot said. “Now the revolution is that the industry has to go into the meeting room, because that’s where the value is created.”
De Groot is one of a handful of meeting industry players who are leading the way into a new age. These designers and architects are leaving the logistical tasks of old-school planners behind—which hotel to book, how to register attendees—and are focusing on strategy: helping their clients create content for meetings in a way that will produce tangible business results.
“We carefully design for spontaneity,” said Dan Rose, president of Toronto-based Omakase Group, a consulting firm that delves into event content. “We guide participants in meetings through a process that will surface some insight that typically doesn’t occur on its own.”
This new approach is without a doubt the biggest change happening in the global meeting and event industry, and it’s a change that is redefining what it means to be a meeting planner. But there are other changes too—fuelled by new virtual meetings technology and social media—that will require meeting planners to change the way they do business. In fact, the meeting industry has reached its greatest crossroad, and planners who are able to adjust to this new future are those who will survive.
“We need to relate meetings to solutions instead of relating meetings to fun and trips abroad,” de Groot said. “Meetings are about solutions, about new ideas, about the future.”
Designing for Value
The desire to create meetings that produce results isn’t new. Over the past decade, companies have been tweaking the format, content and marketing of meetings in order to increase ROI. In fact, 64 per cent of top-level executives at the largest companies in the U.S. are now measuring meeting ROI, according to a recent survey co-sponsored by MPI. Of course, the hunt for ROI has become more urgent in the past year as cash-strapped companies try to justify every penny they spend to shareholders and an angry public.
“Years ago, events were about hype, getting people excited and treating them well,” said Tony Castrigno, CEO of New York-based Design Contact. “Now the business objective is being moved to the forefront of the meeting. People are serious about getting real value and making sure that every aspect of a meeting has a meaningful business outcome.”
Forced to show this kind of evidence, meeting planners are increasingly recognising that traditional meeting formats are not producing real results.
One of the problems is that long speeches by single individuals no longer capture the attention of a society hooked on a fast-paced, high-tech flow of information.
“Because of technology and because of the way our culture is structured, attention spans are much shorter and we need to figure out what the impact of that is going to be in meetings,” said Gail Bower, a meeting and event industry consultant and planner. “Sessions have to be shorter and more impactful, and delivery has to be fast-paced and interesting.”
At the same time, psychologists are finding that herding audiences into large crowds discourages involvement and creativity. That’s why “unconferences” and “open spaces” are becoming wildly popular. For such events, attendees suggest agenda items during the planning process and contribute content—in the form of moderation, discussion or feedback—to the actual sessions. Experts say open spaces and unconferences work well because they tailor content to the needs of an audience and keep attendees involved because they feel responsible for the outcome.
In addition to revamping formats, new meeting architects and designers are also carefully planning how attendees participate. Omakase Group’s Rose is turning that concept into a science. His job is to control the uncontrollable, guiding people’s experiences in a way that produces “spontaneous creativity.” This means that instead of setting up an interaction that allows attendees to exchange information and then walk away “caught up with each other,” he creates interactions that help attendees come up with new ideas.
Rose’s tools sound simple enough. He breaks up large groups into smaller ones, and gives each group a problem to solve. If the goal of the meeting is to produce a global financial model, for example, he gives each group a geographic region to tackle. After 45 minutes, he mixes up the groups, and gives them new assignments, such as asking them to address a certain quirk in the financial model. To get their creative juices flowing, he supplies attendees with large whiteboards that allow them to sketch out ideas and communicate clearly with each other. Conference organisers take notes, photograph whiteboards and distribute updates in real time, so participants aren’t slowed down by the laborious task of note taking. At the same time, Rose micro-manages the whole event to make sure that ideas flow in the right direction.
“Brainstorming is good, but we work out with the client in advance where that brainstorming needs to go,” he said. “We figure out what kind of business deliverable needs to be created, and we get the participants to create that output so the client can walk out of the room with the financial model or the creative brief that needs to be done.”
To be sure, this level of involvement by a meeting planner seems daunting. After all, how can a planner help a roomful of neuroscientists come up with a solution to a vexing problem one day, and do the same for a conference of cellists the next?
But Rose says his approach relies on a set of skills that has little to do with specific industries and can be used in a variety of situations. One of his main tricks to help attendees think creatively, for example, is teaching them how to express themselves visually: sketching out concepts in their industry using pictures instead of words. He points to studies showing that drawings coax out perspectives and insights that might remain hidden by words. He also teaches attendees to think outside the box by asking them to apply lessons from other industries to their own. In a meeting of neuroscientists, for example, he distributes an article about Starbucks’ business strategy and then asks them to draw a lesson that might be useful to them.
Different architects have different ways of helping attendees think outside the box. MindMeeting’s de Groot says he was able to shake people up by confronting them with the sumo-wrestling match and chopping up the plenary session into small groups. Others rely on props; to help salespeople perfect their pitches at a medical conference, Design Contact’s Castrigno set up mock doctor’s offices with real doctors.
In some ways, this change in the role of the meeting designer was inevitable considering how much of a meeting planner’s traditional job has been made obsolete by technology. It’s not just that clients can now book their own venues and flights with a few clicks of a button. But many ordinary meetings that previously required some degree of planning are now being held virtually. Lately, demand for virtual events has been fuelled by the recession, as corporate meeting budgets are slashed and decision-makers realise they have to cancel expensive physical events. But experts believe that once the recession is over, companies will continue to hold a mix of physical and virtual meetings.
“Going forward, virtual events are going to become a strategic part of a company’s communication strategy,” said Kerry Smith, founder and CEO of Event Marketing Institute. “Planners need to figure out how virtual can complement face-to-face meetings, and go beyond ‘virtual is the enemy.’”
IBM, known for its innovative meetings and events, has been experimenting with virtual events for several years. In 2008, it held a meeting for IBM engineers on Second Life, behind an IBM firewall that ensured privacy and data security.
The conference—for the Academy of Technology, a community that helps develop new technologies—was a good replica of a “real” conference, says Karen Keeter, an IBM marketing executive in charge of organising the conference. Speakers took questions from the audience, and attendees bumped into each other in the hallways. The conference was so realistic that one attendee sitting in the front row of his boss’ presentation forgot he had scheduled a conflicting conference call, and when his cell phone rang in the middle of the talk his avatar had to conspicuously leave the room.
“If you can’t be there in person, this is a great alternative,” said Keeter, adding that the feedback to the conference was overwhelmingly positive. After all, 21 per cent of attendees said the conference was as effective as a physical meeting, and 41 per cent said it was even better. “You don’t get the facial expressions, but you can see lips moving. You can have private conversations, and the closer you move to a crowd the louder their voices get.”
However, experts agree that virtual meetings have a long way to go before going mainstream. Several companies, including Second Life, Unisfair and Qwaq, are competing in this space and regularly updating their offerings, but the lack of an industry-wide standard makes it cumbersome for clients to hold large conferences or to combine platforms.
Virtual meetings are just one aspect of how technology is changing the event industry: Social media Web sites such as Facebook and Twitter are sparking a revolution of their own. Attendees use Twitter to connect with each other at an event or “tweet” about it for the benefit of those not attending. Using these kinds of informal channels to communicate about formal events is beginning to blur the once rigid line between business and social events, encouraging attendees to connect on a more personal level than ever before.
Bobbie Carlton, a board member at the Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation in Waltham, Mass., says social media helped her pull the little-known museum out of shadows earlier this year. Tucked away in a converted mill that’s used mainly for artist studios and condos, the museum never managed to gain much attention from the local community. Part of the problem was that its events always had an old-school feel that didn’t attract Waltham’s hip technology elite.
So Carlton decided to tap into lessons she had learned during her years as a marketing representative for high-tech companies and started a series of free parties that receive publicity by word-of-mouth on social media platforms. Dubbed Mass Innovation Nights, the parties highlight local innovators while bringing the museum into the community fold.
“I had been attending a lot of Tweet-ups, and I thought, ‘I can do this,’” said Carlton, who publicised the event almost exclusively on Twitter and within weeks had attracted a huge following.
But the social media aspect didn’t stop there. Carlton asked attendees to pick one of the featured products they liked, and write about it on their Facebook pages, Twitter feeds or blogs.
The first party (April 18), on which she spent a grand total of $28.95 (domain name, name tags and three water bottles) drew almost 200 attendees and 10 exhibitors.
“I didn’t want this to be a very polished event, I wanted this to be something that everybody helps out with,” said Carlton, pointing out that getting the local community involved generated more excitement and goodwill for the museum.
Twitter is also increasingly being used to help attendees communicate with each other. At a recent conference of the Event Marketing Institute, a group of Twitter aficionados tweeted so extensively with each other that they ended up—through a tweet—asking organisers to set up a tweet-up for them at one of the conference’s scheduled mixers.
“Sometimes attendees have needs and wants at an event that are not going to be satisfied by the organiser,” Smith said. “If you can give them another way to communicate with fellow attendees who can answer their questions, that becomes an incredible tool for the event organiser.”
Adjusting for the Future
Like other experts, Smith firmly believes that new technologies both philosophical and physical will actually work to the advantage of planners.
Turning meeting professionals into contributors of strategy as opposed to logistical planners makes them more valuable and less dispensable. Forcing them to figure out ways to add value means that they will always be able to prove that value when asked. Of course, to compete effectively planners have to learn a whole new set of skills, ranging from basic psychology (Omakase’s Rose recommends reading Scientific American and taking improvisational acting classes) to figuring out the latest social media tools.
They will also have to set their sights beyond the meeting, and try to find ways to insert themselves into the corporate process. Smith argues that planners might have to begin taking more ownership of the sales leads their events generate, for example, by setting up systems that shepherd leads through the sales channel.
“If the event professionals of today take a proactive approach,” Smith said, “they will move from people who are still perceived in many cases as tactics and logistics people to strategic business people.” One+EMEA
DALIA FAHMY is a worldly business freelancer based in New York.
Road Map for the Future
The MPI Future of Meetings Task Force has been challenged with developing a road map of the information and tools needed to cohesively evolve the future of meetings. This was accomplished by analysing industry data and research needs, identifying opportunities to fill these gaps and recommending information and tools needed.
The road map designed by the task force for the future of meetings is rooted in the evolution of meeting design. The first step in this process is to raise the awareness of the value of meeting design such that all stakeholders recognise meeting design as an important value driver, acknowledge the lack of meeting design at the present and spur demand for meeting design from meeting owners.
To advance this, think tank sessions were held at the Professional Education Conference-North America and World Education Congress (WEC) in 2008. Additionally, the 2009 MeetDifferent Opening General Session focused on the future of meetings, as did a session at the conference.
To keep meeting design growing, content and tools about meeting design must be made available. These should help empower professionals and marry hospitality and meeting design by further developing industry leaders as experts in the field. Meeting design education will be available at the WEC in Salt Lake City and through other MPI outlets in the future.
Meeting design case studies are needed to demonstrate how meeting design supports the effectiveness of meetings (and how poor meeting design can damage this). New education and tools will be available so meeting planners can perform as or with c-level professionals to successfully implement meeting design. The task force’s results and future research will be utilised to drive a globally accepted industry body of knowledge, transform the Certificate in Meeting Management (CMM) program, enhance the Global Certificate in Meeting Operations (GCMO) III content, transform strategic meetings management (SMM) education and enhance education at live events and online especially regarding executive leadership development, SMM and meeting design.
The next stage, an on-going process for the coming years, is to elevate meeting design from exception to common practice. To this end, the quality and quantity of meeting designers will need to be grown—this education should be a priority for meeting planners. The task force recommended that further research into the future of meetings is still needed to best prepare meeting professionals and they are investigating research options.
Future of Meetings Task Force Members
Chairwoman: Cindy D’Aoust, Maritz Travel Co.
Allen W. Krom, Accor Hospitality
Amanda Cecil, CMP, Indiana University
Angela Duncan, CMP, CMM, VMS
Banz Ledin, Spotme Inc.
Cara Tracy, CMP, CMM, National Speakers Association
Carol Norfleet, CMP, DMCP, Destination Nashville
Diane Walton, U.S. Department of Labor
Eric de Groot, MindMeeting
Gregory T. Deininger, Marriott Global Sales
Jessica Lynn Schanbaum, FedEx Kinko’s
Pat Hill, National Information Solutions Cooperative