Corporate Meeting Planning – Trend Cycles

400-06172676Corporate meeting planning has gone through a number of permutations over the last decade, but has anything truly changed? I’ve been pondering this question for a while and have finally reached a firm conclusion.

Yes, but not really.

Having spent over 26 years planning corporate meetings, I’ve observed many cycles of change in the industry. These cycles come and go, usually lasting two or three years before things swing back to the other extreme. For example:

  • In-house planners give way to outsourcing and a return to core competencies
  • Creative or technical WOW is replaced by a greater focus on content
  • Resort hotels lose out to urban or airport properties
  • Budget-conscious events get more expensive by adding food and beverage upgrades, amenities and attendee gifts

This is just a partial list but you get the idea. It seems the more things change, the closer we get to where we began. As a result, what may seem like a major change in the industry is often just another swing in a cycle. Currently we are in a no-frills, do-it-yourself cycle where cost control is more important than the efficacy of the event; but, it will swing around when the need for innovation and growth replaces maintaining share price as the driver of corporate America.

To me, the most interesting cycle to observe, and the one that has the most impact on my business, is the corporate leadership cycle. The more challenging the economic and business environment becomes, the greater the focus on self-reliant leaders who manage by edict and resist input from the people around them. Then, when business improves or the marketplace demands innovation, these dominant leaders are replaced by managers who welcome input and manage by consensus.

But the biggest change in corporate meeting planning isn’t part of a cycle and many companies haven’t a clue to its significance. Corporate audiences have changed dramatically; and how we communicate with them has to change as well. The whole model of adult education has evolved to accommodate the generational differences in the learning process and meeting formats must change to remain effective.

As an old planning dog, I’ve had to learn some new tricks. It is incumbent on me to stay at the forefront of industry knowledge, techniques and best practices so I can provide the greatest value to my clients.

That’s something that will never change.


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Stop The Insanity!

Speaker“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”– Albert Einstein

It’s a badly overused quote, but it’s very appropriate to the meetings industry today.  Why?  Because the majority of planners are using the same format we used when I entered the industry over 26 years ago.

You know the format …

  • Day One – Welcome reception
  • Day Two – General session (opening video and two hours of speakers), workshops and an evening theme party
  • Day Three – Workshops, afternoon golf and an awards event
  • Four – Closing session (with a keynote speaker and “Happy Faces” module)

Of course, we’ve “innovated” over the years.  We’ve swapped the theme party and awards nights, replaced golf with CSR projects, shortened presentations (but added more speakers), used live talent instead of an opening video, gone for walks; the list goes on and on.  We’ve also tried using technology to hold teleconferences, virtual meetings, webcasts, hybrid meetings and even virtual trade shows, but quickly learned that none of them are as effective as face-to-face meetings.  So we end up defaulting to the same old format.

Why do we do it?  For several reasons:

  • It’s easy, familiar and predictable
  • There’s very little risk
  • Most decisions can be made by mid-level managers
  • They can be planned by internal staff regardless of experience level
  • Budgeting can be based on the previous year

The problem with this time-tested format is that it’s no longer effective.  The internet and advances in technology have changed the business world and, more importantly, have changed our audiences.  Today’s audiences communicate, interact and learn differently.  They grew up with technology and instant access to information and data.  Their personal interactions and communication skills are based on social media.  They think in bullet points and don’t have the attention span for a 20 minute presentation.  They learn interactively and at their own personal pace.  In short, they learn what they want, when they want and quickly lose interest if the information isn’t relevant to them.

As an industry and as individual planners, we need to change our default meeting model and design meetings that connect with today’s audience.

  • Meetings have to become more interactive and attendee-focused
  • We must find ways to identify what the audience wants to know and deliver it in short bursts of information
  • Content needs to be available on-line, allowing attendees to learn at their own pace
  • Meetings must be more interactive, allowing attendees to participate in the discussion and to learn from each other
  • We have to be willing to answer the tough questions and be accountable for our policies, products and actions

Most importantly, we need to be authentic.  Today’s audiences have no patience for incomplete information, spin, hyperbole, or corporate double-talk.  They want the whole truth, both the good and the bad, so they can make decisions based on the whole picture.  In short, we need to approach each meeting as a custom, attendee-centric event that focuses on the needs of the audience rather than planning expediency.

The greatest challenge for planners is to convince the C-Suite that the old model isn’t effective and your meeting has to change.  Today’s C-Suite leaders are extremely risk adverse and budget conscious so any type of change will be questioned.  To get approval, planners will have to establish their strategic credentials and make a business case for the change of format.  Those that are successful will be rewarded with the opportunity to engage their creative and strategic brain to design a truly effective meeting.

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Minimalist Meetings (And Why You Should Consider One)

Meeting PlanningThe other day, a colleague remarked to me that a recent presentation she’d given to a small group had gone extremely well — in fact, better than expected.  What surprised her wasn’t the high level of audience interest and participation but the fact that she was able to achieve that high level of engagement without the usual bells and whistles.

The meeting room where she presented lacked a projector; and, caught without a backup plan, she was forced to present without modern technology.  The result, she said, was an interesting, spirited discussion that had participants asking great questions that opened up new avenues of thought for the meeting.  It was as if by removing the fancy presentation and animated graphics, she had removed the distractions.

My friend had experienced what I like to call minimalist meetings.

Minimalist Meetings

A minimalist meeting is one in which little or no technology is used to facilitate the meeting.  Instead of PowerPoint slides, the presenter speaks from notes or conversationally, without notes.  All cell phones, smart phones, tablets and electronic devices are switched off or left outside of the meeting room.  And that’s it.  No gadgets, no fancy technology, no bells and whistles…just good old-fashioned conversation.

Minimalist Meetings Encourage the Exchange of Ideas

Technology offers many benefits, but it also has some drawbacks.  It can be used to entertain and inform, but many times, it lacks the human interaction that is so vital to the exchange of energy that needs to accompany the exchange of ideas.

As my colleague noted in the anecdote I shared at the beginning of this post, the energy level in the room during her minimalist meeting was actually higher than in similar meetings in which she had been able to rely on her projected presentation.

Because there were no slides to distract the audience, the audience had to listen to her instead of staring at the screen at the front of the room.  Because my colleague wasn’t constantly pointing to slides, she was able to make more frequent eye-contact with the attendees, another technique to keep people engaged in the conversation rather than passively staring at a screen.  And because she wasn’t tied down to a clicker, pointer or computer to move the slides ahead, she could circulate throughout the room, getting to know the attendees and answering questions more easily.  The entire presentation bubbled with energy and enthusiasm.

Why Minimalist Meetings Work

Minimalist meetings work because once the distraction of technology is removed, there’s nothing left to focus on but the concepts presented.  Whether the meeting is intended as an information-sharing event, problem-solving sessions, or a training seminar, without the distraction of technology, the participants can focus, share and interact as people are meant to do, without the buzz, beep and ring tones of modern life.  The result is energy, enthusiasm, and often a better meeting experience for all.

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The New Normal

normalWhile attending a recent industry event, I overheard someone asking the ubiquitous question, “How’s business?”  I found their friend’s answer confusing.  “It seems to be picking up, but I’ll be glad when things return to normal.”

Normal?  What normal are they talking about?  The free-spending extravagance of the early 90s? … the post-911 “It can’t look expensive” normal? … or maybe it was the pre-recession “Let’s celebrate” normal they were talking about.  Over the past two decades, defining “normal” has been a real challenge and, once again, people are asking when things will return to normal.

The reality is that today’s meetings and events are the new normal.

 The New Normal

The good news is that today’s meetings are more effective than ever before.  The impact of the economy on budgets, staffing levels, venue selection and content development has simplified meeting planning and forced the elimination of superfluous elements that don’t support the primary reason for a meeting – face to face communication.  As a result, today’s meetings are focused on outcomes and their value is measured by their impact on a company’s business.

How do you know if your meetings align with this changed paradigm?  The new normal can be clearly defined by a few trends that will continue for at least the next few years:

 Meetings Are Strategic Tools

Corporate expenditures will continue to be cost-justified.  As a result, meetings must be clearly aligned to corporate business strategies and demonstrate a return on investment.  Regardless of how a company measures event ROI, meetings must demonstrate how they forward corporate strategic initiatives or they will become targets for elimination.

In turn, meeting planners must be able to work with senior management to clearly identify communication strategies and measurable outcomes to justify their existence.  Those that define themselves as strategic drivers will find a new level of respect and value to their accomplishments.

 The Audience Rules

Meeting attendees have evolved and meetings must adapt to connect with them.  They are no longer willing to be passive observers that are told what to think and believe.  They demand that meeting content and activities are relevant to their business and that their opinions are heard.  Meeting experiences must be designed around collaborative, two-way communication or the audience will tune out or simply not attend.

Today’s meetings must also support a whole different form of personal communication.  The alphabet soup attendees (X, Y, Millennial, etc.) require information in short visual bursts rather than long-winded talking heads waxing poetic about the future.  They require internet bandwidth, comfortable seating and direct communication that gets directly to the point.

 Social Media is Social Business

Anyone who thinks social media has no role in business is not paying attention.  Webinars, virtual groups, Twitter, Linked In and YouTube have become staples of marketing and business communication.  Today’s meetings must integrate these communication tools if they want to fully engage today’s audiences.

I recently worked on an IBM/Lotus show and its entire focus was on Social Business.  Wireless internet access was available free of charge, all sessions were webcast live and available for download after the event, tweets were displayed live throughout the conference and there were special seating areas for industry bloggers at every business session.  As a result, the attendees I spoke with were engaged and very impressed by their conference experience.

Time is a Valuable Commodity

In our fast-paced world, time has become attendees’ most valuable commodity.  As a result, they want to get in, do the work and get out as quickly as possible.  Meetings that offer irrelevant content or have too many social activities waste their time.  Meetings over weekends interfere with their personal time.  Either way, they simply won’t attend.  Worse, if it’s a mandatory meeting that isn’t valuable they’ll be de-motivated and resent the company.

According to MPI, “FutureWatch 2011 results show that the tides of the meeting industry have shifted, and there will be no return to yesterday’s events.”  If that’s what you are waiting for, it’s time to embrace the present and educate yourself on the new normal.  It will definitely be good for business.

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Healthcare Event Saves Lives

Labor Care
It’s not very often that a communications event can boast that it saved lives but one of our recent projects did exactly that.

Equinox Creative was selected by nine Taft-Hartly labor funds to manage the 2010 LaborCare Health + Benefits Fair. The event, sponsored in part by Medica, is designed to educate and motivate union membership to make healthier lifestyle choices. It includes workshops, guest speakers, health screenings and an exhibit floor featuring the leading healthcare suppliers in the region. Topics include smoking cessation, aging, eating healthy/obesity, living with diabetes, exercise, work safety and managing stress.

One of the exhibitors, Suburban Imaging, offered free cardiac ultrasound screenings. In the course of the screenings they identified six individuals with Aortic Aneurysms, a life-threatening condition that required immediate follow-up with their personal physicians. Untreated, Aortic Aneurysms can often lead to sudden death.

In addition to the cardiac ultrasounds, almost 600 of the 5000 attendees had a comprehensive health screening offered by the funds. During these screenings, a number of individuals were found to have health issues, including diabetes, high cholesterol and respiratory issues.

As much as we enjoy providing business solutions to our corporate clients, the Equinox staff found it refreshing and extremely rewarding to work on a project that truly impacts the lives of individuals. We are all looking forward to working on the 2011 LaborCare Health + Benefits Fair.

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