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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