By Alesandra Dubin Posted January 11, 2012, 1:19 PM EST
Whether it was the prospect of a sunny San Diego jaunt in January or curiosity about a retooled event experience, the Professional Convention Management Association’s annual meeting drew a crowd that well exceeded forecasts of 3,300 (the final number will be known after an audit).
The crowd of meeting planners gathered in the San Diego Convention Center from Sunday through Wednesday for a program that intended to revamp its format, with a three-speaker opening session and an expanded Learning Lounge area where four distinct hubs hosted more than 150 short sessions.
Amid the buzz, these themes emerged as some of the most-discussed topics in the meetings industry right now.
1. Measurement and Advocacy
Hilton New Orleans Riverside director of marketing Eric Janecke described a gap in some meeting planners' knowledge of their meetings' worth. “Our industry tends to look at historical data [about the value of meetings] the way people look at their credit scores: Everyone thinks theirs is great until they go try to get a loan,” he said. To that end, there's a new tool available for measuring that value. The Event Impact Calculator, which Destination Marketing Association International rolled out last fall, measures all sorts of data points, including how much is being spent on accommodations and on transportation, as well as other values such as jobs, taxes, wages, and return on investment.
Having such numbers at the ready is essential. Convention Industry Council C.E.O. Karen Kotowski said, “We need face-to-face [events] to conduct our business. Until recently we never really had to articulate that as we have in recent years. When our industry started coming under attack, we had to start going out there and talking about how meetings mean jobs and meetings drive revenue to our organizations.”
A study conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers on behalf of the Convention Industry Council with an array of industry partner organizations in 2009 revealed that the U.S. meetings industry had a total industry output of $907 billion—but the key is to communicate that message of importance. Kotowski also said the Convention Industry Council is in the process of developing a crisis communication plan to use in the event of any future news stories that allege frivolous spending attached to meetings—a la recession-era AIG.
Revent L.L.C.'s Roger Rickard suggested to an assembled group at least seven ways to advocate for the industry. First, he said, “No one else's voice is more effective than yours. What you say matters. We're at a game-changing point in our industry.” Further, stay current, discuss the issues, vote, donate your time, and go on record with your opinions—in op-ed pieces, for instance. And last, he said, “Believe.”
2. Virtual and Hybrid Events
An entire educational segment on the topic of virtual meetings, called the Virtual Edge Summit, was co-located with the meeting and was being streamed live online throughout the event. Discussing the digital future of physical events at a Virtual Edge session with World2Worlds Inc. C.E.O. John Jainschigg, Active Events general manager Eric Olson first tried to dispel the popular notion that virtual meetings are a threat to face-to-face events—an essential part of any conversation on the controversial topic.
“There’s a general fear in the events industry of technology replacing what we’re doing in the live environment. But digital technology isn’t a replacement for anything. It’s additive,” Olson said. “And we need to embrace that to take the industry forward.” To wit, meeting pros are now using their digital presence to drive people to their physical events, not poach from them.
Among the factors driving big change toward hybrid programs in the event industry, he said, is that consumer technology gave business attendees new tools: “The iPhone and iPad brought consumer technology into the business space. I no longer have to be a Fortune 500 company, or have a whole IT team, to provide really good technology for events.” All of this, he said, adds up to the evolution of events toward complex hybrid entities and to the changing role of event professionals. “Organizers must now understand their role as more than managing a few days in a room, but instead managing the entire life cycle of the event,” he said, including a yearlong digital process.
Aiming to banish some of the mythology around green meetings, Kendall College assistant professor Susan Tinnish said that basic progress toward sustainable meetings is either cost neutral or can result in cost savings. Further, she said, “You need to build a business case [for sustainable meetings]; otherwise, the C-level suite is not particularly interested.”
Tinnish and associate professor Sapna Mangal gave tips for green meetings like investigating carbon offsets and incorporating sustainability into the RFP: Seek vendors, destinations, and accommodations that work toward the goal. Seek fair trade and recyclable products, and add a volunteer teambuilding or other charity component. Use reclaimed, recycled, or rapid-renewal materials, like jute or bamboo flooring for exhibits. Consider omitting the calendar year from the conference bags, then collect and reuse them for a future show. Limit the use of signage, or use digital, and after the meeting, recycle and repurpose supplies.
And make sure to market your efforts. “You can’t market infrastructure [like a public-transit system or a walkable downtown] if there is no infrastructure. So choose vendors and a location for meetings that allow you to leverage that,” Tinnish said. Consumers and employees engage with and expect the effort.
In a session about making a big impact with a small budget, attendees chimed in with their tricks—for instance, not mailing name badges (because people forget them, and they have to be reprinted), and using the software Prezi for lively presentations. Leading the session, Association Headquarters Inc. meeting manager Kristin Brammell contributed additional budget-friendly technologies, including low-cost smartphone apps like Groupio (which operates on a cost-per-attendee basis), and Guidebook (the basic functionality of which is free).
Further, she encouraged the use of QR codes as low-cost way to communicate broader messages through trade magazine advertising or conference bag inserts, or to send guests to a registration site using postcard mailers. But, Brammell said, “Don’t overuse QR codes. Now everybody has them on their information, and as they become used more and more, people may not notice them.”
5. Staying Fresh and Innovating
Discussing how to breathe new life into annual events, Society for Human Resource Management vice president of meetings and conferences Lisa Block put forth her own conference's annual meeting as a case study. When the recession hit, attendance for the event dropped 40 percent. “So our team tried to figure out how to persevere and save that meeting,” she said.
That process required a radical rethink. Working with a consultant, 360 Live Media president Don Neal, the group conceived of new elements, like a wellness pavilion on the trade show floor that included blood-pressure testing, a massage station, and a Wii competition—which she described as a smashing success.
Whatever the specifics, the point is that thinking differently can lead to major positive change, and what's required to make that happen is the participation of every member of an organization. “It is important to put some priority around this process,” Block said. “Creating a culture where change is acceptable and change is embraced is probably the most important aspect of being successful. Everyone in our organization is responsible for making our annual meeting successful. That's accountability.”
To analyze a meeting for the purpose of creating change, Neal suggested looking at its physical location, the physiological components (including what guests eat and how much they sleep), as well as the intellectual and emotional factors that make up an annual program. He also encouraged looking for ways to improve and promote events across four types of available media channels: advertising, PR, social media, and media owned by the host entity.
Another essential factor on which both Block and Neal agreed: Go to as many events as possible and learn from them. “Attend these events, filter them through your own experiences, and apply them,” Neal said. “There’s a lot to learn from Burning Man, TEDx. There’s a lot of inspiration in other places.” Business events aren't the only places to look, he said, adding, “I think the mega-churches have cracked the code in how you can have a 25,000-person congregation that feels very meaningful to one member.”