Most Innovative Meetings 2018: #10 Hilton Worldwide GMLS

How the hospitality brand disrupted the general session.

Hilton opted for an atrium instead of a ballroom for its general session and held other events outdoors.
Hilton opted for an atrium instead of a ballroom for its general session and held other events outdoors.
Photo: Courtesy of Hilton Worldwide

Imagine 4,000 general managers under one roof and you have a sense of what makes Hilton Worldwide’s General Manager Leadership Summit tick. The annual three-day conference is an evolution of the biennial Hampton GM Huddle, but what made this year’s conference stand out wasn’t its presentation of hospitality trends or traveler demographics. What made this conference innovative is precisely what it didn’t have—the general session.

While skipping the general session may sound blasphemous to some planners, it was exactly what Hilton wanted.

“Over the years, through qualitative data provided by attendees at various conferences, we’ve heard that a multi-day general session can become tiresome, specifically due to being in dark, cavernous ballrooms,” said Julie Cunningham, senior director of brand hospitality for focused service and all-suites at Hilton. “While traditional ballrooms provide an event planner with the ability to create a more dramatic show with lighting, we wanted to flip the traditional plenary on its head by activating in a light-filled atrium—the Sails Pavilion of the San Diego Convention Center.”

From here, the Let’s Unite educational sessions launched, providing attendees with speaker sessions echoing Hilton’s objectives for 2019.

Of course, no change comes without obstacles. “Lighting was the primary challenge when activating in the Sails Pavilion due to its many windows and tented roof. However, we were fortunate to have an amazing team of engineers, specialists, and producers both during the pre-planning/ideation process and onsite, to provide thoughtful recommendations on how to mitigate lighting issues,” she added. To counteract the lighting issues, the team turned to technology. “We used bright LED screens to ensure visual quality, as well as a sleek stage that echoed the sails aesthetic of the space and the location.”

Challenges aside, disrupting the general session was a success. “The reception we received from internal Hilton stakeholders, as well as the attendees, was very positive,” Cunningham said. “I’d definitely recommend activating in a light-filled space if you’re looking to disrupt your normal plenary session.”

Previous: #9 No Barriers Summit
Next: #11 Social Media on the Sand

A version of this story appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of BizBash.

More in Meetings & Conferences