Phelps R. Hope, CMP, is senior vice president of meetings and expositions for Kellen, an association management company with offices and representation in the U.S., Europe, China, the Middle East, India and Southeast Asia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 678-303-2962.
Despite some doom and gloom prophesies from the last decade that foretold of deserted convention show floors and isolated millennials networking exclusively through virtual reality, the truth is that the meetings industry is booming. And that’s not despite millennials, it’s because of them. In many ways, millennials are ushering in an era of opportunity for this industry.
Sure, it’s a generation that does things a bit differently. But our industry actually stands to gain from the millennial mindset, as long as we embrace the change.
Now that we’re a couple of decades into the Digital Age, we can take a step back and rethink our initial reservations.
Like virtually every other industry, the meetings business began bracing for change driven by a mysterious group of kids labeled millennials. Barely out of high school, their strange ways and preferences were sending shockwaves across every sector. Coupled with the advances in technologies and the general populace use of these technologies, we watched as print media evolved into e-reader screens and smartphone displays and as cable television pivoted to offer more on-demand programming. We saw travelers shift from travel agencies to one-stop-travel sites and brick-and-mortar brands build out their online retail presence to serve this audience. Surely the meetings industry was next, right?
Perhaps our biggest fear was that the hordes of teens staring down at their smartphones would grow into working professionals who recoiled at the thought of face-to-face interaction. At best — or so we thought — we would soon be competing with online networking platforms that don’t require a plane ticket or an overnight stay.
Our fear was that millennials would bring about the end of an era.
So, fast-forward to 2017. Millennials are pushing into their 30s, and they’re signing up for conferences and conventions. Not only did they disprove pessimistic predictions, they’re actually pushing the envelope of what an industry meeting should be. They’re eager to shake hands and downright hungry to learn from your more experienced attendees.
The challenge will be to meet increasingly high expectations when it comes to putting on a stellar event. But that’s a good challenge to have. Because of a generation we feared — and with their help — we’re poised to transform how we bring people together.
We’re no longer in hypothetical territory. Baby boomers are aging out of the work force, and millennials are rushing in to replace them.
Take a sigh of relief that this new generation values what you do, but don’t grow complacent. Keep your old playbooks intact, but get ready to make some changes to them.
Take full advantage of millennial change by defining clearly what they bring to the table.
Tech. It’s long defined them, but it’s nothing to fear. Millennials grew up with technology. They’re also improving it. Young tech-savvy go-getters are paying close attention to how industry groups interact. All the while, the wheels are turning. Would more intuitive software make for smarter planning? Would a new platform give networkers more bang for their buck? Could machines and artificial intelligence better respond to attendee needs? Millennials will develop and implement the very tools that improve their experiences. It’s on you to be open-minded.
Education. The way millennials learn has shown us a new way of constructing our conferences. Interaction and sharing; collaborative work groups and discussion; shorter time bites and less structured topics; encouraging all voices to be heard, not just the biggest personalities; a combination of remote and in-person interaction — this is how our millennials are changing the way we learn.
Culture. Cultural change is not exclusive to any single generation. However, social media has certainly amplified current shifts. Millennials are bringing cultural change that’s seemingly riddled with contradictions and paradoxes: they’re casually dressed but hard-working; they’ll work into the night if they can do it from the comfort of home; they strongly value personal time but won’t hesitate to turn on that corporate charm. In the meetings space, that gives you a lot to chew on. Now is the time for you to rethink how your event balances work and leisure, personal and professional, onsite and offsite — just to name a few.
Causes. Millennials are socially focused. That’s not to say that they are more philanthropic than any other generation, but they like to know that their professional activities are doing some good beyond the bottom line. For meeting planners, this is an opportunity to shine a light on the good that can come from your event. For example, highlight the fact that leftover meals are donated to food banks, or partner with a charity in a way that’s mutually beneficial. Giving back is important to this demographic group, more so than ever before.
Green dreams. For that same reason, millennials pay close attention to their environmental impact. More and more, they are taking note of what their respective companies are and aren’t doing. That same mentality has spilled into the meeting space. While going green(er) is a challenge, it’s also an opportunity. With countless industries in flux in regards to green thinking, it’s an excellent time to distinguish your event by going the extra mile and demonstrating how the impact has been mitigated.
Marketing opportunities. Their technical savvy is opening a world of marketing potential via social media channels. Take a look at your traditional marketing budgets from a decade ago and compare them to those same budgets today. You’ll notice a dramatic shift toward digital and word-of-mouth marketing that has a potentially massive reach. The concept of personalized marketing, where suggestions are provided given purchasing habits and likes/dislikes (à la Amazon), has shown to be a leading method when marketing to this group. Important, too, is the clear value propositions of the conference, as time is certainly one of the currencies millennials deal in.
Opinions. More than almost any other asset, millennials bring their opinions to the table. They grew up making noise in ways no other generation could. You can view that as a challenge or an opportunity. A forward-thinking meeting planner will get ahead of the inevitable feedback, rather than waiting for post-event survey results. If your new attendees feel heard, they provide immediate feedback you can react to in real time, while using it to make each event better than the last.
In summary, while we’re certainly better off than we could have anticipated just a few years ago, the meetings industry has some decisions to make. While business-as-usual might not sink you, listening to millennials can provide new opportunities for your conferences and events, and certainly put you at a huge advantage with engaging this huge market segment. Whatever happens next, we at least know that we’ve got far more to look forward to than to fear. How exciting, huh? AC&F