There’s little question Generation Y or millennials are transforming the way we work — and the way we meet — and organizations are starting to realize they need to understand the preferences of these younger workers if they’re going to get them to join their groups and associations and attend their meetings and events. One such group, The Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR), in May released a report “Generational Differences in Face-to-Face Interaction and Activities.”
The “great news” says Nancy Drapeau, CEIR’s director of research, is that despite the fear that the onset of the digital age may signal a waning interest in the perceived value of face-to-face interactions, and that face-to-face meetings may be declining in relevance, “that’s hardly the case.”
Among the findings of the report is that the top-five ranked reasons for attending conventions and exhibitions is the same across generations. Most professionals attend these events in order to look for new products, gain insights on industry trends, network with colleagues, see and talk with current vendors/suppliers, and look for new products/vendors. Additionally, younger attendees also seek to gain inspiration and motivation for their jobs.
What is particularly interesting about the study is that when looking at the value these events deliver compared to two years ago, and even looking into the future, more than 90 percent of attendees said the value is the same or even greater — and the perception of increased value is greatest among the youngest professionals.
“The bottom line,” Drapeau says, “is that these face-to-face events are perceived to be valuable, particularly as we look out over the next few years when younger professionals say they plan on increasing the number of events they’re going to attend.”
So the good news is that younger generations still find value in these face-to-face interactions. And that really shouldn’t be that much of a surprise, says Doreen Ashton Wagner, chief strategist at Greenfield Services, an Ontario, Canada-based meetings and events industry market research and business development consulting firm. Younger generations “are certainly not meeting or event averse,” she says, pointing out that they’re used to attending events such as concerts or summer camps in quantity — “more than most boomers ever did.”
Instead, for most of the younger generations the question of value concerns the nature of the meeting itself.
Last year, the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) released “What the Millennial Generation Prefers in their Meetings, Conventions and Events,” a report based on a survey of more than 2,000 people ages 18 to 30.
The survey’s results show that associations should discontinue the traditional meeting format of talking heads, lectures and PowerPoint presentations, says Sheila Scott-Halsell, Ph.D., an associate professor at the School of Hotel and Restaurant Administration at Oklahoma State University and one of the PCMA report researchers, and that millennials want to be entertained and want to personally benefit from events.
“There’s a kind of ‘what’s in it for me?’ attitude at work,” says Scott-Halsell. For example, when asked what was the prime motivation for attending events, 86 percent of the survey respondents listed “job opportunities.”
And while millennials do value the education they receive at meetings and conventions, they want it delivered in an entertaining way. Consequently, the term “edutainment” accurately describes what millennials hope to experience at events, the report authors write, adding, “if you motivate the millennial with an inspiring and fun event, they will come.”
“This is very much the ‘Disney generation’ in a lot of ways,” says Ashton Wagner. “They’re used to seeing shows with a lot of glitz and attention-getting graphics — they don’t want to see some old dude lecturing at the front of a meeting room with some boring PowerPoint presentation, and if they get that, they’re all going to tune out.”
That said, millennials do like experts, they just don’t particularly care for the stand-up expert type and prefer a more interactive experience, Scott-Halsell says. This is an area in which technology plays a role, she points out, since millennials want to interact with speakers, but reject traditional stand-up question and answer methods. Instead, they want to be able to take out their smartphones or other devices and tweet speakers and ask questions that way.
EIBTM, one of the leading global exhibitions for the meetings and conventions industry, meets annually in Barcelona and attracts more than 15,000 attendees. According to EIBTM Exhibition Director Graeme Barnett, the attendees range from top-level CEOs to middle management and also those at the beginning of their careers. Barnett points out that recent research released by Amsterdam RAI finds that Generation Y expects a real experience when they visit an exhibition.
In addition to acquiring information, they want to be actively involved before, during and after the event, says Barnett. “Plus, participation, co-creation and being able to improve and develop themselves are vital.” He says that Generation X also has specific demands with regard to event visits: They want to know what to expect in advance of their attendance and place great store in trust, requiring transparent, honest information that is as personal as possible.
“Gen Xers want to know exactly what they are paying for and what they will receive in return,” Barnett adds.
From a meeting and event design standpoint, says Ashton Wagner, meetings and individual sessions should probably be shorter, interspersed with longer breaks, “giving (younger attendees) a greater possibility of talking and connecting, and letting them get on their devices so they can do what they have to do.”
Scott-Halsell also points out that shorter meetings are preferable since millennials don’t want these events to cut into their personal lives. “We didn’t find a huge difference over whether they wanted meetings on weekdays or weekends,” she says. “They just don’t want to be away as long. They are a lot more interested in the work-life balance than older generations.
Kurt Krause, general manager, the National Conference Center in Leesburg, VA, says that younger generations also have different expectations when it comes to their physical surroundings during meetings. “The setting outside the classroom is important,” he says. “Younger people want comfortable places to meet and greet and to talk, and the more of that kind of space we have — particularly outside space when the weather is nice — the more I see people utilize it. It doesn’t take the place of the traditional classroom, but it does enhance the educational experience.”
There are also slightly different requirements when it comes to food and beverages. Younger attendees tend to drink water and reject soft drinks, says Krause. And while most attendees still like comfort foods, portion size isn’t important to the younger ones. “Rarely do I see someone from a younger generation go back for seconds or thirds,” says Krause. “Whereas you can usually count on the other generations having a hardier appetite.”
Krause says that younger generations definitely have higher expectations when it comes to technology issues. “They have less patience for not having Wi-Fi or not having great cell coverage,” he says. “Older generations might complain, but as long as they could plug in somewhere they would be fine. But millennials expect a facility to be wired.”
“Technology is one of the driving forces behind the industry, and thus one of the key areas of interest for younger meeting professionals attending the show, both in terms of engagement and education,” says Barnett. “We understand that they have high expectations regarding the availability of social media to engage with EIBTM and other attendees before, during and after the show, so we have Twitter platforms, the EIBTM Facebook page, LinkedIn and our own YouTube site, plus a show website to inform and engage. “
The use of social media is “a must” in engaging young attendees and connecting and creating new relationships through the EIBTM and IBTM global community, says Barnett. During EIBTM 2012 there were 5,353 tweets recorded during the show with a reach of 2,052,956, in addition to the 23,547 accounts reached through Facebook, says Barnett, all of which “clearly demonstrates the power of social media in reaching and engaging with audiences.”
The evolution of social media has also enabled a faster pace for learning, something EIBTM’s younger attendees have come to expect when attending shows,” Barnett says. “This generation has become accustomed to immediacy and bite-sized education, allowing more knowledge to be consumed in less time.” As Drapeau points out in her research, however, “we have seen that social media is largely regarded as a supplement to face-to-face networking rather than a replacement.”
The desire for education is not limited to technology, Barnett says, pointing out that EIBTM’s younger attendees have an increased interest in furthering their careers through learning and education. Consequently, EIBTM’s education program encompasses specific sessions designed to appeal to all ages and levels of experience, including bite-size sessions and the Technology Hour, which takes place in its own theater on the show floor.
Barnett also points out those technological innovations such as the successful launch of the Hybrid Conference at EIBTM 2012, which was designed to appeal to younger attendees. With the Hybrid Conference, EIBTM streamed five key education sessions as they happened, which allowed virtual delegates to join physical attendees for a dedicated interactive experience. In addition to the live-streamed sessions, the Hybrid Conference also featured a virtual exhibition gallery, resource center and networking lounge. Virtual delegates were able to join panel discussions and ask questions live to the conference hall via a virtual MC, and network real time with other participants — “which were key features for all involved,” Barnett says.
First of all, says Ashton Wagner, the ability of younger generations to form their own networks via social media means “they aren’t as tied to or loyal to professional and industry groups as their predecessors were. Obviously this has created some turmoil for associations in a lot of areas, and they’ve had a lot of catching up to do in order to capture the attention of and to engage younger generations.”
One area in which associations have had to make changes, Ashton Wagner says, is the way they market their events and trade shows. “It used to be, ‘let’s get a list, mail to 10,000 people and whatever number we get will be sufficient.’ That doesn’t work anymore. Now you really have to prove your worth because there are a host of competitive events out there, and people have less time and are more guarded about what they are going to spend money on to attend.”
Consequently, planners are being required to perform somewhat of a balancing act since they still have to satisfy the preferences and desires of other generations as well as Generations X and Y.
For example, baby boomers are still quite comfortable with speakers and experts talking in a traditional format that younger attendees are rejecting. And there are even differences within the younger generations. According to Scott-Halsell, older millennials are similar to baby boomers in that they are looking for professional development opportunities when they attend meetings and conventions, whereas professional development means less to younger millennials who are at the beginning of careers in which they have less invested.
“So, the older the millennial, the more they tend to be like those older generations,” says Scott-Halsell. “So planners really need to know their audience.”
Also complicating matters is that different generations can evolve if they have to. While younger generations have had the advantage of growing up with the technologies that are driving the way meetings are now being designed, baby boomers have also demonstrated the ability to “pony up” technologically. “I have an iPad and an iPhone, and I’m on Facebook and LinkedIn because I have to be for my business,” says Ashton Wagner.
There has been this push through the ranks where attendees are expecting different things, and there’s a higher threshold that planners have to reach in order to grab their attention,” adds Ashton Wagner. “So meeting professionals and association planners are being challenged to engage their attendees in many different ways now, which is something they never had to do before. And as a meeting planner, you’ve simply got to rise to the occasion.” AC&F