Of the many things a meeting planner must think about today, one of the most important — and most often overlooked — is how generational and cultural differences among attendees can impact an event. More than ever before, whether an attendee is a baby boomer, Gen Xer or millennial, or whether he or she is Muslim, Jewish, or a health or environmental devotee, distinctions among attendees usually means a separate set of planning decisions.
“Diversity among attendees is an issue that is important to the entire meeting industry,” says Yolanda Brown, associate at Herndon, VA-based global consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton. In a year, Brown has planned about 35 meetings, which included both domestic and international attendees. “There’s been a shift in the generational composition of meetings, because you now have Generation Y (millennials) employees advancing quickly and looking for opportunities to show their merit and their worth. But now you also have baby boomers who have delayed retirement and are still around. And a distinction like that is obviously going to affect who you focus on as constituencies.”
Jenny McCullough, director of training and events at Kampgrounds of America (KOA) in Billings, MT, agrees that generational considerations now play a more significant role in her job.
“Just in the three years I’ve been with KOA, we’ve seen a big difference in how we promote our big annual meeting,” says McCullough, who plans the KOA annual franchisee convention and a half-dozen smaller training meetings. “For example, we used to do printed promotional materials, such as newsletters and invitations to the meeting from our president. But more and more now, we’re doing video invites that franchisees can access online, and we’ve also really picked up our e-mail marketing campaign more than ever before.”
Such changes are driven primarily by evolving generational preferences, McCullough says.
Other current examples of a generational concession are mobile apps and electronic promotional content versus traditional printed materials, such as a meeting program. And that’s a change that sometimes triggers generational disagreement.
“We’ve found that although we’re moving toward a digital-friendly meeting, many of our more mature franchisees still prefer a printed program for our annual convention,” McCullough says.
“We’ve found that although we’re moving toward a digital-friendly meeting, many of our more mature franchisees still prefer a printed program for our annual convention.”— Jenny McCullough
For example, for decades many KOA campground owners have kept printed programs from their annual conventions as valuable mementoes. “And that’s one reason that for us, printed programs will never go away completely,” McCullough says.
At the same time, however, she notes, KOA is striving to make its meeting more interactive and also wants to be able to leverage ever-evolving mobile technology to be able to disseminate more information to attendees throughout the long annual life cycle of the convention.
Brown says Booz Allen also is encountering the same general issue of mobile versus print. “We definitely experience that difference in preferences when it comes to the generations,” she says.
“But what we’re doing now is that we send the material out electronically, and then if someone does want it printed, as opposed to online, then they can get it printed on their own and bring it to the meeting.”
Yet another issue that is now impacted by generational differences is site selection.
“That issue is a big one for us now,” McCullough says. “We’re starting to see a lot of second- and third-generation kids take over the family campground business. So we’ve got people who are in their 60s coming to our convention. But we’ve also got people in their 30s that have young families. So now, when we select a destination for our annual convention, we try to find a place that has stuff to do for older couples without children and also for young couples with children.”
Local attractions and activities, including family-oriented attractions and activities for younger attendees, are becoming more and more of a factor in KOA’s destination selections, McCullough says.
For example, that consideration was among the factors that led them to go to Orlando in 2012. “It was our largest meeting ever in terms of attendance,” McCullough says. “And we had over 50 kids.”
In addition to generational issues, cultural considerations — and attendee expectations — are now increasingly playing a role in how meeting planners must do their jobs.
“Culturally, there are now differences in terms of geography with people,” says Christine Gorham, senior associate at Booz Allen Hamilton. “For example, you have to be considerate of either their limitations and/or the different ways they receive and perceive information, whether that’s technologically or just a matter of time and distance. But that’s just another example of the changing ways that meetings are being planned and held.”
One of the most obvious examples of cultural concerns is religion. “For example, with Muslim attendees, we make sure that we have the right space set aside for prayer or that there is a mosque nearby if the meeting extends to their day of worship,” Gorham says.
Another common issue is kosher diets for Jewish attendees.
“Those kinds of cultural or dietary perspectives are now just part of being a meeting planner,” Gorham says, “You need to know your audience and what their various requirements or expectations are going to be. And if you don’t know that, you need to ask the right questions to find out.”
On the other hand, however, Gorham says, “You can’t always make everybody happy either. So you have to prioritize. You have to focus on what really are the key things.”
At the moment, one of those key things is more and more attendee requests for gluten-free diets, a shift that transcends traditional “cultural” boundaries to focus on people that are learning about the sometimes negative physical impact gluten has on them.
“Each year, more and more of our attendees request a gluten-free menu,” says McCullough, adding that in her observation the trend toward gluten-free diets has become one of the most obvious trends in the meeting industry.
“Many of the people that request a gluten-free diet from us have celiac disease, a digestive disorder, and for years they knew they didn’t feel good after eating certain foods,” McCullough says. “Now more and more of them know it’s because of gluten.”
Booz Allen Hamilton, a much larger enterprise than KOA, also has seen a sharp increase in requests for gluten-free food, Gorham says. “And the hotels have been great, because they are very aware now of all these dietary restrictions and preferences.”
When Booz Allen considers a destination today, Gorham says, “diet has to be the first and foremost consideration. For example, we always now look at the dietary restrictions of attendees and work very closely with the hotel to make sure those are addressed.”
More healthful food, in general, including vegetarian and even vegan options, is now emerging as a cultural issue, McCullough says. “But the main thing we get requests for is just different kinds of food,” she says. “People get tired of the standard convention chicken or a make-your-own-sandwich buffet. So we now try to look at different avenues for satisfying the individual tastes of more groups of people.”
And again, it is not a generational issue, McCullough says. It is a food issue that manifests as a sort of cultural distinction that must be addressed.
Gorham also has experienced that trend. “And hotels are also much better now at coming up with more creative, healthier menus,” she says. “Gone, for example, are the days of heavy meals at lunch time. People want healthier choices today. They want fresh fruit and yogurt and protein. And for their morning and afternoon snacks, they want energy boosters. They want something that’s healthy and that is going to keep them going.”
Yet another example of a cultural shift is more attendee focus on — and personal commitment to — environmental and “green” issues.
In particular, for obvious reasons, KOA as a company is very sensitive to environmental issues — and so are its multi-generational attendees. As a result, McCullough increasingly looks for additional sustainable, local food sources to provide the meals for her meetings. “The other issues that are important to our audience include things like whether vendors donate food to the community and things like that,” McCullough says. That, too, she says, is a good example of the kinds of 21st century cultural issues that are having an impact on meetings.
“And we promote those values as part of our meetings,” McCullough says.
All of that said, however, perhaps the biggest and most overarching generational issue is one that often defines Generation Y. Their concerns and preferences stretch over a long and almost endless list of potential considerations, from diet to exercise to local activities.
“With Generation Y, regardless of where they come from, there is just an expectation now that you’re going to understand what their needs are prior to them getting to the meeting,” Brown says.
“And if, for example, you’re sending out information beforehand that says, ‘These are all the things you can expect at the event,’ if they do not see an option they like when it comes to food or anything else, they will respond and say, ‘I don’t see X. Are you going to offer it?’ And I think that example really speaks to the change in expectations. Today, if someone does not see their specific desire or preference addressed, they will point it out and ask for it.”
Misti Burmeister describes herself as an author, speaker and provoker for her company, Provoking Greatness, Across Generations, which is based in Baltimore, MD. Burmeister preaches a more broad-based, somewhat contrarian message when it comes to changes taking place in the meeting world and how they sometimes relate to apparent generational or cultural differences.
“I don’t really think the generations are that different,” says Burmeister, author of From Boomers to Bloggers: Success Strategies Across Generations (Synergy Press LLC, 2008).
In fact, she adds, it is generational commonalities and cross-generational concerns that should be driving the conversation about how meetings are changing and why.
“At the end of the day, everybody wants to think that what they do matters,” she says. “They want to feel important, special and valued. So if, as a meeting planner, you can create an event where people are going to feel important, special and valued in the creation of it, people will support that and help create it.”
And that kind of consideration has little or nothing to do with age, Burmeister says. It has to do with universal human nature.
The real key to success is having people understand what the underlying purpose of the meeting is and having attendees willingly want to contribute to the success of it, she says.
“Nobody wants to just be ‘talked to’ anymore, regardless of what generation they’re from,” she says. “Nobody wants to be talked at. Everybody wants to be in a conversation with someone else. And that’s true of every generation today.”
However, she says, there is one area of meeting planning where there is a distinct difference between younger and older attendees. And that has to do with the length of meeting sessions.
An ever-growing body of research demonstrates that younger attendees want shorter, more focused sessions that also are much more interactive than the traditional PowerPoint presentation from a stage.
The underlying question today is how well meeting planners and speakers address that reality, Burmeister says.
“Your sessions have to be short, to the point and interactive,” Burmeister says. “You have to get all that stuff straight so that when speakers or executives stand on the stage, they are prepared to deliver 20 minutes of really valuable information. And it takes a long time to prepare 20 minutes of really good information that people will relate to. It takes a lot of thinking. And the constant consideration should be how you make the information more palatable, more relevant to your audience.”
And that is the area where planners struggle most, in Burmeister’s observation. “And where they’re most often lacking is in the planning stage of content,” she says.
Beyond that, her message to planners is: “The No. 1 thing is having a clear sense of purpose for your meeting. Purpose transcends generations. And if your purpose is not clear, if the value of the meeting is not clear, people are not going to care about the meeting. And that’s true, regardless of what generation they’re from.”
Nevertheless, adds Chuck Underwood, president of The Generational Imperative in Miamisburg, OH, to do their jobs effectively today, “Meeting planners must be fully and accurately trained in generational dynamics. And from that training, they will develop what I call a ‘generational gearbox’ that enables them to shift smoothly from planning meetings and activities that appeal to one generation to planning events that will appeal to all three generations.
“And planners have to get into the heads of all three generations — baby boomers, Gen Xers and millennials — to understand the core values that are unique to each generation and which drive the decision-making of each generation — including their decision about whether they even want to attend the meeting.” C&IT