Now that millennials — adults born since 1980 — are expected to outnumber baby boomers this year, their proclivities and preferences are of paramount interest to, well, everyone. Per the U.S. Census Bureau, the generation of people under 35 — also known as Gen Y — will be 75.3 million strong by the end of 2015, and that strength in numbers can be felt in the many ways that marketers and human resources professionals are beginning to cater to the supposed needs of this generation.
Corporate meeting planners, however, are not necessarily concerned with breaking down attendee needs by generation. One of the unexpected revelations from a 2013 survey of U.S. planner attitudes toward generational accommodations was that what attendees want is simply not high on the list of factors that go into planners’ decision-making about venues. Planners know their audiences’ needs, certainly, but not necessarily by decade.
And while businesspeople are being exhorted on all sides to determine how best to connect with millennials, it may be that the general direction of meetings is already shifting in a way that suits all generations.
As the other generations can attest, not everything hyped as a “millennial preference” is necessarily restricted to one age group. “Maybe millennials aren’t as ‘millennial’ as we think we are,” admits Lane West, event specialist with MPI. “Maybe we’re just young. There’s more and more Gen Xers wanting to keep up with trends. Maybe I will eventually turn into a Gen X.”
Gen Xers and boomers occasionally bristle at suggestions that they are categorically different from other generations. West says he’s heard from meeting attendees of a certain age, “I’ve been 20-something before, and I’ve had the drive and taken the risks, same as you have.”
Still, this group does seem to have certain distinguishing characteristics that planners can recognize and skew toward. For one, they are the first generation to grow up entirely connected to the Internet. “Generally speaking, this group cares less about job security, paying their dues and working their way up a corporate ladder than their generation X and boomer counterparts, and are exponentially more interested in careers that suit their personalities, their needs and allow them to have a life outside of work than their predecessors,” opines Shelly Kramer in a blog post for V3 Kansas City Integrated Marketing and Social Media Agency.
Gen X tends to focus entirely on the professional aspect of conferences; the networking and social media elements are less important: “in and out with max efficiency,” says Kim Lear, director of content for BridgeWorks, which provides speakers on generational workplace dynamics.
Millennials, by contrast, sometimes find the opportunity to network a major draw, she says. “One reason that they’re going to conferences is that it’s the only time they have access to leadership. A driver in attending meetings is access, ability to spend time and network with leaders. It needs to be orchestrated because if we let it happen organically, it doesn’t work: At cocktail hour, all the millennials are in one corner, all the leadership is in another corner. If meeting planners can think of interesting ways to create cross collaboration, they can really connect. Millennials are hungry for mentoring and getting feedback,” Lear says.
For example, she has successfully used a “speed dating” design, with leaders in a circle as new hires or high-potential millennials talk for 15 minutes to leaders in the company.
For their part, leaders note that they aren’t exactly swarmed with requests for mentorship. Millennials are hesitant to encroach on leaders’ time, she says, but leaders are flattered to be approached and pleased to hear different perspectives.
Joe Martin, partner and director of conferences, BDI Events, suggests offering a more personal, active component to networking efforts; for example, a teambuilding hike among the generations.
Martin sees a rise in popularity of “second-tier” cities such as Austin, Anaheim and Portland, Oregon, for getting the localized experiences millennials appreciate — though arguably, the desire to connect with a city is a cross-generational trend.
Lear says both millennials and Gen X prefer unique experiences that incorporate fun and the vibe of the city, rather than having the meeting off the beaten path where the venue can be picked up and moved anywhere. The food, music and history of cities such as Boston, Austin and New Orleans are all attractive to attendees, she says, although “from a planner perspective it’s more difficult to handle the logistics.” For example, a crawfish boil hosted in New Orleans was a draw for millennials and Gen X. “Instead of being stuck in a hotel conference room, professionally they were gaining things from the content, and personally gaining things from the city,” Lear says.
“I’m not worried face-to-face meetings are going away anytime soon,” says West. He indicates that millennials love to travel — possibly because they have fewer family commitments, and because as digital natives, their sense of space is more global.
Millennials love to travel and see new people and places, he says, especially if they also have the chance to network while experiencing a new culture. “Millennials travel more because they want to, Gen X because they have to,” he concludes.
“Millennials have grown up having their voices heard by their baby boomer parents — where to go on vacation, what TV to buy — and now that translates into incorporating their voices into programming, into speakers chosen and location chosen,” says Lear.
Social media, especially Twitter with its easily located hashtags and Facebook with its dedicated event pages, is the voice conduit of choice for the moment. Participants can tweet what they thought about speakers and what they found most useful about the conference, thus driving interest and attention for future conferences as well as providing valuable feedback for planners.
“Millennials want to be heard and see the results of being heard. They hope to see a difference or a change the next year, so they feel they have a reason and a purpose. When you take a meeting survey, you hope your feedback will be addressed,” says West.
“Millennials want to be heard and see the results of being heard. They hope to see a difference or a change the next year, so they feel they have a reason and a purpose. When you take a meeting survey, you hope your feedback will be addressed.” — Lane West
In a limited way, some organizations — though certainly not most — are beginning to take this voice into account even when it comes to planning the conference. For example, Lear mentions that one company put together a survey that included videos and bios for a few speakers, then chose the conference speakers based on potential attendees’ votes. “Instead of six people on a committee making a decision about the content, they let it be driven by people attending, “ she says. When she speaks to millennials at events, she says, they are tremendously appreciative of this ability to have a say in what they will hear and to be able to move away from the committee-driven process.
West notes that the meeting industry in general is moving toward collaborative spaces, which millennials are much more in tune with, and away from a traditional classroom environment with stiff-backed chairs, a talking head and PowerPoint presentations. Anything that appeals to the senses can help drive session points home, he says. Comfortable furniture, objects on the table that attendees can pick up and later associate with what they’re learning in the meeting and discussion rather than presentation are all slowly taking hold in meetings. “That’s how the younger generation captures knowledge,” he says.
PowerPoints are not, however, going away anytime soon. They still can be a vital part of an effective presentation. However, as speakers strive to appeal to a broader audience and find themselves up against increasing competition, they are beginning to stretch themselves to try more creative and collaborative styles. For example, instead of presenting to a large audience, a presenter may do a series of small, 20-person chats that provide for ample discussion time.
West notes that many hotels, Marriott among them, are moving in the direction of providing objects for the tables and smaller meeting rooms and setups.
Development Counsellors International and the International Association of Conference Centers Emerging Trends Committee surveyed U.S. meeting planners about generational meeting preferences in 2013, then followed up in 2014 with a survey of planners in Europe. Both surveys found that meeting planners across the generations are primarily concerned with what meeting planners have always been concerned with: sufficient and flexible meeting space in an appealing venue at a reasonable cost. They found that conference room design was important to all the generations, particularly spaces that allow for collaboration and learning. Open space, movable furniture and informal setup were particularly important to European meeting planners in the 2014 survey.
West acknowledges that one of the negative characteristics often associated with millennials is a sense of entitlement. He finds one way to parry that charge is through passion — not only for innovation and networking but for embodying corporate social responsibility. “It’s important not only for millennials but every generation,” he says. “But millennials can use it as a driver. It’s an opportunity for us to show that we’re not as entitled as people think we are.”
For example, he has planned one meeting where attendees had the option to build IKEA bedroom furniture for a boys’ and girls’ home, and another where attendees gathered blankets, food and furniture for the homeless: Physically seeing and providing results in lieu of writing a check is something of a millennial hallmark, he avows.
Even CSR-friendly practices, such as not providing unnecessary paper in the form of maps, bags full of presentation materials, “stuff we would leave in our hotel rooms,” can be a draw for millennials, he finds, noting that he finds it heartening that conferences are increasingly moving toward less waste.
It’s likely that the rise of handheld devices and Internet connectivity has created a multigenerational world of short attention spans, but for the moment, the generation most associated with easy distractibility is millennials.
“We constantly have to compete with second screens: phone, iPad, laptop. We have to know how to make our meetings interactive, but also keep attendees off social media with things like audience polling or a continual Twitter feed where you can tweet questions that are passed on to the presenter,” says West.
Shortened attention spans also means trying different types of formats to keep attendee engagement high, and not only for millennials. “We’re a very visible generation, so we’re leading the charge, leading it and pushing it forward, reminding planning committees to take risks,” Martin says. For example, a company that usually plans the same type of speaker in the same format took a risk by doing more focused topics and a shortened keynote — 30 to 45 minutes — immediately followed by a workshop of an hour or so. “It totally paid off,” Martin says. “Registration increased 30 percent this year.”
Other tactics include mixing different styles of sessions or presenting information in a different way — in an outdoor venue, for example, or using five-minute TED Talk presentation styles for certain content. Cartoons, animation, videos are all ways not to lose the audience or to surprise them.
Martin says for some meetings, the keynote speaker can be preceded by several “warm-up acts” as a way to engage attendees. “It’s powerful,” he says, “and can be more impactful because it’s easier to remember.”
For meeting planners, this can mean instead of scheduling six general sessions with identical structure, thinking through how to create a variety of meeting styles: one session with a talking head and no audience engagement, one with a short keynote speech and longer period for audience interaction, some workshops or some panel discussions.
The 2013 and 2014 DCI/IACC surveys both found that boomers and Gen Xers ranked “ease of Wi-Fi connectivity” as the most crucial element in deciding on a conference venue; for millennials, “cost” was the No. 1 factor.
Hotels seem to be finally coming around to this reality: Many of the major chains now offer at least baseline free Wi-Fi for their preferred or reward members, with the option for faster speeds available for a fee. Hyatt now provides free Wi-Fi for all hotel guests.
Martin says he likes to send out a mobile app link two to three weeks in advance of his meetings “to get the buzz going,” so attendees can add the schedule to their phone, connect with exhibitors and otherwise become engaged with the conference before it begins. Marriott and Starwood both also have meeting services apps designed to help facilitate this.
The meetings industry has undergone unprecedented innovation in the past 10 years in terms of technology, collaborative meeting design and crowdsourced program content. You might even say that meeting planners have millennials to thank for raising the bar for better meetings. C&IT