With meeting room technology such as lighting that simulates daylight and air purifiers, planners say nothing can replace simply getting attendees outside of their meeting rooms. Credit: Visit San Antonio
What will the meeting room of the future look like? How will it function? What innovations in technology and the science of learning will drive its evolution? Those questions are among the most vitally important facing the meetings industry today. And both planners and attendees are increasingly pondering those questions.
There are three key elements of the current debate about how the meeting room experience is evolving and what it will look like and feel like in the future. One is new technologies. The second is the meeting room itself as a designed physical space. And the third is the ongoing breakthroughs in brain science and learning that experts argue will ultimately play the most important and transformational role of them all.
To understand the role of new and innovative technologies in the meeting room experience, one must first understand how limited the vision has been so far, says David Hsieh, CEO of San Mateo, CA-based Kaptivo, which has pioneered the next-generation whiteboard and rendered it interactive and sharable.
“It’s expensive to bring people to offsite meetings. So if you can have a virtual meeting, with remote attendees who can have the same kind of experience they’d have if they were there, you can save a ton of money.”
“I would argue that technology in hotels is stuck in the Dark Ages,” says Hsieh, who as former vice president of products at WebEx and former vice president of marketing for Cisco TelePresence has been on the cutting edge of meeting technologies for well over a decade. “For example, if you ask what is the single-biggest improvement in recent years when it comes to meeting technology, the answer is Wi-Fi. And if you compare that to what is now available in a typical conference room in the corporate world, the hotel is not even close.”
How does he explain that gap? “Technology is not a core competence for hotels,” he says. “So usually there is no one really focused on what the meeting room technology should be beyond basic things like A/V. And then there’s the fact that so many hotels outsource their A/V, Wi-Fi and other technology services, so they’re not really in the technology business. The hotel is just providing space. So with very few exceptions, there’s no one really thinking about what kind of experience the meeting planner and attendees want and need to have.”
In addition, Hsieh says, the time-honored role of the hotel meeting room as the nexus of the meeting experience is also evolving. Today, he says, remote attendees are playing a more and more prominent role in the execution of meetings.
“For some companies, the trend is primarily budgetary,” Hsieh says. “It’s expensive to bring people to offsite meetings. So if you can have a virtual meeting, with remote attendees who can have the same kind of experience they’d have if they were there, you can save a ton of money.”
But another reason for the trend is convenience. Not everyone can travel for a meeting; it’s a big-time commitment, and sometimes being there is either inconvenient or impossible. That’s why more companies and meeting planners are providing new ways for attendees to ‘be there’ without actually being there. That was the idea behind TelePresence. The idea was to use HD video to make people feel like they were in the same room, sitting at the same table, whether they were actually physically present or not.
What does Hsieh see on the far horizon of future technology? “It’s easy now to imagine some kind of virtual reality-based experience, where the remote participants can literally feel like they are sitting in the room,” he says. “Think of the Jedi Council in the Star Wars movies. You’re not actually there, but you’re a holographic figure that people can see and hear and interact with.”
Given such possibilities, he says, the meeting room of the future must be built and equipped to facilitate such cutting-edge innovations.
In the current market, Hsieh says, the focus is on the evolution of devices or any new technologies that facilitate more seamless meeting experiences, both for planners and attendees.
“One of the more interesting innovations right now is in wireless media-sharing devices that let you display content from your phone or your tablet or your PC onto a monitor wirelessly and easily, with one click,” he says. “It used to be that when you walk into the room, you have to plug in your computer. If you don’t have the right adapter, you need to go find one. Now, you can walk into the meeting, open up your device, click a button and then, Whammo!, your presentation is automatically shared. The function is much faster and more convenient.”
There are a number of companies now providing or developing such technology, Hsieh says. He cites the current leaders in the space as Lifesize, Mersive, and Barco. “They all work really well.”
Meanwhile, an entirely new category of meeting room device is being developed. “It doesn’t really even have a name yet,” Hsieh says. “But it’s like a ‘control panel’ for the meeting room. The reason that’s important is that as technology has proliferated, it has become more and more complicated to get all this technology working together. With one of these new devices, all of the systems in the meeting room are now controlled by a single device. That way, you don’t have to go to your phone and use that control panel, then go to another device and use that control panel.”
Although the development and introduction of such technology is in the early stages, rapid progress is being made. “What we have seen up until now is that people have taken general purpose devices, like an iPad, and built special-purpose software that implements the control panel,” Hsieh says. “For example, a company like Zoom has software for the iPad. But what we’re starting to see now is companies that are doing purpose-built devices. And the companies that are working on that include Logitech, which is actually developing control panel devices. And their only purpose is to be taken into the meeting room and control all of the technology in the room. The best way to understand it is to consider that you used to have multiple remote controls in your living room that controlled your TV, sound system, DVD player or DVR, and so on. Now you can do all of that with one universal remote control. That’s the principle involved.”
As an example of the evolving capability, he cites Logitech Tap, which was introduced early this year. Another provider is Crestron.
Yet another new category of meeting room technology will be voice-control capability. “Today, when you go into a meeting room and you want to turn something on, you have to push a button somewhere,” Hsieh says. “What a number of companies are starting to do is add voice controls to their products. For example, you’ll eventually be able to walk into the room and say, ‘Start the video conference with so and so,’ such as a remote presenter or ‘Begin the ZYZ presentation.’ And all the right devices just make that happen.”
Think of the new functionality as Alexa for the meeting room, Hsieh says. “And as a matter of fact, Amazon now has a new Alexa for business that is trying to move in that direction.”
Kaptivo itself is another transformational technology. “What we’ve done is solve a problem that has been a meeting room problem since meeting technology was first introduced,” Hsieh says. “And that is how to share a whiteboard electronically. People had been trying for decades to solve that issue, but never saw strong user adoption because either it didn’t work well or was too complicated. It was the same with videoconferencing technology, meaning it took a long time for it to really become useful and practical. Kaptivo has now delivered the same kind of breakthrough solution for the sharing of whiteboard content.”
Any existing whiteboard can be equipped to become interactive with both onsite and remote attendees, who can share content on any device as well as save it to any device for future reference or additional sharing.
The evolution of the meeting room itself, as space designed for a specific purpose, is another key element of the debate over the future. And so far, at least, it has not been given the level of attention it deserves, says Samantha Meigs, Ph.D., associate professor of history and experience design at the University of Indianapolis.
“It seems to me that the issue is late in being discussed by the meeting industry,” Meigs says. “Based on what I see and hear, that this is an issue that is really just now being discovered and talked about.” Meigs, Ph.D., Chair of the Experience Design Department, and Associate Professor of History and Experience Design at the University of Indianapolis. She also plans conferences in the history department, and thinks that neither meeting planners nor vendors have yet approached the issue in a comprehensive or “holistic” way.
Based on his observations as an industry leader, Michael Dominguez, chief sales officer at MGM Resorts International in Las Vegas, disputes that assessment of planners, but concurs when it comes to suppliers. “What I have found,” he says, “is that too many suppliers, partners and vendors have not been good resources to tell planners how to implement the future and help them do it.”
Any suggestion that the bar is currently set too low, in general, is somewhat reinforced by what the International Association of Conference Centers (IACC) touted as the most significant finding of its own “Meeting Room of the Future” survey last year. “The report shows that high-quality internet will be the most important meeting element in the coming years, and that the success of meetings today depends on the quality of a meeting venue’s internet infrastructure,” IACC CEO Mark Cooper noted in releasing the report. It is remarkable, especially given the ways in which new technologies have transformed other industries, that the overarching perception in the meeting industry seems to be the preeminence of internet service in hotels and conference centers. Any truly enlightened debate over the future of the meeting room must include the space itself.
And to IACC’s credit, its 2018 report addresses that factor.
“One of the things that both this year’s and last year’s report touched on was the flexibility of where the meeting takes place and where collaboration takes place,” says Ellen Sinclair, the Brunswick, NJ-based senior vice president of major hotel and IACC-certified conference center operator Benchmark, a global hospitality company. “And part of the issue now is not just what happens in the meeting room, but also what happens around the meeting room. That means that those other spaces become just as important as the main ‘meat-and-potatoes’ meeting rooms where your sessions are taking place.”
As part of that evolution, now underway, Sinclair says, ancillary and alternative spaces will begin to supplant what has traditionally been just another numbered — and standard — meeting room down the hall, so to speak.
When it comes to theoretical discussion of the meeting room of the future, one major hotelier, Las Vegas-based MGM Resorts International, has already set a high standard with the development of two new facilities at its new $550 million Park MGM, formerly the Monte Carlo, which made its debut in April 2018. Its Madison Meeting Center caters to meetings for 10-50 attendees. The 10,000-sf complex features 10 flexible rooms that can accommodate various layouts ideal for classroom-style training, certifications, product seminars and workshops. It also offers moveable ergonomic furniture, built-in audiovisual equipment, and rolling whiteboards. It also incorporates the DELOS Stay Well Meetings protocol — developed in cooperation with health and wellness guru and DELOS board member Deepak Chopra — and previously deployed at the MGM Grand and Mirage properties. The Stay Well program features state-of-the-art air purification, energizing lighting, science-based menu options, soothing aromatherapy and other wellness features designed to enhance the productivity and overall wellness of attendees.
“We have based the things we’re doing on the underlying science,” Dominguez says. “For example, a key question in the meeting industry is why attendees get tired in the middle of the afternoon? And the reasons are twofold: One is that you’ve been sitting in really crappy light all day long, which means a yellow hue. We have gone to blue-hued light in our Stay Well meeting rooms. And that’s important because blue light allows your body to suppress melatonin. And that allows you to remain alert and attentive. The second reason is that because you’re indoors all day, you’re not getting enough Vitamin D. So what we now know from the science is that it’s not just important that the food you eat at the meeting to be nutritious, but also for it to be Vitamin D-infused. So that is now a focus on our menus.”
The Park MGM’s new Ideation Studio, which opened last fall, provides spaces ideal for corporate retreats and brainstorming sessions, with eight unique environments and four distinctive room types that each can accommodate groups of 6-25 attendees. Each space has been intentionally planned with a wide array of workspaces to spur collaboration, productivity, creativity and innovation.
“The basic idea was to design a space that was specifically created for collaboration and consensus-building. And again, the facility is based on underlying science.”
From an academic perspective, the meeting room of the future will address factors that reach far beyond material considerations such as seating, lighting or nutrition, although those things are vital to the final result, Meigs says.
The overarching factor, she says, is what she calls a “minds on” level of alertness from attendees. “It’s the mental equivalent of ‘hands on,’ and it means a more in-depth way of talking about things and communicating,” she says. “It means having people be more actively involved in engagement with your material and with problem-solving.”
The inherent flaw in the current way meetings are conducted is that levels of attention and engagement among attendees range from minimal to meaningful and effective, along with everything in between.
How can that reality be overcome? “One way is to do anything that is unexpected and presents some kind of a challenge,” Meigs says. “The idea is to do something to get people involved in a way other than what they would normally expect. That gets them fully engaged, as opposed to just listening to somebody give a report or read a paper.”
Perhaps the most critical element of the larger discussion, Meigs says, is that her academic understanding of experience design differs quite sharply in one key respect from what meeting planners typically do. “True experience design, as I think of it, is all about sort of letting go of control. And meeting planners are typically very much in control of everything, which they have to be. But I think that control is also antithetical to the idea of a better experience. In the future, the most successful results are going to come from letting go of control, which seems to be a very difficult thing for people in the meetings industry to do.”C&IT