With millennials set to comprise half of the global work force by 2020, this generation is perhaps the most influential force in meetings today. Just ask Susan Schwedock, director, national events at the Philadelphia headquarters of Cozen O’Connor, a full-service law firm with more than 600 attorneys in 23 cities across two continents. Schwedock works hard to keep the content and the speakers at her company’s meetings relevant to each age group — a demanding effort indeed.
“Interactive sessions using technology and devices can be very challenging as the older generation is typically not as technically savvy,” Schwedock says. “The younger generation seems to respond to learning in interactive and group discussions. But I have found the older generation seems to be skeptical of these sessions. Also, when disseminating the information leading up to the meeting, the older generation still responds better to hard-copy handouts rather than electronically delivered information.”
“Incorporating unique features and offerings into mobile apps such as social interactions and gamification, can be essential to engaging this particular group while also reaching other generations of attendees.”
— Issa Jouaneh
Each of the four generations exudes four distinctly different sets of values, attitudes, lifestyles and preferred methods of communication. The four generations are identified by these approximate birth-date ranges:
Melissa Van Dyke, president of the Incentive Research Foundation in McLean, Virginia, knows the multigenerational work force is a key issue for planners right now, with more than two-thirds of them saying it will change the way they design meetings over the next five years.
“Our research has shown that planners feel pretty comfortable about their ability to get the information they need from attendees and their ability to convince upper management to change the program. However, planners still encounter significant barriers in creating an event that engages a diverse group and in getting the funding they need to support multiple experiences for multiple types of attendees,” Van Dyke says.
Issa Jouaneh, senior vice president and general manager, American Express Meetings & Events, works with his meeting and event planner team to create meetings that appeal to multiple generations.
“Meeting planners developing meetings programs for diverse audiences can encounter a variety of issues in connecting with different segments of their audience,” Jouaneh says. From a generational perspective, these issues range from the destination selection (with considerations such as travel time, proximity to city centers and access to local culture) to the duration of a meeting and the delivery mechanism for the content (virtual, live, face-to-face or interactive).
“The level of pre-meeting materials, choice of speakers and the flexibility to adjust agendas during the event itself can also pose issues to meeting planners,” Jouaneh says. “Diverse audiences, particularly multigenerational attendees, place a different focus and have varying expectations for each of these critical components of a meeting.”
While meetings historically have looked to motivate, recognize and reward attendees, the millennial generation also seeks to be engaged and active at meetings and events. Meeting planners are challenged to keep up with this burgeoning portion of the work force, while continuing to appease and appeal to older generations who may be accustomed to more traditional business meetings and events.
Van Dyke says their research has shown there is no one silver bullet for handling events with millennials and other generations in attendance. You have to really consider each group individually.
“Life stage and work experience play huge roles as well,” Van Dyke, says. Even where millennials are concerned, the program one designs for a group of millennial sales associates from a high-end retail store should look very different from a program for millennials at a multinational consulting firm.”
Van Dyke finds that planners have less difficulty in finding destinations and venues that will work for multigenerational meetings. The issue is more prevalent in the areas of activities, entertainment, speakers and gifting experiences where it’s difficult to please all.
“The mantra in this case tends to be options, options, options as much as possible,” Van Dyke says. “Inviting voices from all the generations to be a part of the meeting design team as a sounding board is usually your best option. Some organizations are even creating completely different programs to target the varying audiences; however this is a luxury most planners cannot afford.”
The key challenges with staging an event in which several generations are present include all the same components of all meetings: the agenda (including timing, content and delivery of content), food and beverage, destination and duration.
Jeffrey Cesari, CMP, president and creative director of Wilmington, Delaware-based Industrious Meetings, works with many corporate clients in planning meetings and events. Some of the challenges he’s facing with multiple generations in attendance is the way people learn.
“In the audience are people who may prefer to write with pen and paper; use references such as printed slide handouts while many millennials prefer electronic forms of documents and notetaking,” Cesari says. “A few months ago, at a meeting that was considered, ‘paperless,’ the client did not want any printed agenda available. Knowing we had several generations attending, we did produce about five percent printed agendas to cater to those who prefer that style of learning. We had to print more since it was so popular.”
Millennials absorb information fast but not always with high retention rates, as they are taking notes digitally and in slang. Gen X and baby boomers are diligent notetakers but Kerry Bannigan, meeting planner at Nolcha, finds they are also able to listen, absorb and take mental notes. Based in New York City, Nolcha is an award-winning events production and marketing agency specializing in fashion, retail and social impact.
“Millennials love any technology or interactive software onsite for information — digital apps, virtual reality and digital programs,” Bannigan says.
Today’s millennials also seek local, immersive experiences. The promise of a vacation and on-trend gifts is no longer enough to inspire this group to do their best in the workplace and be engaged during meetings and events.
Jouaneh says one strategy to engage this population is to create a program that incorporates altruistic work such as building houses or other infrastructures in developing areas.
“This provides millennials with the opportunity to explore the local geography and culture and give back while attending a meeting or event,” Jouaneh says.
Gen Xers expect to acquire knowledge and get many of their questions answered by attending meetings and events. One way meeting planners can address this is by bringing in local experts to encourage interaction and offer attendees the opportunity to learn from the best. Gen Xers value access to subject matter experts, celebrity speakers, and the ability to engage and learn in small groups.
Veterans and baby boomers place high value on face-to-face interactions, a clear and well-planned agenda, and the opportunity to dedicate meaningful blocks of time on topics of discussions or areas of learning. Social events and the opportunity for shared experiences are highly valued by these groups.
Being born into the digital age, millennials are accustomed to immediate gratification. If planners don’t deliver engaging experiences, or allow millennials to become engrossed in their smartphones, they risk losing this group’s attention.
“Creating mobile apps for a meeting is a great way to engage millennials where they are already very active,” Jouaneh says. “Additionally, incorporating unique features and offerings into mobile apps such as social interactions and gamification, can be essential to engaging this particular group while also reaching other generations of attendees.”
It’s important to have multiple options for items where possible. For example if you are going to have a digital app for the schedule, offer the schedule in PDF format in an email attachment for those not tech savvy. And offer a print copy onsite or welcome the attendee to print a PDF.
Younger attendees have become accustomed to the technology available to them as consumers and expect the ability to engage (at varying levels with meeting attendees and content) using their personal devices. While they value the choice to use technology, other generations continue to demand traditional opportunities for face-to-face interactions.
Chris Cavanaugh, executive vice president and chief marketing officer at Dallas, Texas-headquartered Freeman, was in a massive general session recently for a large tech company. The audience size was enormous, which could have been a good thing, but the message and the media did not appeal to a multigenerational audience.
“There was no interaction built in-between the presenters and the attendees; there was no second-screen experience, so the millennial audiences were quickly on their smartphones, and the room was so large that all but the folks in the first 20 rows got a true experience,” Cavanaugh says. This is a good example of an opportunity to reinvent the general session, infusing content, interactivity, technology and experience design into the process.
Offering multiple ways to engage also is key. For example, for question and answer sessions, using a microphone is always great but also setting up a texting keyword or ARS (Audience Response System) is a great way for people to engage and usually will allow more shy people an outlet to ask a question or make a comment when they would otherwise keep it to themselves.
While some companies have successfully created totally separate incentive trips to appeal to different generations, not every company has the bandwidth or budget to customize trips by generation.
That said, Schwedock suggests that, if time and space allow, break up groups by age with speakers and topics relevant to each group.
“We have presented marketing and business development sessions to our younger attorneys, and generational diversity and technical training to the older group,” Schwedock says. “When doing interactive sessions with the whole group, we assign seating so there is a mix of generations to allow people to not only meet each other, but brainstorm with those they typically do not interact with. It is important to have a facilitator for each group to keep them engaged.”
Keeping generations of attendees together while maintaining a close eye on evolving preferences, and having an active hand in customizing experiences for each group, can be a more successful and sustainable strategy both from an event and overall organization strategy perspective.
At the same time, appeasing multiple generations is not always cited as a challenge. Many meetings planners have found that older generations have developed a new set of standards for meetings and incentives that matches that of millennials.
“One example where this is true is food and beverage,” Jouaneh says. For multiple age groups, there is an expectation of having local food and wine or a craft beer experience as part of the meeting or event, regardless of age among the attendees.”
The reality is that meeting professionals have always been challenged with creating experiences that meet the needs of a diverse group of attendees. While a multigenerational attendee population presents new challenges, it also presents new opportunities to deliver a more targeted attendee experience.
Thus, every aspect of a meeting or event experience is important in creating an overall success. And, with multiple generations this becomes an even bigger challenge. Oftentimes a good experience can be deemed as subpar for the smallest of details. And other times, despite an average experience, the attention to detail that matters to the audience can make all the difference.
“Larger audiences now expect companies to be more sustainable when producing their events. They also like and respond to cause-related initiatives associated with a company or an event,” Cavanaugh says. “Use this enthusiasm and optimism to create some positive momentum during events. The younger generations are also less willing to sacrifice wellness for work so events should serve fresh, locally sourced food options beyond soft drinks and rest stations and lounge areas that allow them to reconnect and rejuvenate.” C&IT