There is a reason why so many financial and insurance meetings and events have been cookie-cutter productions. There are people to please and placate, funds to be allocated, and complex agendas to be developed. It is no wonder that so many people end up at the same event they have attended a dozen times before. But as the world is enveloped in communication tools such as social media, blogs and 280-character Twitter posts, the overall meeting content and design is evolving to meet attendees’ event content and design preferences.
Lee Gimpel, founder of Better Meetings, a meeting design, facilitation and training company in Washington, D.C., says a new generation of meetings is co-creative. For years there has been a typical model of one person running a meeting with attendees sitting around the table; either everyone is listening or one person talks at a time. Or for larger events, facilitators and presenters ‘talk to’ meeting attendees with little to no interaction.
“This is usually pretty top-down and hierarchical. And frankly, it’s also pretty boring and you tend not to get a lot of engagement, participation, buy-in or quality ideas,” Gimpel says. “While co-creative meetings may have a facilitator, they tend to authentically be asking for participation and giving attendees equal weight, and more of a chance to speak and shape the decisions. I’m seeing smaller groups that form within a larger meeting — where people discuss and report back, and then the group decides.”
“While attendees are always looking for more information, they are also looking for opportunities to expand their network at the same time.”
- Beth Lawrence
Consider this: Today, we can sit in front of a screen and access nearly all the world’s information without going anywhere. That begs the question: Why do we still organize conferences and conventions? Why do we attend them?
Gimpel says the answer is fairly clear: We organize and attend conferences to get new information and learn new things. We go through all this trouble to connect with people in a human way that we can’t by reading books, scanning web pages, watching videos or listening to webinars. We go for the informal ‘water cooler’ moments that happen at big meetings; we go for the networking, connecting and reconnecting that happens face to face; we go for the energy and excitement of being among hundreds or thousands of people who share a common interest or industry.
“And, to come full circle: This is at the heart of what attendees want,” Gimpel says. “Many conferences focus heavily on sharing knowledge, but they seem to miss a focus on connecting people and their experiences, ideas and challenges. Attendees don’t want to be bored. They don’t want to be lectured to for hours on end. Rather, they want to be able to connect, to learn from others, to share their knowledge and feel like their time was well spent.”
Beth Lawrence, CMP, chief event officer of Beth Lawrence Meetings & Events, an event production and experiential strategy company, says as more people are invited to more events, the format becomes tired and the expense can be pretty high. Furthermore, it’s not as easy to stay away from the office and justify the expense in time and money as it used to be. So meeting facilitators need to work that much harder to entice people to attend meetings, conferences and other industry events, especially if they feel they are going to attend the ‘same old, same old’ event they’ve been to a dozen times before.
“While attendees are always looking for more information, they are also looking for opportunities to expand their network at the same time,” Lawrence says. “Events need to truly be a one-stop shop, and provide ROI to the companies who have paid to attend just as much as the sponsors.”
Differences in learning styles and retaining information are being recognized at today’s meetings, so Lawrence experiences a lot of dynamic breakout sessions that invite audience participation, require participants to follow along and implement what they are learning in real time, and workshop-style sessions versus straight keynote speakers.
“I also like to change it up with panel discussions, fireside chats, and ‘fast chats,’ TED-style talks that are less than 15 minutes in length,” Lawrence says. “I find that this is a great way to tease breakout sessions on the main stage, that are happening at a later time.”
Meeting and event planners who are eager to revitalize their content format and design for meetings should use attendee feedback in surveys to better gauge what today’s attendees want. “Don’t be afraid to ask the questions of your attendees and sponsors, to maximize the time and impact that you have,” Lawrence says. “Also, change it up from year to year if you have an annual event. ‘Expected’ and ‘routine’ are not words you want associated with your events and meetings.”
Jumi Aluko, a Los Angeles-based event planner and strategic marketing
communications consultant of Jumi Aluko Events, says the format of meeting content has changed to include more dialogue and conversation, less lecturing and more engaging the audience, and getting together in small groups and brainstorming ideas. “It’s less of a sit-and-listen and more of a converse, collaborate, engage and learn,” Aluko says, who has seen this being done by inserting the latest technology into meetings — from the way messages are conveyed, to having livestreams, to offering presentations from people in other countries to an audience in one room.
“As the workforce is seeing more young people, they are demanding more engaging meetings that hold their attention,” Aluko says. “You’ll see more and more meetings that are super specific and personalized to the individual. Why is that? Well, because no one wants to sit through something that serves no purpose or is not relevant to them.”
Aluko says meeting attendees want meeting content to be:
Engaging. Gone are the days of just sitting and listening. Attendees want the opportunity to talk with other attendees and learn from them. Most people come to meetings and conferences to network, so they want as many opportunities to do that while also learning.
“It’s moments when people can truly connect, that they remember and keep them engaged with a business or brand,” Aluko says.
Timely, yet valuable. People want to engage in discussions about things that are hot topics, but they also want the information to be something impactful — to know that there is a reason you’re sharing certain content and how they can get involved with your message.
Flexible. When most people think about meetings, they think about conference rooms where everyone sits around a table. But people prefer attending meetings where they are free to roam the space and change their position throughout the day to remain comfortable.
“Some of the meetings I attend that are most captivating are the ones in co-working spaces where there are various rooms to have conversations, take a private call or even meditate,” Aluko says.
For meeting planners to revitalize any type of meeting or event, they have to know what attendees want, and without that information, they can’t change anything that will benefit them.
“Meeting planners should avoid assuming they know what’s best, or worse, jumping on the latest trends and throwing them all in their next meeting and hoping for the best,” Aluko says. “It’s all about truly knowing your audience, hearing them and then implementing ideas that make sense.”
Gimpel says meeting content is increasingly seen as modular or nodal. This is where we see so many meetings being run with sticky notes or note cards that can be moved or shuffled.
“Some of this creeps in from project management and more visual projects that draw from storyboards and designing an experience, be it using a claims app or buying insurance,” Gimpel says. There’s also more attention being paid to the meeting environment that comes as part of a larger awareness of human-centered design. “We may not say conclusively that meeting in a beige, windowless room with bulky, uncomfortable furniture won’t produce great results, but organizations increasingly have some awareness of how the feel of their space dictates the results that come from that space,” Gimpel says.
It sounds really basic, but a meeting professional should start planning by asking: “Why are we doing this event? Why are people coming?”
“It’s easy to get consumed by mastering the logistics — the right projector in the right room at the right time or the proper number of gluten-free meals at lunch — but start by thinking about the people, not the stuff,” Gimpel says.
One of Gimpel’s favorite sessions he ever saw was at a conference for financial professionals with a speaker who was an expert on financial coaching. Rather than talk about the topic abstractly, she asked for a volunteer and then walked through an actual financial coaching session in front of a live audience. “It was so much more interesting and informative than simply talking about the concepts,” Gimpel says.
Meeting planners also shouldn’t be afraid to take an active role as the organizer. “There’s a philosophy that attendees don’t want direction, don’t want to be led and don’t want to be told what to do. You need not be a dictator, but you can nudge people into behaviors that make the event more enjoyable and valuable,” Gimpel says.
One thing meeting planners should avoid is doing the same event year after year and not varying the format After a few years, organizers see that attendance often falls off. “Yes, the decorations might be different and the theme might be different, but it still looks and feels like the same event, just on repeat,” Gimpel says.
Gimpel also recommends planners allow for more audience participation — be it giving the audience more time for questions — or breaking up a large room into small groups to discuss a topic or presentation so attendees can learn from each other. Often a room is full of experts on a topic, and it just so happens that one person is standing in front of the room.
In addition, get people to meet each other. As Gimpel explains, it’s stunning how often people who work in the same field walk into a room and isolate themselves in the rows of chairs without meeting the people sitting right next to them, because that’s not the culture of the event. “There are lots of ways to do this, but a simple one is just an invitation to talk to your neighbor for a minute,” Gimpel says.
Often events try to cram in so much content — plenaries, breakout talks, poster sessions, etc. — while shortening downtime. But in many cases, the most valuable parts of an event comes in the discussions that follow such sessions; when the speaker connects with an attendee or when one attendee remarks on the question that someone else asked. Of course communication is key when orchestrating the event’s design. So meeting planners need be thorough in communications with staff members to ensure all service and support is provided in a cohesive, effective manner. Finally, know your audience and their expectations. What special touches will surprise them, make them feel pampered or steal them away from their everyday world, and surprise and delight at every turn?
Of course, no discussion of content meeting and design would be complete without paying some attention to the role social media and apps play in today’s meeting environments. Meeting planners agree that ‘under 35s’ want a mix of traditional and digital content delivery because they grew up in the technology age. Thus, they want more content delivered via social media and event apps. They want free Wi-Fi access anywhere they go and a good phone connection at all times.
For large events and trade shows, the ‘under-35’ crowd expects the traditional signage and hoopla, but they also want the app that tells them where to go in five minutes. And because the majority of those within the ‘under-35’ crowd have smart phones and tablets, meeting and event planners need to utilize platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, YouTube and Pinterest to their fullest potential.
As technology continues to evolve, the future of meeting content and design will evolve. There will be more opportunities for personalization during meetings — people truly being able to engage during an event the way they want. “There will also be more focus on self-care and well-being at events as it’s something that everyone is talking about now, and is sure to be intentional as individuals demand more of those opportunities,” Aluko says.
Vanessa Keating, owner of Evolve Creative, with more than 20 years of experience in producing events nationwide, says as meetings content and design continues to evolve, everything is becoming more fast paced — attendee attention spans are getting shorter all the time — so creative ways to keep attendees focused while still conveying the important information is key.
“Technology will keep changing and developing, which will make some things easier or more impactful, and in other ways may make things more complex and difficult from the perspective of a meeting planner,” Keating says.
That said, Gimpel thinks we will inevitably see meetings that use more technology that’s both functional and gimmicky — be it voting on our phones or bringing in participants via video. But he also thinks we’ll eventually realize that very, very few successful conferences are built on one person lecturing to a room for 50 minutes, followed by five minutes of questions.
“I think conferences will see that the value they create is largely tied to the connections they make and the problems they solve, and those tend not to happen in mammoth meeting rooms filled with people passively watching and listening,” Gimpel says. “Indeed, I hope the future of meetings is more co-creative, more participatory, more engaging and taps into more of the human knowledge and potential gathered in the room.” I&FMM.