There’s overall agreement among experts that a generational divide currently exists within company employee pools and among attendees at meetings and in incentive programs. The problem is that there has been no consensus on how to close it. Much of the discussion has previously focused on how to determine — and then cater to — each generation’s different needs.
Today, that conversation is shifting.
Some experts and organizations are noting that we may have gotten it wrong. Instead of focusing on differences, the means to closing the divide lies in honing in on all of the similarities that generations share, and in recognizing that defining people by their specific generation may not be productive at all.
In 2015, the Incentive Research Foundation (IRF) tackled this issue in a report. As the summary pointed out, the discussion around this topic and the conclusions reached by many experts inside and outside of the meetings industry have been hampered by the fact that there is no consensus on the basic descriptions of the generations — or the specific years they represent — let alone anything else.
“For organizations hoping to tailor their incentive and engagement programs for employees and customers, the debate concerning the generations can be confusing and even overwhelming,” the executive summary states. “Like economists, no two generational experts fully agree on the description for each generation, a truth that is well-documented both in the expert interviews conducted for and summarized in this paper, and in the dozens of papers, books and articles referenced throughout.”
“Instead of approaching the planning process with questions of how we will accommodate a certain age cohort, we should consider all of the ways our attendees are indeed different.”
— Jessie States, CMP, CMM
Most importantly, the report emphasizes that in addition to the specific generation into which someone is born, there are many other factors that influence a person’s needs, preferences, interests and goals in life, work and meetings, well apart from the year they were born.
Melissa Van Dyke, president of IRF, notes that since that report, meeting and incentive organizers have found many new ways to approach this topic, not the least of which is to drop the stereotypes.
“What we found from a look across many different types of studies on generations is that a person’s generation is only one aspect of what influences their event experience desires,” she says. “Life stage, including if they have finished school, if they are married, if they have children and how tenured they are in their current career, can oftentimes have a much greater impact on what attendees are looking for from an experience.”
Jessie States, CMP, CMM, head of meeting innovation for MPI, agrees that stereotyping is not an effective approach, and as a result, the 2018 World Education Congress will have new elements in place.
“The science behind stereotyping is enlightening. That is, it’s cognitively easier for humans to place people into groups (age, for example) than to understand the complexities of each individual, especially when dealing with large numbers of people, such as attendees at a conference or tradeshow. Placing our boomers or millennials — even our centennials — into boxes can make it easier for us to manage their expectations,” States says.
“But there are challenges associated with assumptions, e.g., boomers are tech-inept and millennials can’t function without it. Not everyone or even most everyone fits into the cookie-cutter parameters that we create. And as each of our attendees, regardless of age, increasingly seeks unique, curated experiences, we may well be doing our events and participants a disservice by placing people into age-based buckets. It is for this precise reason that we have added WEC Experience Coaches this year.”
Experts agree that there are many factors capable of driving human motivation, some tied to age or life stages but others to different things entirely.
“People are motivated by different rewards — oftentimes unrelated to age,” States says. “They may be driven or inspired by experiences (incentives), money, time off, shortened work weeks or a flexible environment. These may be driven by familial needs (young family, older parents) or career goals (title, authority) or material desires. Knowing your employees and what drives them as individuals is key to providing motivation for them to sell more, perform more efficiently or even just stick around longer.”
Van Dyke also notes that some elements are relevant across multiple generations. One factor that has emerged since the foundation’s 2015 report is wellness.
“The most recent meeting trend we’ve seen that has an impact on and is being driven in different ways by a multigenerational workforce is wellness,” she says. “Whereas younger generations have fewer economic resources, they do have a desire to live ‘Instagrammable’ lives focused on ‘wellth,’ or finding ways to show their dedication to a healthy, wellness-oriented lifestyle. Boomers and Gen Xers are driving this trend, as well, with a desire for more health and comfort central to their well-being at work. This is increasing
their interest in wellness products and services included in their experiences.”
Much of the discussion related to generational divides, at least in the meetings and incentive world, revolves around fostering and increasing engagement at conferences, events and incentive programs. But how to engage is not always clear.
“In some spaces, there’s a misconception that solving the generation ‘issue’ will increase engagement,” Van Dyke says. “In reality, however, the program that is crafted for a group of late-20-somethings, who are single and less traveled, could and should look very different than the program for the same age of attendees who are married with children and have traveled extensively.”
At the end of the day, States says, creating welcoming experiences for all attendees is the key to any program.
“Instead of approaching the planning process with questions of how we will accommodate a certain age cohort, we should consider all of the ways our attendees are indeed different,” she says. “We’ve identified more than 30 ways our participants differ from one another, and I am sure there are many more. From culture, gender and physical ability to skill set, socio-economic status and even just event goals, there are a vast array of ways we need to create welcoming and inclusive experiences that far outweigh our preconceptions about age as a determining factor of behavior or needs. MPI is focused on creating industry-leading education around inclusivity and continues to promote the importance of hosting welcoming experiences for all attendees.”
The key here lies at least partially in determining and offering those elements that have broad cross-appeal.
“For instance, including appropriate wellness, giveback and status components can be well-received by all generations,” Van Dyke says. “Likewise, engaging your attendees with mobile technology before, during and after an event is no longer a nod to millennials; rather, it’s an important way to help all busy attendees keep up-to-date on the experience without carrying around a stack of paper.”
In addition, she advises planners to “create places and spaces for people of various generations to purposefully connect. Human instinct is to gravitate toward those who are like us. However, when done thoughtfully, through purpose-built teambuilding, CSR or roundtable activities, for example, bringing different generations together to solve current business or social issues can be the highlight of the program … for both the business and the organization.”
That’s not to say that age is entirely irrelevant. As States points out, differences in age can also mean differences in skill set and career maturity.
“For that reason, it’s important that meeting professionals plan experiences
wherein individuals can seek best practices, advice and problem-solving from their peers, while at the same time, designing space for those same individuals to mentor and learn up and down,” she says.
“Relevance comes from finding solutions to the challenges your attendees face and creating behavior change that moves them forward, regardless of age or where they are in their careers,” she adds. “Including technologies within your design that create connections and engagement can lead to those types of solutions, but should not be the only way for people to connect with one another. Analog solutions, such as unique session formats (fishbowls, open space, dotmocracies), can be just as compelling as the tech-based engagement platforms that are so popular today. Creating a mix of these solutions can service all attendees better than any one method can.”
Age, States says, “does impact movement, mobility, sensory ability and much more, but so do other conditions that are age-unrelated. So, ensuring that your breaks provide for enough time to move from place to place, that your presentations include fonts that are large enough to read, that your meals and breaks and menus are sufficient for an older or younger audience ticks off more than just the age box as you look toward designing inclusive experiences.”
In the end, States says, her best advice for planners is: “Host your multi-generational programs just as you would any meeting or event. Treat each individual as an individual, provide a variety of technology-based and analog experiences and ask questions that help you cater to the needs of your participants, whether they be physical or intellectual, mental or spiritual needs.”
Conference and incentive attendees themselves have a lot of skin in this game. If they work all year to qualify for an incentive trip, it should meet their needs and be everything they expected— whether they’re a millennial or a baby boomer.
If employees take time away from work and family to attend a conference, it should deliver something of value to every employee who attends in terms of education, networking and/or developing new skills. And by doing so, the conference delivers ROI to the company, as well.
The question is what part do attendees themselves play in ensuring that value? One definitive way is by stepping outside of their normal comfort zone and being open to possibilities.
“Our instinct is to network with those with whom we are most comfortable, those who are like us,” Van Dyke says. “But the best networking and educational experiences come when we stretch ourselves to diversify our interactions, and that includes engaging with those much older and younger than us throughout the meeting experience.”
States agrees. “Attendees will be well-served if they choose to interact with people who are different from themselves, be it in terms of age, gender, culture, race, physical ability, socio-economic background or any other kind of differentiator,” she says.
“We learn most from people with different experiences and challenges, who have discovered solutions unlike our own, who have found knowledge in unique ways. Creating spaces and places for our disparate attendees to connect, engage and learn from one another is the calling of all meeting professionals, and helping our attendees find each other and the solutions they seek together will drive greater results for the meetings we hold.”
These are all valid points, and planners have much to work with just in terms of what’s offered in this one article. But the fact is that the answers we come up with today will not be the final answers for the future. Just as our views on this topic have evolved over the past decade, they will continue to change as we move into and think about what is to come.
“The generational question will always be part of the conversation,” Van Dyke says. “What will change is which generation we are currently talking about.” I&FMM