As meetings and events continue to rebound after the pandemic, the look, feel and size of many of today’s gatherings have been altered. In addition to well-established cleaning protocols and hybrid options, more companies are embracing smaller meetings for a many reasons. And although large-scale events and conventions continue, smaller meetings are being celebrated for all they have to offer.
Lee Gimpel, an event designer, conference facilitator, and meeting trainer in Washington, D.C., says that for all the talk of the pandemic being over, along with travel and meetings coming back, some organizations still seem to be hedging their bets.
“If you’re not convinced that everyone who used to attend in person is still going to show up, and you’re generally feeling less certain about people’s willingness and ability to travel, then it’s easier to bet on a smaller event versus a bigger one,” says Gimpel, founder of Better Meetings, a firm that creates in-person, online and hybrid events on team meetings, conferences, retreats and networking.
He adds it can come down to a matter of perception: If there is lower demand, a smaller event that sells out feels better and more successful than a big one with a lot of empty chairs.
Also, there seems to be a newfound recognition of just how important it is for people to connect with other people at events.
“You can certainly do that at massive events, but it’s generally easier to connect – and continue to reconnect – with peers and colleagues at a smaller, more manageable meeting,” Gimpel says.
Heather Pilcher, CMP, CEO and executive producer of Blue Spark Event Design, says that post-Covid, companies are trying to connect on a more intimate level with their attendees, and make each event count.
“Broad marketing, buzzword goals are a thing of the past,” Pilcher says. “Individualization and multiple touch points are how corporations are looking to connect with their audiences at events and conferences.”
Smaller meetings also may dovetail with a trend towards more regional and niche events, as well as a move towards building persistent communities rather than one-time events.
And, at a time when it can be hard to find venues, sufficient AV equipment and staffing, smaller meetings seem more feasible. As Gimpel points out, there are, after all, many more potential venues for a 50-person event versus a 5,000-person event.
“Of course, we’re also seeing really large meetings again so it’s not that all meetings have reverted to a small-ball lineup these days,” Gimpel says.
Interaction and networking aside, smaller meetings offer a wealth of benefits for both attendees and meeting planners.
“Smaller meetings enable both attendees and planners to accomplish event goals that are impossible in large attendance events,” Pilcher says. “For example, a more intimate setting provides the ability to gather detailed feedback on the year’s initiatives. It also offers a great opportunity to really get to know your peers or colleagues through team building and predesigned bonding moments throughout the program.”
According to Gimpel, when it comes to small meetings versus big meetings, in many cases, smaller meetings are easier to build and navigate. For example, a single-track event is easier than having 10 different things happening at the same time.
“That makes it a lighter lift for planners and is easier for attendees because they don’t need to worry about where they’re going next,” Gimpel says. “And it can be a more unifying experience if everyone at the event is doing basically the same thing, rather than there being a multiplicity of different experiences.”
Also, if you think about a metaphor of big schools versus small schools, the chances are much better that you are going to get to know people better, and feel more a part of the event, when it’s smaller.
“In a way, that just means that networking can be better at a smaller event, but it’s perhaps something more important: that it’s more feasible to create a sense of belonging and camaraderie with smaller meetings,” Gimpel says.
The most important element to any event or meeting, regardless of size, is “why” you are having the event. As Pilcher explains, if the goal is to share knowledge about an industry sector, and gather as many of those attendees together as possible to connect, a large conference may be a better fit. If the goal is to create a more intimate setting where bonding between specific individuals and creating new ideas is important, then a smaller meeting made up of a curated list of attendees may be best.
“The key to determining the right size for your meeting is to first establish the ‘whys,’ and then design specific milestones and touch points to accomplish them,” Pilcher says.
Indeed, rather than thinking about a “must have” for smaller meetings, Gimpel tends to think more about a “must-do.” As he explains, with big meetings, attendees can perhaps forgive a sense of the event as being all about logistics and efficiency, and therefore lacking a personal touch. But if you’re intentionally planning a small meeting, it really should be personal and, to some extent, intimate. It doesn’t necessarily have to be white-glove service, but it should be a lot closer to that versus a big “cattle call” of an event.
“A focus on service and personal connection should carry through the whole event, but it’s worth just thinking about how registration might go at a big event versus a small event,” Gimpel says. At a big event, there may be dozens or hundreds of people registering at the same time and the focus is on speed and efficiency to get everyone processed and on to the next step; it’s like a fast-food checkout. On the other hand, at a smaller event, the president of the organization, or people who sit on the board, could personally welcome everyone as they register and really get to know them as part of the process.
And as Pilcher points out, smaller meetings need a more personalized invitation, not a generic, catchall invitation that is bland and uninteresting. Companies need to show their target attendee that it’s important that he or she attends, not just anyone.
“Offering exclusive opportunities or activities also creates a more attractive incentive for attendees to participate,” Pilcher says. “For example, a meeting hosted by one of the ‘Shark Tank’ (TV) celebrities in a small group of 30 is a much more appealing experience than hearing that same speaker from a stage in front of 1,500 attendees.”
One of the very first conferences that Gimpel was involved with in his career was a regional event for writers and it only had a few hundred attendees. But one of the things that made it so successful was that attendees really felt like they had a chance to meet and talk with the big, famous speakers, even getting the opportunity to casually have lunch with them.
“That’s the kind of advantage that you have with smaller events and if you’re not leveraging it, then it probably feels like a wasted opportunity for attendees,” Gimpel says.
When Gimpel works with organizations, he usually starts by asking them what a home-run event would look and feel like.
“Inevitably, their answer involves some version of ‘people really connecting with each other’ but the events they’ve been running didn’t do that; or they just leave that connection piece to lucky happenstance,” he says. “Along with a lot of other intentional planning and design, smaller events help us foster a sense of community and let us achieve that home-run vision.”
Therefore, Gimpel’s advice to meeting planners who are trying to entice attendees to consider smaller meetings is to “sell the people.” As he points out, that smaller event really provides an opportunity for people to meet and connect with their peers in a way that an event that fills up a convention center can’t.
“But, the other side to this is that you do have to actually deliver on your promise,” he says. “If a smaller event is going to provide better connection – and that might mean more learning, more problem solving, better career opportunities, etc. – then you can’t just stick attendees in a big room and have them watch lectures over and over. That misses the opportunity. In a way, you’re promising quality over quantity so the quality really does have to be there.”
In addition to the above elements, Pilcher says meeting planners can focus on the individual attendee’s experience in all areas of the program, such as seating arrangements, unique F&B offerings, exclusive offsite activities, branded swag, etc. – and use these crafted elements as tie-ins to team building, product training or awareness, recognition, networking, and other conference or meeting goals.
“Spending more of budget dollars on the things that attendees see, hear, touch and do demonstrates the value of attending,” Pilcher says.
Jill McCluskey, senior director of meeting & events at Convene, adds that the need for workplace flexibility is at the top of everyone’s mind, and that goes for meetings and events as well. She says the trend towards smaller meetings is driven, largely in part, by the increased demand for hybrid capabilities – while there may be fewer guests on-site, the ability to seamlessly integrate virtual attendees allows these events to reach a broader and more dispersed audience.
With today’s workforce more dispersed than ever, Convene has witnessed a shift in the scope of meeting schedules among some of its clients. Many are hosting several smaller, regional events throughout the year, rather than one large annual event. This encourages greater in-person participation and allows for a more collaborative event.
“There is something special that happens when you bring people together and we’re committed to fostering that feeling,” McCluskey says. “For small meetings and events, having the right environment and space to meet is critical. Pay close attention to the layout for these events, smaller groups need to feel comfortable and not lost in the space. And, of course, incorporating inspiring design, great food and warm hospitality can create an extraordinary experience for attendees, no matter the event size.”
Although smaller events should require less time, energy and cost than big events, Gimpel says the reality is that they still require a lot of work, sometimes almost as much as a large event.
“Similarly, it can be hard to get the best speakers because the audience and the budget don’t allow for that, whereas big events can splash out,” Gimpel says. “That also goes for trappings like decor or an entertainer. As a result, it is perhaps easy to spread one’s self thin with a small event, which can be particularly difficult because a smaller event seems to demand more personal attention and care than big events.”
Also, it’s tempting for meeting planners to want to run a small event like a big event where connection often takes a backseat to simply putting attendees in seats and churning through an agenda of lectures, rather than really helping them to engage and connect with each other and the content.
Pilcher stresses that the biggest challenges facing smaller gatherings are budget, attendance and venue. While budget numbers are a concern for all meetings and events, it can be particularly difficult challenge for smaller conferences as there is less wiggle room for fluctuating costs.
“And attendance is a challenge because with smaller groups, one less paying attendee can greatly impact the overall budget,” Pilcher says. “And venues present yet another challenge because if your group only needs a small number of room nights, but is looking for lots of meeting space, it will not be an attractive fit for many hotels [and resorts].”
McCluskey adds that shifting your strategy from one-large annual-event to several-smaller regional-events throughout the year can lead to a more strenuous and time-consuming process for planners.
“Working with a single-solution provider with a presence across a number of cities can help alleviate some of the stresses associated with multi-event planning,” McCluskey says. “As a general trend, we also see these smaller meetings generate a higher volume of positive feedback for the overall experience.”
The reality is that small meetings have a habit of growing into bigger meetings if they’re successful.
“But, on the other end, we tend to not pare back bigger meetings as they mature,” Gimpel says. “It’s attractive to try out an idea or focus on a niche audience and then, if it is works, continue to add to the event until its small origins are unrecognizable.”
With respect to the trend in meeting size, Gimpel expects that the meeting and event industry will probably see more hybrid events over the next few years.
“Where there might have only been one big national conference in the past, we might now see a central event, and then a constellation of smaller, regional meetings that tie into it, connected by an online platform,” he says. “Also, if air travel and hotels continue to be so jammed up, smaller regional events start to look more attractive to planners and attendees who can just hop in a car and spend the night in their own bed rather than getting stuck [somewhere].” C&IT