Where the industry is headed–and what planners need to know (and do) to keep up
Over time, people have had to cooperate to produce communal benefits. Though humans started by simply conferring over a campfire or heading out in a grunting group to hunt, our species’ evolution has strongly affirmed the need to find more and better ways to work together, a need that has demanded an ever-increasing sophistication to satisfy.
Fast-forward to 2008. Th ings are changing at a rapid rate, and the ways we interact with each other, and with the world, are often dramatically different than they were just several years ago. So it stands to reason that the ways in which people meet are also changing with exponential speed.
For a business professional who plans group efforts, it may be challenging to keep up. The Internet, online networking and social movements (like environmentalism) have permanently altered what were once basic meeting planning practices. But even if you’re not an early adopter, you can stay current about new technologies, tools and social ways of being as they relate to the ways people congregate.
One way to stay abreast of the latest trends? Read on, and we’ll tell you about all the current shifts and shakers, so that you’re not left out in the cold while others are warming themselves by the proverbial fire.
THE TECH REVOLUTION
The main driver of change in the meetings industry, it comes as no surprise, is technology. The majority of planners are incorporating technology into meetings with online registration (57.5%), videoconferencing (20.4%), social networks (17.7%) and blogs (14.2%), according to an HSMAI survey of more than 2,000 planners. Others are using podcasts and electronic surveys.
No wonder, then, that a slew of high-tech companies are cropping up to fill the swelling demand for electronic connectivity. A recent startup called iVisit (ivisit.com), for example, provides technology that combines various applications that are increasingly desirable to meeting planners. The Santa Monica-based company, co-founded by Kamran Pourzanjan, who also founded PriceGrabber.com, offers live multiparty audio and videoconferencing across desktops and mobile devices; full-screen and splitscreen video showing all conference participants; the ability to record and share audio, video and hi-res photo messages; and, perhaps most distinctively, the ability to allow mobile users to broadcast their GPS position so that managers can geographically track the people with whom they’re communicating.
According to Orang Dialameh, iVisit’s CEO, “The trend we’ve been noticing is that users want to have integrated tools in the same environment so they can do audio and videoconferencing. Many businesses have a mobile workforce and want to be able to manage them remotely. This is where we come in: we enable business users to do this on their mobile devices and desktops so they can meet from virtually anywhere.”
And that’s the key—being able to meet from virtually anywhere. In this age of digital connectedness and telecommuting, virtual events, e-meetings, webinars and webcasts are on their way to becoming mainstream. Given the sluggish economy, environmental concerns and increasing travel costs, organizations are motivated to consider alternative options for communicating en masse. A recent study commissioned by KRM (krm.com), a leading virtual-events company, proved that meeting planners perceived webinars as being time-efficient (since they eliminate travel time), cost-effective and more accommodating to larger meeting groups.
As Benita Kenn, the spokesperson for a New Jersey-based videoconferencing company called Vidyo (vidyo.com), points out, the Telework Improvements Act, which the U.S. House of Representatives passed earlier this year, is a sign of the times. Th e bill, when approved by the Senate, will require “the head of each executive agency to establish a policy under which employees may be authorized to telework…and that all employees are authorized to telework to the maximum extent possible without diminishing employee perfuformance
or agency operations.”
This movement, Kenn says, is already infiltrating the policies and practices of the entire workforce. “With this as a necessary and almost certain future,” she says, “organizations will need to come up with some fast but reliable aids to support their rapidly growing teleworkforce. By every indication, videoconferencing is on the top of most companies’ to-do lists.”
If the quality of the videoconference is topnotch, she believes, then the experience is as good as meeting in person. Furthermore, virtual conferences can positively affect a company’s bottom line by attracting more people than an event in a brick-and-mortar venue could have. As Elinor Stutz, the CEO of a Bay Area-based company called Smooth Sale (smoothsale.net), says, “Digital technology helps entrepreneurs attract clients, cast a wider net for more prospects and paves the way for upselling additional products and services.”
Don Best, a spokesperson for Silicon Valley-based Unisfair (unisfair.com), a leading provider of virtual events, agrees that they greatly increase ROI. According to him, virtual events generate leads and demand, while costing up to 50 percent less than the cost of a comparable physical event. Paul Heald, the CEO of San Francisco-basedBrightTalk (brighttalk.com), an early pioneer of webcasting, also sees the benefits. “Webcasts are now being used to elicit real-time feedback from customers, create communities of shared interest and exchange valuable business information. In my experience, webcast participants are highly engaged because they actively choose to take part. Th ey typically stay engaged for 30 minutes or longer, and one in four asks questions and interacts with presenters.”
However, not everyone is on board for replacing destination events with onscreen meetings. For example, Bill Cooney, who founded Illinoisbased MedPoint Communication (medpt.com), which provides meeting-planning services to the biopharm industry, summed up the prevailing sentiment: “The ascent of virtual meetings in business is in its infancy and can be expected to boom. But virtual meetings and F2F meetings are not mutually exclusive; hybrid meeting formats that combine virtual and F2F elements can be an optimal solution.”
Some planners still eschew the concept completely. Fay Beauchine, executive vice president of global events for Minneapolis-based Carlson Marketing (carlsonmarketing.com) says, “We don’t believe in virtual meetings. They’re good for transmitting information, but are ineff ective at changing behaviors…Nothing is a substitute for eyeball-to-eyeball.”
Jack Powers, who runs the International Informatics Institute (in3.org), a Brooklyn consulting firm that produces many conferences, feels the same way. “Live, face-to-face events are the gold standard for business, education and professional development,” he says. “Although I’ve produced some and consumed many, I bought the domain name webinarssuck.com in frustration because online meetings are almost always a disappointment...Live conferences are intense, entertaining, social, star-studded and inspirational. Virtual events and webinars are just mediocre television.”
The KRM study highlighted other reasons that planners abstain from webinars— mainly, they’re concerned about participants’ inability to interact with each other. Th e next biggest concern? Technical difficulties. Plus, planners aren’t too familiar with webinar providers; more than half of respondents couldn’t name one.
That same study, though, indicates that despite the naysayers and non-adopters, there will be massive growth in this realm of meeting-making. Almost 50 percent of those not currently hosting webinars indicated that they “definitely or probably would” consider doing so in the future. And, together with travel’s rising costs and inconveniences and the increasing need to monitor expenses and demonstrate ROI, virtual events present an unignorably aff ordable and convenient alternative by which to bring minds together.
TALKIN’ ABOUT OUR GENERATION
One of the driving forces behind the move toward technology is the newest generation of workers; the older Millennials and the younger Gen-Xers are insanely plugged in. Since they know much more about the online world than their parents do, it’s imperative to take that—and other factors—into consideration when planning events that will involve them.
Chuck Underwood, president of Ohio-based generational consulting fi rm The Generational Imperative (genimperative.com), characterizes Generation X, currently aged 27 to 43, as “the challenge of the meeting and conference sector.” Xers, he says, tend to be individualistic and less comfortable than other generations in the group dynamic of typical meetings. Many, he’s found, don’t like work to intrude upon their personal lives, as outof-
town, multiday events frequently do.
“Each generation brings genuinely diff erent core values and preferences to meetings,” Underwood says. “The key for meeting planners is to be thoroughly trained in generational diff erences. Those who are trained will win. Th ose who aren’t will lose.”
When it comes to social hour at the big conference, for example, Gen-Xers would rather enjoy a physical activity than cocktails with a bunch of Boomers. The bottom-line question that Xers ask when deciding whether to attend a meeting is, “How, exactly, is this meeting going to enhance my career?” Answer that question for them, and you’ve got a much better chance of getting them to attend.
Underwood also cautions against assuming that Millennials (the older ones are 17 to 26) simply want a tech-dominated meeting. “Millennials want face-to-face interactivity just as much as they want to be wired. They’re social animals, like Boomers. And they’re going to become a great career generation, but probably not until they reach their late 20s or early 30s,” he says. “Today, they’re frolicking through their 20s, job-hopping more than any prior generation, having some fun, showing very little loyalty and bringing unrealistic expectations to their employer, but they’re hungry to rub elbows with the top of the hierarchy, the executives, and pump them for as much helpful guidance as they can absorb. They want to attend meetings where they will hear from the experienced experts.”
Kenneth Gronbach (kgcdirect.com), author of The Age Curve: How to Profit from the Coming Demographic Storm, regularly counsels Fortune 500 corporations about trends in generational marketing. What does he tell event planners? That planning conferences and conventions will never be the same. “Even the meaning of the phrase ‘I’m in a meeting’ will take on a new dynamic as Generation Y, now 23 and younger, begins to flood the workplace.”
Gronbach points out that all fi ve generations—G.I., Silent, Boomer, Xer and Yer (or Millennial or Echo, or whatever you want to call them)—could easily be sitting together at one meeting. Recruiting for this kind of cross-generational event could tax even the most astute among us. It’s obvious that the Internet Generation has rising media expectations and shorter attention spans. To capture their interest, says Jack Powers, meeting organizers have to enlist techniques that make conenferences faster, sharper and sexier. He suggests making more aesthetic presentations and imposing five-minute time limits per speaker.
Other shifts that Powers is seeing when younger participants are involved include “unconferences,” lightly proctored sessions that deliver the least formal part of the conference experience; “placeshifting,” which gets the audience out of a dreary conference room by broadcasting slides and audio feeds to a central conference salon; and “audience autonomy,” encouraging attendees to bring their own devices—laptops and smartphones—so that they
can watch the speaker with one eye and blog, Twitter and check e-mail with the other. “Undivided attention is an obsolete notion,” Powers says.
To target the computer-savvy generation that lives much of its social life online, planners should create Facebook pages for their events, send Evites or use an online registration service to promote an event. Plug in, too, to social networks like LinkedIn, Twitter and vertical-market social nets; EventPeeps.com bills itself as “the virtual world for the live event industry.”
Giving back is the new black. Venues and planners are incorporating ways to take responsibility
for making our world better.
Hotel brands, especially, are demonstrating their commitment to enacting positive change: Ritz-Carlton’s “Meaningful Meetings” donates 10 percent of the room revenue from groups booking 10 or more room nights to a charity of the group’s choice. Kimpton’s “Great Meetings, Great Causes” program allows, among other options, a $100 charitable donation with each meeting that is booked. Loews Coronado Bay Resort’s “Meetings that Give Back” benefi ts lowincome individuals.
Other venues are pitching in, too. The Hub (thehub.com), a silver-rated LEED event facility with three locations in Philadelphia and several more in the pipeline across the country, donates one percent of its sales to an environmental organization called 1% for the Planet (onepercentfortheplanet.org).
Event planners are also becoming more conscious of benefiting the destination in which their conferences are held. InterContinental encourages their planner clients to help stimulate local economies. According to Anthony Ingham, the brand’s director of guest experiences, “We will soon be launching a global meetings program providing delegate experiences that are rooted in the destination and draw on our unrivalled local knowledge to create truly engaging,
personalized meetings and events.” These will include the opportunity for attendees to contribute to projects that benefi t the surrounding community and environment. “Our long-established local relationships enable us to recommend community projects that provide opportunities for participation,” he says.
Haley Hughes, the owner of Texas-based En Vogue Events (envogueevents.com) thinks along the same
lines: “We like to outsource to local communities when possible. For example, if the meeting is needing
fl oral pieces, something simple, we’ll reach out to the local high school’s advanced fl oral class. The arrangements look nice, and the profi t goes back to the school program.”
Planners can also incorporate good-deed-doing right into the event. Fay Beauchine has planned incentive trips and meetings during which the team-building exercises had attendees working together to build bicycles for needy kids.
Major corporations, including Pepsi, eBay and Walmart, have worked with an organization called Odyssey Teams (odysseyteams.com), which coordinates a team-building activity that involves assembling prosthetic limbs for people who need them in developing countries—mostly people maimed by war or born with irreversible defects (some 20 percent of recipients are children).
BUYERS VERSUS SELLERS
Th e meetings market, many say, has shifted to a buyer’s market, a big change in direction, which means that hotels and venues may be more apt to off er lower prices—but might also cut staff as a result. In response, planners would do well to expect to pay less for their setting, but also to expect less service. “It certainly is more of a buyer’s market than it used to be, but it’s not nearly as bad as was expected,” says Bill Decker, presdent of the above-mentioned Hub. “We are still closing a great deal of business. We just have to work harder to close that business.”
Fay Beauchine questions the term altogether. “While many will say it’s a buyer’s market,” she says, “it really depends on the location. It’s important to know how to negotiate with the properties to get the best deal possible. That’s diff erent for each location because of what inhouse or property assets they have to offer and what can be leveraged in the community.”
So negotiate hard and know that they need your business more than you need their space.
A NEW WORLD
Like many other realms of business, meetings have gone international. Whether you’re hosting non-Americans here or you’re planning an event overseas, this new realm of multinational relations has implications on the planning process and, of course, on events.
If you’re planning abroad, talk to a meeting planner who lives in, or works often, where your event will be held. This will allow you to collect information that you may not have otherwise gotten about the way that meetings work
If you’re expecting attendees from other countries for a stateside event, acknowledge that they have traveled far and will want to spend time sightseeing; either build local tours into the agenda or ensure that there’s suffi cient downtime for them to be able to explore. Before the event, disseminate information regarding visas, travel restrictions and other relevant factors. Use sites like FareCast (farecast.live.com) to plan your event to coincide with the best dates to book airfare, since the cost of travel may deter attendance. Think, also, about how to address language barriers: Will you need translators? Subtitles?
Whether you’re traveling there or they’re traveling here, it’s crucial to understand the business norms, cultural mores and taboos, even the food restrictions of the people you’ll be hosting. Read books and articles that illuminate foreign-to-you aspects of the cultures you’ll be working with. Consider hiring cultural anthropologists; Global Workshop (globalworkshop.com) has provided intercultural coaching and training for companies like AT&T and Johnson & Johnson. Engaging these kinds of experts can be the difference between creating an event that simply
doesn’t translate and one that resonates witheveryone involved.
PRESERVING THE EARTH TOP TECH TOOLS YOU CAN USE TO STAY AHEAD OF THE GAME
The movement toward thinking globally isn’t just limited to human relations; it’s also strongly tied to our relationship with the natural environment. Th ough this topic was covered extensively in last month’s issue, it’s worth a brief glance here, too.
According to the aforementioned HSMAI survey, planners are indeed moving toward greener meetings; they’re recycling and reducing waste to a much greater degree than they used to. While that’s wonderful, it may do us even more good to keep in mind that the hospitality industry spends $3.7 billion per year on energy, with electricity accounting for up to 70 percent of utility costs. If every planner and venue used compact fl uorescent bulbs or LEDs, not only could the detrimental eff ects of energy consumption be drastically reduced, but so could costs.
Other tips for greening your meeting? Bring reusable cups and bags. Ensure that the food that you’re serving is locally sourced. Book meeting sites that are committed to environmental responsibility. Encourage teleconferencing
and videoconferencing to reduce the carbon footprint of travel. Rent hybrid or low-MPG vehicles. And use electronic documents whenever possible (zip drives are great for takeaway gifts).
While the above-listed trends are not the only ones infl uencing the meetings industry—there is also everything from targeted scent communication (whiff book.com) to experiential marketing (kaon.com)—they are
the undeniable driving forces of where we’re headed. And whether it’s beside hat rudimentary fire or on masses of digital wavelengths, it has, since caveman times, behooved humans to be tapped into the collective ways by
which we can make things happen.
Avital Binshtock has weekly pieces in the L.A. Times and on Frommers.com about what’s hip and happening in the hospitality and tourism industry. She is also the author of Frommer’s Napa & Sonoma Day by Day, which is in bookstores now.