Event heavyweight Wendy Hand says meetings are stuck in a time warp and things have to change.

BY WENDY HAND 

Business events are one of the most visible manifestations of an organisation’s culture and yet commonly more effort is focused on the logistics of the event than on its design and content.

Great architecture requires the architect to translate the needs and aspirations of the client to create a plan which is then manifested by the builder. It takes their combined skills to create something of practical value and lasting significance.
Meeting architecture grew out of the belief that the “why” of a meeting is the defining purpose behind creating a great event. The architects design the event, and the event managers are the builders that deliver it.
There is a world of possibilities out there to position events as vital and integral components of an organisation’s overall strategic plan.
Every other communication medium has changed exponentially over the last decade while many organisations continue to deliver post industrial style meetings filled with podium presentations and passive audiences.

Granted, technology changes have been embraced by the industry and these changes have simplified the process of managing the content for speaker support and the logistics of marketing, participant registration, reporting and budgeting. But these changes have opened up the industry to many new suppliers competing for the business resulting in a greater commoditisation of the industry and a subsequent proliferation of online tenders and auctions.
The rise of automated systems and procurement, especially for corporate meetings, has reinforced the view of event managers, both in-house or external, as logistics managers rather than specialist event professionals. Stakeholders, whether corporate, association or government often have little expectation that the annual event will deliver anything but a feel good factor as measured and celebrated by the post event ‘happy sheet’.

This growth in online tenders and auctions, often on an annual basis, means there is little or no retained knowledge and experience
to fall back on and rarely any worthwhile audience research or analytics. In these cases, we shouldn’t be surprised that conferences end up delivering more of the same old same old each year.

Respected industry event managers with many years’ experience are reporting that by the time they reach the end of the often extensive tender process and have won the business they are too exhausted to fight the entrenched positions of their clients and their internal gatekeepers to bring new thinking and innovation to the event which would result in a measurable benefit to both client and participant.
In soliciting industry views for this article, the view of one senior PCO appeared to echo a common frustration. Although the PCO still loves the industry he said “the fun has gone out of it with ever increasing demands on their hardworking staff, reduced budgets and carrying the burden of non-reclaimable costs of pitching repeatedly for the same piece of business.”
After an exhausting process to tender and win the business, there is often little enthusiasm by either side to invest in detailed program curating. Even if those concerned recognised more advanced work could be done in this area, often tight budgets and timelines do not allow for it.

Some event professionals, however, have the mindset that if it’s not broke don’t fix it and may not discover until it’s too late that the model is indeed “broke”.
If more effort is not made into quality programming and enhanced learning techniques, many conferences run the risk of becoming dinosaurs.
Where to start? If we define the purpose of meetings as reinforcing or changing behaviour then our work must start with the participants.
We need to know who they are. Not just their demographics but also their experiences: how they currently feel about the host organisation and their role in it; what their priorities and expectations are; what do they need to learn to improve their output; what would encourage or discourage them from attending and actively participating. This can’t be achieved with online questionnaires or surveys. We need more qualitative information.

When designing the architecture of an event we also need to recognise and address the fundamental fact that almost all audiences today will consist of representatives of the three main generational groups – baby boomers, x’ers and y’s. As Shuli Golovinski explains in his book ‘Event 3.0’, each group comes with very different life experiences and expectations which impact on how content needs to be delivered.
In addition to generational issues we also need to address the varying levels of industry or professional experience in our audiences which may or may not be directly related to age. A new industry entrant is not going to have the same content needs as a veteran and yet corporate meetings in particular are often designed as one size fits all.

New entrants are generally looking for product, technical and industry knowledge while more experienced participants will be looking for insights in how to grow their business or professional career. Veterans, on the other hand, will more likely be looking for new thinking, new opportunities or exit strategies.

There is a small but growing body in the industry with experience beyond traditional event management and production. They are utilising research into adult learning techniques and focusing on content curation to make a positive and measurable impact on outcomes.
Returns on investments can be achieved and can be measured but the focus has to change from logistics to content and from passive to active participation of delegates. Learning is fundamentally social and the depth of learning depends on the depth of participation. The emerging role of a meeting architect or content strategist is the key to creating this change and helping participants contextualise the learning to their own individual experience.
The benefits should be tangible for both delegates and organisations. A well researched and curated event will deliver results.

Depending on the “why” for the event, these results could range from increases in sales, productivity, or staff retention through to new approaches adopted, successful problem-solving, improved communications, new connections, and applied learning.
Events need to be seen as having a life beyond one or two days. It’s what happens in the weeks following the event back in the workplace where the value of the outcome can be seen and measured. Pre and post activities need to be carefully designed, and both qualitative and analytic measurements need to be put in place.
We need to see a shift from a concentration on venues and logistics to content design and delivery.
It is hard to see change happening without the client’s buy-in. Clients need to raise their expectations, understanding and enthusiasm for what’s possible and it needs to be driven from the C-suite. It is heartening to see this happening and to work with a number of Australian organisations that are embracing the concept of professional conference design to improve outcomes, but they are few and far between.

To generate improvement in this area, the business events industry needs to work together to help shift the focus from the how to the why of events and to work with specialist content strategists to complement and enhance their client offering.
Educating the next generation of meeting managers beyond operations to learning effective meeting design is imperative. Having the tools and confidence to reach out to and convince the key executives of the benefits of face to face meetings and the positive impact for their organisations is vital.

Lifting the bar will involve an investment of time and effort by event organisers to expand their offer, and will need senior champions from innovative host organisations to help drive the cause.

Anyone interested in advancing this conversation is welcome to contact wendyhand@bright-red-fish.com.

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