by Shawna Suckow, CMP
• Six things planners need to un-learn
• One-size doesn't fit all
For as long as I can remember, meetings have had a lot of common threads. It seems we all went to the same school of Meetings 101 (which is a good thing for consistency across the industry). When it comes to the attendee experience, however, it’s time we un-learn some of the meeting standards that have come to be standard.
I’ve come up with a handful of suggestions for points I believe meeting professionals can address in the future, to keep participants happy and engaged. These items are so common at most meetings, we just include them without much thought. Well, it’s time to give the typical logistics formula some new thought.
1. Your Grandpa’s Agenda Format
Back in the 1940s, I’m sure my grandfather went to conferences and experienced agendas that were very similar to the ones many of us still use today. It goes something like this:
9:00 am Session(s)
10:30 am Break
10:45 am Session(s)
1:30 pm Session(s)
3:00 pm Break
3:15 pm Session(s)
5:00 pm Adjourn
This is a neat and tidy agenda for the planner to orchestrate, but does it still serve our participants? No. For starters, participants can’t focus in 90-minute blocks anymore. Can you? Further, the 15-minute break is completely anti-productive for discussion and networking – two highly productive activities that most attendees rate as their top reasons for registering! Then there’s the
conundrum that this agenda applies in any time zone. I’ve attended meetings in both Hawaii and Europe, and the agenda doesn’t vary much with the geography. If you’ve visited Hawaii, you know you wake up the first morning around 2:00 - 3:00 am. You literally kill five hours toodling around the hotel before your meeting begins, and you are dead tired by 5:00 pm. Why the one-size-fits-all agenda? My theory is because it’s easier for the planner.
2. Traditional Talking Head Sessions
The lecture format is dying, yet it still proliferates at meetings. Many professional speakers have failed to adapt to more engaging formats, yet they still get hired. Committees judge sessions largely on descriptions – ‘ooh, this looks interesting!’ ‘Aah, they will love this topic!’ Many planners fortunately have started asking in their Call for Speakers, “How will you engage the audience?” or “What percentage of this session involves audience participation?” These are great questions to ask. We need to give preference to speakers who engage the audience in multiple ways for at least a third of the session. Not just Q&A at the end, or a question peppered in here and there that asks the audience to raise their hands if they agree. I’m not suggesting we do away with keynote sessions, but even those can be more engaging than straight lecture.
3. Seating Designed for Us, not Them
If there’s one thing I would abolish in the industry, it would be bad seating like theater style or classroom style. Theater-style seating should only be OK when space is extremely tight. Unfortunately, I’ve walked into huge ballrooms where the back quarter (or more) of the ballroom is empty and the front is packed tight with theater-style seating. That just shows laziness or lack of imagination on the part of the planning team. I also detest classroom-style seating, unless you truly want your participants to focus, take notes for eight hours, and discuss nothing with anyone. We can do better! I love to see a ballroom with multiple styles of seating that allow participants to choose their comfort. It doesn’t have to include furniture rental (but great, if you have the budget!). Just ask your hotel for a mixture of rounds interspersed with cocktail rounds, maybe some bean bag chairs, perhaps some exercise balls, and some boardroom chairs. Make your seating convenient for the participant, not for yourself to order and orchestrate.
Tired of the boring rectangular stage against the far wall? Me too. I know, it’s easy and functional, but we can mix it up from time to time, can’t we? I love to see a catwalk or runway from the main stage that goes to the halfway point of the room. It allows the speaker to connect better with the audience, rather than just making eye contact with the first few rows of a typical room. Think of a Paris fashion runway – the chairs are turned toward the catwalk rather than all facing forward. It makes for a far more engaging and attractive room setup. The best staging I ever saw was at SPINCon 2015. Planner Catherine Jensen orchestrated a stage in the shape of a cross or “X” in the middle of the room, with each resulting quadrant set in a different seating style. One quadrant had a mixture of rounds, another had inflatable furniture, the third had boardroom chairs, and the last quadrant had theater style seating. In case you were wondering, two screens were set in opposite corners of the room for excellent sightlines from every seat.
5. Sessions Within Four Walls
Want to jazz up your agenda and get participants talking? Consider sessions outside of the typical ballroom. If you’re someplace warm, why not schedule a session or two outdoors? Have a session on food. Bring participants to the kitchen, or the stockroom. I once read about a session for farmers that was held in a cornfield, with flipcharts instead of a slideshow. How cool is that?
6. Sitting Eight Hours a Day
You’ve probably heard that ‘sitting is the new smoking.’ It’s unhealthy for us to sit for eight hours (or more) a day. We have standing desks in our offices, why not standing desks in sessions? Bring in tall cocktail tables and give people an option to stand for sessions up to 60 minutes.
As you begin to orchestrate your 2018 meetings, is there one new risk you’d be willing to take from the list above?
Shawna Suckow, CMP, a meeting planner for 20 years, is the founder of SPIN, the Senior Planners Industry Network, for meeting professionals with 10+ years’ experience (www.spinplanners.com). Today, Shawna is a professional speaker helping planners rethink meetings, and helping CVBs understand how to market better to today’s planners.