Room blocks for major meetings and events may soon be on the endangered list, says Doreen Ashton Wagner, managing director of Alexandria, Ontario-based Greenfield Services.
When I first worked with Adrian Segar at Event Camp East Coast in 2010, I knew I’d met one of the most insightful, skilled, genuine meeting facilitators in the industry.
So after The Conference Publishers began working with the International Association of Conference Centers to host the Bright Ideas for Conference Centers webinar series, I was excited when IACC asked us to organize a program on learning design techniques for small meetings. The webinar takes place:
At a time when conferences are cancelling, participants are staying home in large numbers, and the flavour of the month is to replace live meetings with webcasts and virtual events, there are two sure criteria that still make it essential for groups to gather in person:
• A clear, immediate purpose that is best served by face-to-face deliberation, and
• The need to capture the energy and momentum that bring participants together and make it even stronger by the time they return home.
For sheer urgency, it’s hard to beat the global climate change summit that convened this week in Copenhagen. On MeetingsNet this week, I argue that the conference has already served a profoundly important purpose, bringing a new seriousness and initial political commitments to an urgent international dialogue that had been stalled for a decade.
But sometimes, it’s hard to see the impact of a major international meeting over the short term. That’s one reason I’ve been thinking back to what one of our project teams was doing just over 12 years ago, at the conference where we got to help ban a weapon of mass destruction.
It’s a story we tell often because, to this day, the Landmine Treaty Conference is one of our firm’s proudest moments.
It took 14 months of negotiation, with many, many preparatory meetings along the way. But by the time they gathered at Ottawa’s Government Conference Centre in December, 1997, diplomats from most countries of the world were ready to ban a product that had been described as “a weapon of mass destruction, moving in slow motion.”
Landmines have killed more civilians than both world wars, and they represent a fundamental barrier to international development, blocking access to food, water, and other essentials long after the warring parties that laid them have moved on. Before the Treaty Conference, there were dire warnings about the supposed risks of banning landmines, just as we now hear anti-scientific rants from climate deniers who will go so far as to steal private emails, then misrepresent their content, in a last-ditch effort to scuttle a global climate agreement.
To no one’s surprise, implementing the landmine treaty is still a work in progress, but there have been huge gains. In mid-November, just after Remembrance Day and just before the anniversary of the treaty, Mines Action Canada reported that 3,200 square kilometres of land had been cleared of mines and other explosive remnants of war, and new casualties “declined significantly” to 5,197 in 2008.
“Serious challenges remain, with more than 70 states still mine-affected today, and assistance to mine survivors falling short of what is needed,” MAC stated. Still, looking back, a face-to-face meeting was the catalyst that brought negotiations for a global landmine treaty to a successful conclusion. The job could not have been done with a webcast or TelePresence, even if those technologies had been available in 1997.
Last month, the Canadian chapters of Meeting Professionals International (MPI) released an economic impact update that documented the 70 million participants who attended 673,000 meetings in Canada in 2008, generating C$23.8 billion in direct spending, C$71.1 billion in industry output, 552,000 full-year jobs, and C$14.2 billion in government revenues. Those results matter, and you could probably crunch similar numbers for the Landmine Treaty Conference or the Copenhagen meeting.
But what’s the economic impact of banning a weapon of mass destruction? Of many thousands more children surviving to adulthood, with all their limbs, in dozens of countries around the world? Of landmine removal making it safer for those children to go to school when, “in a very poor country, just one year of education can increase lifetime earning capacity by 10%,” according to former U.S. President Bill Clinton?
And then, once we’ve answered those questions, why are we satisfied measuring the economic impact of a major international conference by the meals, room nights, and airline seats its delegates consume?
If we want to justify our existence as an industry, while bringing greater purpose to our work as meeting professionals, the first step is to align more deliberately with the urgent problems our participants try to solve by going onsite. As our industry scrambles to prove its value and measure its economic impact, we can look to the Ottawa Treaty—and, we should fervently hope, to the Copenhagen summit—for evidence that the results we produce are so much more important than the goods and services we consume.
Everywhere you turn these days, meeting professionals are searching for the “killer app” that will make social media and virtual technologies more an opportunity and less a threat for face-to-face events.
The language of hybrid meetings, virtually unknown a year ago, is quickly gaining currency. MPI experimented with a Virtual Access Pass at its 2009 World Education Congress in Salt Lake City. A growing number of associations are opting for virtual or hybrid annual general meetings. And on MeetingsNet Extra last week, we heard from Hugh Lee and Julie McKown of Webster, NY-based Fusion Productions, where the effort to fully integrate online technologies with live meetings dates back to 2006.
At The Conference Publishers, we’ve made our own contribution, with the introduction of innovative products like conference content portals and Virtual Attendance. We’ve identified a series of advantages for organizations that bring together the best features of onsite and online settings. But we’ve never consolidated all those ideas in a single statement…and we know of no one else that has, anywhere in the industry. (If that’s wrong, that’s why blogs include space for comments. Please reply and let us know.)
So here’s a first attempt. Many of these statements will warrant their own blog posts (watch this space), if not full white papers. Some of them will no doubt change, evolve, or disappear in the face of closer scrutiny or practical experience.
But we’ve begun to suspect that meetings and social media can complete each other, to the extent that neither will meet its full potential without the other. If that’s the case, acquiring a deep understanding of social media and virtual technologies may be one of the most important items on any meeting professional’s agenda.
And so, with no further ado: A dozen (actually, a baker’s dozen plus one) expectations for linking social media and virtual technologies with face-to-face meetings and events. Any “killer app” must:
Every so often, I get a nice snapshot of why we do what we do as an industry, and as a specialty supplier within the industry. I’ve had several in the last 10 days.
Last week, Margot Cragg, Emily MacKinnon and I were onsite with a team of local writers at the 13th World Conference on Lung Cancer in San Francisco. As we gathered content for our daily tabloid, we realized we had reconnected with the global community of lung cancer researchers and clinicians at a crucial moment.
This year’s conference marked the introduction of a new system for assessing the severity and anticipating the future course of different types of lung tumours. The impact will be huge: under the new staging system, a lung cancer patient who visits an oncologist today might hear different treatment recommendations than s/he would have received last month. And one in six patients will see better results from the new treatment plan.
With more than 6,000 participants onsite, the biennial WCLC was an opportunity to deliver a timely, life-saving message to a committed global audience. Our newspaper was used to tell the story, repeatedly and in-depth, and to advertise the staging manual, handbook, and reference cards that were available for sale in the exhibition booth.
Look no farther for the breakthrough impact of a timely, well-organized, face-to-face meeting. If I believed in such things, I would tell you that somewhere, my mother is smiling that one in six lung cancer patients can now look forward to better outcomes.
But that wasn’t the only snapshot of note.
One of my favourite moments on a conference newspaper is the daily trek out to the hallways or the exhibit floor to talk to perfect strangers. We approach random participants with a daily question, thank them profusely when they don’t turn their backs, and quote their comments to capture the tone of the conference and the issues bubbling up from the floor.
At this conference, a participant from Wales put it all in perspective.
“I’m interested in the sessions that focus on the patient experience, on how we take this clinical data and apply it to the patient journey in lung cancer,” he said.
But “the other thing that’s great is the opportunity to meet professional colleagues and exchange ideas. It’s usually from this kind of networking and exchange and meeting of the minds that the next clinical trial is born.”
The next clinical trial. That would be the one that could lead to a major medical breakthrough, demonstrating the impact of a drug, device, or treatment that can save or improve lives.
What’s that we were saying about the ROI of meetings and events?
One of our local freelancers, medical and regulatory writer Mitch Gordon, summed up the sense of the moment.
“I’m stumbling toward the local coffee shop. I suddenly see all these people from Germany and Sweden looking very intent, and I realize that’s going to be my work day,” he told us. “This is old hat to you guys, but the idea of picking up the newsletter the morning it was produced and realizing I’m a part of the team that produced it . . . ”
That’s the sense of ROI that is hard to measure but impossible to ignore, every time we cover a conference that has a clear sense of purpose.
A word of thanks…
…to MeetingsNet Web Editor Sue Pelletier, intrepid author of the inimitable Face2Face blog, for listing The Edge in her blog roll late last week.
And an absence alert . . .
. . .The Edge might be a quiet place over the next couple of weeks, with a few of us grabbing some down time before a very busy season starts up in September.
SAN FRANCISCO – In the week since Terri Breining announced the closure of Concepts Worldwide, the San Diego County firm she built into a meetings industry icon, I’ve been thinking about the capriciousness of a market that rewards the most arbitrary successes, while devaluing or ignoring the most genuine achievements.
When we celebrate flash over substance, we miss the qualities and practices that signal true greatness in a business, an organization, a community, or the people who hold them together. Firms like Concepts fly under the radar when all they offer is smart strategy, great service and, to quote their company tagline, uncompromising integrity.
These backward expectations go as deep as the way we define and measure economic progress. When we apply them to small businesses, we create a cycle that is counterproductive in good times and can be fatal in bad. A business that doesn’t grow each year is deemed to be failing. A company that sets its sights on steady but modest financial success while emphasizing innovation, quality products, or quality of life for its employees is considered laughable.
I know, because we’ve tried it.
This isn’t a story I tell very often, and it doesn’t fully reflect the way we operate today. But when I launched InfoLink Consultants, The Conference Publishers’ predecessor, in 1984, profitability was pretty much the last objective on my list. (Not that I ever thought to write the list down.)
For most of our history, we’ve focused more on what we put out into the world than on what we took back. We worked hard to deliver meeting content in ways that had never been tried or imagined before. We looked for projects that would fulfill a strong corporate social responsibility (CSR) mandate, even if they fell short financially. Only in the last seven to 10 years have we become deliberate about grounding those principles in a sound business model and consistent operating practices.
The bottom line is this: while I expect the company to generate strong financial returns, I want it to be remembered and recognized for what it has given back to clients and employees, to the meetings industry, and to the community at large. And that’s a point that has been missed in the coverage of the Concepts announcement.
It was no accident that I headlined this morning’s column on MeetingsNet a eulogy. But there is so much more to say—so much that Terri Breining and her fabulous team have achieved that still belongs to them today, every bit as much as it did last week.
Start with Terri’s transformative contribution in her year as MPI’s international chair, at a time that called for tremendous courage and persistence to turn the association around.
Fast forward to her work as chair of the Accepted Practices Exchange (APEX), a major project of the Convention Industry Council (CIC).
Factor in her company’s fundamental commitment to industry education, from their work with San Diego State University to the unnatural number of staff members who had completed MPI’s Certification in Meeting Management. (Okay, fine, the story can now be told—yes, we were jealous, and no, we never thought we would catch up.)
Add the business achievement awards that Terri received in San Diego and her upcoming induction into the CIC Hall of Leaders, the school that Concepts rebuilt through its in-house CSR initiative, the relentless effort to create a business model for strategic meeting services…and with all of that, you only get the smallest snapshot of all that was Concepts Worldwide.
These achievements are ultimately so much more important than financial survival. And they are so very easy to forget.
Which brings me to the story of one of our company’s near-death experiences. On a very sad Friday in 1995, we laid off about a half-dozen employees who we thought of us colleagues and friends. The next day, as Karen and I drove past one of Ottawa’s downtown meeting facilities, I had the strangest of feelings. When I found the words to match, they were something like: “Hunh. There’s the Westin Hotel. They hold meetings. I used to be entitled to set foot there.”
This was less than 24 hours after the layoff. I still had my job, and I understood that financial performance was only one way to measure my company’s success, or my own professional worth. But it was so easy to forget all the good we had done in the midst of a scary setback. I don’t want the industry, or the former Concepts team, to make the same mistake this week.
“Mourn the dead, fight like hell for the living” was the headline on one of the obituaries when noted U.S. journalist and hellraiser Molly Ivins died a couple of years ago. Losing Concepts Worldwide is almost indescribably sad, but their leadership, staff, and considerable achievements live on. And there is no fundamental failure in the company’s closure unless anyone in the industry is certain they can resist the downward pull of a crashing economy. (No, I thought not.)
Meeting professionals have made great strides over the last few years in measuring the return on investment (ROI) that clients and participants receive from some types of meetings.
But solid as that work has been, the limited scope of the analysis is coming back to haunt the industry, at a time when any meeting might come under attack as a waste of public money.
The gap in the industry’s understanding of ROI was an underlying cause when media and at least one taxpayers’ lobby group set their sights on a two-day, $671,000 training meeting organized by the San Francisco Region of the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA). The meeting, the region’s first live gathering since 2001, was held at Arizona’s Biltmore Resort and Spa, after the facility won a competitive tender with a room rate of about US$85 per night.
As we reported Tuesday on MeetingsNet, an intensive educational program was portrayed as an expensive government boondoggle after a television crew with a hidden camera recorded a stretch break, complete with music, with no reference to the hours of education and training sessions that had gone before.
“It was the last 30 minutes of the last day of a two-day conference,” said SSA media officer Mark Lassiter when I contacted him late last week. The reporter “came in right at the end of the two-day session. He didn’t see or attempt to view any of the substantive training that went on.”
Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m rarely inclined to give TV news a free pass. But the back story in this particular mini-drama is our industry’s failure to equip SSA, or any of our other clients, with the facts, arguments, and metrics to add up the benefits of a meeting that doesn’t set out to generate profit, sales, or revenue.
We know how to measure the industry’s broad contribution to national economies. And there is a brilliant, well-established methodology in place to track the ROI produced by corporate meetings, up to and including the financial impact of the largest, most expensive gatherings. But none of that will help SSA make a convincing, winning case that its meeting was worth holding.
There should be two gold standards for meetings that aren’t designed for monetary gain:
• Was the meeting organized as inexpensively as possible?
• Did the meeting deliver maximum benefit to organizers, participants, and the stakeholders who depend on participants for the products or services they deliver?
Although the second question may be orders of magnitude more important, the response to the SSA meeting showed just how quickly our industry orients toward the first.
When news of the SSA meeting first broke, the defence began and ended with cost data…and the numbers told an interesting story. The $85 room rate at the Biltmore was almost eerily affordable, and it turned out that the agency would have broken federal law if it had failed to pick the low bidder in a competitive tender.
And it got better: Lassiter said SSA managed to pare its room pick up from three nights per participant to two, by running a two-day program over an afternoon, a full day, and the final morning. That meant participants could make the trip to and from the conference venue without staying over an extra night, and without travelling on personal time—an expectation that, once again, would have violated U.S. government regulations.
So far, so good. But by emphasizing price and cost savings, we missed the most important questions about the SSA gathering: Why did participants need to meet? Did the conference achieve its objectives? And through that lens, was the $671,000 an investment or a waste?
You might think the group was due for a meeting when its last gathering took place eight years ago. But here, again, it gets better. Lassiter said many of the 675 participants had been in their jobs for less than two years. And one of his colleagues told the Arizona Republic the meeting had convened at a crucial time for SSA.
Leslie Walker said the agency is grappling with a wave of Baby Boomers becoming eligible for social security, and used the workshop to transmit practical skills—helping applicants process documents online, or dealing with angry clients in a tough economy.
“The public is very stressed right now,” Walker said. “We’re getting threats every day in our offices.”
SSA responded with a two-day program that (quite appropriately) reads like concentrated, nearly non-stop work. Lassiter said the general sessions were an opportunity for participants to hear from senior SSA management, and for management to hear public concerns directly from front-line managers. A list of 14 breakouts covered topics like multigenerational communication, managing diversity, SSA e-services, and reasonable accommodation for people with disabilities.
The value of the meeting seems pretty self-evident. But our industry has yet to develop a clear, widely-understood set of metrics that would have helped SSA define and assess that value.
Will the conference help participants do their jobs more cost-effectively, using online systems to serve more clients in an hour, a day, or a week?
Will greater efficiency improve client satisfaction, or give social security recipients greater confidence in the services and benefits they receive?
Will an improvement in client satisfaction contribute to a reduction in on-the-job stress, thereby helping SSA cut absenteeism or employee turnover?
What other questions should the agency be asking? And why isn’t our industry helping every client frame, ask, and answer those questions?
As long as the meetings industry focuses on the cost of what it consumes, rather than the value of the results it produces, programs like the SSA meeting at the Biltmore will be vulnerable. It’s tremendously encouraging to see the industry rise up in its own defence. But we’ll be so much more effective with the right facts and arguments.