As a meeting professional, how would you have felt if you’d received the following RFP?
Meeting dates: December 15-31
Scope: Nation-wide (United States only)
Estimated participants: 50,400
Room nights: None
Average participants per venue: 12
Food and beverage: Provided
Audio-visual requirements: None
Air travel: None
Carbon footprint: Local ground transportation; public transit and carpools encouraged
Mythical client: US Department of Health and Human Services
As a planner, you would see an impossible management challenge at an impossible time of year. As a supplier, you would wonder how so many people could hold a useful meeting without food, lodging, or travel.
But the listing is accurate, with just one important error: The meetings were organized at the behest of a transition office in Chicago, not by one of the largest agencies of the US government, because they all took place before the new Administration took office.
The New York Times told the story on December 22, in an article on a house party in northern Virginia. The group convened after the Obama transition team “asked for ‘particularly poignant stories to highlight the need for health care reform,’” the Times reported. “It was one of more than 4,200 such events being held around the country from Dec. 15 to 31, as part of an experiment in grass-roots politics and policy-making.”
No one would suggest that informal gatherings of a dozen acquaintances are the future of meetings, any more than anyone is seriously arguing that virtual gatherings can largely replace face to face. (Uh, hold that thought.)
But coming out of a year when elements of the industry’s business model were shredded by an imploding economy, ricocheting fuel costs, and growing concern about our carbon and environmental footprints, there are at least two good questions we can ask ourselves about the health reform house parties:
- What can our industry offer them?
- What can we learn from them?
On the surface, the first question is tougher to answer than the second. We’re not party planners, and I don’t know very many meeting professionals who feel their skills are well used setting up a two-hour gathering for 12 people, unless those people happen to be friends or relatives and the purpose is avowedly social.
But what happens after the initial wave of participation wears down and consultation fatigue begins to set in? Who coordinates resources and support for 4,200 house party hosts? And if one goal of a house party is to get at least three or four participants to organize their own small gatherings…how do the logistics change with more than 12,000 sites?
If the discussion is at all contentious, where will the client find 4,200 facilitators? If they’re volunteers, who will train them? Or train the trainers? And, dare I ask, who will capture and compile the key messages from the meetings, to make sure no one loses track of the “particularly poignant stories to highlight the need for health care reform”?
What we can learn is a whole other story. The most fundamental lesson from this saga is that it might be time to include an organized series of very small gatherings in the definition of a meeting. For these words, I expect to be thoroughly scolded by Ken Ross of Maritz Research, the brilliantly persistent project manager for MPI’s economic impact study of the Canadian meetings sector.
Ken will quite rightly point out that everything in this post falls outside the U.N. World Tourism Organization definition of a meeting—at least 10 people for at least four hours in a booked venue, for a purpose related principally to some form of business.
But what if there are 4,200 meetings taking place in less than three weeks? What if the purpose has nothing to do with the many, varied businesses that participants pursue in their day jobs, but scores a bull’s eye with the far more important business of democratic citizenship?
And more fundamentally…if this is a part of the future that our clients will expect from the meetings industry, where do we align ourselves: with our assumptions and definitions, or theirs?
Not very much of this will be easy for a bricks-and-mortar industry that traces its deepest roots back to hospitality and measures its impact by the number of guest rooms and airplane seats it books. But we also like to think of ourselves as a knowledge-based, client-centred industry. What if this is one of those moments when our clients are already far ahead of us, or soon will be?