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Break the Rules and Boost the Bottom Line

By Julie Kendrick

“We have always done it this way” just doesn’t cut it anymore. The landscape of meeting planning is going through a quiet revolution, and the old rules no longer apply. Instead, they are being replaced with new treatments from the once-sacred conference tote bag to the way chairs in the ballroom are arranged. We talked to meeting planners who are creating fresher, more authentic approaches to your average meetings.  

From “Same Old” to “Can’t Miss”

Potential attendees are no longer automatically signing up for meetings they have always attended. Instead, they are demanding a compelling reason as to why they should spend their time away from home and work to attend a meeting. “We need to lure attendees back with ‘can’t miss’ on-site experiences,” says Maggie Pearson, president of Evergreen Meeting Management of Herndon, Virginia. “They are looking for that experience, followed by networking and educational opportunities.” 

“Everything needs to serve a purpose,” says David Fiss, director of corporate partnerships and event strategy at San Francisco’s Sustainable Brands, a global community of brand leaders who are tapping into environmental and social challenges to drive innovation, business, and brand value. “We need to continue to innovate and find ways to convince attendees that it will be a valuable use of their time—and time, after all, is their most valuable resource. It’s all about value creation now.”

In the age of social media, it has become hard to remain patient without getting constant “hits” from new content. With the consistent influx of pings and notices, Fiss acknowledges that maintaining attendees’ attention is harder than ever. “All our brains have been trained by social media to watch videos that are 30 seconds long,” Fiss says. “Now we are asking folks to go to a one-hour cocktail party, which can seem like a very long time in our new reality.”

Fiss suggests that meeting planners ask themselves what they can make happen at a one-hour event to keep attendees entertained and engaged. He provides this comparison as an example: “If they just went to a Lizzo concert last night and now they are at your keynote session, how will you match that experience? That may not be fair—of course we don’t have the kinds of budgets that Lizzo has—but it’s important for all of us to realize that expectations are higher than ever.”


We can all recite the standard meeting agenda from memory: early-morning pastries and coffee leading into a jam-packed general session, with short breaks and an in-and-out lunch. It’s a schedule that is punishing to body and soul, especially with many attendees’ new focus of maintaining a balanced life, even when at a meeting. “Everything use to be structured around maximizing the time of ‘butts in seats,’” says Julie Walker, a meeting planner at Choice Meetings in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. “Clients also wanted a very structured classroom-type setup in their meeting rooms, never giving any thought to individual learning styles or comfort levels.”

Those rules are increasingly being broken to make way for less-structured meetings that allow time for serendipitous networking and more meaningful conversations. “Feedback from participants tells us that they also want to participate in community service requirements (CSR) and give-back activities, and they really enjoy team-building experiences—when they are executed well,” Walker says. 

Attendees also want time to attend to everything else on their minds from a work and leisure perspective. The scheduled times that allow them to respond to inquiries throughout the day, instead of having to cram a full workday into the few hours after dinner, can really make a difference. “Even with virtual attendees, we tell them in advance that they will have those breaks and when they will be, so they can plan their day accordingly,” Fiss says.

Main Room Events

As many organizations are beginning to gather for the first time in a few years, meeting planners are asking them to take a fresh look at how they want to conduct major elements of meeting design. “One facet of our work with clients is to identify sacred cows, things they have always done that could or should be eliminated or refreshed,” says Lisa Block, executive vice president of conference strategy and design at Velvet Chainsaw Consulting in Aurora, Ohio. 

Instead of doing what has always been done in terms of ceremonies, introductions, and endless speeches from organizational and board leadership, clients and planners are focusing on what matters most. “They’re stripping the fluff and focusing on storytelling and audience engagement, when possible,” Block says, and they are rethinking other former must-haves like private receptions, buddy programs, spouse or partner events, ribbon cuttings, and, as she puts it, “welcome events that aren’t very welcoming.” 

Space, the Final Frontier

“Space allocation for groups is going to have to change,” Pearson says. “For so long, we have seen the same sets in the same rooms, because properties want to maximize their space for profit, so they fit as many people as possible into the fewest number of rooms. In the future, they will need to loosen their grips on their space and configurations to work with planners.”

Here are some considerations Pearson suggests for more space-conscious meetings: 

» More space than ever before: If your event is more technically complex or theatrical, you are going to need extra square footage. In addition, public health concerns require more space to adhere to safety protocols.

» Refreshed furnishings: Traditional lecture furniture, with a lectern at the front of the room and chairs neatly lined up in rows, is no longer a “rule” for meeting setups. Instead, it’s being replaced with more creative pieces from properties, such as soft sofas with plenty of lower-back support, stylish swivel seating, and beanbag chairs.

» Balancing safety and hospitality: No matter how the space is laid out or designed, it is important for the attendees to feel both welcome and safe. Cozy and inviting spaces will always be appreciated, as will seating options that allow attendees to sit far enough away from each other to be within public health guidelines. If weather permits, outdoor patios and other spaces can offer the perfect balance. 

Beefing Up Breakouts

“Learning doesn’t just happen in the meeting room behind closed doors under the big screen, featuring death by PowerPoint,” Walker says. “We grow when we connect and share ideas with each other, and our attendees expect and demand these opportunities now.” Lining up a few experts at a long table for every session just doesn’t cut it anymore, either. “We think the ‘all panels, all the time’ format needs refreshing,” she says. 

One way to set the tone and let attendees know that things are going to be different is to create rooms that feature a blend of high-tops or other standing options along with traditional classroom-style seating. That way, each person can find a type of seating that accommodates their personality and mood. Stand-up meetings often encourage more interaction and engagement, and Walker says that they tend to be the most high-energy breakouts of an entire meeting. 

Life Outside the Ballroom 

Old-school meetings kept attendees on-site from morning to night, but that’s changing as people express a desire to explore the meeting location and the area’s highlights. “Connecting with local communities increasingly is an objective for our clients,” Walker says. “Through these different activities, we are able to engage the senses and foster new ways of learning—which will have a lasting impact on the attendees.”

“People who travel to an event want to feel good about being in that location, and they don’t want to be part of a crowd that destroys a way of life for residents,” says David Lorenz, vice president for Travel Michigan. To accomplish this, Lorenz suggests that planners collaborate with local convention and visitors bureaus to bring a region’s amenities and attractions to light.

Balancing Sustainability and Safety

Sustainability is an important element coming into fruition. For any type of event, Fiss says attendees are increasingly noticing how every single element is accounted for, including waste reduction, straw usage (or the materials they are made of), and even the amount of meat that is being served at meals. 

For Fiss, that might mean that a long-standing complimentary item like the meeting gift bag could sail into the sunset, dragging a raft of mousepads and stress balls in its wake. “Giving away bags full of stuff no one wants just isn’t cutting it anymore,” he says. And for every sustainable action that’s being taken, meeting planners need to make sure that it’s been effectively communicated to stakeholders and attendees. “You have got to let them know what steps you are taking and what potential impact those actions might have,” he says.

The delicate balance between safety and sustainability might also be shifting as a response to changing public health considerations, which can be a win-win for everyone. “One of the ways meetings focused on safety after the start of the pandemic was by offering single-use items for food and beverage service,” she says. “I hope this can change as we learn more about COVID-19 safety, because then properties will be able to reduce single-use items and be more sustainable.”

And Finally … Lanyards 

“I would love to see the name badge lanyard go away forever,” Walker says. “Why are we wearing name badges at our navels where no one can see them? It’s especially awkward at mealtime when we’re all sitting down, and our name badges are below the table.” Walker offered up the inspirational hashtag #losethelanyard for her meeting planner colleagues to adopt, as they consider a return to attendee IDs that can be viewed at eye level.