A photo by Sebastien Roy of the meetings industry event C2 Montreal

5 Ways the Meetings Industry is Changing the Face of Events

Change is imminent — and in the meetings industry, it’s upon us. From more engaging, holistic experiences to the the bold new expectations of “bleisure,” event planners and suppliers are racing to adapt in an industry that’s as dynamic as it’s ever been. But where should industry professionals put their focus, and what are the forces driving this rapid evolution? While the shifts are plentiful, there are five that stand out from the fold when it comes to modern event design.

Here’s how the meetings industry is changing the game.

1. Millennials are the decision makers now.

In 2016, millennials became the largest segment in the U.S. labor force at 35%. With that, they’re also now the largest pool of potential meeting attendees. In an industry shaped by attendee expectations, successful events have to cater to their wants and desires. What those wants and desires are, like every generation before them, is largely shaped by the realities of larger historical events.

a graph showing the demographic breakdown of the U.S. labor force

As Skift reporter Greg Oates puts it: ““Think about graduating in the last 10 years and how competitive it is — jobs aren’t guaranteed, there was a recession, there was everything after 9/11. Events became the professional development pipeline for that generation.”

For these reasons, millennials value networking over almost any other aspect of events. As a demographic, they also value experiences over material goods, want to share those experiences (usually via social media), have higher technological literacy, and are 62% more likely to travel then their generation X counterparts. Plus, as the average screen time per day increases, millennials are increasingly glued to their phones and computers, leading them to place more value on face-to-face meetings as they become more scarce in our daily lives.

All of the above is driving the generation’s expectations in regards to meetings and events, ultimately redefining the industry as a result.

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2. Control over the meeting agenda is moving to attendees.

Gone are the days of static schedules that shuffle through speaker after speaker while attendees remain seated. Today, personalization is key, with fluid agendas that offer an array of options meant to appeal to diverse interests and preferences. In many cases, this means crowdsourcing the agenda, sometimes even doing so in real time, to present a personalized event agenda.

Letting attendees choose the path forward links them to the content at hand, empowers them to choose topics that excite them, and allows events to capitalize on the energy in the room, harnessing it toward increased engagement. However, this shouldn’t just apply to content: food, activities, and even breakout spaces should give attendees an element of choice.

a branded jenga set at the experient e4 conference

Experient looks to predetermined personas to present unique experiences.

Over the 45+ years, Experient has served the industry, they’ve defined 20+ event personas that group attendees into buckets based on their preferences, motivations, and actions. These personas make the lives of industry planners easier — even Experient’s own.

By creating “journey maps” at a recent conference, the team was able to outline completely different experiences for attendees based on their personas. Each persona was presented with a different agenda on each day of the event, personalizing every element of the experience — from the food to offsite activities. Take the “Be-Wellster” and the “Post-Master” as examples.

For Be-Wellsters — a group of attendees who prioritize health and wellbeing — meditation, morning runs, nutritious meals, and even a yoga flow with dolphins were all on the agenda. For the Post-Masters — aka Instagram-savvy social media mavens — the team rounded up recommendations of enticing local entertainment and provided picturesque backdrops that screamed photo-op.

3. Events are expected to be “purposeful” experiences.

The days of ushering attendees into a ballroom is over, and for the new generation of attendees who value experiences, face-to-face engagement, and personalization, it might as well be the equivalent of handing them a pager. Today’s attendee is looking for fresh event concepts and meetings with meaning, innovation, and insight.

Just as importantly, they’re looking for more holistic elements inclusive of behavioral science, wellbeing, and an overall connection to the world at large. In short, today’s attendees want meetings to have a purpose. And these “purposeful meetings” are a large part of why 80% of event planners say that their jobs involve more experience creation than they did just two to five years ago.

Brought to light by Janet Sperstad’s white-paper Purposeful Meetings: How to Plan With Deeper Meaning, Innovation, & Insight lays out, this concept of “purposeful meetings” ultimately became the theme of IMEX America 2017 and continues to be the focus of the meetings industry.

Hanging trapeze chairs at one the most innovative events in the meetings industry

C2 is pushing the envelope for event experiences.

Hanging trapeze chairs, a speakeasy, smoothie shots at the revolving entrance, Cirque du Soleil performances… the laundry list of creative, out of the box attractions from Montreal’s C2 conference sounds more like the agenda from a festival than a networking event. But make no mistake, the networking is there: over 3,000 face-to-face meetings were scheduled at C2 2017 alone.

Held annually, C2 2018 congregated 7,000 event professionals at the cross-section of commerce and creativity, dishing up a delightful event that’s part performance, part professional development event, and part party. But Snoop Dogg and Vespa-powered gelato delivery aside, C2’s innovative approach brings professionals together in an event that allows no spectators, offering engagement and interaction around every corner. In fact, attendees had 11 different ways to spend every single hour of the event.

Fittingly, the theme of the event was transformative collisions — which at times meant a face-to-face meeting (“Braindate”) in a private cabin, and at other times, an unexpected encounter with a ninja hiding in a bush. C2 more than lived up to their theme, providing exceptional networking spaces and technology along with a heaping helping of the unexpected.

(Oh, and in case you’re wondering, this year the speakeasy was hidden in the freezer of the flower shop.)

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4. Technology is allowing planners to pull off more than ever before.

Thus far, we’ve seen that planners are expected to plan more complex, innovative experiences than ever before — experiences laden with choices for attendees. Meanwhile, according to the AMEX Global Meetings Forecast, the total numbers of meetings annually has only grown 5.4% since 2009, but the total number of attendees at these meetings has grown by 22.7%.

Put simply, meetings aren’t just more complex concept-wise, they’re also just plain bigger. So what’s a planner to do?

Event technology is answering the call, evolving as fast as the industry itself and giving planners the tools they need to pull off terrific feats. So much so that studies show using event technology can decrease costs by 20-30%, all the while increasing productivity by 27% and attendance by 20%.

These technologies empower event teams to market better, manage guests more efficiently, map out their events in detail, engage with the audience in real-time, track ROI, and more.

Social Tables' event diagramming software

Forbes uses diagramming software to create industry-leading events.

C2 aren’t the only ones making professional events feel like bucket-list festivals. At the Forbes Under 30 Summit, more than 7,000 entrepreneurs and young leaders of tomorrow came together to experience the cutting edge of both education and entertainment.

Featuring 200 renowned speakers, tastebud-tingling food, a boozy bar-crawl, four separate venues, and even a full-on music festival, the Boston event — now in its fifth year — has more moving parts with each iteration. However, it’s only one of many intricate events Forbes successfully executes in a given year, thanks, in large part, to event technology.

Since 2013, Forbes has used Social Tables’ event diagramming software to map out events and improve overall efficiency. It allows the team to verify the viability of the venues they use, as well as the setup they plan for. By using the drag-and-drop technology to easily create diagrams and even render them into 3D walkthroughs, Forbes leaves nothing to chance.

“The only thing I wish I could do on the software but can’t, is to show where each water bottle is to be placed on stage,” jokes Cathi Culbertson, VP of Event Marketing & Conferences for the company.

5. Where you meet matters more than ever before.

The industry is realizing at long last that a destination is more than just geography — it’s a quintessential piece of the holistic puzzle that defines meeting success. Christine Shimo Shimasaki, CDME, CMP, Consultant, President, 2Synergize Inc., sums it up well: “The city serves as the backdrop for the content. It’s like designing the stage. What kind of feel do you want that stage to have when your attendees come out? It has a direct impact on their experience.”

Essentially, the purposeful meeting cannot be complete without a destination that reinforces that purpose. But that’s not the only way that the destination comes into play. Today’s travel-happy millennials aren’t just looking for business, they’re for a side of leisure. So they’re boldly blending the two when they travel to exhibitions and trade shows. And they’re not the only ones on the “bleisure” train.

New research from the Experience Institute shows that 78% of attendees indicate destination is a top driver in the decision to attend. It’s also the fifth largest barrier to attendance, coming in behind only time- and cost-related factors.

Ultimately, attendees want to travel for professional purposes and feel like they’re on vacation. That desire is driving demand for not only more appealing destinations, but also authentic, local experiences in the host cities they visit.

Result from the Experience Institute Decision to Attend Survey of the meetings industry

Source: Experience Institute Decision to Attend Survey

Midsize cities are becoming more attractive to planners.

Unlike large, first-tier cities, mid-size cities like Pittsburgh, Phoenix and Denver have traditionally been looked over by the meetings industry when it comes to large events. In the past, these cities may even have been referred to as “second-tier” cities. Today, there’s nothing second-tier about what they can offer a new class of attendees who prize experience as much as convenience: walkable cities, knowledge economies, authentic culture, and, just as importantly for planners, cheaper prices.

When it comes to investing in infrastructure and marketing unique assets, these midsize cities are doing a top-notch job of wooing meetings.

Take Nashville for instance, whose convention and visitors bureau has made some big moves to make meetings business a large part of what has long been a bustling tourism economy. The Visit Music City Bureau even commissioned a $300,000 documentary titled “For the Love of Music,” telling the city’s stories through its songwriters.

As a result of these efforts, Nashville saw a 38% increase in conventions between 2011 and 2016. In fact, these attendees represent 40% of all overnight visitors to the city.

Events won’t ever be the same.

At the end of the day, the meetings industry is redefining what it means to design and execute successful events. The preferences of millennials are pushing planners to create bigger, richer, more engaging experiences than ever before, while technology is enabling them to actually pull it off. While it’s tough to say where we’ll be in five years at this pace, one thing’s for sure: being a part of the industry is as interesting and exciting as it’s ever been. The only thing we can really count on is more change. (And more events.)

Published October 6, 2018

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