The New Normal: 12 Meeting Takeaways & A Couple Predictions From An #Eventprofs View

I am just now returning to the office after managing my association’s 21st annual conference.

After seven days in Scottsdale, AZ at a beautiful resort and 100 degree temperatures, I’m grateful to be home.

In 15+ years of planning conferences and events, this was one of the most difficult I’ve ever managed. The convergence of the recession, health care reform (which directly affects the industry association I work for), challenging venue negotiations, and free online content put us on the precipice of the unknown and constant change. We did our best to manage attendee’s expectations and move on a dime as needed. Many “Midcourse Corrections” occurred at this event. Thankfully, as a small staff association we were prepared to change quickly both off and onsite as warranted.

Attendance was down. Revenue was less than expected. Expenses were cut. Yet, the attendee experience did not suffer and our delegates enjoyed the event and resort. That’s what ultimately matters although the fallout of the bottom line is yet to be seen.

As we head into 2010, here are 16 of my meeting planning takeaways from this experience:

WelcomeToFuture

Don't expect the economy to rebound to the way it once was. We are now in the new normal.

1. Signing venue contracts two and three years before the event is no longer the new normal.
There is too much risk for the customer regarding contractual obligations including attrition and food and beverage requirements. Some venues are suffering financially as well and want to hold the customer to their contract instead of negotiating a win-win. Things change very fast today. Shorter planning times mean venue contracts are being signed closer to the event.

2. As an association event planner, forget your history for meeting room space and sleeping rooms.
The past is not a good predictor of the future at this time. The better predictor of your attendance is to connect with your members and ask them about their plans. But don’t expect them to follow through with their plans if they are paying for their own way to the event.

3. Cell phone and WiFi access are necessities like water and electricity for any event venue and should be free.
I’ll never do another RFP that does not include requests for information about all cell phone carrier access at the venue and the venue’s WiFi access. People are doing business 24-7 and need to be able to connect online and through their cell phone. Venues that don’t have good cell phone reception and those that charge exorbitant fees for WiFi will lose business, including mine.

4. Phone-in presentations don’t work without visuals, good land line connections and quality hybrid phones (phones that connect directly to sound magnification).
Don’t assume that SKYPE or the cell phone speaker are good back up plans unless you’ve tested them during a site visit. Both may be inaccessible from the facility.

5. Less is more, green is in and spending dollars on content and connecting people creates success.
Cut back on the extravagance and put money towards good content, helping people connect with each other and extending the conference experience before and after the event (webinars, blog posts, conference social community, virtual experiences). A conference social community is a must!

6. Attendees want to pay less for conference registration and expect more value from the event.
The attendee wants more immediate gratification. If the content or experience is not relevant or applicable to their personal or professional lives immediately, forget it. Also, associations that depend on a large portion of their annual budget revenue from conference revenues will continue to face increased challenges. Watch for more associations to drop registration fees or even offer free conference registration. (Also watch as some associations begin to merge with others in the coming year.)

7. Online free content is affecting the conference content and attendance.
Attendees expect onsite conference content to be stellar and better than what they have already seen online. Providing the same ‘ole speakers that you have always used is not good enough anymore.

8. It’s time to view the annual conference within the context of a larger community eco-system.
It is actually only one touchpoint within the eco-system of virtual and face-to-face member experiences. Some of your attendees will be at the venue, others will be outside the venue’s four walls. The organization needs to reach both. Also, step away from viewing the annual conference as a one-hit wonder or stand-alone climatic meeting within the year’s events.

9. Presentations need to move from vertical, one to many presentations to more horizontal, many to many, style sessions.
Attendees want less talking heads, more interaction, networking and structured engagement with each other and with the content. They prefer to learn from each other than a panel or presenter. Structure learning experiences around the audience as the experts. Use crowdsourcing and peer-to-peer exercises for increased attendee engagement and satisfaction. When delegates attend a presentation, they want time to interact with the content and with each other during or after the session. Plan and provide that opportunity.

10. The conference attendee list can drive your registration.
People are attending an event less for content and more for face-to-face time with friends, business colleagues, competitors and vendors. Identify the influencers in your attendee registration and empower them to be your event evangelist.

11. Our attendees are seeking boutique event experiences with fewer people.
We are seeing an increase in requests for a smaller conference experience that we plan every year with condensed meaningful professional development content. People actually enjoyed the smaller number of attendees and felt like it was a special event, just for them.

12. You cannot go backwards with virtual and technology integration.
Attendees expect the same level of virtual and technology integration as in past events. Reducing costs by cutting technology and virtual expenses ultimately reduces attendee’s experience and increases their concerns. Charging extra for virtual and technology integration will be a sure fail whale and you’ll jump the shark at the same time.

BONUS TIPS:

13. Attendees welcome more adult white space in the conference schedule.
Build in adequate time for breaks, connecting with the office, conversations with each other, and time to reflect. Don’t try to cram in more stuff thinking more is better. Reducing the amount of scheduled presentations or events is actually welcomed by the attendee and gives the attendee time to digest and reflect on content.

14. Fear and change are two themes all audiences face regardless of the discipline or industry.
If you provide content on dealing with fear and change, you’ll have a winner. These are unique times indeed and these themes are ubiquitous as attendees grapple with the unknown.

15. The corporate and nonprofit mantra has been “If we can just hold on, one of these days things will get back to normal.” Forget about getting back to normal. This is the new normal.

16. What is the new normal?
According to economist, Don Reynolds of 21st Century Forecasting, “More regulation, a weaker consumer, higher rates of unemployment, years before housing prices get back to old highs, a weaker dollar, more government debt, more taxes, a little deflation, then a lot more inflation and an end to U.S. global economic downturn.” (Don was one of our keynote speakers and delivered optimistic yet cautious economic news.)

As we look into the 2010 crystal ball regarding the meetings, events and associations world, what can we expect? More of the same.

According to Reynolds, “The economy has improved and will continue to do so. However, we are in the new normal!” He felt that this recession will last a minimal of six quarters. He also said, “To expect a normal recovery cycle, whether it is corporate profits or lending or consumer spending or capital investment, or (pick the category—increased meeting attendance, or association growth) is just not reasonable.”

Welcome to the New Normal.

18 Responses to The New Normal: 12 Meeting Takeaways & A Couple Predictions From An #Eventprofs View
  1. Swan
    September 28, 2009 | 8:05 pm

    Jeff, very insightful post. Nothing like a real life experience to drill home the best practices.

    I just wrote a post about events being one part of community building – Part 1 covers pre-event ideas: http://bit.ly/1c6349. It parallels several of the points you are making here. No doubt, you and I are on the same wavelength. Given your high level of expertise, alignment makes me feel good. :)

  2. Jeff Hurt
    September 29, 2009 | 6:57 am

    Thanks Swan. You’re usually right on the money when it comes to things related to Web 2.0, meetings, events and associations. Hat tips to you!

  3. Jeffrey Cufaude
    September 30, 2009 | 3:37 pm

    Good stuff. Some things we’ve had in transition for awhile seem to be escalating and your tech observations are particularly helpful.

    #7 is interesting because you label it content then hit speakers in your narrative. While not true in all cases, proven past speakers could still be reliable sources of the best new content if they aren’t too overexposed.

    #6 and #13 always seem to be the highwire for planners. Some want more white space, but other value-seekers see it as a timer when something more useful could have been provided. Not sure we’ll ever be able to say we’ve calibrated this one perfectly.

  4. associationjam.org
    September 30, 2009 | 5:52 pm

    Midcourse Corrections » The New Normal: 12 Meeting Takeaways & A Couple Predictions From An #Eventprofs View…

    As we look into the 2010 crystal ball regarding the meetings, events and associations world, what can we expect?

  5. John Haydon
    October 2, 2009 | 7:44 am

    Jeff – Great summary! #7: Twitter streams are becoming the norm at conferences. Especially if there’s a tech component.

  6. [...] Jeff Hurt returned from his association’s 21st annual conference, which he planned, with 12 key takeaways. Some good reminders: WiFi access is as necessary as water nowadays, green is in and spending [...]

  7. Debra Askanase
    October 6, 2009 | 12:11 am

    Jeff- I thank you for sharing these valuable insights with your readers. Though I don’t run an association or event, I attend events and conferences in my fields (social media, technology, nonprofit). I think the fact that knowledge is so easily spread via online platforms nowadays (not just webinars, but Twitter, blogs, Posterous, Linkedin groups, etc.) makes one think twice about the value of spending the money for a live conference. So why do I attend? Your points #5, 6, and 7 capture it for me.

    Also, the rise of social media that enables us to have many hundreds of weak ties across the web. Thus, points #11 and 13 become increasingly important: we need time at the conferences to strengthen weak online ties and create new ties that we can strengthen later, online or offline. My very wise friend once told me “it’s not what happens at the conference, it’s what happens afterwards that matters.” If you think of conferences in that light, then creating opportunities for people to connect before, after and during the conference using social media.

  8. Jeff Hurt
    October 6, 2009 | 7:52 am

    @Jeffrey – thanks for dropping by and adding your perspective. I agree that #7 is interesting. I mentioned speakers because they are the ones providing content at conferences and too many conferences just hire the same people to deliver the same topics every year. I’ve noticed a trend too that my attendees don’t want to hear from the same speakers even if they have new content. So, I’ll rotate good presenters every other year so not to get them over exposure.

    @John – always a pleasure to have you drop by and add your comments. Yes, I agree that Twitter has become a norm at most conferences. Actually, social media has become the norm at most conferences whether conference organizers embrace it or not.

    @Debra – Thanks for adding to the discussion. I agree that people are attending conferences more to network and connect with others than for the content. With so much free online content in webinars, live streaming and posts, associations are facing increased pressures to provide better content and act as catalyst helping people connect with each other. For me, the attendee registration list is driving my attendance at some events. If I can connect with those people that are in my social network, like you, John Haydon and Jeffrey Cufaude, that’s more of a draw than the presenters. I suspect it’s probably because I’ve been in the association world for a while and want to learn from peers and colleagues than sitting passively in a room listening to a presenter. I know others see it differently though.

  9. Ellen Weber
    October 12, 2009 | 12:52 pm

    What an interesting post, and especially interesting to me as I am heading out to deliver a conference keynote on the wonders of the human brain at university:-) We also do the wonder of the brain in business — so I really identify with all you say here:-)

    In my case the content is new and fresh and applicable so people really get into it:-) Thanks for the great tips and thoughtful communication!

    I am also reminded of the value of facilitating folks so they can meet others in meaningful discourse and that’s always the part I really enjoy most too — so your reflections make me look forward to this big event and remind me of the parts I like most.

    People need to find reasons to be inspired and the brain has many, they need more assets and those are available too. So I think in the economic downturns the brain holds answers to help folks turn their lives around and enter new frontiers because they did. Do you agree?

  10. Jeff Hurt
    October 12, 2009 | 1:21 pm

    Ellen:

    Thanks for adding to the conversation, especially from the perspective of how the brain is inspired and learns. I’m a huge advocate of the education design of a conference or event especially when thinking about how the adult brain learns. If more presenters and facilitators would take some of your advice, conferences would be a lot more exciting!

  11. Elise
    October 15, 2009 | 1:06 pm

    Jeff – curious about your comment that folks are seeking smaller “boutique” experiences. Do you see that as a wider trend (across all kinds of industries)? Do you mean breakout sessions within larger events, or actual smaller events?

    Thanks for your insightful tips, enjoyed the article.

    Elise

  12. Jeff Hurt
    October 15, 2009 | 2:22 pm

    Elise:

    Thanks for adding to the conversation.

    I think many industries are seeing a downturn in event attendance this year, especially associations. I personally believe that people want that human interaction and smaller “boutique” experiences provide the “social,” where everyone knows my name type element that people crave. People crave connections with others. They just don’t want to sit passively listening to speakers. They want to engage with others and find their tribe, their place to belong, to grow and learn.

    Even within large events, I feel event organizers need to design some smaller boutique interactions for people. I was surprised that one of the comments I heard most from our annual conference was that our attendees wanted more time to talk with each other, learn from each other and be in small groups. And we provided a lot of that this year any way but they still wanted more.

    It will be interesting to see how conferences and events evolve during the next three to five years.

  13. Howard Keele
    March 16, 2011 | 1:53 am

    A great set of advice here, but it is still hard to say though, as some attendees actually prefer to chat further in an outside café if they wish to converse more in-depth. Also, many find that staying in a confined space within a booth to be rather claustrophobic. It is up to the individual and the event of course.

  14. Laura Shemick
    April 5, 2011 | 7:15 am

    A most interesting post, and one that leaves this reader with many issues to ponder. What of the organization that includes both many, many older members (55-70) who eschew cellphones and may be uneasy with Twitter, etc., and a significant number of digital natives? Should the same topics be presented in different formats? Membership in my association is sharply divided between those who have the most up-to-date equipment and are “on” 24/7 and those who firmly believe education consists of sitting and listening to an expert. One size certainly will not fit all here.

  15. Jeff Hurt
    April 5, 2011 | 12:57 pm

    @Laura
    Thanks for reading and reaching out. You raise some interesting points.

    First, the digital divide by age is not as prevalent as you think. The Pew Internet & American Life Project shows that being online and the adoption of social media by Baby Boomers is one of the fastest growing demographics. in 2010, 74% of adults used the Internet. Today, nearly 60% of adults access the Internet via wireless. Twitter is mostly used by those 35-55. 85% of American Adults own a cell phone and one-fourth of homes are cell phone only.

    In my opinion, it is an association’s job to lead their members into today’s current communication trends and help them understand them. This is especially true for the education community.

    Second, the research about education and learning shows that sitting and listening to an expert provides the least amount of ROI, learning and retention. I have heard this excuse for the past 20 years, and once you start educating people about the truth and facts, based on science and research, about learning, they are more than willing to be more actively involved.

    Your dilemma is not unusual. I suggest that you create a mix of sessions and make sure that you secure people who understand today’s research about learning. The sessions that provide audience engagement and interaction will score higher and be well received. Word of mouth will travel and you can eventually offer less and less of the traditional “Stand and deliver” models of didactic sessions.

  16. Jeremy Piranha
    April 8, 2011 | 12:41 am

    What a tough gig! To facilitate and implement fee paying conferences in today’s climate must be the most challenging in business. Yet it also presents as an opportunity for those in the market segment to combine skills and hopefully propel and thrive during the ongoing downward trend.

  17. Conference Facilities Peterborough
    March 8, 2012 | 3:29 am

    Hi Jeff!

    This is really useful information for the novice planner, especially those organising such complex conferences like the one in your article. I particularly like tip 13- we’ve all been at these gigs and half way in we start clock watching. Definitely one not to underrate! Thanks

  18. Audio Visual Installation
    June 3, 2012 | 11:19 am

    Hi,

    Thanks for the info, we ourselves are in media/planning its always good to read others thoughts on conferences/events.

    A great post. Thanks

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