I once managed a conference for a group of 100 high-level members of the U.S. defense industry. When I poked my head into the back of the room during the plenary session, I was overwhelmed by the gravity of the presenter’s content.

But even more concerning was that few people appeared to be paying attention. From my vantage point, I could see that 
the majority of participants were on their phones and tablets engaged in everything from social media to email to creating a PowerPoint presentation.

These were the very people responsible for keeping us safe. Yet, most of them were either too busy or uninterested to absorb the content that was being presented. It was sobering.

Think about the tiny rush we all get before clicking “register now” or that RSVP button. In that moment, we are so optimistic that the event will prove valuable and our time will be well spent. Certainly, as meeting and event professionals, we want to provide that value and high level of service.

But, as Danny Meyer says, “service is a monologue; hospitality is a dialogue.” Meyer, a New York City restaurateur and CEO of the Union Square Hospitality Group who runs both fine dining restaurants and Shake Shack, is legendary for his hospitality.

For planners, that dialogue begins with the meeting design. It’s so important to seek audience input even before booking that very first speaker. Yes, it takes time. Yes, the results may not be what leadership wants to hear. But with data in hand, planners can 
make informed decisions and transform the participant experience. Sending pre-conference surveys to members, prior-year attendees and/or invited guests is a simple, affordable way to seek feedback on proposed content, potential presenters, or even meeting locations.

There are also simple, affordable ways to give participants a chance to “build their own” experience. For instance, the Sustainable Brands conference facilitates “Birds of a Feather” dinners in which any attendee can write the topic of their choice on a blank sign-up sheet. He/she chooses a restaurant and a reservation is booked for the total number of people who add their name to the list. Sustainable Brand planners report these dinners are some of the most popular conference offerings, year after year. 

Or, why not give participants a chance to choose their own mode of transportation?

Personally, I am a fan of group transportation because we can make sure it’s reliable, on time and, of course, weather resistant. But we find today’s business travelers crave exploration; they want to leave a city with a true sense of its personality.

The Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau, for example, provides a useful complimentary tool-pocket-size mobility maps with every option for moving around “The D,” from the QLine streetcar along the main Woodward Avenue corridor to rideshare services to the ever-expanding number of scooters that dot the downtown area.

By nature, “build your own” makes planners like me cringe. But, for the health of our industry, let’s be bold! Meaningful dialogue will improve everyone’s return on investment.

Read tips from two bestselling pros on the challenges and opportunities of managing the modern meeting. 

Like it or not, hybrid meetings are here to stay. Managing these gatherings, where some attendees are in the room and others are Zooming in, requires new skills from meeting planners.


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With restrictions across the country in a state of constant flux, not everyone is ready to jump back into meeting in person. While some planners are eager to get back to “normal,” the long-term adjustment to new protocols and potential risks make some hesitant to gather.

While wearing masks and social distancing can help keep attendees safe, intentional design choices—such as including natureinspired elements and materials and plenty of plants—can also help calm attendees.