May 2017

Changing attendee preferences upend tradition

by Maria Lenhart

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  • Steelcase





Say goodbye to the old classroom set-up where attendees listened dutifully for two hours in a windowless room while a speaker gave a presentation at the front of the room. Today’s attendees want a more interactive, dynamic experience during a meeting, prompting planners and hotels to radically upend traditional approaches on everything from room seating to content delivery and break-time activities.

“Today it’s all about personalizing the experience and engaging people as never before,” said veteran planner and meetings technology consultant Corbin Ball. “In fact, I don’t even like to use the word ‘attendee’ anymore. People want to be participants.”

Carol Hamilton, who is senior associate for the Institute of Conservation Leadership and has a long history of developing learning programs for associations, also believes planners are under increased pressure to move away from the traditional education model tied to a set agenda.

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“People’s time has become very precious—it’s harder to take time away from the office,” she said. “Plus there are so many more ways now to get information. When someone does go to a conference, they want to leverage their time to the best advantage. The way conferences were designed 50 years ago does not answer this.”

Another huge factor is the tremendous influence technology, especially mobile, is having on the way meetings content needs to be delivered, noted Annette Gregg, vice president-corporate west for Allied PRA, a destination management and event planning company.

“Our attention spans have shrunk and so has the tolerance level, which means that people simply cannot sit still for long periods of time,” she said. “Audience expectations have also changed—Baby Boomers were used to sitting and taking notes, but Millennials aren’t. Now we know that the best way to retain information is through hands-on engagement. People also want the meeting experience to be personalized and they want something new and different—a cutting-edge experience they can share with their peers.”

Seats at the Table

Meeting room layout, colors and furnishings play heavily in improving the attendee experience, according to Gregg. For an event planned for a financial company, she partnered with Workspring, a company that creates engaging workspace and meeting environments at hotels and off-site venues.

“We did couch seating in various colors, plus moveable seats,” she said. “Instead of theater-style, we broke things apart and did a campfire approach. We also collected data about their satisfaction level with the set-up, which showed that the attendees as well as the speakers liked this approach.”

The concept was so successful that AlliedPRA took it a step further at the client’s next meeting by creating a standalone interactive plaza with a chalkboard that could be used for either pre-scheduled or spontaneous meetings.

“An attendee could come in and call together a group by putting something up on the chalkboard,” Gregg said. “It enabled people to start informal sessions of their own.”

Thomas Pitchford, owner of Pitch Perfect Events, also advocates taking an innovative approach to room layout. He likes to provide a mix of tables and stand-up areas for attendees and limit presentation time in favor of networking.

“It’s important to let people be part of the conversation and let them get up to mix and mingle,” he said. “We also like to give people random numbers for seating, so they aren’t all at the same table with their friends but are meeting new people.”

Pitchford also likes to use music to create energy and break up a long day of sessions.

“Instead of the usual elevator music, we might do a theatrical overture with lights and sounds or, as an opener, a lively song by Tina Turner or a garage band,” he said. “In some cases, we look at music that relates to the event theme. We also like to have energizing music during brings; something to keep their minds focused.”

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