Creating Options for Learning Meetings

In the first of three blog posts about industry education, I wrote about the ‘us-them’ conundrum regarding who pays for and attends educational events sponsored by industry associations or private companies and the harm I believe is being done to overall knowledge, professionalism and service for our industry.

In this, part two, I’ve written about content and delivery, as well as scheduling and timing. This is, by the way, all adaptable for your own meetings: the status quo the industry meetings exhibit is the same for many other types of meetings.

Status Quo 1: Schedules limit time for the pursuit of learning.

I’ve maintained for years that someone once decided meetings should look and be scheduled like the worst grammar or high school any of us attended, at least as witnessed by those of us not in the Millennial generation! (I hear things are changing in some schools. However, in the U.S. we are dealing with “teaching to the test” which involves little learning to think and avoids creating a desire for lifelong learning, to be addressed in part three.)

School began with arrival and home room (“general session”), then short breaks where we were maybe allowed to use restrooms. Then on to other classes (“workshops”/”breakouts”) and then lunch period, and repeat the same schedule in reverse in the afternoon.

We were over-programmed with little time for peer interaction (“networking” in today’s parlance) and even told not to talk with each other if it appeared to interfere with a teacher’s lesson plans, not unlike some speakers who disdain interaction even to ask questions.

There is little deviation from this meeting schedule. If there are breaks (check some meeting schedules: one session time ends and the next begins with nary a minute in between), in that 15 to maybe 30 minutes, we have to exit one room, use a restroom, maybe grab a beverage and get to another session.

Time to mingle? Talk with colleagues? Only if we decide to walk in late or skip other sessions.

Different Thinking:

  1. Start sessions on time regardless of how many people are in the room. Use the mantra I have borrowed from Open Space Technology: whoever shows up are the right people.
  2. Provide breaks of 30 to 45 minutes. It may mean scheduling fewer breakout sessions  to accommodate more time between sessions. By doing so, you will provide time for people to connect, converse and share ideas.
  3. Provide places for people to sit and talk outside session rooms. Be sure the seating is accessible and convenient: not too high or too low, easily grouped, placed to not interfere with sessions in progress, and designed to encourage people to congregate to talk.
  4. 45 to 60 minute sessions are the new norm. Is that amount of time adequate for all learners and trainers (aka speakers)? As both a trainer and a learner, sure, I can deliver and absorb something in that time, but my learning styles (Aural and Kinesthetic) need more.
  5. If the sessions, because of "new thinking," must be shorter (than they were) provide opportunities for those who attend them for deeper dives in other places and times, including right after a short(er) session.

Status Quo 2: Big(ger) is better.

Why is it thought that the bigger the meeting, the better it is? Sure, there may be more people to walk through exhibits and perhaps a greater number of opinions offered. But bigger also means that those great peer-to-peer encounters happen less because people—housed in many hotels and spread out over a large convention center or even throughout a large convention hotel—rarely encounter each other.

Further, sessions have to be huge to accommodate all those in attendance. And imagine the introvert surrounded by thousands when a few or maybe “tens” are the comfort level. 

Different Thinking:

Instead of budgeting only on numbers (attendance, income, number of exhibits), budget on effectiveness, the ever-discussed, seldom practiced ROI for meetings.

Conduct Q-storming™ exercises around the meeting “whys”: Why is the meeting is being held? Why do people attend? In what will they find value? What do we know about the needs of the individual audience members? Do the trainers/speakers and meeting goers prefer interactive sessions with fewer people?

How have we measured and what have we found out about the anticipated outcomes and the actual effectiveness of the entire meeting, including size? These questions and others will help to develop different thinking. Maybe we can meet with fewer people in smaller venues where learning can occur more comfortably.

Status Quo 3: Content and speakers and room sets, oh my!

Industry programs, including those of chapters, look pretty much alike. For the national and international meetings, main-stage speakers tend to be mainly male (and too often white) in a demographic that is heavily female and still trying to attract people of diverse backgrounds.

The content is ho-hum, or perhaps it’s the way it’s delivered in ordinary ways that don’t involve participants except for the (dreaded, by me and others) Q&A at the end ... long after the questions occur and right before the too-short break in which everyone must dash leaving no time for conversation with speakers or other participants.

We are told the rooms must be set in theatre or schoolroom (or maybe "crescent rounds," though why aren't facilities using the crescent tables they use for F&B for meetings to take up less space?) When one industry organization tried theatre-in-the-round for breakouts, they heard speakers didn't know how to use it ... so they stopped!

Aren’t there some new and creative things we can do?

Different Thinking:

C’mon, industry! Read the blogs and the social media discussions to learn what is really on the minds of planners and suppliers in our industry.

Look at the demographics and see how many are new to the industry and how many are those of us who have been around a long time and would like some new topics and new delivery. Always include issues that impact all of us all the time: ethics, legalities (and not just hotel contracts!), sustainability (including labor issues), creating new learning environments and deliver those in ways that are more experiential. 

I recently moderated and spoke at the Hospitality Design Exposition & Conference (HD Expo) with two meeting planner colleagues. We envisioned having a session next year where we set a room to be the perfect meeting room and create things in there.

Why not try this concept at one of our own industry meetings?

For years, I've recommended Dr. Paul Radde's book, Seating Matters: State of the Art Seating Arrangements to groups and even more, to hotels and convention and conference centers to learn how to create more audience-centric seating. Paul's designs are superb for all kinds of audiences—when there are deaf or hard of hearing audience members too—and allows audience members to see each other (increasing eye contact that leads to sparked conversation) and for better visual lines to speakers.

Oh, and you can fit more people in the room, in better ways. Go buy it (Disclaimer: I wrote the foreword for which I wasn't paid nor am I paid when Paul sells his books).

Status Quo 4: Networking only. 

What’s with the trend in industry organization chapters for only hosting food-and-booze-style networking events? No one seems to mix things up!

Studies, including one done years ago by MPI’s Foundation about why people attend meetings, indicate a key reason to attend is to interact with peers, what we commonly refer to as networking. People don’t know how to network at least not any more.

Go to any meeting and at breaks, see everyone, heads down, involved only with their electronic devices! (Imagine if it had been that way in 1985 when Harrison Owen coined the term and practice of Open Space. It wouldn’t have happened.)

Even if we teach people how to network, our industry meetings set a very bad standard for what they continue to call networking events: alcohol, food, and way-too-loud music, and they also don’t show how networking can be better done in sessions.

Different Thinking: 

  1. There’s big business around the how to network. Colleague, Susan RoAne, aka “The Mingling Maven," has written and spoken about how to do so for years. Susan Cain, of Quiet fame, addresses networking for introverts in her book and TED Talk.  
  2. Teach how networking—valuable connections!—can happen in education sessions, in hallways and at breaks (see Open Space Technology), and anywhere two people find themselves ... if they would just look up.
  3. Teach improvisation (Izzy Gesell is highly recommended) so people can learn how to converse. One can’t really network if conversation is problematic!
  4. Music is great and helps people feel at ease especially at the start of an event where there are fewer people and conversation may be awkward. Ear-splitting music is never appropriate for an event where we want people to talk. Turn it down!
  5. Booze may be expected and it may also contribute to people acting "looser" than they might ordinarily. Is it a requirement? I don't know. It’s sure a risk factor. Rethink why and how to use food and drink to bring people together.
  6. Food can be a great way to meet others if the food is accessible and there is seating for those who can’t stand, and if we create conversation places during food-focused events.
  7. Add the phrase “peer-to-peer learning” to the industry lexicon. Create engagement opportunities (interactive problem solving for example) in sessions and teach people how to have conversations. We have lost the art of conversation now that we tweet and text. Maybe this will help

We can create better industry gatherings and education that can serve as models for others' meetings. What will you do to increase the options our industry offers?

Upcoming in part three of the education series, I will write about "lifelong learning"—its pursuit and attainment—and how the industry associations can advance and support this pursuit.

Posted by Joan L. Eisenstodt

Follow Joan on Twitter: @joaneisenstodt

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