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Skift Take

There’s a huge gap today in the meetings industry between ideation and implementation when it comes to next generation meeting design and event technology.

— Greg Oates

Millennial-age meeting planners and attendees have been pushing for more modern meeting design and advanced event technology for years, but the meetings industry at large has been slow to implement changes because industry leaders don’t take young meeting planners seriously enough.

Right now, there are really two meetings industries. There’s the legacy group of older meeting planner buyers and tourism bureau, convention center, and hospitality suppliers who attend meetings to maintain business relationships that were established long ago.

Then there’s the second group of emerging Millennial professionals who are hungry to learn and meet new contacts using social media, apps and other digital tools that they’ve grown up with.

The two groups are often failing to engage effectively.

To be sure, there’s been some improvements at bridging the chasm in meeting experience demands among the younger and older groups. As we reported this week, Kelly Peacy at the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) has done some cool things experimenting with open space learning at the organization’s two annual events, Convening Leaders and EduCon.

The rest of the industry should pay a lot more attention to what’s happening there. Some of them are, such as Michael Dominguez, senior VP & chief sales officer at MGM Resorts, and co-chair of the Meetings Mean Business Coalition.

“Millennials want the same things every other generation coming through our industry has wanted—they want to network, they want to grow professionally, and they want to develop their careers,” he says. “But I do think it’s incumbent on us to stop throwing people into a room and say, ‘Go’…. What I see with certain organizations, they’re now designing it where there is a buddy program. So for your first time at one of these large programs, you’re actually teamed with one of the more veteran people in an organization or company who are raising their hands to say, ‘Look, I want to help introduce you to the right people so you can start to develop your own network in the industry.’”

Back in 2012, PCMA published the first truly comprehensive report on the Millennial psychographic profile within the context of meetings: “What the Millennial Generation Prefers in Their Meetings, Conventions & Events.” A survey of over 2,000 Millennial-age respondents were asked to rank between 1-5 the importance of 78 questions relating to meeting design and advanced networking.

Among the highest ranked responses (4.44), the survey showed that what drives Millennials to participate in meetings and events the most is career networking and job opportunities. In response to the question about how Millennials prefer to communicate, the most preferred (4.28) was face-to-face meetings. The top response (4.56) was that Millennials want to see more web-based interactivity integrated into meetings and events.

The author of that report is Dr. George Fenich, professor of meetings/events/conventions, School of Hospitality Leadership, East Carolina University. Speaking with him last month, he feels the industry at large has both an opportunity and responsibility to better engage Millennial meeting attendees, because the research and technology revolving around how to do so already exists.

“All of the research I have done has shown that Millennials want a lot of opportunities when they’re coming to an event to network, and one of their biggest issues is, what are those opportunities exactly when you’re throwing 5,000 people in a room,” Fenich told us. “I’m not seeing a lot of change in terms of implementation. There’s a lot of buzz, but from buzz to implementation takes activity and effort and maybe some money. I just don’t see a lot happening, and there’s a bunch of technology that could enable it.”

The Rise of Millennial #EventProfs

The annual Incentive Travel, Meeting & Events Exhibition (IMEX) conventions in Las Vegas and Frankfurt are the two largest meetings industry gatherings every year, and they’re growing rapidly year-over-year with new members signing up from around the globe.

A few years ago, IMEX developed an “Innovation Hub” on the trade show floor comprised of event tech vendors selling the newest cloud-based technologies. The fact that IMEX Frankfurt doesn’t provide comprehensive Wi-Fi for non-hosted buyer attendees is a huge challenge for visiting international delegates, but the fact that attendees could at least meet the event tech companies was at least somewhat innovative for its time.

This year at IMEX Frankfurt, Dr. Fenich hosted a number of educational sessions with Millennial-age industry trendsetters, including Rosa Garriga Mora (29), a Barcelona-based meeting design consultant who is emerging as a leading global voice for young event professionals.

“We have to keep learning and developing new skills all the time, because we are living in an age where change is so fast, so forget CVs, we need to build our networks,” she told us. “More than anything, Millennials want to get to know people and network at events because that’s one of the best ways we can develop our market value for clients and employers. But at the same time, we’re not necessarily very good at networking at live events. We’re so used to Googling everything, so we need to get better at building more connections at conferences.”

To accomplish that, Garriga Mora would like to see more interactive networking opportunities during live meetings that can’t be duplicated online. For her, interactive workshops and panels with a lot of give-and-take between the audience and speakers provide more ROI than other types of educational sessions. She says Millennials also want to meet other people at events with shared interests to help them make higher quality connections.

“I think for event organizers to succeed, they will have to make it easier for people to find other like-minded people,” she asserts. “And I think that sounds like common sense, but in reality, I go to so many events where that doesn’t happen. You just meet people by chance.”

Following IMEX Frankfurt, Garriga Mora had this to say in her LinkedIn post, “IMEX 15: Inspiration Hub, or just Business Hub“:

“It’s our belief that IMEX (or any other industry trade show, for that matter) should showcase many more innovations and meeting formats. Let’s face it: the trade show format hasn’t changed much in the past 100 years. It’s probably good enough to conduct business and meet many people in a short amount of time, but with all the alternative marketing and sales channels out there, trade shows should do something else to keep its attractiveness. After spending time in the so-called “IMEX Inspiration Hub,” a meeting planner who was attending the exhibition for the first time said that she hardly found any inspiration. So next time she will instead attend events like C2Montreal, named #1 Most Innovative Meeting by BizBash.”

Meeting Suppliers & Organizations Need to Be Less Cheap

The problem is money. Following the recession, the mantra among meeting planners is that they’re continually being asked to do “more for less.” But the recession is over and suppliers and organizations need to invest more in their products and services if they want to remain relevant to the next generation of meeting planners and attendees.

In fact, the “next generation” is really the now generation. As of Q1 2015, Millennials now constitute the majority of the American workforce, according to the Pew Research Center.

Case in point. At the FRESH event tech dinner at IMEX America in 2014, a meeting planner told us how she was feeling overwhelmed trying to understand how to develop more hybrid/virtual meeting components into her events.

So we asked her what type of research she’s doing into hybrid meeting design, who she’s talking to for advice, and what type of success she’s had to date.

She said, “I wish.” Then she explained how she’d just spent a full day prior to IMEX talking to seven vendors to try and get the lowest price for linen for one of her programs. She said it takes everything she can do just to keep up with the logistics of her events, and there’s no time for anything else. More importantly, she didn’t have the time or budget to experiment with new meeting design experiences.

At IMEX, we told this story to one of the most respected meeting planners in North America and one of the leading figures in event technology. Both of them rolled their eyes and said that’s the problem right there. The planner, they suggested, is focusing on the wrong things.

But how can the planner be focusing on the wrong things when it’s her job to source linens, along with a hundred other things. If she doesn’t, who does? Who’s going to tell that planner and her management that she’s focusing on the wrong things?

The Meetings Industry Needs To Make Time For Millennials

So why are meeting owners and planners having such a difficult time implementing modern meeting design and event tech into meetings? According to Jessie States, manager of professional development at the Meeting Professionals International trade organization, she supports the common belief today that many planners simply aren’t being given enough resources or time to do their job properly in 2015.

The bigger picture is that companies and organizations don’t see the ROI for the additional investment required to hire more meeting planners and event tech suppliers to implement new meeting design systems.

“A couple of years ago we decided we wanted to find out what the future of meetings and events was going to look like, and we went out into the industry and we asked meeting professionals that belong to our organization what they thought that might look like,” said States during the organization’s annual World Education Congress. “And we were a little disappointed in the results. We found out that meeting professionals are so busy, and they’re doing so many different things, and they’re being tasked with doing more with less, that they really didn’t even have the time to think about what two years down the road was going to look like, much less 10, 15 or 20.

So we asked States what are the biggest challenges to go from meeting design ideation toward real world implementation.

“The biggest challenge is time,” she answered. “I don’t think we as meeting professionals spend enough time in the design process because we’re being forced into where we’re going to choose our venue, figuring out what kind of space we’re going to need, and we need to decide all of that quickly. We’re not spending enough time in the design process so that we’re able to incorporate these new ideas into our events.”

So then we asked States if she had any solutions. How can planners communicate to their management and stakeholders that they need more time to design better meetings, incorporating all of the new meeting design techniques available?

“We need to look at meetings in a more strategic way,” replied States. “Start collecting the data that you need. Start collecting the anecdotal evidence you need that shows people are unsatisfied with elements of your event. And show how you can correct that if you’re given the time that is necessary to design appropriately. I think that all data is good data, even negative data, because it really is going to help you focus in on what challenges you’re facing as an individual in your organization, and how you can take steps to improve over time.”

People like Jessie States, Rosa Garriga Mora, Kelly Peacy and Dr. George Fenich are developing a ton of great thought leadership and research showing how and why much of the destination meetings industry still needs to enter the 21st century. So the leadership is there, but it’s incumbent on organizations like PCMA and MPI to push harder on more of their member organizations to wake up and smell the ROI.

There’s also a big opportunity for Millennials to band together with a more unified voice to push for their demands harder. An organization like PCMA should think about developing a blog specificaly dedicated to young event professionals, which members of the organization’s 20 In Their Twenties could write. Garriga Mora was a member of that group in 2014 during the first year of its inception.

Then again, perhaps we should stop even focusing on the whole “Millennial meeting trends” concept and shift that to “modern.” A lot of Gen X and Boomer planners and attendees are also seeking better meeting design and event tech in 2015, but the Millennial focus makes the challenges seem more specific to a narrower group.

Or, maybe the focus on industry trends should shift toward Generation Z meeting trends, so Gen Y is viewed in a more mainstream context deserving more mainstream attention from the legacy meetings industry community.

As Dominguez told us, “Forget Millennials, I want to know what Gen Z wants because they’re going to start showing up in my hotels in three to five years.”

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