Skift Take

The meetings industry is evolving beyond its preoccupation with event technology and the impact of Millennials over the last five years. The new focus for 2017 revolves around developing more multidisciplinary business events, integrating education and entertainment, to engage attendees in new ways on different levels.

The primary shift in the meetings and events industry in 2017 is going to revolve around delivering business events that engage attendees in more multidisciplinary ways.

For the last five years, the industry has been focused on two trends impacting meeting design strategy above all else: the rise of event technology and the emergence of the Millennial generation. There was growing consensus in 2016, however, that it’s time for the meetings industry to move beyond its preoccupation with those themes.

Today, event tech is inherent in every element of the meeting experience pre-to-post. The concept of “hybrid meetings,” combining live and virtual experiences, is meaningless in 2017 — just like the phrase “new media” that disappeared only a few years ago — because digitization has completely reshaped every industry.

“Event technology is not a force driving change anymore,” asserts Julius Solaris, founder of Event Manager Blog. “It is an established pillar of every event. Those that don’t embrace it will be out of business soon, and frankly, we won’t miss them. Event tech is not a new thing anymore, we are past that.”

Meanwhile, everyone is exhausted talking about Millennials because the line differentiating generational psychographics, especially with regard to event technology, has blurred to such a large degree that it’s meaningless, too.

Shawnna Kerns, 26, marketing & communications manager for the Convention Industry Council, emphasized during a Skift-moderated panel last year that Millennials are sick of being pigeonholed as Millennials because it reinforces stereotypes that hamper career growth and individual expression.

“So they’re fighting back and saying, ‘Look, we’re not all like that. We’re not all the same person. We don’t all like the same things,” she said.

McKenzie Kaufeld Counts, a Millennial-age manager of the Making it Happen events company in Orlando, added, “Just because I’m young doesn’t mean I know how to fix your remote control.”

With those two themes now blending into the mainstream, the big trends this year are going to revolve around making people give a damn about whatever it is someone is selling. The exponential growth of new live events and the media noise surrounding them year-over-year are pulling increasingly fractured audience attention in ever widening arcs of apathy.

Therefore, 2017 is about the why of meetings.

Delegates are asking: “Why should I attend a specific meeting?” Corporate decision makers want to know: “Why should we sponsor a particular event?” Association directors ponder: “Why do we exist?” From the meeting planners’ perspective, they’re wondering: “Why would today’s highly distracted attendee engage with our content?”

More multidisciplinary programming that drives both the personal and professional development of attendees is helping answer those questions. The kinetic hybridization of the delegate user experience — marrying online and offline omni-channel engagement, themes linking commerce and creativity, and content integrating education and entertainment — helps attendees plug into an organization’s messaging in more ways at more times in more places.

Here are the three primary meetings industry trends relating to that in 2017.

Convergence is The New Innovation

The business and creative industries’ obsessive focus on innovation is a good thing, but it needs a makeover in 2017. With technology impacting every industry, where everything and everyone is connected, there’s a growing excitement around pairing together event speakers, experiences, and content that may have previously been considered somewhat dichotomous.

Today, convergence is the new innovation.

It’s become cliche by now to bring up events like TED, South by Southwest, and C2 Montreal, which all broke new ground by bringing together thought leaders from different industries to explore commonalities in creative problem-solving in today’s era of global connectivity. C2, for example, combines retail experiences blending street art depicting gang life next to tables filled with handmade tea cozies, while speakers discuss topics ranging from the future of 3D printing in DIY maker culture to the future of the 3D web.

For 2017, C2’s theme is Ecosystems, described as: “History has shown that important breakthroughs can come from the most unexpected sources. As innovation is increasingly dependent on the fusion of a vast range of skills, beliefs and disciplines, the most creative solutions are the result of the most extreme collisions of ideas as well as the ability to break down barriers between silos. Today, companies need to manage ecosystems of collaborators that are highly complex and interdependent, bridging markets and communities that are both global and local, segmented and complementary.”

More interesting, multidisciplinary events like C2 have inspired a groundswell of convergence-building in other events of all sizes. Convergence is the new catalyst for starting conversations naturally among different types of people to drive organic networking and build engagement.

The inaugural Murmuration Festival in St. Louis this year, for example, was positioned as “The Convergence of Art, Music, Science and Tech.”

In this post, A Convergence of Well…Everything: Murmuration Festival 2016, a local Washington University student writes: “There were booths for different creators set up all around, talks and lectures about science and issues in the world, art installations around the festival, and music — a convergence of music.”

The interesting angle here, even though the event was labelled as a festival, it was co-created by the city’s Cortex Innovation District and Explore St. Louis tourism board to build new business relationships between the local startup community and outside tech industries.

The Festivalization of Meetings

The increasingly common festivalization of meetings is the physical manifestation of the rise of convergence reshaping business event programming.

C2 and SXSW define themselves as both conferences and festivals. The Airbnb Open conference, bringing together over 5,000 Airbnb hosts from around the world to discuss business strategy, is positioned as: “A Festival of Hosting.” XLIVE in Las Vegas is tagged as: “The festival + live event industry conference & expo.” Trend Hunter’s Future Festival is “specifically designed to be the world’s best innovation conference.” And the HUBweek arts and innovation summit in Boston, co-created by MIT, Harvard, and The Boston Globe, describes itself as: “Boston’s festival for the future.”

BizBash founder David Adler writes in this Medium post: “All experiences are morphing together into the festivalization of events. Concerts add conferences, meetings add new styles of collaboration, trade shows add consumer elements. Training conferences are like going to Lollapalooza. In a competition for our attention, event organizers are engaging all the senses.”

The formula behind these hybrid festival/conference events is generally the same. Pull together the most inspiring minds possible in business, tech, media, science, education, art, and culture, and sequester them inside a cross-section of creative venues and collaborative spaces. Then hit “blend” with integrated online and offline catalysts, VR/AR/AI platforms, startup pitch competitions, live music performances, tech-inspired art exhibits, and local offsite experiences to create spontaneous collisions between people, ideas, and brands in unprecedented ways.

Google I/O in Mountain View, California last spring was a good example of festivalizing business event design. Inspired by Coachella and Bonnaroo, in part, the developer conference took place for the first time this year in an outdoor amphitheater next to funky pop-up geodesic domes and stacked shipping containers, all shape-shifting from meeting venues in the day to social spaces at night.

At Trend Hunter’s Future Festival in Toronto, session themes include The Business of Marijuana, DIY Beer & Craft Culture, Yoga with a Mind Reader, Pop-Up Retail Reinvention, and Axe Throwing. At HUBweek last year, “post-Millennial” hackers built hospitals of the future in Minecraft.

The shift toward the festivalization of meetings also includes the strategy of co-locating ancillary events before, during, and after large signature conventions. The organizers behind London Technology Week promote the citywide programming as: “Europe’s largest festival of technology,” which combined more than 250 individual tech-themed events last year.

“Now Tech Week is the biggest crowdsourced tech event in Europe, because people are doing their own events — all we do is build the platform,” said Tracy Halliwell, director of conventions at London & Partners. “So what happens is people network with each other at meetings and conferences, and things happen. You get a lot of exciting convergences and ideas.

“If you can smash a few of those events together and create a bigger event,” she continued, “it just creates a bigger noise for the content of the event and for the city. It shows that there’s all of this fabulous stuff going on, and that’s what’s going to attract more delegates.”

Business Events Are Experiential Brand Marketing Platforms

The Freeman event design company created a new Design Leadership Council in late 2016 with leaders from organizations such as the U.S. Military Cyber Command and Walt Disney Imagineering.

According to Bruce Mau, chief design officer at Freeman, the goal behind creating the council was to tap the talents of an expanded pool of creative and logistical industry experts to develop more multidisciplinary live event experiences for the next generation of attendees.

“The principle I apply is really to bring wicked teams to wicked problems,” said Mau. “With all the new problems today, you have to think about what’s needed to synthesize all the content input to produce a new kind of synthetic media output. It’s not a singular practice anymore. It’s all built by teams, so you need people who are experts at teams.”

The criteria for who Mau invited to the Council was “design thinkers who in their own way transformed a big organizational culture into some kind of new condition, because ultimately that’s what we’re doing,” he explained. “We’re applying design thinking not only to our product but to our whole enterprise. I wanted people who’ve been through this already to really change the world.”

That kind of lofty messaging is illustrative of how some event organizers are repositioning meetings and events as part of a larger experiential brand marketing platform.

For Chris Cavanaugh, CMO of Freeman, he looks at meetings and events as just one part of the “brand experience channel,” which he says is continuing to evolve as more CMOs bring meetings into their marketing toolbox to leverage the value of real-time, face-to-face engagement.

In which case, events are no longer isolated experiences. Cavanaugh said that brands are more consciously developing their conferences as “flash points” that amplify brand messaging in alignment with online channels.

“It really is about this idea of convergence, because everything is more interdisciplinary and everything needs to plug and play together, so we’re leaning into that,” he said. “We’re at an inflection point in our business at this stage where brand experiences and face-to-face marketing are becoming more essential in a scattered media landscape. Especially when you connect that with technology, bringing the online and face-to-face, or live marketing, if you will, together — that’s really pretty potent.”

In this Skift post from last summer, Sanjay Dholakia, CMO at Marketo, summed up the growing value of meetings, evolving from live business events to live brand marketing platforms.

“There’s so much information online today that you can’t blast your way thorough it anymore,” he said. “In this crazy digital, mobile, social world, we now have infinite channels, so there’s much more noise. It’s hard to get the signal through…. The basis now is: Who’s got the relationships? That’s where the physical engagement is really important and powerful.”


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Photo credit: The HUBweek conference — positioned as "Boston's festival for the future" — illustrates the growing trend around the festivalization of meetings. HUBweek

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