Why Are We Still Meeting 2008 Style?


by Robert McGarvey


Reading Meeting Planners International’s (MPI) spring 2018 Outlook a loud question echoed in my brain: why are today’s meetings essentially just retreads of meetings 2008 style, maybe even 1998 style?

So much has changed in the past decade. Steve Jobs/Apple drove the smartphone into ubiquity.  Super-fast broadband is everywhere. Video calls – often via Skype, at no cost – are business staples and that’s displacing a lot of face to face contacts.

Before just about every trip today I question if I have to do it. Can’t I accomplish the goal without the travel?

My life today is very different from what it was in 2008, especially in that I am always connected, always have high quality videos at my fingertips.

My attention span today is a lot shorter, too.  And that’s true for most of us.

Meetings I have been to don’t really get that. Sure, they pay lipservice to the concept, as does MPI, but there’s no real commitment.

They also don’t get that we are hip deep into a generational shift where a lot of meeting attendees are Millennials who are filling seats once occupied by Baby Boomers, who are retiring in droves (about 10,000 retire every day).  

And Millennials are true “digital natives,” this stuff has been part of their lives for as long as they have been on earth.

Yet meetings don’t seem to be that much different – not really.

Maybe it’s because the dirty secret about meetings – which I first heard 40 years ago when I complained to a boss about how boring the well-paid speakers were – is that nobody goes for the meeting as such.  “The real action is in the breaks, at lunch, at the 5 p.m. cocktail hour,” said my boss. “Use that time well and you’ll get whatever you need to get out of any meeting we send you to.”

Yes, that was carte blanche to skip any sessions headlined by an out work state governor or a motivational speaker, although candidly I sometimes very much like the latter.  It was also a free pass to ignore the many breakouts that supposedly dig deeper into a specific topic.

But it was an exhortation to work the halls, the meal tables, the cocktail hours. That’s where people talk one with another and, yes, I’m still in touch with people I met at conference lunches many years ago.

The MPI document proceeds in blithe ignorance of that reality.

The secret sauce that makes many meetings very special for many attendees is the stuff that in lots of ways falls out of the control of the planners. It’s the face to face, tete a tetes where attendees connect.

And the related reality that what happens on the mainstage maybe doesn’t matter that much to the satisfaction, or lack, of conference attendees.

Maybe that explains why there has been – to my eyes – very little effort to remake meetings to suit a 2018 reality.

Sure, MPI said that today’s attendees want to be “active and engaged.”  

But word of reality: publishing a meeting app and putting some little games on it does not in actual fact create meaningful engagement.  

Giving attendees a hashtag and asking them to Tweet also isn’t engagement.

MPI also said the #1 meetings trend today is “more virtual/hybrid streaming” – and that, I’ll agree, may help more people who can’t attend a meeting to absorb parts of it, at least the mainstage parts that are most likely to win a remote audience. But they will miss out on the tete a tetes and that’s the pity.

Other top trends noted by MPI include: “more interactive/hands on (23.3 percent), new experiences/more experiential (23.3 percent), more “outside the box” (23.3 percent), more apps (20 percent) and more local flair inside the venue (16.7 percent).”

All these trends are fine – but, tell me, at meetings you attend are they more than window dressing?  Sure, there will be a pass at gamification in the app, maybe there will be a “local” cocktail at an event (prickly pear margaritas in Scottsdale anyone?), possibly there will be a little push for experiences.

But I ask again: have meetings fundamentally changed in 10 years?

It’s a sclerotic industry and that is not a healthy state.

One problem, pointed out by MPI, is that organizations are increasing meeting budgets – but not even enough to keep pace with inflation.   The estimated increase in budget for next year is up 1.8%, and there just is no way that will cover increases in airfares, hotel fees, and the rest.  Organizations need to be spending more money – on technology in particular – but they are pulling their purse strings tighter.

That’s a big fail.

But maybe it’s just the reality that when it comes to meetings, companies get what they pay for…and nothing more.

Just maybe.

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