Mindful meeting choices: The details that make the difference

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Logistics are the bread and butter of a meeting planner’s diet. It’s easy to get distracted by the shiny objects of 21st-century planning – event apps, virtual reality, meditation breaks – but it’s well-executed basics and details that allow those elements to augment the show.

Having attended my fair share of conferences, I can attest that it’s the little things that make or break an individual participant’s experience. Request a vegetarian meal and receive a surf-and-turf plate instead, pick up your name badge and discover your surname misspelled, or review your trade show appointments and see your request for Halifax resulted in a meeting in Hamilton, and you’ll understand that getting the simple elements right has the biggest impact on an event’s success. Blow the basics, and it won’t matter that your push-technology session reminders all went out on time.

So, consider the meeting from the participant’s point of view. I walk through their experience from receipt of the save-the-date or invitation, through registration, preparation for the event and each element of the onsite experience until they return home with the event behind them. It’s easy to think of these building blocks as dull or uninteresting, but they only become so if you don’t consider how they’re integral to the structure of a successful conference. Let’s look at some examples to see how that’s true.

Venue

Recognizing that availability can trump all other considerations, particularly when lead time is a fraction of what you’d prefer to be working with, it’s incumbent on the planner to think carefully about what defines the best location for any meeting. Busy planners can have more than a dozen open files on the go at any one time. As such, it’s easy to fall into the rut of calling the same go-to venues for every meeting that crosses your desk. A few moments’ thought might have you making a different plan.

Where will your participants come from? If most are flying in and the meeting is short  — say, a day and a dinner the night before — perhaps an airport property will save them time and your budget money if you’d typically choose a downtown hotel. Can you consolidate spend at one venue? Rather than go offsite for an evening function, if you select a venue with a variety of outside-the-ballroom options (rooftop, pool deck, terrace), you might turn a “no thanks” into a “yes please” from the yield manager, eliminate the need for offsite transfers and be able to consider a venue you wouldn’t otherwise get into. Has your client told you, “We’re not [insert hotel brand here] people,” as once happened to me? Have them join you on a site at the property you’d like to recommend; their judgement may be based on years-old information or a negative leisure travel experience in a faraway city, and they might be persuaded if they see the venue (and the brand) through your eyes.

Room Setup

Rather than simply make the expected choice – banquet rounds for a dinner, for example – consider how the content or objectives for the function can inform the setup. Is the dinner being held in recognition of a retiring executive or group of award winners? Could you locate a feature table in the centre of the room with pin-spot lighting, upgraded table decor, and enhanced service, so the honoured guests feel special and are located as close to as many other guests as possible? Do you want to bring a group of relative strangers together to build and grow relationships? What about tables of four, rather than the usual eights or tens, so everyone at the table can see and speak to one another? As Steven Covey said, “Begin with the end in mind.”

Food and Beverage

As dietary preferences have inflated special needs lists – remember when they were only 10 per cent of attendees? – the basics of menu planning have become a minefield of potential difficulties. Add to that challenge the fact that food and beverage prices have jumped more than 25 per cent in the last three years, and managing meals has become fraught with difficulty. Who was it that decided meeting participants needed to eat five times a day? (Who does that when they’re not at a conference?) Given how few people eat any breakfast – much less a hot one – most days of the week, what about just offering grab-and-go coffee, tea and green smoothies in the half hour before sessions begin? (Be sure to manage expectations by letting participants know in pre-marketing, so your opening speaker doesn’t face a roomful of “hangry” delegates!) Alternatively, if your participants do value breakfast, will they also need a food-laden break mid-morning, with a three-course lunch a mere 60 to 90 minutes later? Should you consider reducing the number of courses at lunch, or offering vouchers for use in the hotel’s outlets so participants can control the size and selection of their midday menu themselves? When you look at your food and beverage choices as whole, rather than as discrete functions, the picture can change.

Audio-Visual

It’s the default option to throw a screen or two, a data projector, a lectern and a microphone in a meeting room. I might just have described every plenary and breakout session’s requirements at your last conference, workshop, seminar or gala dinner. The thing about AV equipment is that it’s supposed to support delivery of the content at a meeting, rather than drive it. How large is the space you’re using? How many people will attend? How close will they sit to the action? What do you want the audience to focus on? If your speaker is dynamic and impactful, and the back row is only 50 feet from the stage, do you need IMAG? Can your presenter speak in a compelling and memorable way without visual support? (To be fair, some can’t.) Do you want the audience to look at the individual on the stage or at a few bullet points on the screen? Can you do without a lectern? What if your presenters at the awards gala spoke behind a mic on a stand and used a confidence monitor or teleprompter, rather than hiding behind a lectern? (Think Hollywood award presentations, rather than the local service club.)

In summary, it’s important to disengage the autopilot when thinking about meeting logistics. It is possible to inject creativity into what seem like the most boring elements of planning. And creativity can look like less, rather than more. Sometimes, departing from the usual choices can decrease your spend – or allow you to shift cost from one budget bucket to another. If you can make the usual steps fresh and new to you during the process, they’re more likely to feel fresh and new to the participants at your event.

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