Why Your Next Meeting Needs a Meeting Steward

By: Jeff Hurt

Don't know who a meeting steward is? Well you should. This person can take your meeting logistics to the next level and make your attendees happier as a result.

Who is planning, facilitating, and managing your attendees' experience at your conferences and events? Is it the job of the meeting professional? The education or marketing department? The conference organizers? The attendees?

Often no one person or group involved in organizing the meeting is actually taking a holistic approach to facilitating the attendee's experience. Instead, the meetings team is in charge of logistics, and the education department oversees content, while other departments are concerned with advertising, marketing, awards ceremonies, and numerous other elements. In other words, the planning and organizing of a meeting has been reduced to a series of unrelated tasks as if it's a factory assembly line.

We take the content from the education department. Then we mix it with the general-session themes, meal functions, and food-and-beverage breaks. We allot time for the exhibit hall and leave unscheduled time for sponsors, vendors, and stakeholders to host their own receptions and parties. The goal is a final product to sell for consumption without much thought given to the consumer's experience, but designing a meeting this way can result in disconnection for attendees. This is the reason why some conferences have become sterile venues where attendee interaction and community building falls flat.

The meeting steward ensures that attendees receive an unforgettable experience.

For example, have you ever heard someone exclaim, "I'm going back to that conference.  It was so well organized?" Or, "Wow, that was the best-planned event ever. Not a hiccup or misstep in their planning at all?" No, probably not. Rather, people return to conferences because of a great experience. But attendees also identify when the experience feels disconnected, impersonal, out of whack, and thrown together. They can feel when something was a political add-on or came from far left field and has no context within the rest of the meeting. They know when a sponsor is there to sell to them.

Like a good cook who knows the effects of various ingredients on flavor—sweet and sour, salt and pepper, acidity and sweetness—we need to understand the characteristics and effects of various meetings formats, schedules, and sessions on attendees' experiences. We need to grasp what happens when we give short 15-minute breaks and cram a day full of 60- or 90-minute lectures without time for reflection. We need to realize the impact of providing a lunch that is full of talking heads, videos, and sponsor announcements without allowing attendees to chat with each other. In other words, we need to understand the importance of attendee engagement with each other, the content, the vendors, and the conference organizers.

The meetings industry needs its own Chef Ramsay who steps in and says, "Oh, come on. What were you thinking?" Each conference and meeting needs its own head chef of meeting experience. We need a meeting steward.

A Working Definition of "Meeting Steward"

Emerging from the convergence of social media, the Great Recession, technology advancements, community building, and the ability for anyone to build a tribe is a new role for meeting professionals: meeting steward. This person is charged with the responsibility of the attendees' experience. The meeting steward adopts a community perspective to see the meeting as a community habitat for attendees, acting as guardian and curator of the overall experience and ensuring that attendees receive an unforgettable experience.

This new role implies new functions, practices, and identity. It is about helping meeting owners construct and nurture suitable meeting habitats. It's about creating and facilitating the best attendee experience possible. It's about managing the meetings resources with a focus on the outcome of the attendees' encounters with the various conference stakeholders, messages, and content. This definition is meant to clearly distinguish between the role of the meeting steward and the traditional logistics meeting planner.

It requires a new kind of literacy—a flexible understanding about how to cultivate and develop opportunities for maximum learning, person-to-person connections, active attendee engagement, attendees as contributors and participants, and community-building initiatives. This is about more than learning from lectures, participating in networking sessions, and providing awards ceremonies. It's about the overall meeting experience.

The Role of the Meeting Steward

Meeting stewards mold and shape the intersection of the meeting's logistics, its content, and the attendees' meeting experience. They often bridge two or more departments that have roles within the conference. Meeting stewards don't work in silos.

They adopt a community perspective to help organizers choose, configure, and use the best type of meeting formats and experiences for ultimate community building, person-to-person connections, and learning. A good example is noticing that a conference has become so large that people have a challenge connecting with like-minded individuals. A steward steps in and designs smaller, niche-based meetings within the larger conference to allow people to engage and connect with one another.

Meeting stewards also need to have a clear understanding of adult learning, communication, community building, group dynamics, and person-to-person connections. They need to fully grasp and be able to apply the dynamics of participation, peripherality (those quiet lurkers), and legitimacy within a conference or meeting format. Stewards need to adopt a perspective that is sensitive to the many different social and meetings issues and develop a language to give this perspective voice and precision. They are successful when more attendees connect and when those connections grow.

Meeting stewards know how to enable large groups to share information and ideas with each other onsite. Similarly, they can facilitate the meeting of smaller niche groups that have narrower, more specialized, and differentiated areas of interest within the larger meeting's community.

The Three Dimensions of Meeting Stewardship

Meeting stewards should focus on three dimensions of the meeting experience—domain, practice, and community. Author and researcher Etienne Wenger has studied social-learning theory and identified these three dimensions as critical to communities of practice. His three dimensions have great applications for associations as well as conferences and events. Here's my twist on his three components as applied to the meeting experience.

Domain. People attending the conference come together based on a shared set of challenges, interests, issues, and passions. Their commonality is more than just a hobby, passing pursuit, or flavor of the month. It is a sustained attraction for personal or professional development and progress. Those in attendance have some type of commitment to the domain and often have a shared competence related to the field.

Meeting stewards need to recognize the importance of the domain to the conference. They should ask a series of questions about the overall experience related to the domain:

  • How does the meeting enable participants to explore, describe, and articulate their common domain?
  • What learning landscape should be pursued that addresses attendees' issues?
  • How can conference organizers negotiate a learning agenda that meets the needs of a variety of levels of experiences and not cater to the masses only?
  • Does the meeting help attendees figure out and reveal how their profession relates to other professions, individuals, groups, organizations, or endeavors?

Practice. This domain reflects how attendees share a common practice and are often viewed as professional practitioners. Practice implies applying specific bodies of knowledge and common processes in similar ways. Many conference attendees live and work with a shared set of data, facts, and procedures. They acquaint themselves with a common knowledge base and experience similar issues.

Meeting stewards have to understand that the practice dimension has a tremendous impact on the conference experience. The practice dimension serves as a catalyst for attendees to interact with each other, share stories, compare experiences, and create living conversations. It is usually about the shared and inherent body of knowledge of the group. It's about how to assist attendees and become conduits to connections with each other and the content.

Here meeting stewards need to ask a series of questions about how attendees learn from and with each other through formal and informal activities:

  • How does the meeting assist in sustained mutual engagement around an issue, profession, or industry standard?
  • Can the meeting provide new windows into each other's routines?
  • What learning activities within the meeting can make this possible?
  • Can the meeting accelerate the cycle through which attendees explore, investigate, examine, evaluate, and refine good practices?
  • How can the meeting create a shared context for attendees to communicate knowledge and perspectives; have dialogue; share stories, tools, and solutions; and wrestle together with concepts?

Community. The community dimension is about how people build relationships with each other, socialize, and learn. Attendees view the meeting as a community gathering place to learn and share meaningful information and experiences.

Meeting stewards must address and balance numerous meeting-community polarities like diversity and individuality, engagement and reflection, leading and following, lurking and involvement, beginner and experienced, and the tension that comes with offering constructive disagreement without being disagreeable. They must create open spaces that allow for a variety of voices, horizontal collaboration, collective credibility, and networked learning.

Here meeting stewards must ask these questions that address diverse and unique community demands:

  • How can the meeting support an experience of togetherness that creates a community?
  • How can we move the meeting experience to being a social container for learning together?
  • Can the meeting help people connect with like minds, find each other, and reduce isolation or lone rangers?
  • Does the meeting intentionally serve as a conduit for person-to-person connections, enabling participants to get to know each other on a deeper level in relevant ways?
  • Can the meeting augment the simultaneous interplay of commonality and diversity?
  • Are there fresh voices and opportunities for a variety of people to assume different roles, lead, start conversations, and form subgroups based on needs?
  • Is there freedom for attendees to continuously reinvent themselves as their domain and community grows?

Creating a Social Container for Learning and Connecting

Meetings often play a key role in the dissemination and appropriation of new learnings, practices, and strategies. The social lens needed to understand how conference attendees respond to a variety of meeting experiences regarding these learnings and practices is helpful in understanding how communities of practice and purpose develop and grow. Meeting stewards play a pivotal role in supporting the intertwined evolution of domain, practice, and community.

However, a meeting steward can't do the job alone. He or she needs to enlist an army comprised of staff, volunteers, and service providers to help accelerate connections and nurture community.  It's a cultural shift, and one that will be rewarded and noticed.

Ultimately, a meeting steward is one who maintains and protects the meeting experience from the attendees' perspective. It is a responsibility, practice, and attitude that addresses the design, management, and implementation of a conference attendees' experience. Meeting stewards guide conference organizers to develop authentic attendee experiences filled with emotional connections, learning through participation, memorable encounters, and community building.  They will become the voice of attendees during the planning process and an advocate for their meeting experience, resulting in more satisfied attendees.

Jeff Hurt is director of education and engagement at Velvet Chainsaw Consulting. Email: [email protected]; Twitter: @jeffhurt

Read Jeff Hurt's posts about meeting stewards from Velvet Chainsaw's Midcourse Corrections blog: