Alex Beall is a freelance writer based in California.
The events space is always changing, as attendees expect more from the onsite experience, new conferences compete for meeting-goers, and technological advancements are introduced. It takes forward-thinking planners to keep up and create successful events. Meet three who are making it happen.
Experiential learning, organic networking, cutting-edge technology: Those are some of the buzzwords you hear when discussing the association meetings industry. They’re also what meeting planners must consider to keep attendees engaged and to offer the highest value possible.
On top of that, planners are tasked with everything from offering creative educational formats and effective networking opportunities to using technology that bolsters learning and enhances the overall conference experience.
Finding a fresh take on these isn’t easy—but these three meetings innovators are doing their part to breathe new life into the conference experience.
For Derrick Johnson, CMP, the best conference learning is active.
“We want to make it fun and interesting,” says Johnson, senior director of meetings at the Council of Insurance Agents and Brokers. “We don’t want to just have lecturers and people standing in front of people talking, because we learn best by doing.”
One of those tactics is to get attendees outside the classroom. For example, as part of CIAB’s Leadership Academy, attendees visited a battlefield and applied leadership tactics practiced by past generals. And during another Academy event, attendees participated in a team-building activity where they learned the fundamentals of crew and used the sport as an example of how to work together to achieve a goal.
Empowering the next generation through activities like these is a top priority for Johnson and his team, especially as a large number of the industry’s top leaders are stepping down—about 25 percent are projected to retire next year.
Johnson has also incorporated new technology into the attendee experience, including augmented reality (AR), virtual reality, and a humanoid robot that acts as a greeter.
Meeting-goers at its Employee Benefits Conference, for example, could use a mobile app from CIAB’s AR partner to scan color-coded QR codes throughout the venue. Some provided directions to meeting rooms, while others made posters come alive to share information about the group’s council initiatives, political action committee, and foundation work.
At a Game of Thrones-themed gala, QR codes triggered images related to the show, such as scenes of dragons at the dessert table. During the upcoming Insurance Leadership Conference, attendees will be able to access the AR scanner directly through the CIAB conference app.
“It’s an opportunity to take the world we currently live in and then impose another layer on top of it for high engagement and interaction,” Johnson says. “It helps with delivering certain messages … and it allows the attendee to explore various components of the meeting in new ways.”
Johnson says the biggest challenge facing the association meetings industry is a hesitancy to try new technologies. But he’s optimistic that more meeting professionals will adopt tech tools as they become more accessible and affordable.
“Our job is to bring people together to learn, to network, to engage, and to ultimately grow and do bigger and better things within their home environment and their world,” he says. “And to do that and achieve events and our meetings.”
Attendees at the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology’s annual conference in June were met with several new ways to make new professional contacts and achieve their learning goals—thanks to the work of APIC’s manager of conference programming, Tyra Dyson, CMP, and her team.
A lot of interaction happens in the conference networking area, APIC Central, so Dyson introduced several new activities there. These included a community service project where attendees put together hygiene kits for military veterans and a free headshot lounge, complete with an onsite makeup artist.
She also set up a large overflow room where filled-to-capacity sessions were streamed on different parts of a large screen. Attendees could plug headphones into an individual receiver and tune to a channel to listen to the session of their choice.
“You could see all these different sessions going on, and the room was so quiet,” Dyson says. “Instead of missing out, I think this option made for a better attendee experience.”
In fact, she says, some attendees wanted to stay in the overflow room throughout the conference because it made it easier for them to switch between sessions at will.
“People really appreciated having that personal experience, and if you didn’t like that session, you didn’t have to get up and interrupt it by leaving,” she says. “You could just change the channel on your receiver.”
As Dyson continues to explore more digital options, she is also looking for other new ways to engage attendees. For instance, she is planning to bring in a graphic artist to record the keynotes at next year’s conference. Using a series of symbols, words, and drawings, the graphic artist will summarize the sessions in a visually creative poster presentation, which Dyson will then display for the remainder of the meeting.
“It’s a pretty picture of that session almost come to life, which is actually pretty exciting and a good way to encompass and capture what was discussed at that session,” she says, “and in a way that makes it really fun and innovative.”
When attendees head to a conference, they’re looking for opportunities to network in addition to education. That means Sara Stehle, CMP, conference manager for the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), must figure out how to allow space for spontaneous conversations to happen while putting structure around those unexpected moments.
“I want to make sure they’re having an experience and not just going from session to session, trying to find food somewhere, and going home with maybe one or two bullet points that they can take back with them,” she says. “I really want them to have an immersive experience, to be able to talk to people that they might not have thought that they would ever meet or have those kind of experiences with, and really give them that a-ha moment that they’re looking for.”
To tackle this delicate balance, she first experimented with the format of sessions at IAFC’s 2018 Volunteer and Combination Officers Section Symposium in the West. There, she set up conference rooms where three speakers gave their talks to three different “pods” of attendees who rotated through the sessions. Afterwards, the speakers sat on a panel and answered attendee questions, including ones not related to the session topics.
In addition, the classrooms were set up with a variety of seating arrangements that were conducive to conversation, which made it easier for attendees to continue these discussions as they moved between rooms.
“The different pods were able to get together as a kind of group think tank, so I really enjoyed seeing some organic conversations happen from those people,” Stehle says. “They were talking with people and listening to other people’s opinions that they might not have been able to listen to at the conference because they might not have known them.”
She is also revamping IAFC’s annual conference to allow for more networking by setting aside designated time for conversation and setting up meetup hubs in the hallways, which will be color-coded by topic. Exhibitors will be color-coded in the same way in the hope that they will naturally gravitate toward the appropriate hub. Facilitators will be posted at each hub to help connect attendees and exhibitors and to ensure conversations stay on topic.
“You can have great AV, you can have great speakers, you can have great moments, but the networking at conferences is so valuable that I want to make sure that there’s space for people to actually talk to each other,” Stehle says. “Because if they’re not talking to each other in person, then why are they even there?”