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The meeting industry new normal — Part 2

meeting industry new normalThe meeting industry old normal is over, and many event professionals are hoping and waiting for a new normal. [See Part 1 of this post for an introduction to this point of view.]

What will the meeting industry new normal look like?

One silver lining of the coronavirus pandemic, horrendous though its cost has been, is that it has forced us to think differently. In a July 2020 New Yorker articleGianna Pomata, a professor of the history of medicine, “compared COVID-19 to the bubonic plague that struck Europe in the fourteenth century—’not in the number of dead but in terms of shaking up the way people think.'” But the effects of these two plagues were remarkably different. (For example, the Black Death increased the power of workers because labor was scarce. In contrast, COVID-19 has forced millions of low-paid workers further into poverty.)

The meeting industry old normal

For centuries, the meeting industry has believed that the “best” and “most important” meetings are those conducted face-to-face. For most of human history, of course, this has been the only meeting option. Technology has slowly made inroads on this assumption, with the development of the telephone, the conference call, video chat, etc. Each new technology has taken away a little piece of the need to meet in person under certain favorable conditions.

The meeting industry new normal

In 2020, we have been forced to think differently. Historians regard the devastation of the bubonic plague as the end of the Middle Ages. Similarly, I think that COVID-19 will turn out to mark the beginning of the end of in-person meetings as the bread and butter of the meeting industry.

What will a new normal for the meeting industry look like? There’s no way we can know. Why? Because the future of meetings is no longer tied to the old paradigms we’ve assumed ever since the first official “conference” was held in 1666. (See my book Conferences That Work for the details.) There has been no new normal since the end of the thousand-year reign of the Middle Ages. Similarly, the forced rise of online meetings has moved us into uncharted and unpredictable territory.

The meeting industry is now, perhaps, in what the founder of VISA, Dee Hoc, called the Chaordic Age. In Dave Snowden‘s Cynefin framework, the meeting industry, formerly rooted in the obvious and complicated domains, has now moved into the complex domain. To solve problems in the complex domain, experiments need to be conducted in order to determine what to do.

One thing to learn from history and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the meeting industry? Don’t waste your time pining for or hoping for a static meeting industry new normal.

Next practices, not best practices

In other words, this is a time for next practices not best practices. Our industry needs to experiment to discover what works and what doesn’t.

This is proving to be difficult.

Even pre-pandemic, it was risky to try new meeting ideas, because our clients, understandably, want successful events. Taking risks increases the chances of failure.

Today, with the current collapse of in-person meetings, it’s harder to find the resources, margins, and willing clients we once had, in order to conduct experiments.

Yet our industry must find the resources, courage, and willingness, to experiment with new ways of convening and meeting formats that respond to these new challenges. We are all suffering now. Those who continue to shoehorn what they used to do into our current pandemic and future post-pandemic environment will continue to suffer.

I’m encouraged that our industry is indeed experimenting with a variety of new platforms, marketing and pricing models, and meeting formats. One of the most interesting and welcome developments is the rapid growth of new platforms (1, 2) that provide online incarnations of traditional conference in-person socials. I see them as game-changers for online events, replacing the hallway conversations that have always been an essential and undervalued component of traditional meetings.

We are living in unprecedented times. Experimenting with new approaches to designing and convening meetings is essential. What may be even harder is discovering what works and adopting it, rather than staying locked in the old comfortable ways of making meetings. Meetings will continue to occur, and the meeting industry will survive. But don’t passively buy into the myth of a new meeting industry normal. That is, if you want to remain a player in one of the most important industries the human race has created.

The meeting industry new normal — Part 1

meeting industry new normal
Many event professionals are hoping and waiting for a meeting industry new normal. The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated our businesses. We want to believe that, at some point, in-person meetings like the ones we’ve held for decades will return.

Yes, there are a few world regions where cases of infection are currently very low. Such areas are already holding local in-person events, but safe inter-regional meetings are not possible. Even in these places, the meeting industry is not back to the “old” normal.

Some industry members have been trying mightily to claim that useful in-person meetings can occur during this pandemic if we take severe precautions, which include social distancing and face mask use. I have written earlier why I believe that the vast majority of meetings produced under these conditions, even if they are executed flawlessly from a safety standpoint, are not worth attending.

And, as we’ll see, there will not be a meeting industry new normal.

Let’s think this through.

An optimistic scenario for a meeting industry old normal

Suppose that everything goes as well as possible in the global fight against the coronavirus. Three fundamental things have to happen.

1) Scientists develop a safe, inexpensive, effective vaccine.

If we’re really lucky, we’ll have a safe, inexpensive, effective vaccine some time before the end of 2021 (remember, testing takes time).

2) The world mobilizes to provide the vaccine rapidly to a large proportion of the global population.

Optimistic forecasts say this could take place over 12 – 18 months. Presumably, in-person events during this period could become feasible for those who had received the vaccine. Of course, for this to happen safely, everyone involved in the event — attendees, staff, hospitality workers, and transportation personnel — must be vaccinated. Given that vaccine availability will be limited during the production ramp up, we should not assume that in-person events would quickly become feasible.

3) We overcome conspiracy-theory induced fear of vaccination.

We are in the golden age of anti-vaccine conspiracies. Creating herd immunity to COVID-19 requires overcoming such anti-scientific mindsets in a large majority of the world population. Currently we don’t know if this is even possible. Without herd immunity, leading to the virtual extinction of COVID-19, the pandemic will drag on for a long time.

Accepting the above implies that, at best, we will not be able to substantially resume old normal in-person meetings until some time in 2022.

That means we will have two or more years without substantive numbers of interregional in-person meetings.

What will happen in the world of meetings during these two or more years?

Obviously, we have already seen a sudden, unexpected, and massive shift to online events.

All of us, save perhaps the most introvert, bemoan and mourn the loss of meeting in person. We love to complain about the blandness and limitations of online meetings.

Yet, during my experiences of hundreds of online meetings over the last seven months, I’ve noticed some surprising and unexpected developments.

1) It’s possible to significantly improve the quality of online meetings from dreary webinar formats. This is starting to happen.

It turns out that, for online events it’s easy to adapt most of the in-person meeting and session participant-driven and participation-rich formats I and others have developed over the last two decades. Many meeting conveners, responding to the deadliness of watching talking heads for hours a day, are learning how to create interactive online events that maintain attendee interest, improve learning, and build connection between participants.

Over the next two years, the quality of online meeting process will improve. This will make online options more attractive to meeting conveners than they were pre-pandemic.

2) Clearly beneficial meetings that simply would not have been held formerly in-person are taking place online.

Specifically, there has been a large increase in online meetings that support the wants and needs of communities of practice. In the past, these groups, with members typically widely separated geographically, would meet occasionally in-person, if at all.

It’s much easier and attractive for busy workers to attend short, regular, and well-focused and designed online meetings of their professional community than to set aside several days once or twice a year for travel to an in-person event. As a result, I am seeing significant growth of regularly scheduled online meetings for communities. Some of these communities are brand new. Starting them by meeting online is less of a barrier than all the work required and risk involved creating new in-person conferences with unpredictable initial attendance.

Many of these meetings will continue post-pandemic. Some will replace former in-person meetings.

3) The meeting industry is investigating and planning to adopt hybrid meeting formats more than ever before.

By the time the COVID-19 pandemic is (hopefully) over, everyone will be familiar with attending meetings online. Any post-pandemic meeting is, therefore, likely to have an online component, and will use one of the two core hybrid meeting formats. Whatever mix of traditional versus hub-and-spoke hybrid is adopted, we can be sure that there will be fewer old normal 100% in-person meetings.

Like what you read so far? Read Part 2 of this post, where I conclude my explanation why there will not be a meeting industry new normal.

Are you old yet?

are you old yetAre you old yet? (Click on the image to watch the skateboarding professor, who’s my age.)

I turned 69 last week. My body and mind do not work as well as they used to. Oh for the days, long gone, when I went to bed, fell asleep immediately, and woke up eight hours later feeling refreshed! My stamina starts to drop at five pm; no more long productive bouts of late night work.

Traveling extensively for my meeting industry work, I’d meet hundreds of new people every year, and used to be pretty good at remembering their names and how and when I met them. Not these days.

There are all these little aches and pains that weren’t there before. Standing up from a chair is harder than it was. Standing after kneeling on the floor is unexpectedly difficult at times.

It’s not going to get better. (Although, I can run better than I did twenty years ago. But I really had to work at that.)

Anyway, I could go on. This is a litany you’ll likely experience at some point in your life. If you haven’t already.

So, I ask myself: “Are you old yet?”

And then, today, I read this quote from Nobel Prize winner Rosalyn Yalow.

“The excitement of learning separates youth from old age. As long as you’re learning, you’re not old.”
—Rosalyn Yalow

You know what? I’m still learning and unlearning every day — and I’m excited about it!

So I’ve decided.

I’m not old. Yet.

(How old are you, anyway?)

Photo attribution: Stephen Shield

COVID-19, hybrid meetings, and the future

COVID-19, hybrid meetings, and the futureHere are my current thoughts about COVID-19, hybrid meetings, and the future. Earlier this year I wrote:

Unfortunately, it currently looks like one potential short-term improvement outcome, containment, will not be successful. In the long-term, however, the current turmoil caused by the spread of COVID-19 is likely to subside. The development and introduction of an effective and affordable vaccine may bring the virus under control. Or, enough people may get COVID-19 and develop an immune response, leading to herd immunity.

Eventually, the coronavirus is most likely to either burn out, or return seasonally, like influenza.

I am not focusing on hybrid meetings at the moment. Why? Because I see little, if any, benefit of holding in-person meetings at this time. When we are able to have in-person meetings safely without masks or 6′ social distancing, I expect to be designing for two basic kinds of hybrid meetings.

  1. Traditional in-person plus online stream plus online meeting concierges that mediate the in-person portion with those online. (Emilie Barta has a decade of experience mediating such meeting formats.)
  2. Hub-and-spoke style meetings (long championed by Maarten Vanneste), with facilitated in-person pods that are internet connected, usually to a central in-person meeting. Once again, include one or more online meeting concierges to facilitate what happens between pods and the central in-person meeting.

COVID-19 has temporarily suppressed the market for hybrid meetings, but I believe their future is bright!

A standing invitation for event and hospitality teachers

Here’s a standing invitation for event and hospitality teachers.

I will meet online with your class for free.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, much education has moved online. One small silver lining of this disruption? It’s a good time to invite guest presenters into your online classroom.

As an experienced facilitator and designer of participant-driven and participation-rich meetings, I love to share what I’ve learned during my four decades in the meeting industry. No pitches or selling anything.

I’ve presented and facilitated at just about every meetings industry event, including Professional Convention Management Association’s Convening Leaders, PCMA Education Conference, Meeting Professionals International’s World Education Congress, IBTM, MPI Chapter meetings, the MPI Chapter Business Summit, HSMAI MEET, theEVENT, and FRESH, GMIC & NESAE annual conferences. Learn more about me here.

You won’t get a canned presentation. Rather, we’ll discuss beforehand what you and your students want and need. A session on a specific syllabus topic you choose? A freewheeling Ask Me Anything about meeting design that delivers optimal learning, connection, engagement, and action outcomes? Or a session that we build on the fly in real time to respond to what’s top-of-mind for your class that day? (I love doing those.)

You get to choose.

I hope you’ll take advantage of this standing invitation for event and hospitality teachers. Contact me to set up a mutually agreeable date and time!

Designing an online memorial service

Designing an online memorial serviceI am designing an online memorial service, to be held later this month. The deceased is not a person, but a beloved, 74-year-old small college that closed its local campus a few months ago. I taught there from 1983 – 1993. Under pandemic conditions, former alumni, faculty, staff, and other friends of the institution cannot even meet in person to grieve. So I decided to design and run an online memorial service.

My goals? To give people an opportunity to reminisce, share how they feel, catch up with old friends and make new ones, perhaps obtain some measure of closure, and have some fun.

We can currently only hold such gatherings online. So I’m sharing my design here, in the hope it’s helpful to others.

Designing an online memorial service — development

Given the above objectives, I worked on a design loosely based on what happens at traditional, in-person memorial services. Typically, these start with a formal set of remembrances and end with a social.

Framing the service beforehand

Most people have never attended an online memorial service before. So it’s important to give them an idea of what to expect. Besides explaining the program, as outlined below, we need to set expectations about what will happen during the event.

In this case, whether the school actually needed to close, how that decision was made, and the eventual closing of the school were all contentious issues. They stirred up a lot of feelings in the wider community. Orating about these (totally valid) feelings during the event would be like publicly complaining at a funeral about the poor quality of medical care the deceased received, or attacking other family members for caring poorly for the deceased. I decided that our event would not include public denigration, and included a statement to this effect in the invitations.

I also chose to call the service a “wake”, rather than a “memorial” or “funeral” for the school. Some participants who have not been actively involved with the school for decades may see the event principally as a way to share pleasant memories and catch up with old friends. The term wake evokes a more informal event and experience than that of a traditional funeral. I decided to start somewhat formally with everyone together, as in a traditional memorial service. Normally, such events transition into an in-person social, typically with food and drink available.

The opening program

Many in-person memorial services allow people to “come up to the microphone” when the spirit moves them. This doesn’t work so well online with a large group. There may be frequent pauses and it’s hard to create a workable presumption as to how long people speak.

So right now, I’m assuming that we will have a prescheduled opening program. During registration, we’re asking those who want to share to give us an idea of what they might do or say. Each contributor will know in advance when it’s their turn to share, and how long they have “on mike”.

Depending on the number of people who indicate they want to speak, we may include some time at the end of the opening program for a few additional people to share.

The transition program

Because this service is online, I’ve decided to add an optional transition between the formal remembrances and the ending social. To help reconnect people who have spent time together in the past, we’ll provide online “rooms” for specific groups. As the registrations come in, I will use the affiliation information included to create appropriate descriptions for these rooms. For example, we might have rooms for alumni who graduated in the 60’s or between ’90 and ’95, a room for staff, and a room for faculty. Registrants will preselect a room they’d like to join, and go there at the end of the formal session.

An online social

A year ago, there were few good options for providing an online substitute for an in-person social. Luckily, a host of new platforms have appeared this year (1) (2) that offer a great online social experience. I’ll have one of these available during the second and third phases of the service.

Implementation of the online memorial

I decided to design the wake as a three or more hour event. It’s scheduled to be optimum for North American participants (6:00 — 9:00+ pm EDT). This timing is not great for potential European attendees. But I reluctantly felt it necessary to focus on the majority of the target audience.

We’ll use two online platforms for the wake. I will run the opening, with everyone together, in Zoom, and use Zoom breakout rooms for the following smaller group get-togethers. The online social will be available after the opening, and will use one of the platforms mentioned in the above reviews.

Registration

Attendees (~90 right now) are registering on an online platform that’s free for free events. During registration, people let us know if they’d like to share something brief with everyone at the start, and, if so, what it would be. They can also suggest ideas for activities at the event, plus offer to help with any of the logistics:

  • Assisting with registration
  • Receive and curate writing, photos, audio, and video for creating some form of keepsake remembrance(s) for the event and, perhaps, post-event
  • Tech assistance on prerecorded content (if any) in Zoom
  • A Zoom meeting recorder
  • A “photographer” for the Zoom event
  • Zoom waiting room monitoring
  • Zoom meeting monitoring
  • Someone to assign Zoom breakout rooms
  • Zoom main room monitoring during group breakouts
  • Welcoming folks to and monitoring the online social platform

I am closing registrations five days before the event. This gives me and my volunteer assistants time to fine-tune the program, and figure out the amount of logistical support we’ll need.

A tip

One thing I’ve found invaluable in running large online meetings is a private channel for the event staff to communicate beforehand and in real-time during the event. (Meeting planners have employed wireless technology solutions to do this for decades.) I like to use a private Slack channel for this. Basic Slack has a short learning curve, has clients for every platform, and a free account is all you need.

Final thoughts

I hope this post will help you with designing an online memorial service. Have you designed and/or run one? What did you learn? What would you like to share to make the above advice more useful? Please let us know in the comments below!

Review of online social platform Rally

Review online social platform RallyAdding to my reports on new platforms providing online incarnations of traditional conference socials, here’s a review of online social platform Rally.

Two points before we start

First, if you don’t know about online social platforms, check out the introduction included in my earlier reviews of Gatherly and Yotribe.

And second, bear in mind that these platforms are continually improving, making reviews like this one a moving target. For example, Gatherly has significantly increased their platform functionality since I reviewed them two months ago, so be cautious making direct comparisons between my reviews. Be sure to visit the platform websites to get the latest updates. Better yet, get a free time-limited account and check them out yourself.

OK, on with the review.

Platform metaphor

Unlike the birdseye view map metaphor of Gatherly and Yotribe, Rally does something a little different. Rally provides a venue with multiple rooms, and each room can have a variable number of tables.

Currently, each room can hold up to 35 participants, and each table up to 9. The company says they are exploring increasing room size to 50.

Rooms can be named, opened, and closed by the Rally host (indicated with a ☆ next to their name). Venue owners can make other attendees co-hosts. You can set the duration for a room to be open — a nice feature. Rally can provide hosts with a custom URL for their venue.

Rally’s fixed maximum room size approach differs from Gatherly’s (where the typical maximum room size is larger, and can be increased by prior arrangement), and Yotribe’s (people are automatically split into new rooms when a room size of 36 is reached). Here’s a screenshot of a Rally online social.

We are currently in the Upstairs Patio. The room dropdown menu allows us to pick another open room to visit, as shown in the animated image at the bottom of this section.

My current table, where I’m video chatting with Jake and Steve, is shown below Aimey’s video (she’s on stage — more on this later). Three other tables are shown on the right.

Hovering over the picture of any occupant brings up a menu of potential interactions with that person. I can leave my table and join any of the others, and people can join my table too. Or I can invite anyone to sit with me at a new table (you can see me inviting Aimey to join me at a new table).

Since this screenshot was taken, Rally has added an option to make tables private, so no one can join the table or listen in to the conversation there until it’s set to public again.

Finally, Rally is planning to add room background images and color selection, and music background in rooms in the near future.

Sound

Rally has an interesting twist on the sound you hear during an online social. The speaker icon next to the “All Tables” caption allows you to choose the “background chatter volume”. Like an in-person social, you can set this so you can hear some of the conversation at other tables. There are three settings: medium, louder, and off. Some people probably like this. As an older, hearing-impaired guy who is quite auditorily distractible, I want this setting off. Your choice!

Chat and broadcast

Rally has recently added text chat and broadcast to the platform. Chat with the room is currently available, and Rally plans to add single person and table chat soon. The host can broadcast a text announcement to all attendees in all rooms.

Presentation & panel capability

Rally includes “on stage” functionality for each room, which can be useful for small gatherings. But it doesn’t provide a single stage for multiple rooms. So you can’t use Rally to create a presenter or panel session for more than (currently) 36 people.

A host can bring themself and others on and off stage. Folks on stage appear in larger video windows on the upper left of the screen. Anyone speaking on stage will be heard by everyone in the room, and presenters can hear audience response at a reduced level, rather like as if they were speaking at a live event. Rally includes functional presenter screen sharing. An unlimited number of people can be on stage at one time, though there can be bandwidth issues with more than four. If there are more than three people on stage, their video windows are reduced in size

A nice feature is that it’s possible to converse with other people at your table while listening to those on stage. Another feature that could be useful when in stage presentation mode is that Rally allows the meeting host to randomly shuffle table occupants into tables of 2, 3, or 4 people. This can be useful if you are using Rally in a stage plus discussion mode. Presenters can deliver a chunk of content, and then small groups, randomized as necessary, can then discuss what they heard or saw.

However, the room size limit to the number of people who can listen to folks on stage currently limits Rally to a presentation tool for small audiences. They say they’re working to include video broadcasting between rooms.

Experience quality and interface

Like the other platforms I’ve reviewed, Rally works best with Chrome on a laptop or PC. Hosts can login with Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google. A Rally attendee just needs a link to the venue, and only needs to provide their name. If you have multiple input and output sound and video sources, you can choose between them.

I have used Rally a few times, and occasionally experienced glitches. There is an “Improve connection” button, which seems to take you out of the room and bring you in again, losing your place where you left in the process. In general I judge the quality of the video chat as good, but based on my limited experience, not as reliable as Zoom.

One annoying aspect of the interface is that anyone can invite you to a new table at any time without you being able to decline the request. This can be somewhat jarring. I was able to remove someone who was speaking on the stage by inviting them to a new table. A yes/no acceptance option when invited to join a table would solve the problem.

Rally needs to improve its onboarding process for first-time users. Though the interface is pretty easy to understand and use, the current one-page introduction document is barely adequate. Right now, it’s good to have a dedicated host who notices when new attendees appear and helps them acclimatize.

Pricing

Like other online social platforms, Rally is in beta and still firming up pricing. Currently they plan to offer two pricing models, one for repeated events, such as regular team happy hours, and another for one-time events. They expect repeated event monthly costs to be comparable to Zoom pricing. Custom events will be “competitive” and use a per user, per hour model.

Currently you can try a one-room version of Rally for free.

Platform focus

Rally describes its current platform focus as follows:

“Rally’s focus is on networking events. Our ideal markets are internal networking events or small to medium size events (10 to 1000 people); however we have been effective with 1000+ events as well. Our goal is to focus less on one time events and more on monthly recurring events. For us it’s better to sell to associations, businesses, corporate marketers, and student clubs instead of large tradeshows, conferences etc. So I’d position us on the more frequent smaller events scale vs. Gatherly or Yotribe.”

Understandably, most online services today prefer the steady revenues from subscriptions to one-time purchases, and, based on this statement, Rally is no exception. I’m sympathetic, though purchasing a subscription for an independent meeting designer and facilitator like me is probably not a great fit. However, I’m not Rally’s target market! As usual, my behavior will depend on the pricing model Rally chooses.

Conclusions

I like Rally a lot, and I’m enjoying the company’s continual improvement of their feature set and platform. I still slightly prefer Gatherly’s room map interface, but that’s a personal preference that many may not share. Both platforms offer a highly credible and enjoyable online social experience that is sure to be a permanent game-changer for meetings. (Until such platforms become the new normal.) I expect to use and/or recommend both Rally and Gatherly in future. Yotribe’s development seems to have stalled since I reviewed it — right now, in my opinion, it’s not a serious competitor.

There is always more to say, but I hope you’ve found this review of online social platform Rally useful. Please share your experience with Rally, new features, and things I’ve missed in the comments below!

Stop treating adults like children at your conferences

stop treating adults like childrenPlease stop treating adults like children at your conferences. (For an exception, see the end of this post.)

With children there’s an argument for broadcast-style learning. Schools originally developed as establishments for improving the efficiency of oral communication of information. They did this by bringing many students together, so they could learn simultaneously from one teacher. The key cultural reason why broadcast methods remain firmly embedded in our children’s education is the sheer quantity of knowledge that society — for whatever reasons — is determined to cram into young heads during formal education.

For example, school curricula invariably include the Pythagorean theorem. (Why? One can make a case to skip it.) You can argue that most kids are best served by a broadcast style introduction to this GED requirement (though you might try a flipped classroom approach).

stop treating adults like children

Treat adults differently from children

But with adults, unless you’re an expert training a bunch of novices, there’s no excuse for deciding unilaterally “this is what you will learn today”.

Instead, frame the scope of the session, find out what people want to learn or discuss first, then create the session they want and need. Five minutes of Post It! for Sessions, described in Chapter 26 of my book Event Crowdsourcing, is exactly what you’ll need for an in-person session. Or use this variant if you’re meeting online.

So, please stop treating adults like children at conferences. But with…

…one exception

Children play — and play is important at meetings. More precisely, creating the potential for meeting moments of what I’ve described as mystery, play, and the suspension of belief.

That doesn’t mean filling our events with children’s games, singing, and water and sand play tables. Though I remember a few conferences I attended where such activities would have made a distinct improvement.

Rather, consider including sessions involving improvisation, Serious Play, and creative group work that satisfy attendees’ actual wants and needs. And if someone brings bagpipes to your event, let’s dance the hornpipe! 

Which meeting design books should I buy?

Here are five meeting design books I especially recommend. Each gets a short overview, so you can figure out which one(s) will satisfy your wants and needs. In an outrageous display of chutzpah, I wrote three of these books. [If you decide to buy one of mine, read the conclusion of this post for ways to pay less!]

Into the Heart of Meetings: Basic Principles of Meeting Design (ebook or paperback)

meeting design booksIn 2013, Eric de Groot and Mike van de Vijver published this unique, extraordinary, and important book on meeting design. Into the Heart of Meetings takes the reader on a deep exploration of “the essential processes that take place during meetings and how to influence these processes through Meeting Design in order to obtain the best outcomes.”

Rather than the usual “how to create great meetings book” approach of tying meeting design to the logistical challenges of the kinds of meetings we have all experienced, Eric & Mike correctly concentrate on the process of (non-routine) meetings: how to design in interactive meeting experiences and behaviors that create the meeting’s desired and needed outcomes.

There are methods of meeting process design in this book I’ve seen nowhere else. (To get a taste, check out blog posts I wrote about three of them: 1, 2, & 3). Whether you’re a meeting design novice or seasoned pro, you will learn really important things from this book. Buy it!

Intentional Event Design (ebook or paperback)

meeting design books

Amidst the myriad books on creating and running events, Intentional Event Design, by Tahira Endean and published in 2017, stands out. (And I’m not saying that because she’s kind enough to mention two of my books and an event I designed and facilitated.)

This book is a modern, comprehensive, and eminently readable introduction to what Tahira calls people-centric, purpose-driven meeting design. Unlike older books, it covers the impact of digital technology (apps, online meetings, and social media marketing) on the meetings world, includes a healthy dollop of the relevance of learning theory to meeting design, and manages to squeeze in trade shows, accessibility, and wellness in a fairly short book.

Yes, other meeting industry books contain more detailed information about event logistics. Things like working with DMCs and writing RFPs. Tahira focuses on the important big picture issues, with a well chosen mix of detailed contributions from trusted industry sources. Intentional Event Design doesn’t tell you everything you need to know to design an effective event. But I think it’s a solid and accessible introduction to meeting design that’s well worth reading.

Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love (ebook, paperback, or both)

meeting design books

I wrote Conferences That Work, published in 2009, because in 1992, after decades of convening and running traditional conferences, circumstances forced me to invent a new kind of meeting. (The story is told in the book’s preface.) During the next dozen years, I adopted the design for other events. Eventually, I realized that people loved the meetings it created.

In Conferences That Work I lay out four key assumptions that lurk behind the traditional meeting format. I show how they perpetuate a conference model that no longer well serves meeting stakeholders, especially attendees. The first third of the book is a powerful manifesto for participant-driven and participation-rich meetings, just as relevant today as it was 11 years ago.

Once the case for participant-driven and participation-rich meetings is made, the book goes on to provide a complete practical guide to preparing and running a peer conference. It has been praised as an exemplary guide to creating a small conference of any kind from scratch.

I’ve updated the book (twice) via a free supplement that can be downloaded here.

Buy this book if you want to:

  • understand why traditional broadcast-style meeting formats are obsolete;
  • learn the why and how of creating meeting process that truly engages and satisfies participants; and
  • possess a complete detailed guide to creating peer conferences.

The Power of Participation: Creating Conferences That Deliver Learning, Connection, Engagement, and Action (ebook, paperback, or both)

meeting design booksWhile Conferences That Work teaches how to design and execute remarkable conferences, The Power of Participation shows how to improve your meetings at a finer level — individual meeting sessions.

Today, making valuable connections is for many the compelling reason for attending meetings. Yet, time and time again, meetings relegate “networking” to meals and socials outside the sessions, filling events with lectures followed by a few minutes of audience questions.

The Power of Participation supplies conference presenters, organizers, and marketers with a comprehensive toolkit of simple techniques for creating participative sessions that involve the audience in their learning while simultaneously fostering meaningful peer connections.

Smart presenters and meeting organizers integrate experiential learning and peer connection into their events. This book tells you how to do it.

Buy this book to learn:

  • why it’s vital to incorporate participation into every aspect of your events.
  • what you need to know to create meeting environments that support and encourage participation.
  • when and how to use an extensive compendium of specific, detailed techniques to radically improve your sessions and meetings.

Event Crowdsourcing: Creating Meetings People Actually Want and Need (ebook, paperback, or both)

meeting design booksFinally, Event Crowdsourcing, which expands on a key portion of the material covered in The Power of Participation.

The book explains both program and session crowdsourcing: how to routinely create conference programs that reliably include the right sessions and the session content attendees actually want and need. There is some overlap between this book and The Power of Participation. But Event Crowdsourcing includes new techniques, plus significantly more critical details and enhancements. (The enhancements to my core technique The Three Questions, alone, justify getting this book.) If you want to create events that are far more responsive to participant wants and needs than the dominant unconference paradigm — Open Space — this is the book for you!

Conclusion

OK, you skipped here to see if you could save money. Fair enough. Here’s the simple deal — the more of my books you buy, the more you save.

The best and most popular SKU is a set of all three books in both paperback and ebook formats, at a price that’s less than buying the three paperbacks separately.

Prefer ebooks? Buy a set of all three at a good discount.

Finally, don’t forget that first-time buyers of any book from my online store (even a single $11 ebook!) get thirty minutes of free consulting from yours truly at a mutually convenient time.

COVID-19, in-person meetings, and wishful thinking

COVID-19 and in-person meetings This is not an easy post to write. The pandemic’s impact on lives and businesses has been devastating. COVID-19 has virtually eliminated in-person meetings: our industry’s bread and butter.

In order to overcome the many significant challenges created by the coronavirus, the meeting industry has made valiant efforts to rethink in-person meetings. The goal? To bring people safely into the same physical space, so they can meet as they did before the pandemic.

Sadly, I believe such efforts are based on wishful thinking.

Wishful thinking

It’s nice to imagine that, if we can figure out how to bring people safely together in person in a COVID-19 world, our meetings will be the same as they were pre-pandemic.

But until we create and broadly administer an effective vaccine (or we suffer the disastrous and massive illnesses and deaths that will occur obtaining herd immunity) they can’t be the same meetings.

Moreover, there are two reasons why there is no persuasive use case for holding almost any in-person meetings in a COVID-19 world.

Why in-person meetings do not make sense in a COVID-19 environment

By now we know that in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19, people near each other must:

  • Wear face masks that cover the nose and mouth; and
  • Stay six or more feet apart.

Here’s what that looks like at an in-person meeting.

COVID-19 and in-person meetings

Let’s set aside the significant issues of whether attendees can:

  • safely travel to and from events;
  • be housed safely;
  • move around an event venue while safely maintaining social distancing; and
  • be fed safely.

While difficult, I think we can do all these things. Well-meaning meeting industry professionals are understandingly desperate to bring back in-person meetings from oblivion. But they assume that if they can solve the above challenges, an effective meeting can occur.

But good meetings are not about listening to broadcast content

In doing so, they have reverted to the old, deeply embedded notion that, fundamentally, in-person meetings are about listening to broadcast content. Since the rise of online, broadcast-format content can be delivered far more inexpensively, efficiently, and conveniently online than at in-person events.

As I have explained repeatedly in my books and on this blog (e.g., here) assuming that conferences are fundamentally about lectures ignores what is truly useful about good meetings.

Among other things, good meetings must provide personal and useful connection around relevant content.

Masks and six or more feet separation ≠ connection

Unfortunately, you cannot connect well with people wearing face masks who are six or more feet away!Why? Because we are exquisitely sensitive to body language and facial expressions. With everyone social distanced and faces half hidden, the normal cues of connection, such as microexpressions and subtle shifts in posture, are hard to read. In my experience, it can often be easier to read emotions and responses in video chats than socially distanced situations.

New tools for online connection

In addition, new online social platforms (two examples) provide easy-to-learn and fluid video chat alternatives to the in-person breaks, meals, and socials that are so important at in-person meetings. Do these tools supply as good connection and engagement as pre-pandemic, in person meetings? Not quite. (Though they supply some useful advantages over in-person meetings, they can’t replace friendly hugs!) Are they good enough? In my judgment, yes! In the last few months, I’ve built and strengthened as many relationships at online meetings as I used to in-person.

A depressing conclusion

Right now, the learning, connection, and engagement possible at well-designed online meetings is at least comparable — and in some ways superior — to what’s feasible at in-person meetings that are safe to attend in a COVID-19 world.

Now add the significant barriers and costs to holding in-person meetings during this pandemic. The challenges of providing safe travel, accommodations, venue traffic patterns, and food & beverage all have to be overcome. Even if credible solutions are developed (as I believe they can be in many cases), potential attendees must still be persuaded that the solutions are safe, and your meeting can be trusted to implement them perfectly.

My own example

I’ll share my own example, as a 68 year old who, pre-pandemic, facilitated and participated in around fifty meetings each year. Since COVID-19 awareness reached the U.S. five months ago, I have barely been inside a building besides my home. I have only attended one in-person meeting during this time: a local school board meeting held in a large gymnasium with the fifteen or so masked attendees arranged in a large circle of chairs in the center of the room. I am not willing to fly anywhere, except in the case of an emergency. Everyone has their own assessment of risks taken during these times. But I will simply not risk my health to attend an in-person meeting at present. Especially when online meetings provide a reasonable substitute. I don’t think I’m alone in this determination.

I do not think that the research initiated and venue upgrades made are a waste of time, money, and effort. There may well be a time when an effective vaccine exists and is being introduced. At this point, in-person meetings may be able to start up again without the critical barriers introduced by universal masks and social distancing.

Until then, I don’t see a credible use case for holding significant in-person meetings in a COVID-19 world.

Image attribution: Erin Schaff/New York Times