The corrosive effect of commissions on the meetings industry

The corrosive effect of commissions on the meetings industryOur industry is abuzz about the news of Marriott’s decision to cut third-party commissions for group bookings by thirty percent. And the response has been “harsh“, especially because of the extremely short notice (it will be going into effect on March 31, 2018) and once it became known that four large site selection firms would be “granted a temporary exception“.

Marriott’s announcement sparked the potential of a commission war (some independent properties are raising group booking commissions). It led to fear of further reductions or elimination of commissions by other suppliers in the future. Taking a wider view, let’s talk about the corrosive effect of commissions on the meeting industry.

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Is paid influencer marketing ethical in the event industry?

choice_noun_86702Paid influencer marketing is spreading to the event industry, and I doubt that it’s an ethical practice.

Last week I received the following voice mail (identifying details have been bleeped; transcript below.)

Hi Adrian, my name is _____, I work for an influence marketing agency _____, and I’m reaching out to you this afternoon about an opportunity with _____, who is one of our clients, and I know you are an influencer in the meeting/event/conference planning sphere which is the focus of this campaign with _____  and we’re just hoping to have you involved in this campaign: involves a blog post, some social posting, hopefully a visit to the property with a bit of filming. If you’re interested in more details I would love to chat with you; my phone number is _____. Thanks, and looking forward to talking to you soon; bye bye.”

I was not surprised to get this call because the agency has been calling other event professionals with the same pitch. One of them, whom I’ll call InfluentialEventProf, forwarded me an email with more details of how the “opportunity” would work (identifying details have been replaced with generic terms):

From: YYY@InfluenceMarketingCompany.com
To: InfluentialEventProf@InfluentialEventProfDomain.com
Sent: 9/8/2016
Subj: Paid Campaign Opportunity: Complimentary Stay at Property Z

Hi InfluentialEventProf,

Hope this note finds you very well! Brand X’s Property in Somewhere, USA is a client of ours, and I am working on an influencer campaign to help promote Property Z’s event spaces as ideal venues for conferences and corporate meetings. Brand X would love to have you–a known industry expert on event/meeting planning–involved in this campaign!

We are inviting you to come for a complimentary stay to experience Property Z during a major Industry Sector S conference during TheseDates. Brand X would like you to review the visit and conference experience on your company’s blog and promote Property Z on social media. To give you a general idea of the campaign’s scope, here are some details regarding the influencer package and campaign components:

Influencer package:

One or two (1-2) complimentary nights at Property Z (dependent on your availability)

One (1) complimentary breakfast

One (1) complimentary dinner

$500 compensation

Complimentary parking

Campaign components:

One (1) post-stay blog post highlighting the Property Z as a venue for corporate conferences/meetings/events. Ideally, this blog post would be published both on your company’s blog and on your Linkedin page.

Two (2) real-time Twitter photo posts during your stay

Two (2) post-stay Twitter photo posts

(Use the hashtags of {3 PropertyZHashtags}, and any Property Z social channel handles on all relevant content.)

Would you be interested in participating? If so, I can send you more detailed information regarding these campaign components.

We are really hoping to work with you!

All the best,

YYY

This is classic paid influencer marketing via social media, a marketing trend that has been rapidly growing since 2014. Celebrities are paid big bucks to casually introduce positive experience of brands into their social media feeds. Now event industry influencers are being asked to do the same thing.

Will Brand X require all resulting social media posts by InfluentialEventProf to be labeled “Sponsored”? (Will “Sponsored” even fit into the tweets that are required?) Will the post-stay blog post include the information that the stay and meals were paid for by Brand X and that the InfluentialEventProf was paid a fee by Brand X?

Even if InfluentialEventProf provides all this information, there is plenty of research that shows that such paid marketing biases influencers to be more positive about their review than they would have been otherwise. (See, for example: High bias found in Amazon reviews of low-cost or free samples, where the provision of free or low-cost products boosted ratings from the 54th percentile to the 94th percentile!)

I think such practices are ethically questionable. The CMP Standards of Ethical Conduct Statement and Policy includes the pledge “Never use my position for undue personal gain and to promptly disclose to appropriate parties all potential and actual conflicts of interest“, and I’d argue that what is being offered here is “undue personal gain”. In addition, any event professional who is employed should review their employer’s ethics policy. Additional questions to consider are:

  • “In what way could you justify participation to your employer?”
  • “In what way could you justify participation to your clients?”
  • “Are there ways that this participation could influence site selection?”

What do you think?

[My thanks to InfluentialEventProf for permission given to reproduce the above email, and for suggestions that improved this post.]

New Participation Techniques Workshops are coming!

Help request for workshops
I’m really happy to announce that I am now planning to hold extended Participation Techniques Workshops in the United States, Canada, and Europe.

Thank you! Asking for your help to get my participation techniques workshops underway was clearly the right thing to do! Within a week I had been contacted by numerous friends and colleagues, and found several partners who were a wonderful fit.

Full details can be found on my new Participation Techniques Workshops page. Learn who can benefit from these workshops, why you should attend, read testimonials from past workshops, browse the syllabus, and review the list of upcoming workshops. Interested? Then sign up to be informed about current and future workshops and/or contact me to discuss how we can partner to make a workshop happen near you.

A request for workshop help

Help request for workshopsI am looking for your help to hold workshops that I believe will significantly improve the quality of meetings.

Since 1992 I’ve been developing participation techniques that radically improve conference sessions and entire meetings. Over the last five years I have run a variety of 3 – 8 hour workshops where participants learn to facilitate and appreciate some of these techniques through direct experience. These meeting industry workshops have been very well received (references are available if you don’t know my work).

I believe there’s a real need for extended versions of these workshops — lasting 1½ – 2½ days — to give meeting planners, facilitators, and presenters a comprehensive interactive learning experience of these simple, yet powerful and effective ways to improve learning, connection, engagement, and action outcomes at our events.

I love designing and running these workshops, and I would like to offer them anywhere in the world there’s sufficient interest. They will typically be small, between 15 to 50 people.

I am not interested in making a ton of money doing this, just covering expenses and my standard fees. The more people who attend a workshop, the less it should cost them.

So I’m looking for partners and volunteers: people and organizations who are interested and willing to help make these workshops happen.

Perhaps:

  • You know people and/or groups who would want to attend and are willing to solicit them?
  • Such a workshop would fit into and complement one of your events?
  • You own a venue that could be used to host the workshop?
  • You, and perhaps others you know, want to attend one and have ideas about holding it at your location or for your community?
  • You can help in some other way?

I’m open to any kind of workable relationships (yes, you can be reimbursed/paid for your contributions) that make these workshops possible. Although my books continue to sell well and influence event design all over the world, after 25 years I’ve learned that most people only fully understand the value of these eye-opening ways to transform meetings by experiencing them, rather than reading about them.

Would you like to make these workshops possible? Can you help? Then I’d love to work with you. Please contact me at adrian@segar.com.

‘Twas the Hangout before Christmas…

‘Twas the Hangout before Christmas, when all through the net
#Eventprofs were stirring, their email to get;
The BEOs were hung on clipboards with care,
In hopes that the caterers soon would be there;
Attendees were nestled all snug in their chairs;
While visions of aerialists danced in the air;
And friends on their laptops, and I on my Mac,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s hack,
When out on Twitter there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from my Steelcase to see what was the matter.
Away to my browser I flew like a flash,
Quick opened a new tab and beefed up the cache.
The glow of the screen on my new bluetooth keyboard,
Gave a lustre of ROI promised reward,
When what to my wondering eyes did arrive,
But a whole slew of tweets and +Thom Singer alive
With @PinkDeb +Brandt Krueger +Brad Wilson — a riot!
Followed by +Dan Parks & dear +Jenise Fryatt
+Sue Pelletier +Brad Wilson +Andrea Gold — a battalion!
+Heidi Thorne +Elizabeth Glau & +KiKi L’Italien
So I whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:
Now +Tahira Endean, you grand superstar
+Anne Thornley-Brown +Dahlia El Gazzar
To the top of the page! to the top of the list!
Duck under the velvet rope, come to be kissed!
As leaves that before the room turnover rise,
When they meet with an obstacle, we all improvise;
So up to the hangout the #eventprofs they flew
With the click of a mouse, and some first-timers too
Appeared on the chat with a beer in their hand
Or an old-fashioned cocktail (all fresh, nothing canned)…

So come join us shortly if that’s what you’d like
If we say we can’t hear you please unmute your mike!

Details: You’ll need an invite—if you want one just contact me on Google Plus!

Will Airbnb impact traditional meeting room blocks?

airbnb growth tweetBrian Chesky, 32, is the founder and CEO of Airbnb, “a community marketplace for people to list, discover, and book unique accommodations around the world” that was founded in 2008 and, in just six years is expected to become the world’s largest hotelier.

Recently there have been a number of interesting articles—e.g. The Hotelier’s Invisible EnemyInstead Of Paying $500/Night To Stay At A Courtyard, I Booked This $150/Night Airbnb Room In San Francisco, and How Airbnb Is Crushing Traditional Hotel Brands—that discuss from various perspectives how Airbnb is starting to impact the hotel industry. So, how will the meteoric growth of Airbnb affect the traditional room block model that the meeting industry has used for many years?

Perhaps the most informative answer to this question to date comes from a study published in December 2013: The Rise of the Sharing Economy: Estimating the Impact of Airbnb on the Hotel Industry by G Zervas, D Proserpio, and J Byers, at the Boston University School of Management <pdf, free download>. The research looked at data collected from Texas hotels between 2008 and 2013 and found that:

  • Every 1 percent increase in the number of Airbnb bookings led to a .05 percent decrease in hotel revenue;
  • The impact of Airbnb falls disproportionately on hotels with little or no conference space; and
  • Luxury and upscale hotels in Texas were not significantly impacted by the arrival of Airbnb.

At first sight, this doesn’t look too bad for the meetings industry, unless you’re booking room blocks in midprice or value hotels. But I think there are some factors that this excellent study of the past doesn’t include when we attempt to predict the future.

Airbnb is still relatively unknown and is growing incredibly quickly
Airbnb’s growth is commonly described as “hockey-stick” (think Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth). Check out the company’s online interactive annual report for details. Airbnb had booked 5 million cumulative nights by February 2012; by June, it had doubled that to 10 million. A year ago I knew nothing about Airbnb and never considered staying anywhere but a hotel or traditional B&B when I traveled. Having trouble finding conventional accommodation for a trip that met my needs, I joined Airbnb in September 2013, along with 5 million other people that year. Since then I have already used the service four times. What happens as we pass the early adopter stage and move into a world where it’s easy and normal to stay in/rent out residential accommodations for short periods?

Might meeting attendees start sharing Airbnb accommodations?
I just returned from PCMA Convening Leaders in Boston. I have a local apartment, so I commuted and didn’t stay in the room block but the conference offered block rooms from $175 – $209 per night single/double occupancy. A quick browse of Airbnb turned up several small attractive two-bedroom apartments within a few blocks at $170 per night (for two occupants, $150 for one) with kitchen, internet, and a washer & dryer. While there’s no way that Airbnb can currently match the quantity of hotel rooms available around the Hynes Convention Center, the offerings I found were extremely competitive on price alone, and included amenities that are not available for free or at all in most hotels. And given that two employees could stay in separate bedrooms in one of these Airbnb properties, the cost savings become even more attractive.

Airbnb offers rooming options that are often not available via traditional accommodations
The four Airbnb reservations I’ve made since joining the service have all been in San Francisco. My younger daughter lives within a few blocks of Golden Gate Park, and there are only two bed and breakfasts (and no hotels) in her area. Both B&B’s were booked when we wanted to be there, but an Airbnb search turned up many options for staying close to her apartment. Since we didn’t want to share a home with others we searched Airbnb for self-contained apartments and found two nearby that matched our requirements. If room blocks sell out I believe that the variety of Airbnb choices close to a meeting venue provide an attractive backup. And if room prices are seen as too high, Airbnb makes it easy to search for nearby cost-effective alternatives.

Airbnb makes it easy to look for just what you need
I have a personal story here. Last month, my younger daughter was crossing the street at a crosswalk in San Francisco when she was hit by a car, breaking both her legs. (Luckily she suffered no other injuries and should eventually be fine.) After surgery and rehab she could not return to her apartment right away, as it is, like many San Francisco accommodations, only accessible via a steep flight of steps. We faced an immediate problem of finding her somewhere to stay that was handicap accessible in central San Francisco, close to friends that could assist her, for about six weeks until she could weight-bear and get around on crutches.

Short-term rental agents were unable or unwilling to return our calls. Hotels had a few handicap accessible rooms but provided nowhere for her to cook any meals. Craigslist, besides being a potential source of sketchy room listings, presented us with the daunting prospect of calling every potential lister to find out whether the accommodation was accessible.

Airbnb allowed us to quickly search for handicap accessible accommodations for our daughter. Based on the detailed listings and customer reviews we were able to pick several possibilities and send messages to the owners asking about access, door widths, etc. As a result we were able to find two three-week rentals that fit our unusual criteria. Without Airbnb I’m not sure what we would have done.

Quirkiness can be compelling
Yes, there are many meeting attendees who want the predictability of a bland hotel room. But the boutique hotel sector is one of the fastest growing, an indication, perhaps that quirky Airbnb accommodations are an attractive alternative for an increasing number of business travelers who enjoy something a little different from the average cookie-cutter places to stay. Airbnb, which offers everything from a couch in a room in someone’s home to modernist architecture, green buildings, and castles has something for everyone.

Conclusion
Clearly I’m a fan of Airbnb. Signing up for the service was reassuringly thorough; the verification process required social media logins—either Facebook or LinkedIn—plus offline proof of ID, a driver’s license or passport (digital scanning included in the Airbnb app) and took about 30 minutes. (If you’re still concerned about staying at a listed property, you can choose those that have enough satisfied user reviews to reassure you.)

As meeting designer who is occasionally given responsibility for attendee accommodations, I fully understand the reasons for room blocks and will continue to use them myself whenever possible. The question remains whether more meeting attendees will, like me, join the Airbnb bandwagon and add it to their list of alternatives to the room block. Only time will tell, but my gut feeling is that over the next five to ten years Airbnb will noticeably reduce the demand for in block housing, creating a significant impact on how we’ll need to plan our meeting accommodations.

Re-envisage event technology to significantly improve your events

new technology 5465070837_1448a9bfa9_o

Revolution doesn’t happen when society adopts new technologies—it happens when society adopts new behaviors.
—Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations

I feel irritated when I see so many event professionals focusing on “new” event technology while ignoring existing technology that, in many cases, could greatly improve their events at a fraction of the cost.

There, I said it.

Every year there are plenty of conferences where you can go and see the latest and greatest mobile and gamification apps, attendee tracking systems, registrant analytics, mobile networking, video streaming platforms, etc. Vendors are happy to sponsor these events. They use them to showcase their wares and, hopefully, convince attendees that their new technology is worth buying.

Let me be clear—I have nothing against new technology per se. (If I was I’d be a hypocrite, given that I spent twenty-three profitable years as an information technology consultant.) What’s sad is that too much of event professionals’ limited continuing-education time is spent investigating shiny new toys and apps while overlooking inexpensive and proven ways to provide effective learning, connection, engagement, and community building at their events.

Why does this happen? Here are two reasons:

We fixate on the new

“Technology is anything that was invented after you were born.”
Alan Kay, from a Hong Kong press conference in the late 1980s

We are enveloped by so much rapidly changing technology that we fixate on what is new. What was new quickly becomes taken for granted and largely invisible. As David Weinberger remarks“Technology sinks below our consciousness like the eye blinks our brain filters out.” Although technology in the form of human tools has existed for over three million years and we’ve had books for over half a millennium, the first history of technology wasn’t written until 1954. Flip charts, 5×8 cards, comfortable seating, room sets, healthy food and beverage, and hand voting have been around for a long time. They are old-fashioned technology to event professionals, so we don’t pay them much attention (unless they can be reframed in a sexy way, e.g. “brain food”). But that doesn’t mean they’re not important. Far from it.

Technology isn’t just manufactured goods and software
Our definition of what is and isn’t “technology” is far too narrow. We tend to think of technology in terms of products and embedded implementations (e.g. software). But this is an incredibly restrictive viewpoint. Kevin Kelly, in his thought-provoking book What Technology Wants, lists three of the most important human technologies:

  • Language: A technology that “shifted the burden of evolution in humans away from genetic inheritance…[allowing] our language and culture to carry our species’ aggregate learning as well.”
  • Writing: A technology that “changed the speed of learning in humans by easing the transmission of ideas across territories and across time.”
  • Science: “The invention that enables greater invention.”

Once we start thinking about technology with a wider lens like this, all kinds of possibilities arise.

Re-examining process—the key to re-envisaging event technology
Language, writing, and science are outside our conventional, narrow-scope technology. The conventional technology we use to instantiate the sounds, symbols, etc. that they use is secondary. Language, writing, and science are primarily about human process.

When we expand our perspective on event technology to include process, many unexamined aspects of our events come into view. A few examples:

  • Why do we open conferences with a keynote?
  • Why do so few people speak during conference sessions?
  • How do we know if the sessions we’re providing are what attendees actually want?
  • Why do we provide entertainment during socials?
  • Are socials the best way to meet other attendees?
  • Why do we close conferences with a keynote or dinner?

When you start honestly investigating issues like these, instead of simply repeating things the same “safe” way you’ve previously experienced at conferences you’ll discover all kinds of human process technology that can fundamentally improve your event in ways that a new gizmo or app cannot.

So I urge every event professional to re-envisage event technology to include the process used during your events. Concentrate less on improving logistical processes: registration, decor, A/V, F&B, and so on. These are secondary processes, and we know how to do them well. Instead, focus on improving the human process you use throughout the event venue and duration—how you structure and script its flow, how you maximize useful connection between attendees, how the content and form of sessions are determined—this is the event technology that counts.

Photo attribution: Flickr user pierre-francois

Why don’t meeting conferences pay speakers?

empty pockets 5634567317_b4d5b61ff8_b

“All I want is not to be insulted by the people I’m serving by them paying me less than they pay their kids’ piano teachers or their own hair stylists. They can say all the nice things they want when I’m finished. But when they hand me a paltry check, what are they really saying? What do they expect me to conclude about how much they value my work?”
John G. Stackhouse, Jr

I like going to event industry conferences. I enjoy meeting old friends, making new ones, and learning new things. I love presenting on all kinds of topics that revolve around making conferences fundamentally better for participants and organizers.

But there’s one thing that really bothers me about these events.

The pitiful reality that few meeting conferences offer to pay speakers.

Traci Browne wrote about this miserable state of affairs three years ago. Sadly, nothing has changed, so I’m raising the topic again.

The default offer, often considered generous, is to cover expenses, though you’d be surprised at how many invitations to present I receive that don’t even mention that. Sometimes organizers have tried to get me to pay full registration too!

When you ask whether a fee will be paid, a common response is “well, we don’t have a budget for that.” Sometimes this is preceded by an embarrassed pause, sometimes not. Hmm, you have an F&B budget, a venue budget, and an administrative budget, but you don’t have a budget for the people who you’ve invited to fill your event with educational goodness and value? Why not?

One answer, of course, is “it’s always been done this way.” This is a rationalization for a lot of bad things in this world.

Another is “you’ll get exposure.” Listen up guys: good speakers for your sessions already have exposure—they aren’t relying on free speaking engagements. Yes, I have had presentation opportunities lead to client work, but not to the extent that they’ve even come close to paying the time and monetary costs to a) create a session proposal, b) prepare a presentation (typically five to ten times the presentation’s duration), c) travel to and from the venue, and d) give the presentation.

Finally, we have the “don’t you want to give to your community?” angle. Yes, I do. Yes, I speak for free or at a reduced rate probably more than I should. I also look for other ways to receive benefit that the conference organizer can provide, e.g. a professional video of my session or a couple of extra hotel nights at a really nice conference location. But, unfortunately, supporting your professional community doesn’t pay the bills.

The next time you (yes, you, you know who I’m talking to) are planning an event, build some money into your budget to pay speakers. When you ask someone to present, offer them up front specific compensation for their expenses and their time and expertise. The message that you value their presence at your event, rather than taking them for granted, will speak volumes.

Photo attribution: Flickr user danmoyle

How can we better support event professionals?

baby holding finger - thtstudios - 151079254_5486c264e7How can #eventprofs help guide/mentor those new to the industry? was the topic of a fascinating August 5 #eventprofs chat† (archive), moderated by the “Queen of EIR“, Jenise Fryatt. The chat was noteworthy for its energy around two initiatives that emerged during our hour together:

  • An online resource for answering event industry questions
  • An online resource for matching volunteer mentors and mentees

Responding to the energy, I registered the domain www.eventprofsanswers.com during the chat and set up a skeleton website. As you can read in the archive, many chat participants were enthusiastic about this action, and asked how they could help move these initiatives forward.

Since the chat, I’ve had offline discussions about developing the website. Most correspondents have been positive, though a minority has expressed some reservations.

Here are some of my conclusions and questions arising from the discussion so far:

  • I think it’s important to have the widest possible initial discussion before proceeding further. We need to find out what other #eventprofs think, and hear from professional association members and the associations themselves.
  • I’m not aware of significant attempts to use online technologies to address the two initiatives, other than the ad hoc use of Tweeted questions using the #eventprofs and allied hashtags. Perhaps there are existing resources we’re not aware of?
  • There seems to be evidence that some event professionals, especially perhaps those who entered the industry through non-conventional paths (like me), would appreciate a central online location for posting questions and finding appropriate mentors (either online or face to face). How easy has it been for you to get your events-related questions answered? What has your experience been with the availability of and satisfaction with existing industry mentoring programs?
  • I have already received a number of individual and association chapter offers of support (thank you everyone!) If you would like these initiatives to be implemented in some fashion, what are you willing to contribute to making this happen?
  • Do you have suggestions for additional online initiatives that would address event professionals’ needs?
  • I want to make it clear that I am personally completely open to the process and the organizational structure used to implement these initiatives. Perhaps an online resource would be run by a group of volunteers, perhaps it could become part of an existing professional association’s online presence and services, perhaps it would remain an independent presence that is formally supported by an association’s staff. What do you think?

Lots of questions! I, and I believe the professional events community, would like to know your responses. Either comment below or write me privately if you prefer. I look forward to everyone’s input!

†The #eventprofs chat is held on Twitter each week on Tuesdays 9 – 10 p.m. EST and Thursdays 12 – 1 p.m. EST.

Image attribution: flickr user thtstudios