Cosmetic conferences

Cosmetic 3874430140_af4f9e9694_bIn 1981 I was in Atlantic City for a large tradeshow. A casino sound technician friend (who’d had the nerve-racking responsibility of miking Frank Sinatra the night before) invited me to join him for lunch at the staff canteen.

The casino decor was impressive: thick carpet, velvet wallpaper, elaborate light fixtures, and gold-plated handrails. I was standing in a plush hallway when my friend arrived. He opened an almost invisible door, revealing a matching corridor that turned to the right; we stepped through and the door closed behind us.

As we walked around the bend, the luxuriant carpet, wallpaper and handrails ended abruptly. Ahead, loomed gloomy flat grey walls and a dirty floor. We were on an empty backstage, and the cosmetic glamour reserved for paying customers was gone.

Some “special events”—like weddings, galas, and awards ceremonies—have a more-or-less fixed ritual, and event professionals make these events distinctive by concentrating on unique and creative decor, flow, spectacle, entertainment, and technical production. This is entirely appropriate for this kind of event, where these elements are, by and large, the way in which the repeated cultural ritual is made distinctive and memorable each time we attend.

Most conferences, in contrast, promote a different emphasis: a focus on content and connection. The mistake I see repeatedly: meeting planners are putting too much energy and resources into the environmental details of the meeting, and not enough into the format and underlying process of the conference itself.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with providing an attractive or spectacular environment for an event. All things being equal, we’d prefer to have tasty meals, appealing surroundings, excellent entertainment, and flawless production. But we need to recognize when overemphasis on these considerations leads us to neglect fundamental meeting design issues that dramatically impact achieving our core conference goals. Otherwise our conferences may be cosmetically alluring but ineffective. And your attendees may become all too aware of the bare walls and emptiness behind what you profess to supply.

Photo attribution: Flickr user luc_viatour