Competent logistics are the new meeting minimum

new meeting minimumI’m about to go on my first pre-con site visit since the Covid pandemic started over two years ago. My work at a pre-con is different from that of a typical meeting planner since I focus on the meeting’s design and facilitation. I’ve been convening meetings for decades, though, so I know a fair amount about meeting planning. As I prepared to review the venue’s meeting spaces, room set options, and traffic patterns, I thought about how, today, competent logistics are the new meeting minimum.

Unfortunately, you wouldn’t know this from looking at meeting planning textbooks. I have a pile on my desk as I write this. With a single exception — Tahira Endean‘s excellent Intentional Event Design: Our Professional Opportunity — they devote minimal space (usually a single chapter) to the importance and the how-to of exploring meeting objectives and outcomes before hundreds of pages on site selection, food and beverage, lodging, decor, entertainment, technical production, transportation, budgeting, trade shows, registration, etc.

The traditional bread and butter of a meeting planner’s job.

Yes, all these logistical considerations are important and need to be done well! But when you’re spending all your time on these issues it’s easy to forget that they are not what meetings are about. Today, competent logistics are the new meeting minimum.

The deficiencies of meeting planning textbooks and education

Such textbooks barely mention the essence of a meeting: what has to happen to achieve clearly defined meeting objectives and outcomes? Why? Because they make assumptions that what has to happen is what happened at just about every meeting their authors ever attended. They assume that meetings will consist of sessions with speakers on a stage. They assume that the core purpose of a meeting session is to transmit content to an audience. And they assume that when attendees are not in sessions, we should ply them with food and drink and entertainment.

Their opening chapters, with sections entitled “Needs Assessment”, “Prioritize Goals and Objectives”, “Design Factors”, and similar titles, are only a few pages because the authors unconsciously accepted traditional meeting human process. Far more space is devoted to entertainment and food and beverage. The focus is all on the wrapping and the beautiful box, ignoring the reality that the chocolates inside are missing, sparse, or stale.

The meeting industry has redefined novelty as creativity. A “creative” event design is one with a novel venue and/or decor and lighting and/or food and beverage. Consequently, planners restrict the entire focus of creative event design to novel visual and sensory elements.

When meeting planner textbooks gloss over the key ways that meetings can be made much more effective and useful for all stakeholders, planners remain ignorant, and traditional broadcast-style meetings continue to be the norm. Sadly, few clients know any better. Most assume that a meeting planner is all they need. They aren’t aware that professional meeting designers and facilitators exist and have great value.

Competent logistics are the new meeting minimum

I love to design and facilitate meetings that are great because they use participant-driven and participation-rich human processes. I have little competition. But I feel frustrated that so many opportunities to improve our events are going to waste. In my opinion, meeting planner education is deficient. Planners could be educated so they can help their clients with meeting design. Or they could learn and understand the importance and benefits of including meeting designers in the meeting planning process and encourage clients to use them. Either outcome (both could coexist) would cause a significant upgrade in the quality of meetings.

Steve Jobs said, “Design is how it works”. And good event design is about how a conference works. Combining perfect logistics with a traditional meeting design only leads to a flawless traditional meeting. That’s better than a flawed traditional meeting, of course, but we can do so much better. That’s why competent logistics are the new meeting minimum.

Image attribution: OISHII~DESU

What’s most important about an event, the gift or the wrapping?

What's most important about an event?

What’s most important about an event?

While writing about seeing the gifts in people and events I remembered one of my favorite scenes in Love Actually (2003). With his wife shopping nearby, Harry (Alan Rickman) impulsively purchases an expensive necklace for his mistress — only to be tortured by the fear of discovery as Rufus (Rowan Atkinson) slowly wraps his gift.

Watch the 2-minute video clip.

Discussing this amusing scene, my wife pointed out that the two components of a present, a gift and a wrapping, suggest a metaphor for an event. The gift symbolizes the purpose of the event — the connections made, the learning that takes place, the consequent outcomes. Similarly, the wrapping equates to the event’s logistical necessities and sensory glitz (people need to eat and drink, have somewhere to stay, and enjoy entertainment).

The answer to “what’s most important about a present, the gift or the wrapping?” is easy. A beautifully wrapped empty box is at best a joke, at worst an insult. A naked gift, shorn of all wrapping, is still a present.

A beautiful box of chocolates

And yet, all too often, we attend events that are like beautiful yet ultimately disappointing boxes of chocolates. The wrapping is gorgeous. Our excitement mounts as we open the box, only to discover that the chocolates are missing, sparse, or stale.

Without a useful, meaningful, and successfully implemented purpose, the most beautiful event is a hollow shell. A stunning wrapping that contains no valuable core. Attendees can be sumptuously fed and entertained, but if the event’s purpose remains missing, obscured, or unsuccessfully delivered, then, as Shakespeare said, the event becomes something “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

No budget for meeting design

As an event designer, I frequently hear that there’s “no budget” for meeting process design. Design that would make an event fundamentally better by significantly improving the realization of its purpose. Curiously, there always seems to be enough money budgeted for meeting logistics: the nice venue, F&B, fancy decor and AV, and the seemingly obligatory entertainment and big name speaker(s). That’s sad, because competent meeting process design costs far less than any of these traditional logistical components.

When we design and implement an event, its purpose must remain at the center of our attention, energy, and budget. Focusing on the wrapping at the expense of the gift makes an event a tragic waste of everyone’s time.