Event professionals: it’s time to talk about COVID, duty of care, and the meeting industry. Actually, we should all have been talking about this for the last couple of years, but better late than never.
Over the last five years I’ve heard increasing concern from the meeting professionals community about the deterioration of the quality of our national industry conferences. A recent thread on the MECO community (a great resource for meeting professionals since 2006) describes numerous recent basic logistical failings, and points to what I see as symptoms of fundamental problems with meeting industry associations at the national level.
In a nutshell, I think that our industry associations have become too focused on justifying their continued existence financially. They are neglecting their core mission of supporting and representing their members and association meeting attendees.
I’ll illustrate with the area where I have most experience: providing education at these meetings. In my opinion (and many other event professionals with whom I’ve spoken) the “educational” content at the national meetings these days is sub-par. I suspect it’s because the processes for choosing it are seriously flawed and completely opaque.
I’ve lost count of the conference session proposals I’ve made to meeting industry associations that have wound through multiple months-long steps only to be rejected at the last possible moment with no explanation and a boilerplate request to submit more next year. Meanwhile, it’s clear from a review of industry conference programs that employees of sponsors or trade show exhibitors give large numbers of presentations. Also solicited/accepted are keynote/motivational speakers. These folks get paid large fees and provide exciting presentations with, in my experience, little or no content of long-term value to the meeting attendees. (Think back to the big-name speakers you’ve listened to in the past and — be honest now — how many of them have changed your professional life in any significant way?) But their inclusion looks good on the promotional materials.
In my case, the demand for the meeting design and facilitation services I provide has been exploding. (In the first quarter of 2018, I’ve booked more business than all of 2017.) Most clients and meeting industry professionals have yet to experience how effective participant-driven, participation-rich design and facilitation can radically improve their meetings for participants and stakeholders alike. So there’s plenty of work yet to do, and not enough people experienced enough to do it.
Our industry conferences are the obvious places to provide this education.
My contributions to meeting education are Participate! workshops I design and lead which provide experiences that significantly improve how the participants design their meetings. They are, in my opinion, fundamental education; certainly on a par with the sessions we see at the annual conferences every year on “hot event items”, F&B trends, and meeting management. Yet experiential meeting design is not acknowledged at meeting industry conferences as an overlooked fundamental competency that needs to be offered on a regular basis. Rather, it’s seen as a “hot topic” that can be covered once and subsequently ignored.
In addition, industry associations have essentially given up paying for professional education at their events, preferring, it seems, to spend money on the big name players I mentioned above. These days, someone like me is lucky to be offered event registration and expense reimbursement. (Let alone any kind of token fee for the hours it takes to design and prepare a great session.) This further biases session submissions in favor of sponsors and corporations who are attending the event anyway for marketing purposes.
Many other independent meeting professionals I know who love our industry, are great presenters, and have unparalleled expertise on important perennial meeting education areas have told me about similar rejections. Most of us have pretty much given up submitting sessions as a result.
Some may see what I’ve written as sour grapes. I’ll only add that I’ve been an educator of one kind or another for forty years. There’s a large unmet need for what I and other experts do. And I’m frustrated that meeting associations, whose purported mission is serving our industry, stymie our offers to share our expertise with our fellow professionals.
Another issue of an occasional series—Dear Adrian—in which I answer questions sent to me about event design, elementary particle physics, solar hot water systems, and anything else I might conceivably know something about. If you have a question you’d like me to answer, please write to me (don’t worry, I won’t publish anything without your permission).
I was wondering if you would be able to share some of your experience in the events services industry. I’m a Middle East Studies professional and I’m looking towards a career change into event management. I was just wondering what you studied, how you got into conference designing? What were some of the difficulties you had along the way? How does one “break into” the conference and events services industry with a degree in liberal arts?
In your book, which I am reading (which is amazing by the way, congrats!) it says that you managed a solar domestic hot water heating system manufacturing company? How on earth did you get into event management with that background?
I appreciate any answers you might have time have to answer and I thank you.
A student in George Washington University’s Event Management Certificate program.
A. Dear Student,
I’m afraid that the career path that led to my “breaking” into the event services industry is so atypical that it can in no way serve as a guide to others. Some information that sheds a little light on the circumstances can be found in this post.
And yet there is something one can learn from the strange journey that brought me into the conference and event services industry. Although I have only been connected to the “professional” event industry world for a few years, I have met and learned a little about the backgrounds of hundreds of event professionals in many industry segments. And I can assure you that a majority of those people did not plan a career in our industry but, like myself, found a calling or attraction to their work.
The people I’ve met have prior experience in all kinds of seemingly unrelated fields. Besides hospitality experience, which you might well expect to be a precursor, I’ve met people who have years of theatre experience, people with degrees in computer science or who worked in high tech, who started organizing conferences around a hobby they loved, and who ran companies and associations related to completely different industries.
As a result, my conclusion is that you are unlikely to be able to predict the fit for an events industry position by simply looking at prior experience listed on a résumé. Founding and managing my solar hot water manufacturing company, for example, gave me valuable business experience in a host of areas: finance and business planning, working with employees and contractors, marketing, and selling, to name a few. (And I’d add that your liberal arts degree could be excellent preparation for a career in the events industry, as a good program teaches you how to think creatively about a wide range of subjects; valuable expertise in such a diverse, wide-ranging, and often fast-paced industry as ours.)
What the event professionals I’ve met who clearly enjoy their work all have in common is their pleasure and satisfaction in successfully creating an enjoyable environment where people can come together, connect, and learn. That’s certainly what motivates my work. Is it something that also speaks to you? Then, if you have or can build the necessary competencies over time, there’s a place for you in this profession.
As far as practical considerations go, there are a wealth of opportunities available to you. I’m a big believer in the power of personal networking, whether face-to-face or, increasingly, online. The local chapters of industry associations are an obvious starting point. Reach out to your local chapter and explain your situation; attend a meeting or two and start to network there. Can you afford to volunteer or intern? This is one of the best ways for people and organizations to learn your capabilities, potentially leading to paying job opportunities.
Online, the MeetingsCommunity (commonly known as MeCo) has proved to be a great resource over the years. Check out the #eventprofs#mpi#pcma, and #ises streams of tweets on Twitter. Also, explore the many LinkedIn groups that cover every facet of the industry.
I hope this is helpful. Getting started in the event services industry is probably the hardest part. But persistence, with a bit of luck and serendipity, is usually rewarded. I wish you well in your endeavors. Keep me posted about what happens!