Working with suppliers and practitioners at meetings

suppliers and practitioners at meetings Over the years I’ve designed and facilitated hundreds of meetings. One of the most common issues I address that is rarely acknowledged openly is the tension between the wants and needs of suppliers and practitioners at meetings. By “suppliers” I mean vendors of products or services, and sponsors. By “practitioners” I mean the folks who do what the meeting is about; e.g., doctors at a medical event or scientists at a conservation conference.

Sometimes these groups are given well-defined opportunities to interact in a familiar way. Often, vendors meet with practitioners at a tradeshow, and sponsors (who are usually vendors too) get opportunities to address practitioners. Such forms of interaction are well understood and I won’t address them further here.

But what happens when both suppliers and practitioners at meetings attend sessions?

What happens when suppliers attend event sessions

I’ll start by saying that I’ve found that the smartest suppliers attend relevant meeting sessions. Even if they keep their mouths shut during the session, good suppliers can learn about content that’s relevant to what they sell. And in addition, they can also learn about practitioners’ wants, needs, and concerns — both as individuals and as a group — that will make a smart supplier’s work easier.

Having both suppliers and practitioners at meetings attend sessions has both positive and negative consequences. Unfortunately, supplier and practitioner perspectives on having suppliers present don’t usually align.

The practitioner’s perspective on including suppliers at meeting sessions

Typically, practitioners:

  • Really don’t want suppliers to pitch what they’re selling during a session.
  • May not want to talk about supplier products and services when suppliers are present.

Less frequently, practitioners may appreciate suppliers with subject matter expertise who contribute to the value of sessions without overt pitching.

The supplier’s perspective on attending meeting sessions

Typically, suppliers are looking for opportunities to sell and perhaps get some education.

Smart suppliers will do this by contributing to session value without blatant pitching, and by learning more about practitioners’ wants, needs, and concerns.

Unfortunately, some suppliers will alienate practitioners by inappropriately pushing what they sell. (A tip: don’t do this! Few people want to be hustled. You will alienate most if not all of your potential sales prospects.)

How to maximize the benefits of meetings and sessions that include both suppliers and practitioners

Most meetings simply don’t address the conflicting wants and needs described above. That’s a shame. With a little forethought, it’s possible to maximize the benefits of meetings and sessions that include both suppliers and practitioners while minimizing undesired outcomes.

Here’s what you can do.

Understand practitioners’ and suppliers’ wants, needs, and expectations in advance

First, you need to understand before the meeting what your practitioners and suppliers want, need, and expect. As a meeting designer, if a meeting is going to include both practitioners and suppliers I always ask my clients about the relationship between these groups and their wants and needs.

Some associations, for example, know both groups well and are confident that their members are comfortable with suppliers in their sessions. Others tell me that their members don’t want suppliers present in some or all of their sessions. For example, I once worked on the design of a legal conference where the practitioners worked at large law firms and the suppliers were outside counsel attorneys eager to get a slice of lucrative legal business. Discussing what level of access outside counsel would have to the law firms during the event was the most difficult part of the meeting design.

Another key factor is the expected ratio of practitioners to suppliers at event sessions. If a minority of attendees are suppliers, it’s usually fairly easy to ensure constructive behavior in sessions. But sometimes the reverse is true. Recently I attended an online speed dating platform’s meeting industry event. I wanted to meet some other meeting planners and get to know them a little. But as I was matched with supplier after supplier it became clear that few meeting planners were present, and I had to politely listen to pitch after pitch from suppliers. The experience turned out to be a waste of my time and did not endear me to the platform.

To avoid unpleasant (at least to practitioners) experiences like this, do the following.

Facilitate active learning about who’s present and their roles

Uncovering who’s at a meeting and the relevant roles they play is one of the important things I do at meetings I facilitate. Body voting (aka human spectrograms) is the key technique I use. The specifics depend on what is useful for the people in the room to know. In the context of this post, at a minimum I’ll have attendees move into two groups: practitioners and suppliers in different areas of the room. All attendees can then see who else “like them” is present. Invariably, I’ll ask participants to divide into more specific sub-groups — determined in advance via client consultation. I’ll then give each grouping a little time for members to get to know each other.

For example, at a conference for librarians, I might first have them move into groups by the kind of library they work at: e.g. public, K-12 school, college, specialty, and “other”. Then I’ll ask them to organize themselves by role: e.g. director, cataloging/technical services, reference/adult, youth, trustee, or friend. During this exercise, if anyone wants to know about a grouping I haven’t included it’s easy to have people regroup to supply that information.

Doing this simple exercise allows participants to quickly get a sense of the sizes of pertinent groups present. In addition, they get the opportunity to meet other attendees who are “like them”.

Unless you’re facilitating a local conference, also include a human spectrogram map, which helps attendees meet others who live near them. Doing this also allows regional suppliers to meet nearby practitioners.

Discovering at the start of an event or session others who live near you, the proportions of practitioners to suppliers present, and other “similar to you” individuals is valuable information that every meeting should make available.

Tell suppliers not to pitch in sessions

While most attendees expect and tolerate brief scheduled pitches from sponsors, impromptu marketing during sessions is rarely appreciated. Most suppliers know that aggressive pitching during sessions is not a productive approach, but some don’t. Minimize this behavior by telling suppliers that marketing is not allowed during meeting sessions. A brief announcement to this effect at the opening of the meeting won’t hurt either. Finally, before the event, ask leaders to curtail pitches occurring in their sessions.

Restrict supplier-led sessions to topics where the supplier has significant subject matter expertise

I’m not against sessions being led or presented by suppliers per se. (Suppliers explicitly identified as sponsors, of course, get to pitch a little.) But I have attended too many events where a supplier leading a session uses most of their time to hawk their product or services. These sessions — often misleadingly advertised as containing useful content — leave a bad taste in most attendees’ mouths. Before you assign a supplier to lead or present at a session, check that they have significant subject matter expertise, and tell them directly that they should avoid any pitching.

I still remember vividly a conference I convened forty years ago where a vendor ignored this request and pitched their products for twenty minutes to the entire event. These days I would have interrupted them, but back then I felt too embarrassed to intervene. There are no guarantees that every supplier will respect your request. But making it explicitly before the event should minimize all but the most brazen behavior.

When appropriate, consider offering “practitioner-only” sessions

Practitioners sometimes don’t want suppliers present during certain sessions. For example, consider a session where practitioners want to discuss the pros and cons of various commercial solutions to a common problem. At such sessions, the inclusion of suppliers inhibits free and frank discussion. It also introduces the possibility that suppliers will then pursue individual practitioners who shared they’re ready to buy. So state in the session description that it’s for practitioners only. If suppliers turn up they can be asked politely to leave.

Conclusion

Integrating practitioners and suppliers appropriately in meeting sessions can improve everyone’s experience. Practitioners appreciate the experience and expertise that knowledgeable suppliers can bring, while suppliers build better relationships with practitioners without aggressive marketing.

If your meetings involve suppliers attending sessions, please use these simple approaches to maximize the synergy from including both groups, while minimizing the all-too-common downsides. Your participants will appreciate the results!

Do you have additional suggestions or comments on integrating suppliers appropriately into meeting sessions? Share them in the comments below!

 

Who owns your event?

who owns an event

Who owns an event?

Who owns an event? The usual answer to this question is “the event’s sponsors”. That is, the people and organizations that decide to hold the event and contribute the resources needed for the event to occur. Sponsors typically define the context, format, scope, and desired outcomes of an event, so they are clearly owners.

But I think there are other plausible answers to this question.

Increasingly we are moving to event models that make participants generators of event value. Conferences that leverage all the expertise in the room, rather than the contributions of a few experts. Meetings that become what the participants want and need them to be, autofocusing on the topics and questions that are of genuine relevance, rather than sessions predefined six months in advance.

Yes, sponsors define an event’s boundaries and make it happen (for which we should all be grateful). But at participant-driven and participation-rich meetings, the shaping and contributions that participants provide are crucial for the event’s success. Without this input, such events are worth very little, so isn’t it fair to say that, under these circumstances, the participants are owners of the event as well?

Another way to think about event ownership

There’s another way to think of event ownership. As facilitator Dan Newman points out:

“…participants enter an event owning practically nothing, but they come out the other end owning a powerful experience constructed of things they’ve seen, heard or heard themselves say.”
—Dan Newman, From the Front of the Room: Notes on Facilitation for Experienced Practitioners

If we think of an event as the thing that happened between the moments when the first attendee arrived and the last person left, we are ignoring the changes in the knowledge, viewpoints, and connections, and the subsequent outcomes that the event created. The participants not only own their event experience, but also the consequences of their participation. The changes that result loop back on the event’s sponsors, influencing their future choices. Thus, participants are event owners because, to some extent, they control what happens next.

Conclusion

So, who owns an event? I like the idea that both sponsors and participants are the owners of events. By consciously bringing participants into the realm of ownership, we widen the community that makes the event what it is, and this benefits all the players.

A powerful question: Whom is your event for?

Whom is your event for

A fundamental question frequently arises when I receive initial requests for conference or meeting designs, because it’s often not clear whom the event is expected to benefit:

Whom is your event for?

A powerful way of thinking about events emerges from answering this question.

Here are three constituencies that could be components of your answer:

  1. Individual participants.
  2. Organizations.
  3. Culture.

(The third, Culture, is the best word I can think of to represent societal patterns and beliefs: i.e. forms to follow. Not strictly a “whom”, but still a powerful force to include.)

A Venn diagram

Looking through this lens leads me to the Venn diagram above, which I think is an interesting way to view different kinds of meetings. You may quibble about the definitions and boundaries of the event types plotted—feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!

Four quick observations:

  • It’s surprising how nicely most common event types fall into one of the seven combinations of the three constituencies. One exception is what I call “client conferences” which can be predominantly for an organization’s benefit (e.g. “in order to qualify to sell our products you must attend this conference”) or for both the organization’s and clients’ benefit (e.g. “learn how to sell our products better and let’s all make more money”).
  • In my work, I sometimes see tension between the needs of the organization and those of the participants. Part of my approach to event design is to make events win-win for both.
  • I can’t think of any events that are purely “for” culture. People or organizations always seem to have to be involved. (Though perhaps The Long Now or a burial of time capsules are rare exceptions?)
  • Feel free to add religious events wherever you think appropriate. I’m not going there.

I see this formulation as a work in progress, so your comments, additions, and corrections are especially welcome!