Working with suppliers and practitioners at meetings

suppliers and practitioners at meetingsOver 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.


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!


Three key kinds of learning at events—Part 1

three key kinds of learning 16846023595_b22b670d4a_kWhen asked, just about everyone mentions learning as a key reason for conference attendance.

So, given the clear importance of learning at events, it’s surprising that we lump distinctly different activities into the single word “learning”. Perhaps this reflects the reality that learning acquisition is a largely unconscious process, in the same way our casual familiarity with snow leads us to possess far fewer words for it than the Inuit. Whatever the reasons, it’s useful to distinguish between three different categories of learning:

  • factual information acquisition;
  • problem solving; and
  • building a process toolkit.

Factual knowledge acquisition

Factual knowledge acquisition involves what it sounds like — learning factual information.

Multiplication tables, names and typical dosages of medications, foreign language nouns, and the millions of facts that we don’t even know that we know until someone asks us.

It also includes sensory knowledge.

The ability to recognize whether a skin lesion is benign, the sound of Mahler’s Second Symphony, the feel of satin, the smell of a skunk, or the taste of rhubarb.

Problem solving

Problem solving calls for a different level of learning. In essence, it requires noticing or discovering relationships between pieces of information and using these associations to infer answers to relevant problems. Problem solving provides useful process that operates on our knowledge.

Building a process toolkit

Building a process toolkit is an even higher form of learning. After all, in many situations—for example, multiplying two 4-digit numbers using paper and pen—problem solving is rote. But developing novel process frequently challenges our best minds. This can take a long time, as illustrated by the growth of scientific understanding over millennia. Whether we construct our own process or appropriate useful process developed by others, building a collection of processes that are relevant to our lives is perhaps the most powerful kind of learning we can perform.

I make these distinctions because any specific instance of learning incorporates a different mixture of each category. To complicate things further, the effectiveness of each kind of learning is influenced by disparate factors. As a result, books about learning tend to contain a bewildering variety and quantity of information about aspects of learning.

Some examples

Training workers

Consider training workers to determine whether an applicant is eligible for government benefit. This could involve many days teaching a large number of complex requirements. Success might be defined as being able to consistently understand, remember, and apply the correct requirements for each applicant. Such learning will concentrate on acquiring relevant factual knowledge plus the capacity to follow a defined process determined by senior administrators. Factors such as:

  • retention of key knowledge;
  • maintaining the level of accuracy necessary to make correct decisions; and
  • the ability to recall relevant material over time are clearly important.

Developing graduate students

Compare this with the mysterious multiyear process by which some graduate students develop from novice researchers into leading practitioners in their field, which includes attending numerous conferences. This involves all three categories of learning:

  1. Obtaining a wide range of relevant and not-obviously-relevant knowledge;
  2. Comfort and familiarity with the discipline’s existing body of process and problem solving; and
  3. Developing a toolkit of novel process that can, hopefully, extend the field further.

While the government workers need to concentrate on retaining well-defined information, the researchers will likely acquire far more information than ultimately needed to make an advance or breakthrough. Consequently, the graduate students need to learn how to refine—both narrow and broaden—their focus on a wide range of information. They constantly make decisions on what they will concentrate and what they will, possibly temporarily, put aside. The capacity to do this well, combined with ability to effectively problem-solve and develop novel process defines successful learning in this situation.

Learning at meetings

So when we talk about learning at meetings, it can be very helpful to be specific about the kind(s) of learning that are desired. Trainings focus on the first two categories I’ve described. More powerful forms of learning—typically experiential process that introduces tools that can be applied in a variety of future situations—incorporates all three.

In Part 2 of this exploration of learning, I’ll share a final example of the complex ways that learning and learning approaches can be affected by multiple factors, specifically the differences between how children and adults typically learn.

Photo attribution: Flickr user jakerust