Large meetings stroke owners’ and leaders’ egos, can supply impressive spectacle, are appropriate places to launch campaigns and mass announcements, and can be very profitable. But they are poor vehicles for creating the useful participant learning, connection, and outcomes that well-designed small conferences can deliver.
So if you are (un)fortunate enough to be the owner or designer of a large meeting, what can you do to maximize participant value?
You need to satisfy four core requirements for optimum learning and connection:
Fifty years ago, producers and marketers got smart. They saw the miracle of mass marketing and they adopted it as their own. They amped up mass production and bet on the masses. The smart creators today are seeing the shift and doing precisely the opposite: Produce for a micro market. Market to a micro market. —Seth Godin, Mass production and mass media
Despite the status associated with big conferences, most meetings are small meetings. Whether by accident or design, in today’s world this is a good thing. The heyday of the large amorphous conference—where plenaries consist of well-known people trying to entertain or inspire you, meeting important people by chance is unlikely, and you’re uninterested in most of the sessions—is past.
Meetings industry publications seem to focus on “large” meetings. This is not surprising. Big meetings require big fancy venues, command big budgets, employ lots of meeting professionals, and can command high-price speakers and opulent spectacle. Though we don’t talk about it, being responsible for big meetings is implicitly higher-status than small meetings.
So I think it’s worth pointing out that, if you take a moment to check out hospitality data, it turns out that large meetings are the exception rather than the rule. For example, here are a couple of panelists at the August 2014 Hotel Data Conference quoted by Ed Watkins, Editor-At-Large of Hotel News Now, in this article:
“Faust [VP of Sales, Omni Hotels & Resorts] said the biggest change at Omni has been the growth of smaller meetings: 65% of the chain’s meeting business comes from groups that book 50 rooms or fewer at peak. At MGM Resorts, 80% of group business is 100 rooms or fewer at peak, and 62% is 50 rooms or fewer, Dominguez [Senior VP of Corporate Sales, MGM Resorts International] said.”
The Conferences That Work meeting format described in my 2009 book works well with meetings of up to a hundred people, (and I’ve shared ways to extend it to larger meetings in a free supplement, though you’ll need the book to fully understand the update.) But what hospitality data indicates is that for around 80% of the meetings held today, if you want a participant-driven and participation-rich conference, the book’s meeting design is all you’ll need.
Sure, we’ll always have large meetings for all kinds of reasons, and we’ll continue to enjoy the unique possibilities that big events can provide (despite some significant downsides). Just remember that the beautiful large meeting facilities prominently featured in meeting magazines may be what you and your clients lust after, but, most of the time, they aren’t what your clients actually need.