Make the meeting bigger!

Most of the event industry and our clients continue to assume that if you can make the meeting bigger it’s a good thing.

It ain’t necessarily so.

How we got here

The massive disruption of in-person events since March 2020 has shaken our industry to the core. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, in-person events that weren’t canceled have seen drastically reduced attendance compared to prior years. Online and hybrid meetings have seen less drastic reductions.

One bright spot has been the normalization of online meetings for routine connection and collaboration. We have also seen the emergence of new forms of online events, supported by solid business models.

So as I predicted in 2020, we haven’t seen the old normal since the pandemic started, and it’s likely we’ll never see it again.

What we shouldn’t do

The event industry unduly focuses on large meetings. Our trade magazines mainly report on big events, the ones with big-name speakers and eye candy razzle-dazzle. Pandemic-induced smaller audiences engender hand-wringing. What to do? How can we get our old, big events back?

Some respond by increasing their event marketing. Often, however, that’s not a smart move, as Seth Godin illustrates:
make meeting bigger

Make the announcement louder. Make the logo bigger. Yell. Call more people on the phone to sell them an extended warranty. Send more emails. Hustle harder.
None of it works.
The problem with the fountain isn’t that they didn’t make a big enough sign. The problem is that the fountain itself is poorly designed…
…If you get the design right, you can whisper instead.
—Seth Godin, “Make the sign bigger!”

What we should do

For too long, we’ve equated a meeting’s “success” with its size. “Bigger is better.” But if we concentrate on increasing attendance, we overlook getting the meeting design right. Improving an event’s design makes the meeting better for all the stakeholders: meeting owners, sponsors, and participants. In contrast, large meetings are usually less effective at satisfying stakeholders’ desired goals and objectives.

Do yourself a favor, and rid yourself of the “bigger is better” meeting mindset. It may help to remember that in reality, most meetings are small meetings. And that’s OK.

So don’t try to make the meeting bigger. Instead, make the meeting design right. (Get in touch if you’d like some help.)

You and your stakeholders will be glad you did.

Photo attribution: Seth’s blog post “Make the sign bigger!

How to design for powerful connection and learning at large meetings

connection and learning at large meetings

How can we design for powerful connection and learning at large meetings?

Although you’d never guess it from reading meeting industry trade journals, most meetings are small meetings, and this is a good thing if you want effective and relevant connection and learning to take place.

Large meetings stroke owners’ and leaders’ egos, and can supply impressive spectacle. They 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:

  1. Provide sessions focused on content that participants care about.
  2. Design for small sessions and/or have participants work together in small groups.
  3. Use interactive formats.
  4. Include closing sessions that consolidate learning, build community, and explore the group’s future.

Let’s take a look at each of these requirements in more detail.

Content that participants care about

Traditional large conferences use the “kitchen sink” {aka “spray and pray”} approach of stuffing sessions on every potentially interesting topic into the program. Slightly more sophisticated conferences attempt to determine in advance the topics that attendees say they want.

Unfortunately, years of research by yours truly has shown that when conference sessions are chosen in advance, the majority of them are not what attendees want and need {here’s an example}. It’s like John Wanamaker describing advertising: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”

There’s no way to know in advance which sessions you’ve prescheduled will meet participants’ wants and needs.

To be sure of scheduling sessions about content that participants actually care about, you’ll need to uncover and satisfy their actual wants and needs at the event. Luckily, doing this isn’t rocket science — I’ve been crowdsourcing programs in many different ways for 30 years.

Want to learn more? My 2009 book Conferences That Work describes one way to create an entirely crowdsourced multi-day conference. Here’s another way to do it for a one-day conference. If you have only a few hours Open Space is useful (though, in my opinion, overrated). Finally, check out my latest book Event Crowdsourcing which covers everything I’ve learned about crowdsourcing programs at meetings.

Small sessions and/or small group work

One of the reasons why small conferences with a well-defined niche audience work well is that participants don’t have to waste time meeting people with whom they have little in common. Large meetings attempt to create the same environment by scheduling multiple conference tracks and concurrent breakout sessions. Often, however, the resulting sessions are still too large for people to easily make useful connections and/or learn from each other.

Unless you use interactive formats (see below), not much useful learning can happen in an hour with a hundred attendees.

One simple approach to reduce the size of large sessions is to run them simultaneously in several rooms. Or you can repeat them at different times. Distribute interested participants between multiple sessions, either by preallocation (for simultaneous sessions) or personal choice. I use this approach to run The Three Questions as an opening plenary at large conferences.

Small sessions, with thirty or fewer participants, should be the goal. Such sizes invite less formal formats where it’s easier for participants to ask questions, influence what is covered and discussed, and contribute their expertise and experience to the learning environment.

Finally, large sessions can work effectively if they have a significant small group work component. For example, some of the session formats I design and facilitate — for example, The Solution Room, RSQP, and The Personal Introspective — scale to work with any number of participants because most of the important work is done in small groups.

Remember, small is beautiful!

Interactive formats

Designing genuinely useful sessions for large groups is challenging work and typically requires incorporating small group work as described above. However, I have had great success facilitating highly interactive discussions of “hot topics” with hundreds of people. By interactive, I don’t mean that five people monopolize the entire discussion. Typically about forty people are “up on stage” at some point, most of whom had no inkling beforehand they had something useful to contribute.

I call the format I’ve developed the Fishbowl Sandwich, and you’ll find full details on how to design and prepare such a session in Event Crowdsourcing.

Closing sessions

Most meetings squander the experiences they create. How? By failing to provide structured time to consolidate and reflect on individual and group learning and explore consequent future change. You can improve all meetings by including closing sessions that:

  • Help participants consolidate what they’ve learned during the conference and determine the next steps; and
  • Provide an opportunity for participants to reflect on the event, build community, and uncover new opportunities for future activities together.

Luckily, formats that satisfy these important needs — The Personal Introspective and Group Spective — can be run for meetings of any size.

Include them!

Final thoughts

Designing for connection and learning at large meetings by incorporating sessions like the ones I’ve outlined above? Bear in mind that interactive sessions typically require more time than traditional lecture-style presentations. Active learning is messy and risky, and creating an effective and safe learning environment takes more time than simply listening to or viewing speaker content.

About to schedule crowdsourcing, interactive formats, and closing sessions? Investigate the amount of time they’ll need, so you don’t sabotage them by cramming them into a timeslot that can’t do them justice. The links above are good resources. Investigate them, apply their principles, and make your large conferences better!

It became necessary to destroy the conference to save it

It became necessary to destroy the conference to save it

Destroy the conference to save it

When mistaken beliefs about methods and outcomes harden into dogma, harm follows. The professional meeting industry largely believes that:

We don’t have to make the same mistakes we made in Vietnam. We know how to design conferences that maximize just-in-time active learning, productive engagement, relevant connection, and successful outcomes.

But if we continue to try to save conferences by keeping them the way they’ve always been, we’ll continue to destroy the conference to save it.

Produce for a micro conference market

Lego_Dreamforce_02
Today, you need to produce for a micro conference market.

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.

Today, the most successful conferences are micro conferences. No time wasted navigating through sprawling venues passing hundreds of people you’ll never meet. No more inspirational lectures that you don’t remember three weeks later. Minimal obligatory glad-handing. Instead you’re meeting less than a hundred people with a lot in common and a lot to gain by connecting effectively, appropriately, and, ultimately, profitably.

So, produce for a micro conference market. As Seth puts it: “When someone wants to know how big you can make (your audience, your market share, your volume), it might be worth pointing out that it’s better to be important, to be in sync, to be the one that’s hard to be replaced. And the only way to be important is to be relevant, focused and specific.”

Photo attribution: Mini Dreamforce 2010

Most meetings are small meetings

small meetings 2328078954_a86f4d8f92_oMeetings industry publications seem to focus on “large” meetings. This is not surprising. Big meetings require big fancy venues and command big budgets. They employ lots of event professionals, and can command high-price speakers and opulent spectacle. Though we don’t talk about it, being responsible for big events is implicitly higher-status than small ones.

So I think it’s worth pointing 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 events 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.

Photo attribution: Flickr user caribb