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!

 

The corrosive effect of commissions on the meetings industry

The corrosive effect of commissions on the meetings industry

Let’s talk about the corrosive effect of commissions on the meetings industry.

Our industry is abuzz about the news of Marriott’s decision to cut third-party commissions for group bookings by thirty percent. And the response has been “harsh“, especially because of the extremely short notice (it will be going into effect on March 31, 2018) and once it became known that four large site selection firms would be “granted a temporary exception“.

Marriott’s announcement sparked the potential of a commission war (some independent properties are raising group booking commissions). It led to fear of further reductions or elimination of commissions by other suppliers in the future. Taking a wider view, let’s talk about the corrosive effect of commissions on the meeting industry.

(I think the following points are pertinent to any industry that pays commissions, but that’s a topic for another post.)

Why are group booking commissions “corrosive”?

Let’s go back to basics. When a supplier pays an independent agent commission on a group booking, the agent benefits financially. This financial transaction does not directly involve the agent’s client (who may not even be aware of it). The agent, then, is not depending solely on client fees for income.

Who is the agent’s customer? Ideally it would be 100% the client. From the client’s point of view, the agent’s job is to find the venue that best meets the client’s needs. But when commissions enter the picture, the question arises as to whether the commission-paying supplier is now the customer too. After all, the agent provides a service (a sale!) for the venue — and receives payment for it. And that leads to concerns that should be on the mind of any client who is aware of that commissions will be paid. Did my agent steer me to this property because they stand to make money from recommending it, rather than because it’s the best choice for me? Can I continue to trust this agent to act in my best interests?

Remember one of Jerry Weinberg’s ten laws of trust: “Trust takes years to win, moments to lose.

The real-estate industry, which works solely on commission, is upfront about brokerage commission fees, which, though sometimes negotiable, are typically uniform and clearly included in client-broker contracts. The meeting industry does not generally match such levels of uniformity or transparency. For example, I often negotiate with non-traditional meeting venues. None of them have ever offered me a commission (and I would have been surprised and declined if they had). In my experience, commissions can range between 0 – 15%.

Of course, experienced clients are aware of the existence of commissions, and ethical agents disclose them. Nevertheless, commissions tie intermediaries to vendors who pay them, obscure financial transparency. Commissions muddy the waters as to whether the agent is solely acting in the client’s best interest. A naive client may see an agent receiving commissions as less expensive than one who is totally fee-based.

To summarize, group booking commissions are corrosive because they reduce clients’ trust in the impartiality of meeting planners, and they hide and/or distort the financial considerations underlying a booking.

Why trade associations are silent

Compared to the strong response from independent planners, trade associations have been “largely silent” to the Marriott announcement. The few official responses provide excellent examples of how to issue a statement that says nothing substantial.

This is not surprising, due to the financial model adopted by these associations. Kyle Hillman points out that it relies on supplier financial support to an extent that they will not say anything that might offend suppliers.

“…stop looking to the trade associations for help. It isn’t that they are bad, they are just not setup to be independent voices here. Their entire financial structure is based on supplier funding. No matter how egregious a situation is for planners or industry professionals, they can’t get involved without risking their primary revenue source. On internal issues within the industry – trade associations are not our advocates…”

“…I think we romanticize MPI, PCMA, ASAE as our champions when that isn’t their role. Their role is to provide enough value to members so that they can facilitate sellers soliciting their goods. They were never designed to be advocates for buyers.”
Kyle Hillman, Facebook Industry Friends Group

As a side observation, at least MPI and PCMA do not claim that they only represent meeting planners, but ASAE — the American Society of Association Executives — does not have that excuse if its name correctly portrays the people they claim to represent!

For this article I researched the relative numbers of buyer versus supplier memberships at MPI, PCMA, and ASAE but found nothing on their websites (feel free to share in the comments if you know). And unfortunately, these organizations’ annual 990’s do not break out buyer versus supplier support, though the program income figures are interesting and shown below {the 2015 returns are the most recent I could access}.

corrosive effect of commissions on the meetings industry
ASAE 2015 program income
corrosive effect of commissions on the meetings industry
MPI 2015 program income
PCMA 2015 program income

Regardless, intermediaries have no major association to represent their collective concerns. (Senior Planners Industry Network {SPIN} has published a petition demanding equal commissions from Marriott for all intermediaries.)

Corrosive conclusion

The upheaval caused by Marriott’s abrupt unilateral decision to slash intermediary commissions has created consternation for third-parties who have relied on these commissions for a portion of their income. Is this is the beginning of a trend like the one begun in 1995 when airlines capped and eventually cut commissions to travel agents? We can, however, take some encouraging lessons from the travel agent industry which, in response, reinvented its business models and, though the number of agencies has shrunk by two-thirds, is perhaps the healthiest it has been in years.

Paradoxically, those intermediaries who work solely on a fee-basis and do not rely on venue commissions are in a good position to increase their business as a result of Marriott’s decision, compared to other agents who may now need to find additional revenue sources, or perhaps even leave what is a demanding and difficult business. Ultimately, intermediaries relying less on commissions’ contribution to the bottom line will reduce the corrosive effect of commissions on the meetings industry.

Impediments to AI matchmaking at events

artificial intelligence matchmaking at events Companies are now marketing services for artificial intelligence matchmaking at events. However, unresolved issues could impede the adoption of this technology, especially by attendees.

Consider this marketing pitch for an artificial intelligence event matchmaking service:

“Using the [AI] platform…it’s easier for attendees to make sure they have the right meetings set up, and for exhibitors to have a higher return on investment in terms of connections with high-quality buyers.”
—Tim Groot, CEO Grip, as quoted in What AI Means To Meetings: How Artificial Intelligence will boost ROI, Michael Shapiro, July 2017 Meetings & Conventions Magazine

A win-win for exhibitors and attendees?

Tim describes using artificial intelligence matchmaking at events as a win for both exhibitors and attendees.

I’m skeptical.

Let’s assume, for the moment, that the technology actually works. If so, I think suppliers will reap most of the touted benefits, quite possibly at the expense of attendees. Here’s why.

Successful matchmaking needs digital data about attendees. An AI platform cannot work without this information. Where will the data come from? Tim explains that his service builds a profile for each attendee. Sources include “LinkedIn, Google, and Facebook”, while also “scouring the web for additional information”.

Using social media platform information, even if attendee approval is requested first, creates a slippery slope, as privacy issues in meeting apps remain largely undiscussed and little considered by attendees during the rush of registration. The end result is that the AI matchmaking platform gains a rich reservoir of data about attendees that, without strong verifiable safeguards, may be sold to third parties or even given to suppliers.

In addition, let’s assume that exhibitors get great information about whom to target. The result: “high-value” attendees will be bombarded with even more meeting requests while attendees who don’t fit the platform’s predictions will be neglected.

In my opinion, the best and most likely to succeed third-party services for meetings are those that provide win-win outcomes for everyone concerned. Unfortunately, it’s common (and often self-serving) to overlook a core question about meeting objectives —whom is your event for? — and end up with a “solution” that benefits one set of stakeholders over another.

How well will artificial intelligence matchmaking at events work for attendees?

Artificial intelligence is hot these days, so it’s inevitable that event companies talk about incorporating it into their products, if only because it’s a sure-fire way to get attention from the meetings industry.
I know something about AI because in the ’80s I was a professor of computer science, and the theory of artificial neural networks — the heart of modern machine learning — was thirty years old. AI had to wait, however, for the introduction of vastly more potent technology to allow practical implementation on today’s computers.

While the combination of powerful computing and well-established AI research is demonstrating incredible progress in areas such as real-time natural language processing and translation, I don’t see why sucking social media and registration data into a database and using AI to look for correlations is going to provide attendee matchmaking that is superior to what can be achieved using participant-driven and participation-rich meeting process combined with attendees’ real-time event experience. (Once again, exhibitors may see a benefit from customized target attendee lists, but I’m looking for win-win here.)

From the attendee point of view

When attendees enter a meeting room there’s a wealth of information available to help make relevant connections. Friends introduce me to people I haven’t yet met. Eavesdropping on conversations opens up more possibilities. Body language and social groupings also provide important potential matchmaking information. An AI matchmaking database includes none of these resources. All of them have led me (and just about everyone who’s ever attended meetings) to professional connections that matter.

Coda

I’ll conclude with a story. The June 2017 PCMA Convene article Can Artificial Intelligence Make You a Better Networker? describes a techsytalk session by Howard Givner where he “gave particular emphasis to the importance of facilitated matchmaking at events.” I like to think that Howard discovered this when he attended the participant-driven and participation-rich EventCamp East Coast I designed and facilitated in 2010, about which he wrote:

“…it was one of the most innovative and eye-opening professional experiences I’ve had. Aside from coming back with lots of new tips and ideas, I easily established triple the number of new contacts, and formed stronger relationships with them, than at any other conference I’ve been to.”

We didn’t use an AI matchmaking service.