Making Meetings Better – by Design

by Harvey Chipkin

When it comes to planning an effective meeting, the design of the gathering is more important to success than many planners realize, and increasingly so.

“Planners must go beyond the aesthetics and the logistics of seating and audiovisual, etc., to the process of communication and collaboration,” said Mary Boone, a longtime consultant in meeting design and effectiveness.

“Because of all the changes in meetings, planners will increasingly have to develop or source expertise in meeting design,” added Boone, president of Boone Associates in Essex, Conn.

What is meeting design? “The purposeful shaping of the form and content for the meeting to achieve individual and organizational objectives,” Boone explained.

Discussions about strategic meeting planning are too often dominated by cost-saving, Boone said, in a panel discussion on the future of meetings at Meeting Professionals International’s (MPI) World Education Congress.

“That’s very important, but it does not address effectiveness. How do we use an event to change the culture of a company, change customer relationships? Meeting design is crucial to enhancing those goals.”

Boone, who designed and delivered MPI’s first master class in Meeting Design in 2008, discussed three major trends in meeting design and their implications for meeting planners.

Trend #1: Content is king
One of the main reasons participants attend events is to hear good content. This will be even more significant in the future, according to Boone.  

Now that content can be captured and shared in so many forms, it is critical that planners optimize it as a resource, she added.

Implications for planners
Planners will have to learn how to repackage and share content.

This means serving as “content ecologists” by: (1) reducing content to (bite-sized pieces); (2) reusing content (repackage and possibly resell it), and (3) recycling content (use it before, during and after a meeting).

Planners also need to determine which media make the most sense for the sharing of content.  Participants should be able to access content when, how, and in the form they want to receive it.  

Trend #2: Design as a discipline
People are waking up to the fact that well-designed meetings can transform organizations and customer relationships, and there is much greater emphasis on the form and content of the meeting than ever, Boone said.

“I’m not talking about aesthetics like signage and table appearance – although those are important. Rather, I’m talking about how we design the human interaction at the meeting and how it delivers desired results.

“This is largely driven by participants who are tired of sitting in dark rooms listening to a speaker.”

Implication for planners
Meetings professionals will need to understand the concept of meeting design and how it should be applied in their organizations.

Also, in the future, venue selection is likely to be based on how the location can accommodate a meeting design, as opposed to long-term vendor relationships or cost.  Example: if a meeting will require a lot of conversation, the venue has to accommodate that.

Trend #3: High-tech, high-touch
Megatrends author John Naisbitt has long preached that as human beings we need to balance our attraction to technology with substantive connections to our own values and to each other, Boone noted.

“While I strongly believe that we will continue to see technology incorporated into meetings and a corresponding increase in virtual meetings, I also believe that we will increasingly crave personal connections, both face-to-face and in online environments.”

Implications for planners
It’s increasingly important to build more conversational environments into face-to-face meetings – i.e. comfortable seating that lends itself to conversation. Planners also will need to find ways to personalize their virtual meetings.   

“We have to make trade show floors places where you want to be, rather than places you want to leave,” Boone said.

“Also, you can’t just set up a virtual meeting and think attendees will know how to deal with it. How do we make virtual meetings high-touch?

“For example, we can call an area of the virtual meeting where background information is stored a ‘library’ instead of an ‘information repository.’ And we can make an online café actually feel like a café by offering coupons for Dunkin’ Donuts or Starbucks that can be redeemed before they log onto the meeting. It’s all about humanization and personalization.”

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