Meetings industry forecasting for 2012

As 2011 draws to a close, you can count on three things:

  1. Everyone and their brother will write a year-in-review article or blog post. (Case in point, see my Dec. 6 post titled, “Happy is as happy does this New Year.” I tried to be ahead of the curve.)
  2. Everyone and their brother will write a forecasting article or blog post. (Are you seeing a trend?)
  3. A jolly old man with a fluffy white beard and eight determined reindeer will circle the globe on Christmas Eve delivering presents to good little girls and boys. (Hopefully he’ll make a stop at my home, too.)

Since I’ve taken the high road and have already written my year-in-review post, and seeing as Santa may have difficulty finding me this year (we’ve been in our new home since the middle of October, but you know how much trouble it is getting the postal service to forward your mail these days), I’d like to focus for a moment on the meetings industry and what lies ahead in 2012.

If I was clever (or overly ambitious), I’m sure I could come up with a top 10 list of New Year’s resolutions for improving your meetings strategy in 2012. Instead, I’m taking the more practical route (and one that I believe to be just as effective). Following are my two (count them, two) recommendations for 2012 as it relates to your annual meetings calendar:

  1. Meeting planners need to book earlier to get rooms and function space.
  2. Professional development staff must plan more dynamic member experiences.

Easy enough, right? Maybe not. Allow me to explain.

First, if you know me or have worked with me in the past (particularly hoteliers and suppliers), you know that I plan ahead (seriously far ahead). So I’m always a proponent for booking rooms and function space in advance (it’s how you get the best rates and secure premium function space). However, supply and demand will not favor associations in 2012. With few new hotel rooms entering the market and the meetings industry steadily rebounding, planning ahead is an absolute imperative.

This mandate means surveying members, interpreting feedback, identifying both the short-term and long-term trends of your industry, determining future educational needs and crafting, in advance, a year-long educational calendar that both meets these needs and makes allowances for the addition of urgent and emergent learning opportunities along the way.

This calendar then provides the marching orders necessary to book hotel rooms and function space at the best possible rates a year or more in advance (of course, some crafty negotiations and innovative contract language don’t hurt either). Once you’ve mastered this practice, the same process can be applied to your signature events several years in advance.

Second, the traditional learning experience—one-dimensional keynote sessions and lecture-style breakouts—isn’t going to cut it moving forward. It may be the Band-Aid solution for the next year or two, but sooner or later your members are going to demand compelling experiences that inspire learning, engagement and community. And they’ll want this education delivered in a unique, engaging and unconventional way that speaks to their needs as an adult learner.

In my experience, these transformations don’t happen overnight. They require professional development staff to seek buy-in from key leaders and constituents within their organization. They require considerable training and coaching of program facilitators and content leaders. And they require significantly more planning, organization, lead time and logistics management than even the largest conference utilizing a more traditional learning format.

Although it’s a lot more work, the bottom line is this: meetings comprise a significant portion of the annual budget for most associations and without innovative events that peak member interest, associations are susceptible to retention issues and future budgetary constraints. Additionally, there’s a broader concern about educating members in a meaningful way so that their lives (and, consequently, our organizations and our industries) remain vibrant forces in today’s marketplace.

So, my question to you is this: Do you agree with my forecast for 2012? What would you change (or add)? What are you doing in 2012 to ensure your organization is delivering more dynamic member experiences (especially as it relates to learning)?

4 Responses to “Meetings industry forecasting for 2012”

  1. December 15, 2011 at 5:22 pm

    If you want to change the traditional learning experience, you also have to change the time structure. Instead of a 45 or 60 or 75 minute session, a half-day session may be better, allowing for a combination of learning formats and more in-depth attention to the subject.

    But do members want that? Do they like having a choice of five different sessions in each of five different time slots? How would they feel about half-day workshops or participating one of four tracks in an all-day session?

    Opinions will vary considerably. But just switching from a “traditional” one hour session to a “non-traditional” one hour session isn’t the answer.

  2. December 16, 2011 at 11:19 am


    Thanks for commenting. I agree that timing is a major factor in the development of new and interesting learning experiences for members. We certainly need to break the cycle of the traditional 60-minute breakout session. It’s just too limiting to the learning process. I happen to believe that delivery has a tremendous impact, as well. I’m certainly not suggesting experimenting with different delivery methods—such as pecha kucha—just because it’s “hot,” but rather clearly identifying the goals of a particular learning experience and infusing techniques and strategies that appeal to the needs of adult learners to meet these objectives. For example, I’d recommend a departure from lecture-style presentations in favor of more self-directed small group activities that foster interaction and problem-solving.

    Through years of research we know the following characteristics about adult learners:

    1. Adults are autonomous and self-directed. They need to be free to direct themselves. Content leaders must actively involve adult participants in the learning process and serve as facilitators for them.
    2. Adults have accumulated a foundation of life experiences and knowledge that may include work-related activities, family responsibilities and previous education. They need to connect learning to this knowledge/experience base.
    3. Adults are goal-oriented. They, therefore, appreciate an educational program that is organized and has clearly defined elements.
    4. Adults are relevancy-oriented. They must see a reason for learning something. Learning has to be applicable to their work or other responsibilities to be of value to them.
    5. Adults are practical, focusing on the aspects of a lesson most useful to them in their work. They may not be interested in knowledge for its own sake.
    6. As do all learners, adults need to be shown respect. Content leaders must acknowledge the wealth of experiences that adult participants bring to the education experience.

    Armed with this information, it’s time for meeting planners and professional development staff alike to take notice and plan deliberate learning experiences that consider these well-established adult learner needs (especially if associations want to remain competitive with their more progressive counterparts and the plethora of new learning opportunities that seem to pop up each and every day). I agree 100 percent that “just switching from a ‘traditional’ one hour session to a ‘non-traditional’ one hour session isn’t the answer.” If it were, the planning process would be considerably less involved.

    With regard to your second point—Do members want this?—I believe they do. Maybe not five concurrent breakout sessions to choose from or half-day workshops that eliminate their freedom of choice, but they are definitely craving something different (even if they cannot clearly articulate it).

    Besides, how would they?

    Most of our members are not professional development experts. If they could build the perfect meeting or program or conference, wouldn’t that be their chosen career? It’s our responsibility to do the initial legwork (and, I fully admit, it’s not easy). Nevertheless, it is, in fact, our responsibility to determine the goals and objectives of a particular program based on member feedback, industry trends, strategic plans and the like. With those parameters, the onus remains on us to deliver a dynamic (and engaging) member experience that actually delivers content, clearly bridges theory with practice and imparts new skills or knowledge (all while meeting their needs as adult learners).

  3. December 16, 2011 at 12:50 pm

    You put a lot of thought into that, Aaron. But you don’t have to toally dump the “traditional” sessions. Lots of people like those. It’s important to offer more choices to people aren’t forced into any of them.

  4. December 19, 2011 at 10:20 am

    This is where I think we fundamentally disagree, David. Although the “traditional” learning session can always be appropriate given a certain set of circumstances (especially if the goals and objectives of the education session are best met through this type of learning format), I adamantly believe it is healthy for people to be stretched by non-traditional learning sessions when they’d prefer nothing more than to embrace the status quo (in this case, the “traditional” learning format). It’s important for adult learners to engage their expertise, knowledge and experience during the learning process. In my experience, this is rarely achieved through a traditional, lecture-style presentation with little interaction or problem-solving exercises that bridge theory with practice.

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meet aaron

Association learning strategist & meetings coach. Founder & president of Event Garde. Passionate about cooking, running, blogging, old homes, unclehood & pet parenting (thanks to Lillie the pup).

meet kristen

Writer, editor, public relations professional. Digital content manager. Proud mom of three. Total word geek. Spartan for life.

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