“The only reason to have a meeting is to change the world.”
— Tim Sanders, author, “Change the World at Work”
Meeting planners got a crash course in corporate social responsibility, the power of un-conferences and emerging meeting technologies at last month’s Meeting Professionals International Professional Education Conference – North America (MPI PEC-NA). “Meet Different” was the theme; and the conference’s planners rose to the challenge.
The Responsibility Revolution
Opening session speaker Tim Sanders, author of “Change the World at Work,” spoke about the Responsibility Revolution, and the role meeting planners would play as its foot soldiers for change. “Did you know that last year, 97 percent of the top 10,000 MBAs indicated they would work at a company and take a pay cut if it was socially responsible,” he asked. “They’ve tracked them and found hundreds of cases where they did just that. Why? Because to these kids, that’s smart business.”
Purchasing decisions used to be based only on cost, quality and experience. Today, customers are asking different questions, and, more than ever before, the answer hinges on the company’s reputation. Events deliver a company’s message to its employees and to its customers. Events reinforce a company’s brand. Events also have an impact on the environment. Because these factors can and do affect a company’s reputation in the marketplace, meeting planners are in a unique position to create change from within their organizations.
“I call meeting planners executive producers, because events are like the movies of the corporate world,” Sanders says. “You have the keys. You have more influence … because you make the movies.”
MPI President and CEO Bruce MacMillan says, “That’s where the meeting professional can play a role, because the perception is green [equals] expensive and that’s not true. You can buy organic food, and it’s not any more expensive. Ten years ago recycled paper was more expensive; now, it’s not. So that’s part of the awareness we’re hoping people will take away. We didn’t have as much signage at this conference, and we did that deliberately [as a green measure], and it saved us money, so we won at both.”
Some of the steps Sanders suggests planners take include using free trade products and services, asking about suppliers’ green initiatives and using purchasing power to influence change in the industry. “Give employees quality of life,” he recommends. “People that work on the event team should get the same sleep as the participants… and eat the same food.” Simple changes like not sending late night or weekend e-mails also are subtle ways planners can help create a positive environment in the workplace, and improve the quality of life of employees.
Sanders also urges planners to “make your next meeting a virtuous circle” and to make sure corporate social responsibility initiatives don’t cost companies money; if they’re free, they can’t be eliminated during hard times. As an example, he talked about a conference during which Takeda employees built toys for children at St. Jude’s Ranch for neglected, abused and abandoned children. At the same event, reusable water bottles rather than bottled water saved the company a significant amount of money. At the end of the event, when St. Jude’s Ranch representatives and children came to thank the Takeda employees for their generous gifts, convention organizers presented them with a check: a donation equal to the money they saved with the eco-friendly initiative.
MacMillan says, “In doing that, they invested not only in their community, they invested in their organization as a brand, and that’s the difference that the meeting planner played. They said, ‘You know, we don’t just have to do the meeting, we can grow the organization, and take our footprint in that community and make it really green and sustainable.’ It’s just thinking differently. And that’s the revolution part.”
Watch MacMillan and MPI Board Chair Angie Pfeiffer talk about how meeting planners can be a part of the Responsibility Revolution:
The power of the un-conference
Another challenge meeting planners were encouraged to tackle was to create meetings that differ from the norm. “All of you are potential revolutionaries,” says speaker Mary Boone, president of Boone Associates. “Revolutions start with a small group of people who are on the edge of change.”
Boone is a proponent is the un-conference, “a trendy name for something that’s been going on for a long time.” The best way to maximize knowledge is to maximize discussion between attendees and let them contribute to the content of the conference. “Instead of speakers,” she encourages, “invite people to come and share their knowledge.”
The “un-conference” philosophy was incorporated into the MPI PEC-NA format in several ways. The tradeshow floor was re-imagined as a social lounge area, where planners could sit on couches to talk to suppliers, instead of being confined to aisles of pipe and drape. Pre-convention, attendees were encouraged to post questions and content suggestions to wikis on the event Web site and participate in a matchmaking program to connect them with people at the conference with similar interests. On-site, the “Café Conversations” sessions were user content-driven; questions for table topics were posted outside the room on whiteboards, and attendees could come and go as they wished. At one technology table, an informal discussion about virtual platforms evolved into an intense Second Life tutorial and Q&A. The participants didn’t want to write down the notes from the two-hour discussion the way the proctors wanted, so they decided to “report different.” You can watch their YouTube report here:
It’s impossible to think about meeting different without exploring the emerging technologies now available. In addition to sessions about using social networking sites and new presentation tools, MPI organized a “Technology Alley,” where planners could gain hands-on experience with online registration tools, smart nametags and other high-tech gadgets. Throughout the conference, attendees could have meeting itineraries beamed directly to their cell phones and handheld devices; printing stations with PDFs of handouts allowed attendees to print session materials on a need basis.
A Webcast booth allowed planners to capture their impressions of the event; after being recorded, the video segments were broadcast on a plasma screen outside the booth and uploaded to the MPI Web site. A group of attendees also learned the basics of podcasting and spent a day interviewing their peers to create a cohesive Web-based story about the conference. Other technological initiatives included RFID-enabled name badges and a station where attendees could communally write a story about the meeting planning industry.
By far, one of the most interesting uses of technology at MPI PEC-NA was the creation of gamelets designed to help meeting planners. Students from Champlain College worked on creating two games throughout the conference: one to help meeting planners green their meetings and one to help them identify and meet organizational goals. Content and functionality were determined by interviewing planners about their needs. The games were unveiled on the final day of the conference and uploaded to the MPI Web site. Read about the gamelet creation process.
Watch MacMillan and Cary Broussard, MPI vice president of marketing and brand management, discuss how gaming technology relates to meeting planning:
Watch an interview with Wesley Knee, a student from Champlain College:
Agents of change
In the U.K. last year, the government passed BS 8901, which created a global eco-friendly standard for the events industry. In this country, Congress is circulating a bill to set carbon caps for companies. “This is happening right now, and we have the opportunity to participate in that change,” MacMillan says. “If you wait too much longer, we’re going to be the recipient of that change.” Part of being the change, he says, is being an advocate for corporate social responsibility within the organization, and supporting initiatives such as the Convention Industry Council’s task force on green meetings, which is laying the groundwork for North American meeting planners to have a voice in how the industry will be regulated by future legislation.
Pfeiffer acknowledges that MPI can only present information; it’s up to the planner to take what they’ve learned back to their own companies and act as an agent for change. “If you’re not going to change your behaviors, then you’re not going to be able to influence your organization and its strategy,” she says.
For more video reports from the MPI PEC-NA, visit youtube.com/PlanYourMeetings.