Friday, September 30, 2011

That Awkward Stage

Photograph courtesy USDA
As we lurch forward into the digitally enhanced future in the meetings industry, I keep thinking about a long-ago afternoon when I was working at one of my first jobs, for a magazine published by a state tourism department.

Desktop computers were still rare, and a few of us had gathered in front of a computer to take a  look at something then brand-new: a website created by another state tourism department.

The site itself didn't make a big impression on me, but this did: The state's governor had recorded a  personal invitation to visit, which we could listen to only after many long minutes spent downloading an audio file via dial-up access. As I recall, it took longer to download the short message than it did to listen to it. The whole experience was so underwhelming, that we just laughed and went back to work.

Nobody would say now that it is a bad idea to promote destinations on the Web. But initially the  technology—  as well as knowledge about how to use it well —had not yet caught up with the vision for its potential.

I sometimes think of that afternoon now, when I encounter an awkward or frustrating digital meeting platform. Not many are as clunky as that first destination website I saw, but it helps to remember that the individual experience that I am having isn't a reliable reflection of the potential of the medium. 

And if you want to do something new, you sometimes have to just keep going through the awkward stages.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Convene Reads: Life Itself

One of the fascinating things about this industry is that it's seemingly impossible to find its boundaries; there's always another epic, high-profile conference that's gone on for years but that somehow you've never heard of. Such as the Conference on World Affairs, which is the subject of an entire chapter in Roger Ebert's warm, generous new memoir, Life Itself:
For sixty-six years, this annual meeting at the University of Colorado has persuaded a very mixed bag of people to travel to Boulder at their own expense, appear with one another on panels not of their choosing, lodge with local hosts who volunteer their spare rooms, speak spontaneously on topics they learn about only after they arrive, be driven around town by volunteers, be fed at lunch by the university and in the evening by such as the chairman, Jane Butcher, in her own home. For years the conference founder Howard Higman personally cooked roast beef on Tuesday night. The hundreds of panels, demonstrations, concerts, polemics, poetry readings, political discussions, and performances are and always have been free and open to the public.
This reminds me of two things: the cover story in our January 2011 issue, which was all about "big-tent, big-idea conferences"; and the One on One interview with TED founder Richard Saul Wurman in this month's issue, in which Wurman discusses the importance of operating outside your comfort zone, because "you don't get your best work when you pursue comfort." That seems to be the approach that the big-tent, big-idea Conference on World Affairs inflicts on its speakers, and it resonated strongly enough with Roger Ebert that he attended -- and spoke there -- for 40 years.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A Turning Point for Hybrid Meetings?

The conversation about digital events is making a U-turn, we report in the September issue of Convene.

Instead of fearing that digital extensions will take attendees away from face-to-face events, meeting organizers are beginning to appreciate the ways in which they can bring more awareness -- and ultimately more attendees -- to meetings.

There's a similar shift toward hybrid in  higher education, where educators have long debated the effectiveness of online classes vs. traditional classes. A recent study by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University shows that students complete online-only classes as a lower rate than students enrolled in traditional classes.

However, the same study reports that students enrolled in hybrid classes, which mix online and classroom instruction, complete classes at nearly the same levels as students  in traditional classes.

The study focused on community college instruction, but elite universities also are experimenting with hybrid models. This fall, students enrolled in an introductory sociology class at New York University will watch lectures online and then use classtime for  discussion, the Village Voice reports. (Convene columnist Jeffrey Cufaude wrote about a similar model last December.)

Lesson learned: As part of an overall strategy, digital content is a tool, not a threat. Instead of online vs. face- to-face, the new question is, "How do we leverage the strengths of each?"

Extra, Extra!: Convene Newsstand

Welcome back to Extra, Extra!, the Convene blog's semi-weekly news supplement.  So what's news?

IMEX America, scheduled for this coming Oct. 11–13 at the Sands Expo in Las Vegas, has released its full-show preview. Highlights include 1,800 exhibitors and 2,000 hosted buyers. A fifth of the total space at the show will be occupied by European destinations, including Croatia — which, Convene read elsewhere on the Internet, just founded the new Croatian Meeting Professionals Association (CMPA).

In a pair of news items from IAEE, the International Association of Exhibitions and Events, the association has partnered with Prometric "to develop the exhibitions and events industry’s first definition of core competencies in the exhibition management field." Sounds interesting! IAEE President Steven Hacker, CAE, FSAE (who recently announced that he would be stepping down from his position this month, after 21 years with IAEE), said, "This unprecedented initiative ... will provide thousands of exhibitions and events industry professionals a standard for their chosen careers."

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Meeting in E-stonia

Wireless sign in Estonia; photograph by Knoerz
Estonia? Really?

That thought crossed my mind last spring, when I overheard IMEX attendees discussing the virtues of the former Soviet bloc country as a meeting destination.

Most of what I knew then about the Baltic country was by way of a former colleague, who spent part of her childhood in Estonia. Lisa talked often about the beauty of Estonia's capital, Tallinn, but also regaled me with stories of her relative deprivation. (For glitter, Lisa told me, her mother saved broken Christmas ornaments and crushed them into shiny bits.)

So how did Estonia become the talk of the IMEX shuttle bus? 
One answer: Wi-Fi. 

Estonia, a country that is slightly smaller than New Hampshire and Vermont combined, is blanketed in free wireless Internet access. Much of that is due to the work of Veljo Haamer, who founded the nonprofit association to promote free Wi-Fi access after visiting free Wi-Fi-enabled Bryant Park in New York City.

The successful wiring of Estonia has put it in the digital vanguard -- it was the first country to offer Internet voting to its citizens and gave the world Skype. And it's made it a growing hotspot for IT-related meetings.

Wi-Fi is not just an issue at tech industry conferences, of course. Increasingly, free Wi-Fi is seen by attendees as a necessity, not a frill.  But among the biggest challenges reported by the meeting planners surveyed by Convene for our September issue, was the "atrocious" cost of providing Internet services to attendees. Only 37 percent of respondents said that their organizations provided free Wi-Fi to their attendees at their meetings.

The question of who pays for Internet access is a thorny one. But Estonia offers one clear lesson: Free public Wi-Fi is possible.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

About Those $16 Muffins ...

Three years ago it was the AIG Effect. Today it's called Muffingate. Literally today -- with a new report from the U.S. Department of Justice's inspector general decrying "wasteful or extravagant spending" at DOJ conferences, splashed on the front page of this morning's Washington Post. ("Muffingate" comes from a CBS News report on the same topic. Funny!)

Titled "Audit of Department of Justice Conference Planning and Food and Beverage Costs," the report offers an audit of Department of Justice conference planning and food and beverage costs for 10 meetings that DOJ held between October 2007 and September 2009. It follows up on a similar review conducted in September 2007, which found that "DOJ had few internal controls to limit the expense of conference planning and food and beverage costs at DOJ conferences," and which issued 14 recommendations to help "implement stronger oversight of conference expenditures." The new report finds that, as far as the inspector general is concerned, nothing much has changed. Two headline-ready takeways:

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Roger Ebert Finds His Voice

I just came across a TEDTalk that Roger Ebert gave back in April. It's extraordinary. Ebert, as you might not know, has been left unable to talk or to eat solid foods after complications during surgery to treat cancer in his salivary gland about five years ago. The TEDTalk he wrote was actually read by the computer voice he uses and by his wife, Chaz, by educator John Hunter, and by Dean Ornish, M.D.

In addition to being an interesting story told with skill and sensitivity, Ebert's presentation offers a few relevant points for planners: Don't be afraid to shake up the way you deliver information; understand the importance of your participants' voices (in every sense of the word); and give some thought as to just what virtual and hybrid platforms are bringing to attendees who simply can't join your in-person meeting. "I feel as if my blog, my email, Twitter, and Facebook have given me a substitute for everyday conversation," Ebert said. "They aren't an improvement, but they're the best I can do. They give me a way to speak."

Monday, September 19, 2011

Convene Reads: In the Garden of Beasts

If you've ever thought that a diplomat's life involves anything besides meetings -- and conferences, receptions, cultural events, and tete-a-tetes -- In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin, by Erik Larson, is here to set you straight. In Larson's telling, William Dodd's time as U.S. ambassador to Germany -- during the beyond-crucial years of 1933 to 1937, when Hitler first came to power and then got busy consolidating it -- was nothing but face time. Ditto for his 24-year-old daughter, Martha, who cut a swath through Berlin's social scene, and was rumored to have had an affair with the head of the Gestapo. Throughout this engrossing, superbly detailed book, Larson uses meetings and other get-togethers to show how the politics of the day were playing out; it's fascinating to see the many different uses to which live events can be put, and how often what's happening publicly on stage can mask or diverge from what's actually playing out behind the scenes. Such as:
Dodd too was fast gaining an appreciation of the prickly sensitivities of the day. No event provided a better measure of these than a speech he gave before the Berlin branch of the American Chamber of Commerce on Columbus Day, October 12, 1933. His talk managed to stir a furor not only in Germany but also, as Dodd was dismayed to learn, within the State Department and among the many Americans who favored keeping the nation from entangling itself in European affairs. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

La Raza Lifts Arizona Boycott

The National Council of La Raza -- one of the country's most prominent Hispanic advocacy groups -- has lifted the boycott of Arizona that it called for last year to protest the state's then-new immigration law, according to the Greater Phoenix Convention & Visitors Bureau. The CVB reports:
La Raza announced the decision on Sept. 9 in a letter to the Real Arizona Coalition, a diverse collection of businesses, interfaith groups and community leadership organizations -- including the Greater Phoenix Convention & Visitors Bureau -- that had asked for the boycott to be lifted. 
In its letter to the Real Arizona Coalition, La Raza stated: " ... We understand and appreciate the reasons why you believe the boycott should end. In that vein, we are also aware of the hardship it has imposed on many of the workers, businesses, and organizations whose interests we seek to advance. We are hopeful that the more respectful and civil tone that you and many others have worked so hard to establish in recent months will continue. 
"In that spirit, effective immediately, our three organizations will suspend the boycott and cease all efforts to discourage conventions or meetings in Arizona, or to discourage our partners from participating in such meetings. In addition, we will communicate our decision to our allies and partners who supported the boycott in the hope that they will join us."
In its own statement, the Greater Phoenix CVB said:
"The lifting of the boycott is clearly a step in the right direction. It acknowledges that illegal immigration is not just an Arizona issue but a national one, and it makes it easier for our community to get back to the business of booking conventions."
It's unclear how much the widespread calls for boycotting Arizona ended up costing the Grand Canyon State in lost or canceled meetings business. A report from the Center for American Progress last fall -- which we reported on in Convene -- estimated it could be more than $200 million in direct spending.

Songwriting, Storytelling, and Team-Building

Billy Kirsch is a classically trained pianist who spent the early years of his career as a jazz pianist in New York City.  Now based in Nashville, Kirsch, a Grammy- and Emmy-nominated songwriter, is the president of Kidbilly Music, which creates music-based team-building and icebreaker sessions for conferences and events of all sizes.

I met Kirsch at the PCMA Education Conference in Baltimore, where I was struck by his warmth and intelligence, and intrigued by the range of his musical expertise. I could see a natural link between his skill at jazz improvisation and the collaboration inherent in team building. But where exactly did country music fit in, I wondered?

Kirsch answered that question in a recent blog post. “What sets him and his company apart, he wrote, is “our tradition as Nashville songwriters, hit songwriters who have cut our teeth on the art of telling a story through song … We can rock, we can rap and we can twang. But we’re songwriters first and foremost, Nashville songwriters.”

I caught up with Kirsch between his conference gigs, and we talked about his career and his business by email:

Convene: How did your songwriting career lead to team-building?

I've always had an avocational interest in education and lifelong learning. I helped found a school many years ago, and I just completed a 2-year term as a Parent Teacher Organization president for a high school here in Nashville. Several years ago I had an opportunity to perform at a convention and I spontaneously decided to ask the audience to help me write a song about what they all had in common. It was fun and the experience intrigued me. Fast forward six years and Team Building Through Song has become a passion, an obsession and a full time career.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

September 2011 Issue: Live!

Hot on the heels of the cover tease for our September issue, you can now read the whole enchilada -- via Convene's digital edition. For our cover story (and CMP Series feature), Barbara Palmer looks at "the art and science of attendee acquisition" -- with an emphasis on how "the formula for identifying and capturing attendees is changing." Other highlights:

"Destinations Unknown": Hunter Slaton embarks on a globe-trotting tour, talking to planners about what you need to know to meet in Asia, South America, the Middle East, and other hot emerging international destinations.

Industry Report: Our latest-epanel survey tackles AV and Internet services -- and finds that while meeting professionals understand the importance of both, many of them struggle to keep their costs in line.

Extra, Extra!: Convene Newsstand

Welcome back to "Extra, Extra!", Convene's weekly news supplement to PCMA's ThisWeek@PCMA newsletter. Let's get right to it, shall we?

It goes without saying that, in the decade since 9/11, many things have changed — especially for the airlines, as Joe Sharkey discusses in this New York Times article.  He writes:
Airlines in the United States lost $55 billion and shed 160,000 jobs during that decade. But the industry has worked through the economic tumult. A decade later, the system is smaller in terms of capacity, but it’s still in good working order. Last year, for example, 720.4 million people boarded airplanes in the United States, slightly higher even than the 719.1 million passengers in 2000.
Another thing that may be changing over the next decade — in this case, for U.S. hotels — is something you may have seen already in Asia or certain parts of Europe: Namely, large, refillable toiletry bottles in hotel bathrooms. USA Today's Hotel Check-in blog reports that hotels may begin moving toward this system to be green — apparently it's not any cheaper to refill big bottles than it is to provide individual bottles to each guest; but obviously the refill system produces far less waste.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Attendee Acquisition Lessons from Zipcar

A recent Fast Company blog post about how Zipcar, the web-based car rental company, has zoomed past its competitors by paying laser-like attention to its customers needs hit me where I live -- literally.

A car-free resident of Brooklyn, I have used Zipcars for years, but have only been extremely happy with the service for the last year or so, when the company added cars at a garage that's a 10-minute walk away from my apartment. As I read the post, I realized the company had been working hard behind the scenes to make Zipcar work better for customers just like me -- who loved the idea, but balked at traveling very far to pick up a car.

And Zipcar has  fun cars, too.
I am now such a fan, in fact, that it's almost startling to see Zipcar referred to as a "company." I know they charge my credit card, but I tend to think of it as a club that I belong to, a perception that Zipcar cleverly cultivates.

The post also hit me where I live figuratively much of the time -- in the meetings and events industry, where growth and customer satisfaction also are critical.

 I was struck by the decision by Zipcar's CEO Scott Griffith to focus on the company's business design rather than relying solely on advertising or other promotions to help it grow.

It reminded me of the professionals I spoke to for our September cover story on attendee acquisition, "Perfect Attendance," available here.  One after another, they told me that "attendee promotion" means more than just spreading the word about their meetings.

They work constantly to define and redefine their audiences, and then roll up their sleeves and do what it takes to match the meeting experience to their attendees' ever-changing problems and needs.

And then they bring on the marketing and advertising promotions, using everything from hand-written notes to Facebook campaigns to spread the word.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Convene On Site: HSMAI's MEET National

Even meetings about meetings have to change how they're meeting. And so yesterday morning, when the doors opened at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, people arriving for Hospitality Sales & Marketing Association International's (HSMAI) annual D.C.-based event for meeting professionals found that what used to be called Affordable Meetings National was now called HSMAI's MEET National. That stands for Meetings, Events, Education, and Technology -- pretty well capturing was was happening throughout MEET, which runs through today.

Indeed, the new name was the least of the changes on display yesterday, when I spent several hours looping through the convention center -- catching up with colleagues and contacts, including the folks at Events DC, which is headquartered at Walter E. Washington, and checking out MEET's sharp, trim show floor. During the afternoon, I sat down for coffee with Fran Brasseux, HSMAI's executive vice president, to find out why, after 22 years of Affordable Meetings, HSMAI decided to create MEET.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Convene Reads: Ghost in the Wires

Considering how Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures as the World's Most Wanted Hacker, by Kevin Mitnick, revolves around technology -- and the degree to which people like the author covet it for no other reason than the challenge of seeing what they can get away with -- it's no surprise that world-famous Consumer Electronics Show makes a cameo appearance here. But it's interesting nonetheless to get a hacker's perspective on CES from 20 years ago, and also to see the role that CES played in one of his scams:
Imagine a trade-show floor filled with 2 million square feet of space, packed with 200,000 people crammed wall to wall, sounding like they're all talking at once, mostly in Japanese, Taiwanese, and Mandarin. That's what the Las Vegas Convention Center was like in 1991 during CES, the annual Consumer Electronics Show -- a candy store, drawing one of the biggest crowds in the world. 

Dog Days of Summer

My 11-year-old cockapoo, Cocoa, rarely barks and is a calm, gentle dog. That is, until there's a thunderstorm. Then he goes into a full-blown panic attack, panting, pacing, scratching, shaking — and if it's a nighttime storm, keeping us up for hours. Nothing has helped, including trying to coerce him to swallow doggie Xanax prescribed by the vet.

Recently, we found an online ad for a "Thundershirt" — a garment that gets velcroed around the dog's torso, applying constant, gentle pressure, which, according to the ad, has been proven to reduce anxiety — and bought one for our little guy. I can't say that it's a miracle suit, but it definitely has taken the edge off and we can get him to calm down with it on.

What's this got to do with Convene? It's likely that the inspiration for this garment is Temple Grandin, the autistic animal scientist, whom Executive Editor Christopher Durso interviewed two years ago for a Leading by Example profile. Grandin invented the hug machine, or squeeze box, a gentle-pressure device that has the effect of calming hypersensitive people like herself. While Grandin is not directly credited by the Thundershirt Company, its marketing copy alludes to how "thousands of people with autism [use] pressure to relieve persistent anxiety."

So what's this got to do with meeting planning? It demonstrates how you can borrow from one field to benefit another. And it's what we try to do in the magazine, by providing real-life examples of innovation in different areas of endeavor that can be applied to meetings and conventions.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Let Them Eat Bugs

Coming soon to a food trade show near you?

I've been saying for a while now to my colleagues at Convene that virtually every story I read in the New Yorker or the Atlantic, two of my favorite magazines, either originates with or somehow touches on a meeting or conference — no matter whether it's about asteroid science, rogue waves, climate change, banana blight, or something equally exotic.

So, a couple of weeks ago, I was pleased to have my theory proven once and for all — in an article about, as you might have guessed from the title of this post, eating insects — for fun and profit!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

China Is Zooming

Convene Senior Editor Barbara Palmer is currently in Beijing, attending the China Incentive, Business Travel & Meetings Exhibition (CIBTM) at the China National Convention Center (CNCC, pictured here). She made time during her hectic schedule to send us this post:

The word of the week? Growth.

No surprise there — in contrast to the U.S., China's economy is booming, projected to grow by 10 percent in 2011, and the meeting industry is expected to increase by 20 percent. The six-year-old show, organized by Reed Exhibitions and sponsored by the China National Tourism Administration and the Beijing Municipal Commission of Tourism, also expanded significantly: the number of hosted buyers increased by 27 percent, as the number of exhibitors grew more than 20 percent.

Also up were the number of education sessions. Many were packed, particularly those discussing the Chinese perspective on domestic and international meetings, where the appetite for knowledge to help professionalize the industry was palpable.

The meeting also marked the first time that the CMP exam was administered in China — 43 people took the written examination. "There were 40 this year," said Craig Moyes, group exhibition director for Reed Travel Exhibitions. "Next year there might be 400."