Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

June 30 2014

What Happened When We Broke Up With A Traditional Conference

By David McMillin

You’ve seen the way most conferences unfold: general session, breakout session, lunch, another session, snack break, closing session, etc. It’s a fairly standard approach that seems to work with the majority of professionals who are looking for education to advance their careers. Does it work because everyone loves it, or does it work simply because no one else is trying anything different?

At the 2014 PCMA Education Conference in Toronto, the PCMA Events Team and PCMA Education Team wanted to figure out the answer and introduce meeting professionals to a new way of learning. Rather than a rigid room-to-room schedule, the two departments reimagined a new way to deliver insights into today’s key trends and issues. Attendees spent the majority of the second day of the conference in the same big ballroom with the ability to choose from a wide range of educational and networking opportunities. From digging deeper into first-day topics to sharing advice with peers in the “Making It Work For Me” area to simply having coffee in “The Hang Out”, attendees had plenty of choices.

The environment was a clear departure from the norm, and the majority of attendees enjoyed a break from the same-old, same-old.

“I’m a huge fan of innovation when it comes to distributing knowledge and creating engaging environments,” Eduardo Chaillo, CMP, CMM, CASE, CEO, Global Meetings and Tourism Specialists, said. “I think this type of informal setting does a tremendous job of inspiring most attendees to share ideas and dig deeper into conversations.”

Michelle Kavanaugh, Conference Management and Business Development, National Swimming Pool Foundation, also enjoyed the more casual atmosphere.

“It was easy to walk from place to place and pick up tidbits of knowledge from a variety of areas,” Kavanaugh said. “You never felt like you were getting up in the middle of a session to exit the room.”

Each year, Kavanaugh plans the World Aquatic Health Conference where she believes many attendees would also enjoy an open-space approach to meeting design.

“My group would like this type of environment,” Kavanaugh said. “By scheduling the more structured sessions on the first day of the meeting, it gives everyone an opportunity to pursue the topics that they care about most later in the program.”

“It’s not just a speaker or group of panelists talking,” Kavanaugh added. “It’s a chance to be more interactive.”

Working Together To Transform The Conference

Kelly Peacy, CMP, CAE, Senior Vice President, Education and Events, PCMA, was especially pleased with the way the  two groups collaborated to bring the vision to life.

“We worked together every step of the way to make sure the experience aligned with the content,” Peacy said. “We looked at every portion of the program together to determine how to make the new method of knowledge delivery resonate with our audience.”

Dawn McEvoy, CMP, CAE, Director, Education, PCMA, felt that one of the most essential elements was preparing attendees for the change.”

“I felt we did a good job of making sure that attendees understood how the setting would feel,” McEvoy said. “We really wanted to manage attendee expectations to make sure they understood what was happening.”

Analyzing Areas For Further Enhancement 

While there were plenty of successes, it’s no secret that experimentation always carries room for improvement.

“We knew there would be challenges,” McEvoy said. “Some of the most crowded sessions and areas wound up close to each other, which created unavoidable noise issues because of the sheer volume of people.”

Kavanaugh suggested relocating the networking areas just outside the educational environment.

“If The Hang Out was right outside the room, people would still have a place to go and talk while reducing the noise pollution,” Kavanaugh said.

Outside of space considerations, Chaillo highlighted that certain members of an audience might be better suited than others for the unconventional educational model.

“For advanced professionals who have been in the industry for many years, breaking with tradition is comfortable,” Chaillo said. “Many of them know each other, which makes it easy to participate.”

“However, entry-level professionals may find this type of environment more challenging. Without any instructions and guidance, they might feel a bit lost and unsure of what to do,” Chaillo said.

Looking Ahead To Convening Leaders 

McEvoy said the members of the Events and Education Teams are continuing to discuss how to refine the open-space environment as PCMA’s 2015 Convening Leaders approaches. The goal is simple: the organization wants to make sure that meeting professionals return home with more personalized takeaways to put in motion within their organizations.

“We’re trying to create a structure that enables our attendees to create their own paths,” McEvoy said.

Want to know what else you missed at the Education Conference? Click here to check out “How To Unleash Your Team’s Creativity.”

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