By Hunter R. Slaton
Overcooked themes are out. Expertly done content is in. Here’s why the industry has rejected empty-calorie high concepts and embraced a protein-rich approach to conference theming — seasoned with unifying taglines and modest mini-themes.
Back in the 1990s, when the economy was booming — and so were meeting budgets —it wasn't hard to sell a board of directors on a big-time theme. Which is how Phelps Hope, CMP, vice president of meetings and expositions for Kellen Company, one year came to put on an over-the-top, “Gone With the Wind”–themed conference in Dallas, for an association of CEOs.
Hope’s team collected attendee measurements ahead of time for costuming purposes, and allowed each person to choose to be a member of the Union or the Confederate army. Throughout the conference, there were pantomime fight scenes and staff members in period dress, old-timey songs were sung, and news articles and dialogue of the era were seeded here and there.
“We really immersed the people in the theme,” Hope said. “You almost got to be part of a play.” The CEOs were at the conference to get some strategic coaching and high-level thought-leader training - and “Gone With the Wind” was used to reinforce the official conference theme, which dealt with how individuals can learn from history in order to avoid past pitfalls. Another fun layer to the theme was, as Hope put it, “We play a role in our work life, so play it up.”
Everything really came together for this meeting, because Hope and his team were able to fully immerse each attendee in the cinematic experience they created, thus allowing for more vivid memories and greater recall of the theme - and the true message the theme was meant to convey - after everyone had flown home. “But,” Hope said, “that was when we had a little more money to play with.”
Goodbye to All
That In the past, meeting themes were deployed to conjure emotions in and touch the senses of every single attendee - not just a few. Thus, meeting planners had to make sure their theme could “hold the weight of all that,” according to Lisa English, CMP, CMM, marketing manager for strategic meetings management for Cvent. Because “Gone With the Wind” is a cultural touchstone for a certain age group, at one time it made for a sure-fire meeting theme. But something like that may no longer resonate for a younger generation. “Where we go for inspiration for themes is interesting,” English said. “When you’re planning an event, you are trying to figure out, ‘What is the emotion, what is the feel I am trying to bring to people?’
To do this, themes commonly have been tagged to a glamorous destination (“Parisian Nights”), a movie, song (“Let’s Get It Started,” by the Black Eyed Peas), or cultural trend, or a particularly elaborate metaphor. (See “Sidebar: If You Must Have a Theme.") Recently, TV has been a big inspiration, said English, who noted that the show “Mad Men” has influenced a lot of conferences over the past five years. But like the dramatic, genteel age of Scarlett O’Hara and her antebellum plantation Tara, the era of high-concept meeting themes mostly belongs to another time, one that is truly gone with the wind. “It’s definitely changed,” said Usha James, CMP, director of conference operations for SourceMedia, “and it changed drastically when the economy crashed.”
The first blow came with the dot-com bust of 2000–2001, followed closely by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, which in and of themselves helped usher in a new era of seriousness. Then came the financial crisis of 2008–2009 - from which theming has yet to recover. James said: “You just don’t see big themes like ‘Hawaiian Getaway’ anymore.”
And they may never come back - like catchy sitcom theme songs and smoking sections in restaurants. On the other hand, you shouldn’t necessarily count out theming for good. “I think its time has passed, or passed for now,” said Troy Starwalt, events manager for the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4A’s). “But it could maybe come back - like plaid.”
Another force exerting downward pressure on meeting themes - related to the general ebb and flow of the economy - is the awful press received in recent years by meetings that seemed to overemphasize entertaining their attendees when other groups around the country were tightening their belts. In the aftermath of the AIG Effect and, more recently, GSA’s Las Vegas–area conference, no one wants to be caught on YouTube basking in an opulent theme. “The environment has taken on a more serious tone,” said corporate meeting planner Susie Wiesenfeld, CMP. “You don’t want to come off as being gaudy.”
Phyllis Klasky, director of events management for the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), agrees. “My opinion,” she said, “is that these days you have to be more concerned that the meeting, the conference, or the convention is more serious versus fluff.” For example, the pharmaceutical industry continues to come under scrutiny from the media, regulatory bodies, and the public at large - and thus, even more than other sectors, its meetings need not to be seen as “going off to play golf and relax.”
A Conference of a Different Color
As a result of meeting themes largely having gone out of fashion, two things have happened. One, more emphasis is being placed on a meeting’s content rather than its trappings. That isn’t a bad development, of course. But the second thing that’s resulted from themes going away is that it’s now more difficult for planners to differentiate their meetings from those of their competitors.
It can be a hard balance to strike. “Yes, it’s very beneficial to attendees in terms of getting what they’ve paid for in a learning experience,” James said. “But you do find that you end up in the cookie-cutter mode of meeting planning, because you aren’t entertaining as much.”
For that reason, you have to pay more attention to the little things that set one meeting apart from another in the minds of attendees - such as invitations (including email invites), program handouts, signage, and overall conference optics. This is similar to branding, although if a meeting is going to feel different from last year’s iteration, it can’t share 100 percent of its sponsoring organization’s brand DNA. (Nor can it clash with or contradict its parent brand.)
This form of light visual theming is what Klasky has had more experience with, during her more than two decades in the meetings industry. And it’s not that ASME does “180-degree turns” with its graphics from one meeting to the next; rather, she said, “many attendees come to [ASME’s annual conference] every year - so even if it’s as simple as being able to differentiate programs, we have at a minimum different colors.”
But you do run a branding risk in changing up color schemes for your meeting. JDRF (formerly the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation) recently went through a big branding exercise, including adopting a new logo. Now, while Barbara Parker, JDRF’s director of national meetings and travel, might want to use a unique color scheme for the organization’s annual lobbying conference, held each June in Washington, D.C., she has to be careful. “Color is a doubleedged sword,” Parker said. “If you are trying to promote your brand in the marketplace, that’s how people see you - and Coca-Cola is red and white.”
In other words, the red-and-white color