Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

June 2012

CMP Series: The Meat of the Meeting

By Hunter R. Slaton
scheme is so integral to the brand - the identity - of Coca-Cola that changing it for the purpose of differentiating one of its meetings from another simply isn’t worth it.

This Tagline Must Not Be Removed One popular replacement for themes has been taglines - basically, a way of tying together all the disparate elements of a meeting under one central, unifying principle. Kind of like a theme, but not exactly. Tagline examples include “Energy Diversity” (from ASME) and “Cure, Treat, Prevent” (from JDRF). “Business messaging does not go away,” Hope said. “How you deliver it can be a victim of cost-cutting.” And anyway, he added, half the time, when clients say that they want to “theme out” their meeting - weaving a varied and colorful theme into its fabric, as Hope did with his “Gone With the Wind” conference - really what they mean is they just want a memorable experience for attendees.

Memorable experiences don’t only come from tropical drinks served in coconuts (“Tropical High”), or flower leis handed out at the beginning of the opening general session (“An Island of Innovation”), or even from an overwrought framing device (“Howdy, Pardners! Welcome to Best Practices Gulch!”). You just have to be smarter about delivering the message, so your audience remembers it when they go back to the office.

Which can be difficult. The first step, according to Hope, is to clear your ego out of the way, and ask yourself honestly: Is the tagline direct, and not convoluted? Are attendees going to be able to get it? Is the value proposition being properly identified and communicated to them? The tagline should effectively convey, in a clear and concise manner, just what the meeting is “about” - and it should be reinforced by what actually takes place in the breakout-session rooms.

Suzette Hewitt, CMP, manager of national meetings for Girl Scouts of the USA, can say “yes” to each of those questions as they apply to her slate of meetings and forums this year. The Girl Scouts’ year-long tagline - in celebration of the organization’s centennial - is “To Get Her There.” For the Girls’ World Forum in Chicago next month, Hewitt says that the focus of the event is all about encouraging girls worldwide to lead - to help them get “from here to there” - when tackling issues ranging from poverty to education.

James agrees about the continued importance of an event having some unifying element - which now, most often, is a tagline “centered around … what’s hot in the program part of your meeting.” She allows that you can still get away with theming one fun element of your meeting - a 1980s rock reception, say. Wiesenfeld, meanwhile, being in the corporate world, sticks with very corporate themes. “We don’t do Mardi Gras,” she said. For her, a good tagline is more about utilizing buzzwords in the marketplace - for example, “In a Changing World” or “At a Crossroads.”

A Sense of Place

Winding up in an experiential or visual rut is one of the potential consequences of big-deal themes falling out of favor. Where does that leave the destination-based approach? For most meetings, location is the one major element that changes every year. Can you leverage that without being overly cutesy, contrived, or elaborate?

Organizers show no signs of not trying. Even Starwalt, who says he doesn't think 4A’s would ever do a full-on theme, said that at the group’s Transformation 2011 conference, in Austin, a guitars motif was used for the website and overall signage. “It’s all about keeping it fresh and new,” he said, “without an explicit theme.”

Or, you can try tying the theme of a reception to the destination, booking local entertainment and procuring local décor, to bring the flavor of the place home to attendees - while you’re still in a convention center or hotel ballroom. When ASME went to Vancouver in November 2010, it met in the city’s convention center, which offers great views of the mountains and the water. The association needed to divide the center’s foyer in two for its Honors Assembly Reception - so Klasky had tall spruce trees, ferns, and totem poles brought in to divide the space. Along with local beverages and “a couple of animal things in there, for some smiles,” that helped give attendees a themed experience of some of what Vancouver has to offer.

Counterintuitively, generic destinations also can be good for theming. “Some destinations really shout a theme,” Hope said, “and you’d be silly to go against it” - such as Las Vegas and entertainment, Orlando and theme parks, and New Orleans and Mardi Gras. Now consider Boise, Idaho, or Roanoke, Va. “These give you more of a blank slate to play with,” Hope said. “You’re not fighting a Mardi Gras theme.”

Tying your program to a destination is especially good for an incentive trip, according to English. “You can do a theme at a location that has nothing to do with the destination,” she said, “but it’s harder to do on a limited budget.” During the heyday of theming, planners used to do, say, “winter wonderland” at a beach resort - but that’s very cost-prohibitive.

Finally, for corporate planners, doing any sort of theme - even a relatively mild, location-based one - may not be appropriate. When asked whether her company would consider a destination-centric theme, Wiesenfeld said, “I don’t think so, because we don’t focus on a social impact. We focus more on a management and empowerment impact.” She added: “So the location of the meeting doesn’t really drive it. Instead it’s the content of the meeting itself.”

Sidebar: If You Must Have a Theme ...

  1. Understand the objective of the meeting, and keep referring back to it. 
  2. Ask yourself, “Will a theme enhance my ability to achieve the meeting’s objective?”
  3. Think like Goldilocks: Choose a theme that is just the right size for your meeting’s scope, time frame, and budget.
  4. Remember the demographics of your meeting attendees - will they appreciate the theme you've selected? Will they get it?
  5. Stay the course - be consistent throughout the entire lifecycle of the meeting.
Source: Meeting and Event Planning Certificate Program, California State University San Marcos at Temecula

Sidebar: Themes Fall Apart

Lisa English, CMP, CMM, is marketing manager for strategic meetings management for Cvent, and program adviser for the Meeting and Event Planning Certificate Program at California State University San Marcos at Temecula. Here she tells the story of one finance-industry meeting theme that didn't quite come together - and why.

I used to work for a large financial-services company, and every year for 20 years we did a large national conference. There was always this conflict of having to outdo the year before. But it’s not about outdoing - it’s about outsmarting.

Everything was completely themed up, and every year we’d start working on the theme for the following year. One of my favorites was called “It’s About Time.” It was kind of smart, as it was a double entendre; it had multiple meanings. The whole conference was all about time, and all the visuals looked like clocks. From a business standpoint, it was about taking sales to the next level. The following year we did a conference called “Elements,” where we used fire, water, and nature - every day had a different theme. And the business tie-in to that was learning about the elements of success.

But one particular year we were trying to do an “I Spy” kind of theme called “It’s Confidential,” with the whole Dick Tracy thing, manila folders, and so on. It turned out that we didn't think it through enough. We failed in that particular theme because it didn't have enough layers to it, and didn't translate well to writing and the content that needed to be developed. You have to make sure you have a broad or narrow enough theme to do what you need to do.

Also, given that this conference took place during a period of financial deregulation, the theme ended up having more of a negative connotation than we intended. It just fell flat.

Earn Your CEU Hour
Once you finish reading this CMP Series article, read the following material:
  • “Brand Spanking New,” a feature article about branding your meeting from the May 2011 issue of Convene(ITAL), at convn.org/brand-spanking-new.

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