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December 2012

One On One: Robert B. Tucker

By Susan Sarfati, CAE
robert tucker

The author of seven books on innovation, he’s a frequent speaker on the global conference circuit — which has given him the opportunity to observe firsthand the ‘transformative changes’ the meetings industry is experiencing. He recently convened a two-day think tank for a small group of executives who produce conferences to help them chart their own path — in other words, to innovate — in a shifting landscape.

Early in his journalism career, Robert B. Tucker interviewed innovative people — from Dr. Jonas Salk, who discovered the vaccine for polio, to FedEx founder Fred Smith. In speaking to inventors, entrepreneurs, and other-wise creative individuals, Tucker came to under-stand that being innovative is something that can be learned. Twenty-five years ago, he parlayed that passion for creativity into The Innovation Resource, a company he founded to help individuals and organizations profit from — rather than be blindsided by — change. 

“Innovation is about generating fresh ideas that add value and bringing them to life,” Tucker said in a recent phone interview with Convene.

“Innovation is the process by which you grow your business, [yet] many organizations have a process for everything except innovation.”

And that includes the meetings industry. “This may turn out to be a golden age for conferences,” he said, “yet each conference operates in a highly uncertain environment.” Tucker invited an intimate group of high-level professionals involved in the conference industry to the Elite Retreat on Aug. 21–23 in Santa Barbara, Calif., to explore how they could develop a process of innovation for their own events.

Tucker is quick to point out that he is “an innovation guy, not a conference guy,” and that for this retreat (and this interview), he wanted to be careful not to “step out beyond my expertise.” But what he does bring to the conversation — and what the Elite Retreat’s 14 participants took away — is a fresh perspective on a changing industry, and some new ideas and tools that all planners can put into practice. He shared some of the group’s insights with Convene shortly after the retreat concluded.

Your retreat focused on “Inventing the Future of the Conference Industry.” What was the impetus behind that?

I saw how the conference industry was changing rapidly, disrupting some [events] while rewarding others, and how attendance is declining in some sectors, while exploding in others — for example, TED conferences and those put on by magazines like The Economist, Fortune, and Chief Executive, among many others. 

The result is that there are more conferences competing for shrinking budgets and attention spans; there’s this new high-end, exclusive, elite conference tier that commands up to $16,000 per attendee, as does one of the TED conferences. New York magazine reported recently that the typical TED conference rakes in $23 million. Meanwhile, the pressure to do more with less and exceed last year’s numbers is intense for everybody in the industry. So at the retreat, I wanted to create an environment free of the pressures these senior people are normally under, where they could come together and discuss critical issues with peers in other parts of the conference industry whom they might not normally meet.

What criteria did you use to invite participants, and what was the attendee composition?

 My team and I discovered pretty quickly what high-end conference producers have long ago realized: Senior people want to interact on a peer-to-peer basis with other senior-level people. And they want the environment to be commercial-free and confidential.

We knew that we also needed to limit the number of people to fewer than 20, because the intimacy gets lost if you go higher. We thought of it as an “unconference” in the sense that we involved these producers in creating the agenda. We said, “Here are the issues that have come up as important to discuss, but what do you want to talk about?” We also adopted the Chatham House Rule — everything that is discussed here, in confidence, remains so.

We were fortunate in that we attracted at least one executive from most of the major sectors of the conference industry — for example, top executives from the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE), the CEO and founder of Lincoln Healthcare Events, a for-profit conference organizer, the senior vice president of a major software company, a senior executive from The Conference Board who is in charge of a portfolio of 400 annual meetings, the CEO of the Fluid Power Association, and an executive from the printing industry.

What kind of disruption is the industry experiencing? I thought you said this is a golden age of conferences?

It is, but that doesn’t mean a rising tide is lifting all boats. For example, one conference producer whom we contacted in researching the Elite Retreat revealed to us that her conferences are being disrupted in a strange way. Ten years ago, this conference organization attracted up to 10,000 C-level participants annually who paid top dollar — but now attendance is down to 4,000.
So she’s wondering: “Where did my audience go? We are getting satisfactory evaluations. When we ask the attendees what [they] think of our conferences, the response is, ‘It was good; it was nice.’”

So why is she losing attendees?

Because other conferences have apparently siphoned her participants off. There’s some solid customer-service research out of Harvard pointing out that 75 percent of people who leave a business (or conference) never to return again were “satisfied.” They weren't mad. They weren't disappointed. They just weren't engaged. And some other conference producer dangled another conference and they jumped ship.

So what’s the solution?

The only solution to this situation is to innovate. To change the way she and her team of conference producers think about creating value in an increasingly competitive space. Satisfactory evaluations are not giving her insights into her attrition problem. So she needs to get closer to her population’s unarticulated needs and expectations, and develop new metrics of attendee ROI and engagement. This was a big topic at the retreat.

Okay, let’s say a conference planner’s key conference is losing steam. What should he or she do?

One option would be to just copy the TED format. After all, TED conferences are hotter than hot right now, and imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. But from a practical standpoint, what they do a poor job of is [providing] the latest tools, strategies, and insights that busy professionals can actually apply to their work once the conference is over. In other words, they don’t really “take on the custom-er’s problem” in any significant way, because that would require knowing the audience’s pain points. It would require the conference producer recruiting speakers who could address those needs. So what I’m saying is, build on your strengths. Don’t try to mimic someone else’s model.

What did the Elite Retreat’s participants want to spend the most time discussing?

We spent the most time wrestling with the issue of how you innovate to create a more powerful experience overall, and a more compelling educational experience in particular. In this over-communicated world, how do you gain people’s attention and inspire their future loyalty? The overarching response to these issues is the need to begin with the end in mind. There is a compelling need for conference producers to redefine their role and see themselves not solely as meeting planners, but as

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