The editors of Convene looked back over 2019, asking this question: What’s one meeting and event trend on my radar in 2020?
Why I Have My Eye on AI
For my trends outlook, I was going to focus on how face-to-face experiences will become even more critical and take on different forms in the coming year, but I can do a much better job of that once I hear from the experts. So stay tuned: Joseph Pine and James Gilmore, who have just published a 20th-anniversary edition of their seminal The Experience Economy, have promised to share with us in an upcoming issue what attendees now expect in terms of their event experience, and how that has evolved over two decades.
One thing we know for sure that has changed is registrants’ expectations for a personalized experience — from the ways in which they are marketed to so that they will feel compelled to attend based on their own needs; to, once on site, the customized-to-their-interests messages they receive on their event app and answers to their specific questions via a chatbot; to post-event follow-up based on their individual participant journey.
All of this is made possible by AI, or machine learning, which analyzes data, seeking out trends and patterns in order to carry out advanced functionality. So I’ll be following AI this year, and how, as we become more familiar with its abilities and shortcomings, that will in turn shape how we choose to use it in the business events industry.
AI is all around us, but we don’t understand it, says Janelle Shane, author of You Look Like a Thing and I Love You. Shane, who has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and a master’s in physics, writes about what’s humorous and unsettling about AI in her AI Weirdness blog, which is built on five principles:
- The danger of AI is not that it’s too smart but that it’s not smart enough.
- AI has the approximate brainpower of a worm.
- AI does not really understand the problem you want it to solve.
- But: AI will do exactly what you tell it to. Or at least it will try its best.
- AI will take the path of least resistance.
Regarding No. 5: Shane points out that AIs are really good at picking up on shortcuts that reinforce bias towards race and gender. “If it’s really hard to solve a problem properly,” Shane says, “they end up leaning even more heavily on the bias that they see in their training data, a phenomenon known as ‘bias amplification.’ So AI is great at uncovering simple, shortcut solutions, but it doesn’t know when a simple solution is a bad one.”
Which brings me back to my emphasis above on “how we choose to use” AI. What we need to do, Shane says, is to take a hybrid approach — one that combines the strengths of AI and humans. — Michelle Russell
Tackling the World’s Very Long To-Do List
The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) — a set of 17 wide-ranging goals and 169 targets addressing critical global problems — aren’t exactly household words. But that is changing fast.
Consider the fact that the global events industry was officially added, as of last fall, as a partner in the United Nations’ drive to reach SDGs by 2030. Organizations and nonprofits, including PCMA, joined with the United Nations to work together to educate their audiences and influence global organizations to measure the impact of events on the environment.
What’s just as significant for the industry, however, is the increasing role that events can and are playing as the world collectively tackles its toughest and most pressing problems. The SDGs cover everything from poverty to gender equity to environmental sustainability and are popping up as a framework at events ranging from the Artificial Intelligence (AI) for Good Global Summit in Geneva, Switzerland, to the 2019 World Conference on Access to Medical Products, in New Delhi, India, to a regional business summit, Using the United Nations SDGs as a Framework for Corporate Community Engagement, in Cleveland, Ohio.
I think it’s safe to say that the goals don’t stand a chance without real collaboration between the world’s leading thinkers and leveraging the power and influence of networks — which is almost a textbook definition of what the business events industry does best. — Barbara Palmer
No Turning Back
Among the more intriguing events-industry developments of 2019 were bold moves made on the diversity and inclusion front. A conference rolled out plans for an all-women speaker lineup. A keynoter was banned from an elite financial summit for crude comments considered sexist and racist. And the Twittersphere erupted in fury and demanded change after a speaker shared how she was denied entry to a conference because she arrived with her still-breastfeeding baby.
Thanks to activist event organizers and attendees — with an assist from social media — expect more such moves ahead.
Decisions like Shoptalk’s plan to feature an all-female speaker lineup in 2020, before shifting to 50/50 male-female speaker parity in 2021, are not without controversy. Some felt that was a step too far. But as Frederick Douglass said, “If there is no struggle there is no progress.”
Event planners face a tall order in trying to make everyone — regardless of sex, race, gender identity, sexual preference, age, ability, religion, life stage, and even dietary preferences — feel included. That order gets even taller when it comes to reflecting diversity in a speaker lineup. But moves made in 2019 — and the attention they received — put events even more firmly on the path to progress. There’ll be bumps ahead, but there’ll be no turning back.
I’m looking forward to reporting on more examples of events’ efforts to be more inclusive and diverse in 2020 — and to the day when they are no longer newsworthy and simply part of doing business. — Cristi Kempf
Our Robot Will Feed You Now
Event organizers are working to keep up with evolving taste buds and dietary needs, including more plant-based menus. In 2020, we’ll see another kind of evolution in the catering world with some new — non-human — faces in the kitchen. At CES in early January, Centerplate is joining forces with Picnic, a food production technology company, to use its robot to produce pizza for hungry tech enthusiasts. Picnic’s robot can handle an oversized appetite: The technology will produce 300 12-inch pizzas per hour at the Las Vegas Convention Center.
What happens in Vegas doesn’t always stay in Vegas, and robots are donning aprons in other convention center and hotel kitchens. In fact, New York City’s Javits Center already employs Sally the Robot, a technology solution from Chowbotics, to prepare salads for convention-goers — a solution that also helps reduce food waste. And while food and labor prices will continue to climb, robots — like most maturing technologies — are likely to get cheaper. As the costs come down, their presence will grow. The Boston Consulting Group projects the global market for robotics to reach $87 billion by 2025. Expect some of that spending to start this year in the business events industry. — David McMillin
For e-commerce sites, personalization has been an increasingly common method of digital marketing. Just look at Amazon, which popularized individually tailored product recommendations and the personalized homepage.
Earlier this year, I talked to Tina Warren, director of trade show marketing with PMMI, The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies, about its marketing efforts for PACK EXPO International and Healthcare Packaging EXPO 2018. According to Warren, one approach they took that differentiated the marketing for the 2018 event from previous shows was a personalized email-marketing campaign that targeted partial registrants. As a result of that effort alone, 1,890 abandoned registrations converted to completed registrations.
I think increasingly sophisticated personalization will become more commonplace in marketing events in 2020 and beyond, because of consumer expectations. According to a recent Forbes article, 72 percent of buyers expect B2B companies to personalize communication. It’s a move that shows your audience that you are paying attention to them as individuals and results in greater engagement with your organization and events. — Jasmine Zhu
How Will We Respond to Flight Shaming?
Sustainable initiatives became more common in the business events industry in 2019. Convene wrote about events switching to digital ticketing systems, eliminating plastic waste, using locally sourced produce in catering, donating leftover food to local charities, and recycling/reusing materials from events that used to be sent to landfills. But teen climate activist Greta Thunberg may have upped the expectations of conference-goers when in August she refused to fly from Sweden to New York for a global climate conference due to air travel’s carbon footprint.
Thunberg sailed across the Atlantic instead, making the Swedish word flygskam, or “flight shame,” known worldwide and earning her Time magazine’s Person of the Year title. The flygskam movement has travelers — mostly in Europe so far — taking trains or boats instead of flights to help lower carbon emissions. No doubt that sentiment will flow into the business events industry as well.
According to some studies, travel makes up about 73 percent of an event’s carbon footprint. Carbon offset retailer Terrapass reports that a typical cross-country flight emits 2,145 pounds of carbon dioxide. If most attendees are taking flights to and from an event, those numbers add up quickly.
As the number of Millennials and Generation Z attendees increases at conferences, event professionals will be required to build sustainability into every event in as many ways as possible, including carbon offsetting — because those groups will demand it. According to Deloitte’s Global Millennial Survey 2019, the greatest concern for Millennials and Generation Z is the climate crisis, and they have no issue shunning businesses that don’t meet their expectations in working against the crisis.
Convene has written about carbon-offset plans and how the airline industry is addressing the emissions issue. As technology improves, virtual events are becoming more attractive. In fact, “experiment with virtual platforms” was the first suggestion 12 scholars made in their collaborative post last April on Inside Higher Ed, the digital media company serving the higher-education community, in which they shared their ideas to reduce the carbon footprint of academic travel to conferences, meetings, and talks.
I’m curious how the events industry will respond to this challenge. — Curt Wagner
Moving Away from Q&A
Speakers battle for audience members’ attention, whether it’s because overflowing inboxes are calling them mid-session or the temptation to check social media — or momentarily doze — in the middle of a busy conference program proves just too strong to resist.
In addition, attendees themselves are no longer satisfied to passively listen to one session after another. One way to keep participants involved in the conversation is called C&I — short for “Conversations and Input.” I learned about this new and improved form of the Q&A during a chat I had earlier in the year with Maarten Vanneste, president of the Belgium-based Meeting Design Institute. The concept is simple: Attendees break into small groups of five or six individuals to a table. The presenter on stage speaks in 10- to 15-minute intervals, and then inserts a “C&I moment” by asking the audience a question related to what they’ve just learned. After a few minutes, representatives from a few tables share their ideas before moving on to the next part of the presentation.
The European Academy of Allergy and Clinical Immunology (EAACI) has been using the C&I method instead of a typical Q&A session at the end of a presentation — which usually only allows for one or two audience members to speak — since 2015. The sessions that include C&I have been such a hit that the event organizers have been folding more of them into their annual congress program ever since.
If C&I or some version of this format hasn’t caught on at more events yet, I have no doubt it will in 2020. Face-to-face meetings are most powerful when attendees are engaged with the content — and each other. As Vanneste told me, “The goal is not just to learn, because you learn a lot from the speaker, but also learn from the conversations. The main value lies in the fact that you now have networking, and you get to know new people in a very powerful way.” — Casey Gale