How One Annual Meeting Session Shook up the Panel Format

Author: Michelle Russell       

FullSizeRenderIn an effort to make their sessions more engaging, event organizers assemble panels of experts, expecting that several people on the stage with different perspectives will make for a more compelling presentation than a solitary presenter. But panels can feel as formulaic and one-directional as a single speaker with a PowerPoint presentation.

But here’s how thoughtful design invigorated a presentation by a panel — and brought the audience “to the edge of their chairs” — when the International Association of Professional Congress Organisers (IAPCO) held its Annual Meeting & General Assembly, held in Dubai, Feb. 16–19: 

Collaborate or Compete?

The panel session was set up as a debate over the question of whether professional congress organizers (PCOs) should collaborate or compete in order to best serve clients, DMOs, and themselves. Six participants were invited to participate in the session: Alejandro Ramirez Tabche, Business Travel Consulting; Georgina Alexopoulou, Erasmus; Ori Lahav, Kenes Group; Ajay Bhojwani, MCI Middle East; Sarah Markey-Hamm, ICMS; and Jaime Bennett, Conference Partners.unspecified

Each presenter was asked before the event to decide which camp they belonged in: collaboration or competition. “Once you made your decision,” said Bennett, who serves as Ireland-based Conference Partners’ sales and marketing director, “you had to be able to highlight the benefits, evidence, and facts for your side during the debate.”

Not only was the debate format meant to make the session more interesting, but the topic was right on target for the audience.“A large percentage of attendees have competed or could potentially compete for business against other PCOs or destinations,” Bennett said. “We had the audience’s attention and engagement from the outset.” Five of the panelists chose collaboration and one spoke in favor of competition.

Throughout the debate, a moderator asked questions from the audience to loop them into the discussion. Once everyone had presented their viewpoint, the moderator turned the tables, and asked everyone to argue against their original position. “Suddenly, the audience and panelists were on the edge of their chairs,” Bennett said, “as those that had to switch sides not only had to think on their feet, but deliver their new argument with conviction.”  The audience, who were seated at tables, also were asked to summarize their arguments for and against, flipping their original viewpoints. Discussion points were recorded by a graphic artist on an “engagement wall.”

One concern raised over collaboration had to do with whether each partner could trust that the other would deliver the same level of service that is standard at their own company. “As we were moving along, we realized little by little that the borderline between the two positions was not so defined and fixed,” said Bruna Bertolini, key account director, MCI France, who participated in the session. “We concluded that in some situations we are ready to collaborate and in others we prefer to compete — it all depends on the context.” But in the end — as evidenced by the list of benefits illustrated for each — collaboration won out over competition.

“It was a great session that highlighted that when reviewing a bid, we need to consider if collaborating is an option or if there is an opportunity to share knowledge with another company to assist with success,” Bennett said. “To be able to collaborate, everyone agreed that trust, clear communication on roles and responsibilities, and 100-percent transparency are the key elements to ensure success.” Bertolini concurred, adding: “It is crucial also to determine clear tasks assignment — and an exit policy.”

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