Behind the Scenes: A Seat at the Table

Your participants’ F&B experience is shaped by a lot more than what’s on their plates. The good news is that it’s not beyond your control.

Author: Michelle Russell       

Michelle Russell

On the opening night reception at PCMA’s Education Conference last month, I bumped into Julia Richardson, director of conventions & marketing at the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. I’m a big fan of Julia’s, and am always impressed by her enthusiasm for her work and this industry.

That night, at Cleveland’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, she was excited to tell me that her team had won the PCMA hackathon earlier in the day. Their campaign was designed to engage early-career professionals at Convening Leaders 2019 in Pittsburgh, Jan. 6–10.

I asked Julia what had prompted her team to focus on millennials and she told me that it grew out of a not-so-great first Convening Leaders experience a junior member of her staff had shared with her. Not knowing anyone at that event, her younger colleague had gone to one of the luncheons looking for a place to sit. She spied an empty seat and asked someone at the table if it would be okay if she ate with them. No, she was told, that seat was being saved for someone else.

The lunch was kind of symbolic of the rest of her event experience. She told Julia that she just hadn’t felt welcome or included the entire time — hence, Julia and her team’s initiative to develop a community of young professional attendees. The goal is to provide ways to connect before and during next year’s event, thereby circumventing those awkward I-don’t-know-another-living-soul-here meals.

When I’ve been a newcomer to an event, I’ve found navigating networking receptions to be even more painful than seated meals. It’s just not in my nature (yep, I’m an introvert) to interject myself into groups of people in conversation. I often end up aimlessly cruising the perimeter of a room rather than standing alone in a corner sipping my glass of wine and sampling appetizers.

Either way, I still feel like I have a big L tattooed on my forehead. Eating with a community of our peers is supposed to be a shared experience. If it’s not, we can be reduced to our insecure middle-school selves back at lunchtime in the cafeteria.

When I interviewed Daniel Pink for this month’s cover and CMP Series story, I asked him to focus on the design of live events. He brought up meals a number of times. As a frequent speaker at events, he’s often invited to eat breakfast or lunch with the group before he goes on stage. Often, he said, those experiences have made him feel very much like an outsider.

What can event organizers do to help make meal functions more welcoming? Pink had some smart ideas that are easy to try out. Considering all the time and effort you put into F&B planning, it makes sense to give his suggestions a whirl. Because in the end, your attendees’ memories will probably be less about the food they ate than the company they kept.