IACC: The Future of Meetings is Now

CEO Mark Cooper analyzes findings from IACC's third annual 'Meeting Room of the Future' report

Meeting of future iacc

When IACC launched its IACC Meeting Room of The Future initiative in 2016, it set out to predict and shape the future of meetings. Three years into the prescient research project, however, the series' latest installment has revealed as much about today's meetings landscape as it has about tomorrow's. To better understand the portrait it has painted, Successful Meetings recently spoke with IACC CEO Mark Cooper, who detailed key findings from the "2018 IACC Meeting Room of the Future" report in areas such as technology, food and beverage, and meeting space.

As you reflect on this year's "Meeting Room of the Future" report, what stands out to you as the most significant findings?
There are two areas that struck me as areas where the magnifying glass is really focused. The first is food and beverage -- particularly around management of dietary trends and allergens, and around using food and beverage to create memorable experiences. The second is around internet infrastructure and the reliance on it for so many pivotal elements of putting on a collaborative, technology-rich conference.

That's interesting. Let's talk about each of those, starting with internet infrastructure. What did the report reveal about the current state of internet at meeting venues?
As a meetings industry we still have a long way to go before we can guarantee with consequences internet infrastructure. And when I say that, what I mean is: There are promises, and then there are guarantees. There are promises from a venue perspective, but if you don't meet those very specific standards in internet infrastructure, is it a cast-iron guarantee? A high proportion of meeting planners -- 77 percent -- said that they would not consider a meeting venue unless it could guarantee the internet quality and bandwidth that they needed for their meetings. From what we see, the industry has some way to go before the vast majority of venues will be in a position to guarantee speeds, but we are seeing more investment by venues, and more venues offering a good-quality meetings internet without charging an additional fee. 

You indicated previously that it's not just the quality of internet that is driving meetings today, but the reliance on it. Can you elaborate on what you meant?
When you consider all the elements of a typical meeting today -- not an exceptional one, but a typical one -- it's very common to have to consider six, seven, or even eight or more interactions or communications that are reliant on internet. Just think about it. At a delegate level, they've got to communicate with the office; they've got to communicate socially with colleagues and their networks on Facebook; they've got to interact through an app for audience participation, and probably through a conference app as well; and they are providing live feedback at the event based upon the sessions they're attending. And that's just the delegate. Think about it from a meeting planner perspective, too. Meeting planners are disseminating information, they are geolocating delegates in terms of where they're footfall is and what sessions they're visiting, they are live-streaming, they are audience polling. They're doing so much, and all of it relies on internet. If the internet went down, five years ago you probably would get by. But now we've got to a point where all these internet-reliant elements are absolutely critical. So if the internet goes down, an event could fail. It's as serious as that.

If internet is the No. 1 factor in terms of choosing a venue, you would think that would be reflected in the request for proposal. But normally it isn't. Internet infrastructure is high-impact and high-priority, but in terms of what is asked of the venue, it's low on the list. Meeting planners will spend a lot of time specifying the meeting room layout, the food and beverage elements, the concessions that are needed, etc., but internet is below all of that in the RFP. To make sure it gets prioritized properly, we've got to better equip meeting planners to ask the right questions and evaluate what they need for an event by properly capturing data on bandwidth and internet usage from their previous events. As a result of this research, IACC is working with technology companies [to promote] products that are hitting the market to provide lots of really valuable data on internet consumption for a meeting so that meeting planners can pick that data up and hand it to the venues that they're consider for next year's event. We're also looking to develop a simple app for the iPhone and Android systems that will provide planners with the key information they need to gather when evaluating a venue for internet capabilities, so when they're onsite at a property they're considering they can determine quite literally whether it is up to speed. 

Because it's so critical, your report suggests that internet infrastructure is becoming an important consideration in contingency planning. Is that right?
Yeah it's very fascinating, that one, isn't it? We look at disaster recovery plans in terms of security, terrorism, acts of God, etc. But this is the first year that we've actually heard of an internet contingency disaster recovery plan, and that's linked 100 percent to just how reliant we are on internet for the event to be a success or failure. I'd encourage more of it. I think the more awareness we have, particularly for the part-time meeting planner, the better. I'll give you one example that was used with me in the last year that I thought was great: We don't ask a venue whether it offers 4G connectivity. We only ever ask does it have Wi-Fi and what megabits per second. But actually, from a contingency perspective, if a venue has 4G access on the major networks then that's your backup if the internet at the venue fails. That could be the difference between your delegates being able to continue to communicate. It's a simple question to ask, but the fact is: Would you choose one venue over another if everything else was equal, but one offered 4G and the other didn't? You would if you approached contingency planning in the right and proper way. 

Let's talk about food and beverage. What were your major findings in that area?
There's two distinct areas. One is around using food and beverage to create an exceptional meetings experience. Food and beverage is the glue that pulls an event together. It is one of the few elements of a meeting that affect all of our senses. If meeting planners can find a venue that has a rich understanding and a great, creative offering around foodservice, they've got much more of an opportunity to tune in to the sight, sound, taste, smell, and feel of food and beverage. And there are some very creative venues out there. What that means in terms of our research is that planners should be thinking about things like, for example, food and beverage that is visually stimulating. Not because it looks nice on your plate and will make you want to eat it, but because it will photograph well and your delegates will want to take a picture of it -- food that they'll use to feed their social media communications. Buffet stations that look really attractive and make people want to capture them would be one example. In fact, buffet-style service is becoming more and more popular, because it means you can provide more variety to larger groups and not just give everybody the same chicken dinner that you chose to be safe because you can only get one option.

Our other major finding was about allergens and dietary requirements. The reason for this becoming much more of a topic for debate this year is because requests for personalization of food and dietary requirements is becoming much, much bigger. If you think about a typical meeting registration, when you complete your registration as a delegate you'll typically get to a point where you'll be asked, "Please enter any dietary requirements that you have," and there will be an open text box. Five years ago, you might put in there "vegetarian," "wheat intolerant" or something like that. Now, delegates are listing everything from their allergens to the diet that they're on at the moment to their personal preferences. What this means is the vast majority of delegates are now filling that box in and meeting planners are getting a huge list to pass on to the venue, which is overwhelming for the meeting planner and the venue because they've got to pick through and decide what's critical to a person's health versus what is simply a request. In response to that, we need to become better at asking dietary questions so we can categorize the answers in a way that helps the venue handle them: "I need to have it for health reasons" versus "I would like to have it because it's a personal preference." IACC is going to be developing off the back of this a guide to evaluating the food-and-beverage needs of your delegates. We'll create some templates around this in the coming weeks and give this tool to meeting planners to help them design their registration process and protect themselves a little better. With open text boxes and a broad question you get a myriad of answers, but if you're a bit more specific you'll be able to manage that data a lot better. 

Somewhat related to food and beverage is another finding: You found that meeting breaks are changing. How so?
It's interesting. Meeting planners overwhelmingly are moving away from what we used to have, which was a 15-minute break mid-morning and a 15-minute break mid-afternoon, and they're instead increasing break times so delegates have more time to connect, build relationships, check in with the office, etc. We've seen some meeting planners who are introducing two new break times. So they now have one break early morning, one late morning, one early afternoon and one late afternoon. It's responding nicely to the demand for shorter learning spells. So sessions are now 45 minutes, or an hour maximum. Delegates will learn from 9 until 10, then they'll have a break for 30 minutes, then they go back in for another hour and have a mid-morning break, then another 45 minutes through to lunch. So they're increasing the number of breaks, and that's proving to be a popular choice. What we did learn, though, was that among meeting planners who introduced two break times, one or two had fallen foul of thinking that they needed to provide food and beverage at every break time, because that's what they'd always done in the past. But actually, the feedback that we got was they were giving their delegates too many food breaks. So it's okay to have a mid-morning break or a mid-afternoon break where you provide no food options at all, maybe just water, refreshments, tea and coffee. It gives people that time to rest their brain from the session and network without over-consuming. 

Your report is called "Meeting Room of the Future," so I'd be remiss not to ask about meeting rooms. What did your report reveal about meeting spaces?
Venues are incorporating more and more flexible meeting space -- i.e., space that can easily be transformed into other layouts, not just on a daily basis, but on an hourly basis or as dynamically as the delegates want to see these spaces changing around. Specifically, 37 percent of venues now have flexible meeting rooms in 100 percent of their spaces versus 28 percent last year before, so it's a big jump. Furniture providers are seeing this, as well, so they're creating lighter tables and chairs that allow delegates to change configurations and sit in a huddle one moment and turn their chair back to the front for a keynote the next moment without calling in Conference Services for help. We expect to see this continue as we move forward and we expect to see more energy put into the design of meeting spaces and collaboration spaces in public areas, with more attention paid to type of furniture, colors, lighting, points of interest and even art. It's no good now just having a lobby outside the meeting room which has got beige walls and colored carpets and nothing else, and expecting people to want to stand there and network. They just don't want to be in those boring spaces anymore. 

One more question: This is your third annual report. Looking back on the last three years, what's your overall conclusion? How has the industry changed, cumulatively?
Nothing's changed and everything's changed. What we've seen that has been a significant influence on the industry is that in these last three years the venues have listened. They've heard what meeting planners want and they have evolved what they provide. As a result, meeting planners have more choice and are less inclined to put up with a boring venue. That conference room in a hotel with no natural daylight, beige walls, and hired-in equipment and banquet staff just doesn't cut it anymore. So I think what "Meeting Room of the Future" has done is it has given meeting planners the confidence to raise their expectations and find venues that understand meetings and have created some truly exceptional environments that are capable of stimulating people and that provide the personalization and technology needed to deliver a smoother and more enjoyable meeting. That's why this initiative was created, and that's what continues to drive us.