Perhaps the surest prediction for the new year as it applies to meeting professionals is this: The industry will leave you behind if you don't keep up with the changes now in gestation and sure to come. From mining (and protecting) attendee data to a never-ending parade of technological advancements, the world of meetings continues to evolve, and planners must keep pace.
To get a fix on the major trends for 2019, Successful Meetings reached out to a number of industry leaders for insight. Here's what we can expect in the year ahead.
As anyone who has communicated with Siri lately can testify, voice-recognition technology is getting smarter -- as are facial-recognition and biometric technology. For Jill Anonson, events strategy advisor for ITA Group, such advancements will reshape our industry in a variety of ways. She predicts the use of virtual hospitality desks, where attendees can access a host of services without requiring their physical presence, and facial-recognition software employed for registration at large-scale events.
"We are seeing voice-command activation and text chatbots moving to hotels and events," notes Anonson, "and soon we will be using simple and natural voice commands to assist and guide us through our event and trade show journeys."
In its latest Trends Watch Report, global events powerhouse IBTM World spotlighted Big Bear X, a company that already uses facial-recognition technology to assess audience sentiment and has had success using it for event registration.
We are seeing voice-command activation and text chatbots moving to hotels and events, and soon we will be using simple and natural voice commands to assist and guide us through our event and trade show journeys.
Jill Anonson, events strategy advisor for ITA Group
"There are many exciting ways that technology can be incorporated into events -- some of which were showcased in our Exploratory Zone at this year's event," says David Thompson, exhibition director of IBTM World, pointing to not only facial recognition, but virtual reality, artificial intelligence and projection mapping as examples.
In some ways, facial recognition is just one piece of a larger trend that's poised to grow at an even faster pace in the next year or two: the tracking and analysis of attendee data.
"People often say one thing when asked a question, but their actual behavior tells a different story," says Cate Banfield, vice president of U.S. event-solution design and strategy at BCD Meetings & Events. "Data gives event planners and stakeholders insight into the minds of their attendees, helping them to identify unspoken preferences and understand how attendees interact with every element of the program."
Banfield expects to see event owners further their efforts to map behaviors and preferences for a growing number of program elements. Types of activities or features of a destination will influence venue choice and communications campaigns. Tracking clicks on links in emails and program websites will be used to tailor room gift selection or activities.
Rather than letting logistics dictate meetings offerings and decisions, planners will likely put a greater focus on the attendee experience. As Banfield describes it, this approach requires planners to craft a message that resonates with attendee behavior throughout the entire event, and to use this information to select the destination and venue, the communication plan, and the content (as well as its delivery).
Venues across the globe are investing in collaborative technologies, especially smartphone audience participation and screen-sharing during gatherings, notes Nancy Lindemer, director of sales and marketing for the Rizzo Center in Chapel Hill, N.C., and incoming president of IACC. "This is coming from the desire by participants to be an active part of meetings and events, so that they can contribute, collaborate and have a say in what is happening," says Lindemer. "The technology is simply a vehicle for connecting people."
RETHINKING SPACE DESIGN
Meeting space itself is shifting. According to IACC's most recent global Meeting Room of the Future report, 72 percent of member venue executives say more planners are requesting changes in meeting space design. The venues are also fielding more requests for "homey" settings for events, including sofas, comfy chairs and other furniture, says Lindemer. "It's all about making a comfortable environment for connecting and collaborating, and that is something we'd expect to continue into 2019."
Just as the traditional event space is being reinvented, the embrace of interactive and experiential education offerings is shifting from a novelty to the norm.
"We are showing the traditional lecture learning format its way out the door," says Jessie States, CMP, CMM, head of meeting innovation for Meeting Professionals International. "It has overstayed its welcome at our events." Planners are moving away from one-way, static delivery formats toward more of a conversation, she notes. That might mean incorporating more email, videos and webcasts into education offerings -- rethinking education as a multimedia, multisensory experience.
IACC has banished the use of PowerPoint altogether for Americas Connect, taking place in Toronto this April. "Instead, we will be delivering an interactive experience for our delegates," says Lindemer. "We believe that by doing this, they will be engaged and will take away a lot more from the speakers and sessions."
Banfield expects to see education in the more dynamic, short and podium-free style of TED Talks, with variety added throughout the day to get away from the structure of "general session in the morning, breakouts in the afternoon," and ensuring that attendees aren't seated in rows all day.
We are showing the traditional lecture learning format its way out the door. It has overstayed its welcome at our events.
Jessie States, CMP, CMM, head of meeting innovation for MPI.
"They're abandoning the theater/classroom/crescents layouts in favor of varied seating -- couches up front, theater in the middle, high tops or tables in the back, with standing room in the back for those who want it -- that gives attendees a lot of options for a comfortable spot in the room," says Banfield.
Technology is helping facilitate this, from live, online Q&As and polls to gamification and augmented reality elevating the educational experience and providing new ways for attendees to interact with program content.
For example, at the International Congress and Convention Association's 57th Congress last November in Dubai, live demonstrations were held in the Tech Pavilion, allowing delegates to sample a variety of session formats.
"We offer alternative concepts with a focus on facilitating interactivity, especially in terms of room layout, furniture, etc.," says Dennis Speet, ICCA's interim CEO. This extends to "outside-the-box" sessions that bring delegates literally outside the venue to local sites, stimulating learning in different environments and allowing them to experience the destination's culture and uniqueness.
Part of this is rooted in a broader trend toward what Anonson calls "self-directed experiences," in which attendees are encouraged to make choices within these environments to manipulate their experiences.
"Planners are looking at how they can set up the room unconventionally to engage differently and encourage innovation and creativity," says Anonson. That includes having presenters in unusual locations in the room or moving around the room to keep the attention of attendees, she adds, as well as creating additional event "spaces" outside of the ballroom.
"It's not just the space, it's the idea of the experience," says Tony Wagner, vice president of meetings and events, Americas, for Carlson Wagonlit Travel. "The question is, how do you not just entertain but immerse people and get their engagement -- and better promote the message you're trying to get across?"
CWT's 2019 Meetings & Events Future Trends report emphasizes how "creativity is king" for venues more than ever, spotlighting unique places such as Finland's Lonna Mine, a historic naval storehouse set on an island that attendees reach by boat, or the indoor sky-diving service iFly.
Incorporating healthy alternatives into event food and beverage is hardly a new phenomenon -- and will soon be a must. A conscious approach to food -- and food waste -- will be a greater priority for planners and attendees in the year to come. The move away from plastic straws and other one-use plastics illustrates how quickly something that wasn't even an afterthought can become a major issue. Watch for a similar spotlight on food waste.
"Sustainability and reducing food waste at meetings are of increasing concern," according to Speet. "Organizations now deem it important to serve smaller portions of food, with chefs preparing extra on-site if demand increases."
ICCA member venues are addressing this issue with a zero-food-waste initiative called "Too Good to Waste," says Speet. "We are also seeing more food-waste policies or agreements being made with local charities, so that any food left over can be given to local people in need. Also, to reduce carbon emissions, local produce is being championed over importing international products."
IACC recently released its Guide to Managing Conference Delegate Dietary Requirements in partnership with Meeting Professionals International and the World Obesity Federation. The report is a comprehensive guide that has been designed to help planners partner with venues and caterers to manage delegates' dietary needs and requirements.
"Organizers are making sure to ask attendees about their dietary concerns prior to the event in order to address them on-site," says Amy Ledoux, CMP, CAE, senior vice president of meetings and expositions for the American Society of Association Executives. "Also, the opportunity to make the presentation of food and beverage experiential is being incorporated into more events. Food is one of those things that people remember as either good or bad, and it often leaves one of the lasting impressions of an event on an attendee."
SMARTER CRISIS MANAGEMENT
In ways large and small, risk awareness and mitigation are more central to the planning and execution of a meeting than ever before.
"A crisis-management plan is no longer a 'nice to have,' but a mandatory part of any organization planning and designing events," says Banfield. Rather than burying it in the fine print, planners are prominently pointing out risk information -- such as cautions about the Zika virus, the likelihood of hurricanes or government-issued travel warnings.
"Planners are negotiating contracts with bespoke force majeure clauses, and tailoring attrition and cancellation policies to the unique challenges they might face in a destination, which gives them flexibility in the unfortunate event that something does go wrong," says Banfield.
A crisis-management plan is no longer a 'nice to have,' but a mandatory part of any organization planning and designing events.
Cate Banfield, vice president of U.S. event-solution design and strategy at BCD Meetings & Events.
ASAE and other organizations are working with their conference-app developers to include safety tips and crisis-response instructions for attendees to access easily. ASAE's M&E section council created a robust crisis-communications plan available for members to download.
"It is impossible to plan for every crisis, but having a communications plan that is shared with all key stakeholders is the first step in being prepared," says Ledoux of ASAE. "Due to recent events, organizers are now taking the safety aspect of their meetings very seriously."