Old Meeting ImageThe meetings industry is in the midst of a major inflection point; one that’s likely to leave some associations picking up the broken pieces of a once-thriving membership organization and wondering what hit the fan? Many industry associations are the classic example of “too big to fail” mentality. I’m afraid they are oblivious to this emerging threat.

Evidence: Exhibit 1: Big dogs gone

In four separate conversations with senior executives lately, the individuals mentioned they were NOT planning to attend their industries’ annual conference. Mr. 1 said: “It’s a waste of time.” Mr. 2: “No value in it.” Ms. 3: “I have better things to do. Mr. 4: “It’s juvenile.” Ouch! Do their industry associations know their key customers hold such a dismal view?

If you don’t cater to your industry’s senior executives, what impact can you have for the rest of your members? Most trade associations are good at providing what the entry- and mid-level member needs. We all come to meetings for content and community, and for those subsets of the membership, relevant content and community is easy to provide. They need skills and knowledge to advance in their careers, and they need contacts who can help them find the best path forward, be that internal or external to their current company. Conferences and meetings are great places for that.

But one size does not fit all! For senior executives, already advanced in their skills and knowledge, already embedded in a well-nurtured network of strategic relationships, content designed to serve entry- and mid-level members offers no value. Mr. 4’s comment “it’s juvenile” is more a reflection of the demographics of attendees: it’s an apt description of the content. Stop trying to teach “sit” and “heel” to “big dogs” ready for Agility Level 4!

Evidence: Exhibit 2, Conference-crashers

The New York Times reported recently on the emerging trend of conference-crashing, i.e. taking a pass on the registration badge with its promise of entrance to exhibitions, speeches and workshops, as well as parties and networking and instead, hanging out in the lobbies and catching attendees on the fly to make introductions and set up meetings. If they’re known to some attendees, it’s not hard to parlay running into a client in the lobby into an invitation out with a group that evening, and thus building with net-new relationships.

The New York Times article paints conference-crashers as “striving entrepreneurs,” the young and hungry who creatively husband their resources by avoiding conference fees. The writing is on the wall for the meetings industry if both the senior C-suite cohort AND the young-and-hungry cohort are deciding not to pay conference fees, and it’s message is bleak.

How to attract the pack?

In my conversations I also heard about a dramatic decline in attendance at CEO-level events—to the CEOs, the perception is that these councils and summits have lost their value. What’s going on with that? Are industry associations doing anything about it? When will they start to?

If I’d had one conversation, I’d say it was an anomaly. Two, I’d say “sour grapes.” But four, personally, over a period of a few days? That’s a disturbing trend. What it shows is that the usual events are not delivering value in their content or in the community they bring together. The information people used to get at conferences is now widely available, online, anytime.

If you play a role in your industry association’s or professional society’s annual meeting, take this brief check-up.

  1. Who is the senior planner, and how long has he/she been in that job?
  2. Take a look at your conference syllabus. How many days of events? What formats? Is it the same-old same-old round of multi-day keynotes, lectures, and parties you’ve always offered?
  3. Is content arranged in tracks, and are those tracks relevant to tomorrow’s membership niches, not yesterday’s?
  4. Are you still sending out massive paper brochures? Where’s your app?

Tomorrow’s meeting planning will be nothing like yesterday’s. To survive, meeting planners must not just adapt, but innovate. We’re talking not iterative improvements, but transformative innovation.

When the old dogs no longer see value in an industry’s key events, the whole pack is in trouble. Meeting planners: it’s up to you. Stay relevant or die. We must do more than talk about the challenges; we must start talking about how we can elevate the conversation to something far more substantial.

Nour Takeaways

The meetings industry is experiencing a major downward inflection point, and too many planners appear to be oblivious to the coming disruption.

The “big dogs”—senior executives—are the leading indicator of trouble ahead. If you aren’t serving their needs, how can you hope to impact the rest of your members?

To topgrade your organization’s meeting planning function, look for fresh perspectives; relevant content delivered in innovative formats (think immersive experiences, not “events”); and information delivered on the device of the member’s choosing before, during and after.

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