Conference Design

Five Meeting Design Hacks to Adopt?

8th March 2024

Global Association Hubs International Advisor Martin Sirk pleads for some fresh design-thinking to extract additional value from association meetings.

Meeting design is too important to leave in the hands of event teams. Meeting design isn’t simply psychologically-aware, objectives-oriented meeting planning. It’s really an all-encompassing methodology for transforming an association’s meeting into a powerful expression of its Mission and unique culture, into a platform for identifying and driving forward the most important priorities of the organisation and every member of its community. This is why Board, CEO, division heads, partners, members/delegates themselves, all have a role to play in the meeting design process. As do the destinations and venues that play host to those meetings. 

Rather than listing some of the more obvious meeting design predictions for 2024 (AI-with-everything, impact-centricity, sustainability metrics, etc.), I’d like to highlight some more esoteric options, a wish-list to stimulate some of the more experimentally-minded and risk-embracing associations to include these concepts in their discussions about the future shape of their major events.

1. Active anti-passivity
This concept could also be expressed as “unrealised potential-minimisation” because that is the ultimate goal when using this perspective. It starts from the awareness that any gathering of industry professionals or discipline-experts represents an incredibly valuable aggregation of intellectual capital. But this value remains “potential” until it is unlocked, and all too often a large proportion stays uselessly unutilised inside delegates’ heads. 

Actions that support the goal of minimising unrealised potential start long before the event kicks off:

  • Pre-qualification: Make sure only the right people attend who can contribute meaningfully to the topics and/or objectives. This can be done for either the whole event or for individual sessions.
  • Personal objective-setting: Well in advance, prepare delegates to personally contribute by prompting them to define precisely what they aim to achieve from the event, and help them identify relevant activities and people. Once on site, remind them!
  • Outsider-insider elimination: Every association congress attracts both “newbies” (who have no clue what’s going on or how they’re meant to act) and regulars (who believe everyone else automatically knows how things work!), but very few associations do anything to turn their newcomers into evangelists, via deep briefings on culture, behaviour and programme opportunities, mentorships and peer group support, goal-sharing and other such techniques.
  • Wisdom of crowds: There are numerous ways to generate knowledge from large groups, using both technology and non-tech solutions. Active anti-passivity requires that these be used throughout the programme, constantly gathering and recycling information and insights, rather than as an ad-hoc experiment in one or two sessions. Every passive audience is a roomful of missed opportunities!
  • Interactivity percentages: Set minimum percentages for the amount of time allocated to interactive components within every session, or on every day, or across the entire event. At least 60% is a good starting point!

2. Sounds of silence
Association conferences are typically packed full with education sessions, these sessions are crowded with content from start to finish, networking periods are boisterously busy. What’s almost always missing are opportunities to think deeply about the validity of what one has heard, to reflect on the implications of new knowledge, to relate different ideas and perspectives to personal circumstances or your own projects. 

This is one of the easiest meeting design hacks to implement, with the following:

  • Five-minute rule: Require every session to include five minutes’ eyes-closed silence for delegates to think about what they’ve heard. 
  • Five action-points rule: At each session, ask delegates to write down five actions they will take as a result of attending: changes they need to implement; people they need to brief; ideas they want to explore further; etc.
  • Sound of silence room: Easy-to-find space where delegates can go to think about any aspect of the conference, or just to meditate. This concept is already a feature at many association meetings, but is more concerned with mental health and life-work balance issues than with the content and objectives of the event itself.

3. Excessive over-moderation
The worst imaginable cost-saving is to cut back on moderators and facilitators. In fact, this is an area where every association could benefit from increased investment, perhaps replacing one over-priced “inspirational” keynote speaker with three specialists who know how to extract new insights and ideas from a group of experts, and who will each be willing to handle three or four sessions!

So you can try:

  • Moderators as meeting designers: Make your moderators part of the design process from as early as possible, encouraging them to provide format ideas and novel solutions to session objectives, and input on connecting individual sessions with the overall event goals.
  • DIY moderation: Some people are “naturals” at conducting an education session, irrespective of their age or professional status. Your association will certainly have a number of candidates, but beware of simply accepting all volunteers, some of whose enthusiasm may exceed their ability! The key step is to supplement the existing abilities of these individuals with training and support, and to consistently use them at your events so they gain experience and confidence.
  • Double-up: Why not have two moderators in some sessions, one to manage the stage and one to manage the floor, or one to manage on-site and one to manage contributions from virtual delegates beaming in from around the world?

4. Magnificent messiness
Meeting planners crave nothing greater than order: they love checklists, line-by-line budgets, and predictable programmes. But large-scale association meetings are by their nature highly complex and dynamic, filled with unpredictable interactions and delegates with very different motivations. Smart meeting designers recognise this reality and take advantage of the inherent messiness.

Deconstructed networking: “Networking” is a label that can obfuscate more than it illuminates: break it down into the real activities that are going on, and custom-design timeframes, formats and supporting tech to suit each. Are delegates aiming to do business or showcase their expertise, do they want to discuss in-depth projects or argue over current controversies, are they looking for new enthusiasts with a shared passion or searching for a new job or a candidate for a key position? Some networking activities are one-to-one, some requires small group space; some need privacy whilst others work best in full view; some might require an hour or more, others need only one-minute interactions; some can be booked up well in advance of the event whilst others are entirely ad-hoc on the day. Avoid “standard” formats that assume everyone’s needs are the same!

  • More unplanned time: Quite simply, give your event room to breathe, extend informal periods, allow your delegates adequate time to find one another and explore their common interests. Cutting back on the time allocated to information-sharing (use alternative distribution pathways for any top-down communication) is one easy way to achieve this.
  • Experimental insiders: Don’t experiment on your delegates, experiment with them! Delegates will accept almost any kind of off-beat, novel session design or activity during an event if they feel part-owners of the process and outcomes, if they understand the goals, and are allowed to actively contribute. 

5. Deep-diving with destinations
Whilst some destinations such as Global Association Hubs partners – Brussels, Dubai, Singapore and Washington DC – are committed to developing longer-term creative partnerships, the default thinking for most associations with regard to their conference hosts is primarily transactional. Associations could benefit enormously by turning destinations into meeting design partners from the earliest stages of event preparation.

Share objectives: If destination representatives don’t know what an association is aiming to achieve, nor the goals of the different categories of attendee, they can’t suggest potential solutions – unique venues, local experts or institutions or companies, ways to influence the mood of delegates through culture or inspiring surprises. Don’t wait for the destination reps to ask, tell them!

Invite design input: Draw from destinations’ experience of hundreds or thousands of past events: what were the most creative activities they’ve ever hosted; which innovations generated the best outcomes; how were venues used in surprising and unconventional ways? Most design solutions come from existing sources, they aren’t invented from the ground up: take advantage of others’ development spend!

City-as-venue: Don’t just look at convention centres and meeting hotels, think about the whole cityscape as a canvas for the activities of your community. Ask local members of your association to recommend their favourite cafes, bars, bookshops and flea markets, museums, off-the-beaten-track local colour and eccentricities, don’t just rely on the local destination marketing organisation!

Delegates as youth ambassadors: Your delegates don’t just attend to receive value from your meetings, they want to give back and share their knowledge. Talk with your destination representatives about opportunities to give presentations at local schools or universities, about scientific advances, about societal challenges and possible solutions, about career paths and personal growth! Call for volunteers to speak to these young audiences: you’ll be amazed at the level of interest.

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