The longer a meeting planner has been with an organization, the more they have a sense of what their attendees want. Or do they? Sometimes familiarity causes planners to make assumptions that don’t align with attendees’ needs and expectations—especially in changing times.
“I think a lot of times we make assumptions about our attendees—like they are introverts or they hate visiting the exhibit hall,” said Megan Finnell, CMP, director of meetings and conferences at the Medical Group Management Association. “When we do that, we build in blind spots because we are planning based on our bias and assumptions rather than the data from our actual attendees.”
The MGMA team learned that lesson the hard way. After receiving lower-than-expected networking scores for a conference, they made changes not once, but twice, on future events. In both cases, “our scores actually went down,” Finnell said. She shared her conundrum with a meeting planner friend, who offered a response that changed how she approaches event planning.
“He says, ‘You’re not even asking them what they want. You’re just throwing things at the window and seeing what sticks,’” Finnell recounted.
That’s when she decided it was time for her team to challenge their assumptions. They created lists of everything they knew about their attendees and identified those that were supported by data and those that were not. Then, they surveyed members to find out whether the assumptions were true.
“We found out that, surprisingly—and yet, not surprisingly—our assumptions were completely off in many cases,” Finnell said. For example, “60 percent of our attendees said that they prefer talking to exhibitors in their booth.”
Blind spots can also arise from the processes organizations use for meeting content creation, said Stephanie D. Jones, CMP, CAE, managing director of professional development and event strategy at the Water Environment Federation.
“We all have these legacy processes that are in place,” Jones said. “I think it’s time for us to take some of that control back and use what we are learning from the data about what people want.”
Legacy processes often include the people on committees that choose content for meetings and the way they select it.
“I think there are opportunities for you to bring in some members of your organization that don’t traditionally sit on your program committee,” Jones said. “Also, this process where if you get this certain score [in attendee evaluations], you’re automatically on the [next] program—we can’t do that anymore.”