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The Return to
In-Person Meetings
Face-to-Face Essentials

The New Meetings Mindset: Put the Participant First

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During a prolonged period of change, something had to give. Life and work have been reshaped and transformed, and that means people want different things. In planning future meetings, it’s time for associations to put the participant first and let the event follow.

The pandemic has driven home many things, among them that necessity really is the mother of invention—and, it turns out, reinvention. While the big news about events in the past 20 months has been the shift to virtual, a much bigger change was happening at a more granular level that will guide the future of gatherings.

“The individual has changed, the participant has changed, and that is still unfolding and could be significant,” said Sherrif Karamat, CAE, president and CEO of the Professional Convention Management Association. “We have to be really nimble and agile to adapt to the ways our participants are changing and how they want to engage with others.”

Events used to be planned based on preconceptions about what large groups of people needed, often guided by committees, leadership, or mission and vision statements. That mindset has changed. It’s no longer about the broader approach of supporting an organization or the communities that exist within the organization, because that limits the scalability of education and interactions, said Derrick Johnson, DES, CMP, chief diversity officer and director of event strategy at Talley Management Group, Inc.

“You want people to feel like they can see themselves in situations and that they feel part of the environment we’re creating,” Johnson said. “We have to do that by truly showcasing and highlighting folks who have different thoughts and look different.”

“If you listen to your members, you will understand how to design the event.”—Sherrif Karamat, CAE, Professional Convention Management Association

Creating Custom Experiences

People have become accustomed to accessing content when they want it and how they want it. Now there is a proliferation of synchronous and asynchronous content, with live and prerecorded facilitation. A more individualized focus mirrors what people have come to expect in all areas of their lives, as with on-demand cable channels, which create a more customized and customizable experience.

“Providing custom experiences—not just events—is more emotionally compelling,” said Johnson. Which, he added, is more meaningful “as opposed to cookie-cutter events that are designed for a broad audience.”

Participants are more empowered now because they know they have choices. They are more discriminating about what they are going to participate in.

“Organizations will have to be more agile and listen to weak signals so they can develop programming and an experience based on what the participant’s needs are,” Karamat said. “Forget about the event and start with the participant and their needs. If you listen to your members, you will understand how to design the event.”

The Long View

Once everyone was thrust into an all-virtual format, it wasn’t clear what would stick. Initially it seemed like everything would just go back to normal. However, coming out on the other side of the pandemic, it’s clear it’s not going to be that simple.

“Post-pandemic, we need to ensure virtual becomes the baseline and is a foundational element of meetings moving forward,” Johnson said. A virtual platform allows organizations to diversify their audiences and create more customized experiences for the participants.

The best way to design something that is meaningful for the individual participant is to identify personas within communities and consider how to serve them. “In our world, we have for so long required people to fit into a box as opposed to really embracing diversity for what it truly is,” Johnson said. “We are all very unique, we learn differently, we communicate differently, we experience things differently, and we see the world in different ways.”

Although virtual and hybrid events are here to stay, there is still tremendous opportunity for face-to-face events, Karamat said. Content is much more ubiquitous and accessible now, and participants are looking for ways to have discussions in an in-person environment. But they want to be part of the conversation and examine several perspectives.

“They want an opportunity to not just be talked at, but to actually be engaged so learning is not coming from one expert in the front of the room,” Karamat said. “It’s actually harnessing the power of the room.”

Lisa Boylan

Lisa Boylan is a senior editor of Associations Now.

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As associations start bringing back in-person events, many are rethinking how they get people to attend. For many organizations, this means focusing on engagement and understanding what members want.