Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

May 2013

One on One With Alan Webber

Susan Sarfati, CAE

agree but are not necessarily acting on it.

The real thing that associations want is to influence people by connecting in conversations at live events, places where people are viscerally present.

Let's talk about the staff that FC hired to design and produce events. What characteristics did you seek?

We looked for people who were not hard-wired in a particular field. When we hired writers early on, we found that most people applying for these jobs were coming from other publications and arrived with bad habits. We would rather hire a person with no track record but with passion than someone who has to unlearn.

Our events staff was high-energy — innovators, collaborators, risk takers. They wanted to be part of something bigger than just an event. They cared about language and thinking differently. Find bite, wind, and energy — this was our mantra. Energy is created by juxtaposition and not by bland language. Our events team knew that design mattered; the look and feel of everything mattered.

You say, “If you really have the capacity to change, design is the basis for that change — it's what makes it possible.” How can we create meetings using design thinking?

Everything I have said so far can be translated into meetings design. The critical thing about design is that it is a both a noun and a verb.

The first question in any design exercise is “What is the point of the exercise? Why are we doing this? Why are we having the event and what do we hope to get out of it?” The best way to design is back to front. You don't start by asking who we want as speakers. You begin by saying, “When people go home, what do we want them to take with them? What is our definition of victory at the end of the event?” If you don't know what you are trying to achieve, how can you design it?

Most planners say that their objectives are primarily networking and sharing best practices.

Then they are not challenging themselves enough — instead, the thought is “this is how we have always done it.” But we want innovation and creativity, so we have to continuously ask how, why, and what does that look like?

[We need to] place ourselves in the shoes of the audience and imagine when they go home, what value-added are they taking with them? Is it new emotions, new business cards, new friends, new inspiration? People in the meeting-design business have to push themselves harder and think more deeply.

We agreed that our gatherings began before the first day of the event and didn't end when the event concluded. What has to happen before attendees arrive on site so that they arrive in the right frame of mind? What has to go on after the meeting so that the event's benefit doesn't end when attendees depart? How do you create a continuous feedback loop so that your audience is receiving benefits on an ongoing basis?

Good questions. And the answer is...?

FC did that in a number of ways. If you were attending one of the Advances, a month before you came on site, you received thorough information on who would be at the meeting, bios and photos, a series of mailings like party favors to get you in the right frame of mind, fun gifts to set the stage for the event.

We paid attention to the quality of the materials so every meeting had a different design sensibility. Sometimes the printed material would be on vellum so it looked old-fashioned, sometimes printed on a high-end, metallic-looking futuristic [material]. The typeface would change to indicate what the theme was. Attention to the big picture and to small details was our way.

Today, everything is green and paperless, so these ideas would need to be translated to the electronic world.

Do both. Remember that electronic communication has an environmental impact also. Many people still like paper. It's about options, balance, and choice. We don't live in an either/or world. We live in an “and” world.

At the first Advance, we wanted to spark new conversations, so we designed the event specifically not to include people from all one industry. We believed in cross-fertilization as a design principle and that there is the most to learn from people who are least like you. When we all look at the same problem through different lenses, we learn things that we couldn't learn from people who are like-minded.

Do you think this is a big problem for associations because people who attend their meetings are from the same field?

There is benefit in assembling your tribe. I also see a different opportunity. To be a game changer, what if three groups of members from unlike associations were invited to attend the same meeting and address common problems from different vantage points? They could discuss issues such as how to produce positive social change from the perspective of an HR professional, an engineer, or a scientist. How do you change the conversation in organizations to end navel gazing? Do it by design and whom you invite to gather and speak.

How do you encourage meeting professionals to think more like leaders?

Leaders have peripheral vision and listen hard. There are fascinating conversations going on in every organization, but most leaders are isolated, running too fast, and don't hear them.

Leaders need unfiltered listening skills. To design an event, you need to be one of the most curious people in the world and have your radar up about who is doing cool stuff. Who do you admire? Where can you get inspiration? Meeting professionals need to trust their gut and not always be rational. They must be playful. Designing a meeting is a creative act and not just an act of execution.

What if meeting planners actually think of themselves as the “editor in chief” of the meeting? What does an editor in chief do? What are the dynamics of the event? What is the spirit we want to create? How do we change the look and feel of the space?

There is a movement toward shorter sessions such as Ignite and TEDTalks. What are your thoughts about communicating meaningful ideas in short time clips?

Meetings have fads. You can't just look at people in your own industry if you want change, because they are all doing mostly the same thing. Look outside of your own industry. Smart associations have semi-penetrating membranes rather than walls. It is okay to interact with your own group, but don't just be with your group. In our world where the Internet connects us seamlessly 24/7/365, boundaries are being erased. Silos are the enemies of creativity, so don't keep perpetuating silos.

Let's go back to time. Eighteen-minute sessions are good for TED because TED is basically a candy box, a Whitman's Sampler of cool people doing cool things. If you attend TED and spend a huge amount of money to be with the cool kids, you can expect to hear speakers for 18 minutes each and have no conversation, no Q&A or dialogue. But, you get this box of chocolates that is hand-dipped.

This is TED's dinner party to be hosted the way TED wishes. If you want to be like TED, it's like saying, “I want to be like Brad Pitt, so I'll dye my hair blond.” Copycatism makes little sense if you're trying to create your own event for your own purpose. Energize attendees; provide new ideas for doing business. Become the most innovative organization that has the best grip on change. So, our members say TED is great, Davos is great. Why can't we do something like that? They don't work because they are 18-minute talks or full of world leaders. They work because they are uniquely themselves. Create something that is uniquely yours.

You mentioned the concept of a dashboard of change. What would be on that dashboard?

All organizations need to design their own dashboard to measure what is important and to develop lenses to organize your thinking. Four things were happening when FC started, which became our dashboard: technology, globalization, generation shift, and diversity. Today, I would change the dashboard

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