Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

January 2014

How One Planner Performed Reconstructive Surgery On A Meeting

By Barbara Palmer, Senior Editor
longstanding patterns, just as Squillante had hoped. “Speakers were actually speaking to the people all around them,” she said. “They were talking, moving, and walking. The speakers were engaging [attendees] more, because they were right there with them, in the middle of the audience. It was amazing.”

USGBC's Lewis had warned her audience at Convening Leaders that not every speaker would embrace a new environment. But for the most part, CEOT's speakers “loved it,” Squillante said. One of the tips she brought back from Convening Leaders was to acclimate speakers to the new environment in advance. She invited them to “come to the room, get up on the stage, and play with the technology,” Squillante said. “They could really get comfortable in the space.” Not every speaker took her up on the offer, she said, but “the ones that did, I physically took them with me and got them on the stage. I made them walk around.”

It seems to have paid off. During some presentations, speakers were so comfortable that they began illustrating their points not by reading from their PowerPoint slides but by calling out to relevant experts in the audience. “They were saying, ‘Hey, Joe, I know you do this,’” Squillante said.

Squillante also had coached session moderators in advance to be conversational. “I don't want you doing Q&A from a head table,” she told them. “I want you to get on the stage and to join the speaker and have a conversation. Let them take your questions, but have a dialogue with them.” The change in style changed the dynamic of the whole room, she said. “It gave people permission to engage the speaker.”

MAKING IT INTERACTIVE


Another way that CEOT 2013 added interactivity to the meeting was through polling. At the beginning of every session, moderators led attendees through a handful of questions, which were repeated at the end. Squillante used Poll Everywhere, an audience-response platform that attendees access via smartphone. “It's very inexpensive,” she said. “You could get more sophisticated systems. My budget is my budget, and this works. And it allowed people to pay attention, to be engaged, and to do something physically.”

Polling “wakes up attendees,” she said, but at CEOT 2013 it also was a way of collecting information about the impact that speakers had on attendee knowledge. “We didn't show what the change was during each session, but we brought that data back with us, and it was analyzed after the meeting.”

Another goal was to enhance the room, as much as possible, in away that stimulated attendees’ attention and emotions. To do that, Squillante used high-tech movable lights that could project an almost unlimited range of colors and textures onto the meeting-room walls. Squillante had worked with colored lighting at her events before, she said, “but this takes anything I did before times 10.”

The intention was to enrich the environment without being distracting, so any changes in the lighting occurred as attendees were out of the room for meals or breaks, for the most part. Squillante said she knew the lighting was working to refresh the environment when a presenter who was standing next to her asked her if she had moved the room's furniture around during a break. “I looked at him and I said, ‘Well, not really,’” she said. “‘I did change the lights.’”

The changes in color were based mainly on intuition — colors got brighter as the day wore on and energy lagged, with one exception. At Convening Leaders, Lewis talked about “biophilia,” the hypothesis that there is an instinctive bond between humans and other living systems, and that we're more receptive and comfortable when surrounded by nature. So Squillante made sure that one of the textures she repeated was from the natural world. Her budget didn't allow her to fill the room with rented plants, she said. “But I could [project] green palm leaves up on my wall.”

KNOWING WHAT WORKS FOR YOU

Squillante left Convening Leaders 2013 with “a huge list of ideas of what we could do and what we could implement,” she said. But knowing how to edit and adapt such a list to fit your own circumstances is key. “You have to know your group,” Squillante said. “You have to know what will work and what won't. What's the baby step you could get away with? You can't do something that's going to take attendees completely outside their comfort zones. It will flop. You have to know your meeting.

Another takeaway for Squillante was an indirect one: Believe in yourself and your ideas. Early in the planning of CEOT 2013, an AST program chair had asked Squillante to drop the meeting's tabletop trade-show-style exhibits because they didn't represent how AST members prefer to get information. “If I want to find out about something,” the program chair told her, “I'm either going to go to the company's website or I'm going to call my rep and have a conversation about it.”

Squillante initially resisted getting rid of exhibits, both because there were sponsors who wanted to be at the meeting and because they generated income. But she came up with an alternative: technology-enabled kiosks, where exhibitors could present product videos. When Squillante talked about the kiosks at Convening Leaders last year, other attendees were anything but encouraging. “They told me it wasn't a good idea,” Squillante said. “They pooh-poohed it.” But in fact, the kiosks were a big success at CEOT 2013. For as much as people said they would never work, “we made a lot of money.”

For Squillante, the lesson was this: “Believe in what you know. If you know your group and you have an idea, try it. Take a risk. Take baby steps. Take the risk and just try it.”

The immediate result of the risks that Squillante took at CEOT 2013 was a flood of rave reviews. “I've been in the transplantation field over 20 years and have been going to meetings for just as long,” one attendee wrote. “This is the best meeting I have ever been to.”

Squillante gives much of the credit for the meeting's success to AST itself, and the effort that the organization made to bring cutting-edge education to its members. “People came because they knew there was going to be a great program,” she said. “Then they had this unbelievable experience. The combination made a huge difference.”

The type of experimentation that Squillante incorporated into CEOT 2013 is also part of a larger shift that will last beyond the success of an individual meeting — an exercise in using what's known about how people learn to make live programs more effective. Indeed, Squillante noted, research is changing how education is delivered throughout our educational system, including in colleges and universities. “That must flow into a medical meeting — or any meeting,” she said. “If it's proven that this is a better way to learn, then why not make it available at your meeting, where you want people to learn the most up-to-date information in their field?”

Cultivating Creative Confidence

In Tina Squillante's Education Day presentation for the PCMA Greater Philadelphia Chapter last September, she shared in detail the steps she took to turn ideas into reality as she resuscitated a fading medical meeting. But she also gave her audience of colleagues a look into how she thinks about her role as a meeting planner and what it takes to be innovative.

“Everyone in this room is creative or you probably couldn't be in this field,” Squillante told the audience. “And every planner holds a lot of power — believe it or not. Sometimes we have to

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