by Agatha Gilmore | January 02, 2015

(Note: For the more recent "Top 6 Meeting Trends of 2016," head here.)

While there is no crystal ball for meetings in 2015, Successful Meetings analyzed various data and spoke with industry experts, meeting gurus, and on-the-ground organizers to get a sense of what planners can expect in the coming year. Read on to discover their top six trends for 2015.

1. Sellers Call the Shots
Tony Wagner, Minnetonka, MN-based vice president of CWT Meetings & Events, recently had a client ask for a luxury property in a warm-weather destination just 60 days before the event start date. A whopping 55 properties declined the request due to lack of availability, he says.
 

Tony Wagner believes this year
will see more of a sellers' market

"This client was adamant that they couldn't switch their dates, so their negotiating ability and the availability of types of properties they required really lessened," Wagner points out.

The lack of growth in new hotel rooms coming online in recent years will really be felt in 2015. Limited room supply will mean tougher negotiations and longer lead times, and it will mean the return of a seller's market this year. In fact, when asked this past November which issues would be important as part of the Successful Meetings 2015 Trends survey, nearly 60 percent of respondents said that negotiating with hoteliers in a seller's market would be top of mind.

For this reason, hotel chains such as Carlson Rezidor "advise clients to be flexible in dates and meeting specifications where possible," according to CWT Meetings & Events' "2015 Meetings & Events Forecast," sponsored by Carlson Rezidor.

Another piece of advice from the experts is to book multiple or recurring events within one contract, and reach out to partners with whom you have good relationships.

"Planners are continuing to innovate and use partnerships with suppliers to leverage spend. They are changing the way they request proposals, how they negotiate contracts, and who they trust as suppliers," says Christian Savelli, senior director of business intelligence and research for Meetings Professionals International (MPI) in Dallas.
 

2. Expectations Are High -- Budgets Are Not
Only modest growth in meeting budgets is expected across North America and Europe. "Conditions are holding steady," finds the MPI Fall 2014 Meetings Outlook, which predicts an overall budget increase of just 1.7 percent in these regions, while the majority of respondents (40.8 percent) to the Successful Meetings 2015 Trends survey forecast no change in budgets in 2015.

What this means for planners is that, increasingly, they must prove the return on investment for their meetings and demonstrate the ways in which they are leveraging technology and other tools for efficiency, says Arthur Backal, CEO and founder of Backal Management Group, which manages New York City's Apella Event Space at Alexandria Center. "It's more important than ever," he says.

 

Larry Luteran, Hilton Worldwide

"These persistent, flat budgets mixed with high expectations result in significant pressure and stress to deliver," adds Larry Luteran, senior vice president of group sales and industry relations at Hilton Worldwide in Washington, DC. "It puts a premium on measuring the return for every dollar spent. The more we have bulletproof data to support the meeting spend, the better everyone feels about investing in meetings and events."

Such findings are echoed by Issa Jouaneh, Toronto-based vice president and general manager of American Express Meetings & Events. As quoted in the American Express Meetings & Events "2015 Global Meetings Forecast," Jouaneh says economic conditions over the past few years have driven "a more disciplined approach around approvals processes, increased scrutiny on spend, and a larger focus around accountability and expected outcomes for meetings."

At the end of the day, "it comes down to value," says Andy Finn, vice president of group sales for Benchmark Hospitality Group in Houston, TX. This is a special challenge when planners are tasked with creating unique, personalized, one-of-a-kind experiences for attendees -- which are becoming more and more expected, the experts say.

"You have to continue to change up and innovate the experience. It means planners have to reinvent the event without additional dollars," says Carol McGury, executive vice president of event and education services for Chicago-based association management company SmithBucklin. "You are not going to have more money to throw at better food and beverage, bigger bands, better giveaways. [And] you can't count on your sponsors funding this kind of stuff all the time. You have to look at doing zero-base budgeting from an event perspective and say, 'Let's reinvent the event with a finite bucket of money.'"
 

3. Goodbye Attendees -- Hello Participants
When asked which issues would be important to plan effective meetings in 2015, more than 70 percent of respondents to the SM 2015 Trends survey pointed to the need to create a compelling meeting experience for attendees. A big component of this challenge is shifting from thinking of the meeting-goer as a passive attendee to an active participant in the event.

"The entire dynamic of meetings is changing; instead of 'top down' it is 'bottom up,'" said Bellingham, WA-based technology meeting consultant and speaker Corbin Ball in "10 Transformative Meetings Technology Trends for 2015," an article he published on his website. "Instead of attendees passively sitting at events watching a talking head, meeting participants are demanding a greater say and expect active engagement," Ball noted.

This is playing out in several ways. Social media tools such as online communities, scrolling Twitter walls, audience polling, gamification, and mobile apps are engaging attendees and crowdsourcing their ideas before, during, and after events.

Further, "we are changing from speakers being dispensers of information to facilitators of learning," Ball tells Successful Meetings. "[There are] more roundtable discussions and problem-solving breakout groups" in meetings.

"It can't just be one-way, where you go into a meeting and hear what someone else is saying and take notes and leave," Backal affirms. "Now it has to work more than two ways. It has to be circular, it has to be inclusive, it has to be collaborative."

And it has to be fresh. Gone are the days of pointers and PowerPoints. At meetings today, information is being presented in new and unexpected ways. For example, facts and figures might be projected onto walls or even people, as was the case during a recent breakout session at an event that Benchmark's Finn attended. "They handed out hazmat-style suits -- one of us had to put it on, and then we wrote our [discussion] responses on that person," he says.

"Meetings professionals are rethinking the flow and design of meetings to encourage conversation, spontaneous meetings, and idea exchanges," adds Luteran. "They are implementing more causal sitting areas, pop-up cafes, and meeting spots."