by Deanna Ting | May 24, 2013
For our June 2013 cover story, “Meeting the Future,” we spoke to various experts in the meetings industry to get a better understanding of where and how meetings are evolving. Here are seven more of their predictions:

1. Neuroscience Will Help Us Learn Better
In the future, we’ll borrow from neuroscience to learn how to better craft our meetings, says Andrea E. Sullivan, MA, president of King of Prussia, PA-based BrainStrength Systems, which uses neuroscience to help meeting professionals improve their meetings. “Different delivery systems activate different parts of the brain and we can be more effective if we activate parts of the brain that help people learn, and all of this can be targeted,” she says. For example, she notes, we already know that to increase learning retention we have to include repetition, and skill-building requires practice. 

In the future, it’s no enough to just know something; our brains have to be able to retain it and apply it. “I regularly say that we’ve left the knowledge society and entered the learning society,” says futurist David Houle.

Sullivan says that, today and going forward, planners will need to pay attention to attendees’ brains. “We’re so inundated with information and stimulation that we’re a little overloaded on our baseline,” she explains. “The purpose of meetings has shifted and it’s continuing to shift, and the design has to shift accordingly with the purpose. Sometimes, planners are so excited about the learning information that they put too much in and attendees will just get stressed or check out because their brains can’t digest all of it.” 

One example Sullivan cites is that, in the future, planners should consider starting meetings later in the day. “A lot of our memory consolidation occurs during sleep; that’s when the brain is doing its homework,” she says. “There’s no value in a 7 a.m. breakfast because people need more sleep in order to learn more.”

2. Engagement Equals Interaction
The meeting of the future will also be a more sensory experience than it is today in order to process all of that information. “We learn better when all of our senses are engaged,” says Sullivan. Engagement of all five senses — sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch — trickles down into almost every aspect of a meeting, especially room design. “I think future room design is going to incorporate the science behind learning and engagement a lot more than just throwing tables and chairs into a room,” says Senior Planners Industry Network (SPIN) founder and president Shawna Suckow. 

Marriott Hotels & Resorts is developing new strategies for meeting room layout and design. Peggy Fang Roe, Marriott International vice president, global operations services, is spearheading the company’s meetings initiatives, and working with partners like office-furniture-maker Steelcase and design firm IDEO to reinvent the traditional hotel meeting space. “Hotels were traditionally designed to be sort of defined spaces where people work in their rooms, eat in the restaurant, and meet in the meeting space,” Roe explains. “Now, people do all of those things everywhere.” Paying attention to details like natural light, connectivity, and open space is a major focus for Marriott."

Activities that engage all of the senses — like person-to-person collaboration and gamification apps — will be key in meetings of the future, says Chris Cavanaugh, president of Freeman XP, a boutique strategy and creative agency within convention management firm Freeman. “People are interested in interactive content, and you can make it interesting and fun through gaming. It’s all a part of learning.” He also sees more attendees joining what he calls the "maker movement" — a movement sparked by the desire to make and invent things out of existing products or completely on their own. One example of this, he says, would be “hackathons” where attendees are given some sort of challenge, such as designing an app for a client, the day before a conference. “These hackers aren’t showing up for a prize or money; they have a passion for creating new things,” he explains. “If you have an audience that shares this passion, you should challenge them and tap into this to create more engagement on every level.”

For his clients, The Grove International Founder and President David Sibbet says that “co-creating” or collaborating is just as engaging and vital for attendee learning. “Get people involved in actively working with information through some kind of question, gaming, or other kind of interaction,” he says. “When people are together and able to create a picture of what’s going on together, they remember that way better than they would if they were just sitting and listening to a presentation.”

Meeting speakers can no longer just deliver speeches; they have to be discussion leaders. “We’re less interested in just listening to someone speak,” says Cavanaugh. “The old model of just having a speaker talk doesn’t work anymore,” adds futurist David Houle. “What attendees want is more time to interact — with each other and with the speakers.”

3. The Millennial Model Takes Hold
The key to a successful meeting in the future also involves knowing “what makes Millennials tick,” says Freeman XP’s Cavanaugh. By 2020, Millennials, those born in the 1980s and early 2000s, will number 80 million and dominate the workforce, he explains. “They want to be engaged but they can also be somewhat elusive. It’s a very forward generation, and they are tech-dependent. They depend on technology like it’s the center of their lives so the experiences that we create have to incorporate it, and have two-way dialogues.”

4. We’ll Eat Better and More Mindfully
“The movement toward sustainability, organic and local foods will continue into the future,” says SPIN Founder Shawna Suckow. In the future, planners will need to know exactly what’s being served and to whom. “We’re going to need better labeling of food where you can go in and ask for every ingredient and calorie count, and we need better training and understanding and sensitivity toward different dietary needs,” Suckow adds. “Food needs to be a lot more customized.” The stigma that often surrounds special dietary restrictions, whether vegan or halal, needs to be eradicated, says Suckow.

Sherry Romello, senior director, Hilton Meetings and Product Management for Hilton Worldwide, says current food-and-beverage trends point to the continued emphasis on casual dining options, customization and transparency, and the use of artisanal products. At Hilton Hotels & Resorts, for example, Herb ‘n Kitchen delivers “gourmet items into a retail experience and gives guests a transparent view of the kitchen.”

5. Sustainability Will Be the Norm
Going green — not just when it comes to food — will be a given in the future says Christie Hicks, senior vice president of global sales for Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide. “When we look at sustainability we now see it as the price of doing business and going forward, we have to be even more diligent about it,” she says. “At Starwood, we want to reduce our energy consumption by 20 percent and water consumption by 20 percent by the year 2020. That’s not just on an individual traveler level, but on a meetings level worldwide.” 

6. You’ll Definitely Need a Passport
Globalization isn’t going anywhere, and you can expect the world to feel much smaller in just a few years. Virtual technologies and social media make it easier than ever for people from around the world to connect already, and the meetings industry is paying attention to the ever-expanding meetings markets in places like Asia and Africa, say Hilton’s Romello and Starwood’s Hicks.

“We’ve seen growth in China outpace any growth that we have seen over the last three to five years,” says Hicks. Hicks and futurist David Houle also predict that we’ll see more international travel involved for meetings. “We are also seeing a lot of U.S. based organizations that show interest in going to newer international destinations,” Hicks adds. “Cross-border travel is here to stay and the world is going to become a much smaller place.” Notes Houle, “We are in a global stage of human evolution. There will be more and more global conferences and travel is not going to decrease at all.”

7. ROI Will Still Matter
Return on investment (ROI) will not go away. Regardless of the economic situation, there will still be a need to determine and quantify, or identify, the value of any meeting or event. “I think we’ll be using an ROI methodology that lets us determine clear objectives by which we measure the value of a meeting and it’ll still be a crucial part od a meeting,” says Terri Breining. “This is very much part of the meeting planner of the future and I hope it doesn’t go away; it’s part of the evolution of the meetings industry.” Adds Breining, “Measuring ROI to whatever degree is absolutely necessary.”

ROI is also about making sure attendees get the most value out of a meeting as possible. “The importance of driving value and providing a return for meeting attendees is front and center and attendees, too,” says Sherry Romello, senior director, Hilton Meetings and Product Management for Hilton Worldwide. Suckow describes this as “ROA,” or return on attention.