by Agatha Gilmore& Kinley Welly | January 01, 2012
Session Format
What’s In: “The trend is strongly in favor of interactive and experiential,” says Steven Hacker, the outgoing president of the International Association of Exhibitions and Events (IAEE). 

What does that mean? “There are going to be many more sessions where the audience shares its inherent knowledge, experience, and skills with a facilitator/expert 
[moderating],” he says.

What’s Out: “Talking heads are out,” says Jessica Levin, president and “chief connector” at Seven Degrees Communications, LLC. Hacker agrees: “The four-person bobbing head panel may finally be destined for the dust bin.”

What’s In: Customization is key. In the coming year, planners will increasingly tailor site selection to the strategy and goals of the meeting. 

“Rather than, ‘We’ve always been to the Hilton so we’re going to the Hilton,’ it’s about taking a step back [and asking], ‘What’s the right fit for the meeting and what we’re trying to accomplish?’ ” Levin says. And if they are going to be maxing their budgets, planners “would rather spend a little more to know that they are receiving something of great value,” Hacker says. “There are opportunities to meet at four- and five-star hotels at competitive pricing [levels] that didn’t exist five or six years ago.” 

Hacker adds that diversifying the site search by using multiple information sources will soon be the norm, and international venues will be increasingly sought after and affordable.
What’s Out: No more “we’ve always done it this way” thinking. Additionally, recession-era, post-AIG eschewing of resorts or luxury is also out. It’s simply about choosing the best venue for the event and making the case for it to the C-suite. “Boutiques aren’t out and big-box hotels aren’t out. It’s really looking at the strategy and the goals of the meeting before looking at the destinations,” Levin says.

Downtime and Leisure Activities
What’s In: Unique, location-specific activity options are white-hot right now. “I think people are becoming interested in hyper-local opportunities,” says Midori Connolly, co-founder, CEO, and “chief A/V girl” for Pulse Staging and Events. “We were just at a conference in Tunica, MS, and they took us to this famous little cafe that serves fried pickles, and we heard a steel-guitar band. People are looking for that experience of, ‘How can we find out more about the community we’re in?’” 

In a related vein, education is in, says Hacker. “If you’re taking a group to a location in Arizona, why not take them out to the desert to do almost a scientific, ecological tour to learn about the different plants and wildlife, the history of the place, and Indian cultures?” he says. “That’s what people seem to really crave these days—a learning experience. Much more so than just another golf tournament.” In fact, for a past IAEE board of directors event in Hawaii, it swapped out a typical banquet dinner for a stargazing session, complete with telescopes and instruction by astronomy students from the University of Hawaii. Although the event took place about seven years ago, “we still get comments from people saying, ‘That was one of the most enjoyable events I’ve ever done,’ ” Hacker says.

What’s Out: It seems travelers have had enough of the standardized activities of the past. “Our world has just become so bland because we’re so globalized,” Connolly says. “It’s nice in some ways—for example, I can go to Starbucks in any country—but I do want to taste the local coffee and see how it’s prepared in Korea.”

Number of Meetings
What’s In: The number of meetings is expected to increase in 2012, according to a recent American Express survey. 

But the quality will also increase, experts say. “It’s about asking yourself, ‘Why are we having this meeting?’ ” Levin says. “The world has changed, and there’s much more accountability. It’s not necessarily about canceling the meeting but making the meeting that much better.” Further, many companies will be making more use of regional meetings—meetings in smaller cities within a 500-mile radius of the attendees, says Kevin Iwamoto, vice president of enterprise strategy at StarCite. “It’s more of a time-consumption savings as well as a cost savings,” he explains.

What’s Out: Meetings for the sake of meetings? No more. Just like with selecting a destination and venue, convention and habit are out. Event owners will have to think much more deeply about the need for and strategy of a particular event before hosting it.

What’s In: The economy is impacting the use of speakers in a number of ways, says Andrea Gold, president of Gold Stars Speakers Bureau. Budgets are tight, meaning that many planners are using less expensive speakers or in-house experts. And a lingering AIG effect means even those companies able to spend money remain vigilant about how events will be perceived.
Those planners enlisting speakers are looking for economists, futurists, ethicists, political analysts, and experts on tomorrow’s leaders, innovation in business, social media, generational differences in the workplace, and dealing with change. And the presidential election means anything related to politics will be big, adds Gold.

What’s Out: Entertainers, comedians, and athletes without an Olympic connection are not as popular this year, according to Gold. 

“Despite the great need for uplifting (motivational and inspirational) and humorous messages, the appetite for certain types of speakers is leaning a bit differently now,” she explains. “During this time of global economic duress, the attendees are looking for value and bottom-line results (ROI) for their investment of money and time. People want more interactivity, roll-up-the-sleeves, serious content, and fresh, original speakers and education to address productivity and the bottom-line.”

Food & Beverage
What’s In: Perhaps the economy is to blame, but there seems to be a renewed interest in simple, fresh food with a creative twist. One trend making its way into the meetings market is the food truck, which Tyler Florence, host of the Food Network’s The Great Food Truck Race, calls “the new answer to American fast food.” 

Fairmont Newport Beach in California created a food truck lunch for a group recently, and it was such a hit, it’s being offered for the foreseeable future. 

Attendees dine on items like pork belly sliders and yellowtail tuna tacos, while milling around in a casual environment conducive to low-key networking—all for the price of a regular lunch. “People get excited because it offers a unique experience,” says Donna Bauer, director of catering and conference planning, adding that a food truck event is ideal “for the group looking to bring some light humor and fun to their meal.”

Another trend is a beer tasting or pairing event. Pairings are particularly popular because they discourage over-indulging, while encouraging attendees to try combinations they might not otherwise, says Suzie Murley, director of conference services at The Fairmont Washington DC. “Meeting planners like interaction at stations now; they don’t want people to come and eat and leave.”

What’s Out: What’s out in 2012? Whatever you did last year. Meeting organizers are looking for something fresh and different. Also, while a one-meal-fits-all approach hasn’t worked for many years now, the spectrum of dietary requirements that must be accommodated continues to grow—and now routinely includes gluten-free and other specific options. And planners must reconcile the trend toward fun and casual foods with the increasingly sophisticated palate of the average attendee, who will not be wowed by a typical plate of pasta. 

Event Format 
What’s In: The tremendous success of IMEX America and AIBTM in 2011 proved that the hosted-buyer format is a winner for attendees and exhibitors alike because it pairs interested parties based on business needs and ensures face time with qualified counterparts. The success of these events in the U.S. surprised even event organizers. In advance of IMEX America, Ray Bloom, chairman of the IMEX Group, told Successful Meetings, “The hosted-buyer program, when we started off, was 1,500.” It was over 2,000. And demand for space from exhibitors greatly exceeded what Bloom had been forecasting.

What’s Out: Long events are less popular, while short and to-the-point events with meaty educational components are trending upward, according to industry research including the IMEX Group’s “2012 Predictions for U.S. and Global Events Market.”

What’s In: “What’s old is new again,” says Tina Filipski, editor of Promotional Products Business magazine. She has noticed a surge in the popularity of items packaged as matchbooks—including mints, toothpicks, and sewing kits. Writing instruments, apparel, and drinkware are also strong this year, with apparel for women becoming increasingly tailored and style-conscious and drinkware becoming more eco-friendly through the use of environmentally friendly materials and foldable designs.

What’s Out: A blanket approach to product-purchasing is out. The smart organizer will determine what the word “useful” means to his group and order a product that fits that need.
“Almost anything that serves a purpose or solves a problem continues to be really popular,” says Filipski. Those products without value are clutter.