Originally published in Successful Meetings magazine, July 2006
A mutiny is afoot -- your attendees will revolt if forced to sit through one more PowerPoint presentation in Ballroom A. Here are five examples of how creativity can transform your meeting format completely and get attendees thinking along innovative lines.
1. Take What Works and Run With It
For graphic designer Margo Halverson, the most valuable moments at conferences were conversations with fellow attendees in the pre-function area outside the meeting room or at the bar in the evening. So she decided to create a conference that sparked that type of interaction throughout the event—thus was born DesignInquiry.
DesignInquiry takes the traditional conference and turns it on its head. Most off-site meetings follow a cycle of gathering for events, then adjourning for some free time, followed by regrouping for the next event on the itinerary until the program has run its course. In contrast, DesignInquiry attendees live and work together for one week in a communal environment; DesignInquiry 2006: More than Business as Usual was held June 22-27 in rustic and remote Vinalhaven, ME, and the attendee list was capped at a mere 22 participants. Why? "Only because that is how many will fit around the kitchen table at the farm we are using," explains Halverson.
For two-time attendee Andrew Twigg, a graphic designer and adjunct graphic design faculty member at the International Academy of Design and Technology, Chicago, the small size was a big draw. "There was a great opportunity to work one-on-one with people who are highly respected in the design world," he says. "At a traditional conference, when there is a keynote speaker, there are 5,000 other people in the audience, and you have no opportunity to engage that person in conversation."
An extremely high level of accessibility is at the core of Halverson's approach. As participants work together, they generate ideas on the spot, and are free to leave the group to develop the project and return later to share their findings. "It's not just a panel sitting behind a table on a stage," she explains. "When a participant asks, 'Can you prove that?' [the response is] 'Sure, I'll be back to show you.'
"I hesitate to make a schedule because it's usually blown apart by the time we start," she says. A tentative schedule offers some structure, but workshop content depends on what attendees are working on or interested in exploring.
Halverson does not differentiate between attendees and speakers or presenters. She refers to the system as a "flat hierarchy" in which everyone is expected to contribute to the program and to help one another learn. On registration forms, in addition to standard information, Halverson asks potential attendees to introduce themselves in a few lines, to propose a workshop, presentation, or experience they will be able to share during the conference, and to send an essay, article, or DesignInquiry '06 poster that Halverson could add to the conference website.
Those materials serve as marketing collateral as well, since Halverson and a small team of volunteers handle the conference themselves. And they rely heavily on word-of-mouth marketing from past attendees, which seems to work well. Says Twigg, "I tell every graphic designer I know that they need to check it out. I found it to be a completely transformative experience."
2. Be Double Top Secret
The bar without a sign is always cool because it has elements of intrigue and exclusivity. While it may seem counterintuitive, the same idea can work well for meetings, as it did for Zeitgeist '05: The Google Partner Forum, held October 25-27, 2005 in Mountain View, CA. The gathering was so hush-hush it is difficult to ascertain if the event was held at all—unless you were an attendee.
The Forum was purportedly a customer innovation conference with about 400 attendees, including Terry Semel from Yahoo! and writer Malcolm Gladwell of Blink and The Tipping Point fame. "Purportedly," because no one in attendance was allowed to cover or blog about the event, in order to keep discussions frank and open.
"Once I went to the password-protected website to confirm my registration, I knew immediately that all attendees were in for a surprise. The presentation on the website, the questions asked, the attention to detail for individual likes and dislikes with respect to food, lodging, and travel were very well thought-out," says attendee Tim Carter, CEO and publisher of AsktheBuilder.com and a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist based in Cincinnati, OH. Carter was able to speak about certain particulars of the conference that he believes made it an incredible success.
"The conference was highly structured like any other gathering of professionals. It was moderated by one individual, and this aspect brought a fantastic amount of continuity to the event. Each of the evening events were set up to provide a more informal networking opportunity, as was lunch each day. To this day I still swoon when I think of whom I spoke with and who sat next to me on the second day at lunch," Carter continues. "The no-coverage policy, in my opinion, created a very special atmosphere that allowed the speakers to share better information."
3. Embrace Wanderlust
If the goal of a meeting is to have attendees gain a fresh perspective, why not show them big business in a fresh light? "There's something in the air right now; people are looking for something new in their meetings," says Lisa Bodell.
Bodell is founder and CEO of New York City-based futurethink, which is dedicated to helping companies explore and apply innovation techniques. Bodell's team also runs innovation field trips, often as a pre- or post-meeting event, during which they take groups of eight to 10 around Manhattan and explore how businesses have successfully implemented creative and innovative practices.
"I loved getting out of the office and away from my computer, walking in the fresh air, and putting on my consumer hat," says previous field trip participant Amy Heilgeist, the White Plains, NY-based guest experience director for Westin Hotels and Resorts. "It was a great way to experience some hot new retail environments and tap into futurethink, which really is keeping tabs on what's new."
A typical field trip begins in the futurethink offices, where the group discusses innovation and gets a run-down on the day's activities.
If working with a technology company, for example, "We will take them to a couple of innovative tech spots," explains Bodell. "But we won't do a 'technology' field trip because you get the best ideas from outside of your industry." Stops might include the Samsung Experience, where visitors are encouraged to try Samsung's product line, but items are not available for purchase. Other favorite field trip stops include ING Direct cafes, owned by the tellerless bank, the Nike iD store, where clients create customized shoes ("a great example of turning a product into a service," according to Bodell), or Bathing Ape—BAPE to those in the know—a hit cult brand that has no sign on its door and about which awareness spreads only by word of mouth.
Bodell also builds in "wander time" so participants can explore on their own. "People talk about getting together in meetings to connect, but there's no thinking time or exploring time anymore, and that's when the magic happens," she says. At the end of the day, though, the group heads back to the futurethink offices to debrief and get back to business. "This isn't about seeing what is cool, but then having no idea how to tie it back into your company," Bodell explains. "It's a business-oriented, strategic way of getting people to think innovatively and creatively."
"These trips are great because they are educational but they are also so stimulating," says Heilgeist. "In an ideal world I'd be doing a futurethink field trip in every market around the world."
4. Promote Health in Town and Country
An attendee can't be on top of his game after being fed bagels and cookies, then parked in front of presentations all day. After realizing how often guests took advantage of the neighboring Sports Club/LA during their free time, the Ritz-Carlton Boston Common saw an opportunity to tie fitness into functions. The resulting partnership allows planners to incorporate events at the 100,000-square-foot fitness facility, which includes a yoga studio, spin room, spa, and reception spaces, into their meetings at the Ritz.
"For an all-employee event that has a teambuilding component, this is a perfect opportunity," says Barbara Lootz, area director of sales for the Ritz-Carlton Hotels of Boston.
"We can cater it to the physical ability of the group," says Amy Finsilver, director of special events at the Sports Club/LA, who says that group size goes up to roughly 200 with an average age of 40 to 60. For example, a "world's fair" activity might offer a less physically demanding egg-in-a-spoon race in addition to a tug-of-war and a potato sack race. Other options include food demos, nutrition lectures with an on-staff dietitian, group yoga classes, kickball games, trust exercises, and problem-solving activities.
The partnership also extends to food and beverage to keep attendees' energy up throughout the meeting, and specific requests are easily accommodated. "Whether it's Atkins or South Beach, we definitely get diet-specific requests," says Lootz, who cites oatmeal as a breakfast favorite and protein-rich snacks as frequent requests. The Ritz also has a Body for Life breakfast buffet, a Fitness Break, and The Energizer, a break that incorporates bee pollen smoothies, vegetable juices, and bran muffins.
"I think a lot of companies are becoming more health- conscious," says Finsilver. "CEOs and presidents are looking to have more teamwork in companies, and not just have a reception where people are eating and drinking. This is social but it's not detrimental; it's healthy for them."
Even in an inspiringly bucolic setting, sometimes planners need to encourage attendees to think about healthy behavior. In response to increased interest from planners, the Sawgrass Marriott Resort & Spa in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL, developed the Energy Breakologist service, a collaborative effort among the recreation department, spa, and catering department that keeps attendees in top-performance shape.
"We wanted to come up with some breaks to help rejuvenate the mind and body and that help enhance energy," explains Paul Baum, director of event operations for the resort. Snack options include low-carb smoothies, vitamin waters, and house-made granolas in lieu of the traditional, food-coma-inducing sodas and cookies.
"We find more and more meeting planners looking for a healthier alternative," Baum says, for both breaks and meals. And, fortunately for planners, the costs of healthy versus traditional breaks "for both the consumer and for us are very comparable."
The property also offers mini massage breaks, group yoga classes, boardwalks for a group walk, and other activities. "We notice that groups are looking for longer meeting days, but they still make time for activities," says Baum. "There seems to be an element of fun or activity built into the day for every single group we have here."
5. Structure With Science
Meeting at a resort often means attendees abandon work for the links. CordeValle, A Rosewood Resort in San Martin, CA, now offers a three-day, structured brainstorming retreat that is designed to optimize a participant's time in meetings, while offering plenty of time for leisure pursuits as well.
"The timing of rest and relaxation is important," says Alan Campey, general manager of CordeValle, so a typical day is scheduled: breakfast at 8, a brainstorming session at 9, lunch at noon, golf or a meditation hike at 1, a brainstorming session at 4, a spa appointment at 6:30, dinner at 8, and in bed early. According to Campey, San Martin's warm days and cool nights make for ideal sleeping conditions.
The brainstorming package is based on research published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, University of Pennsylvania studies on sleep deprivation, and studies on the cognitive benefits of sleep. Campey and his team were also heartened by a January 16 special section in Time magazine called "How to Sharpen Your Mind," which he says "epitomized the greater awareness now of the [mind/body] relationship."
The program is centered around CordeValle's three Fairway Homes. Each bungalow has four private bedrooms surrounding a common living, dining, and working area. "All are identical, which is really important for this type of event. Everybody needs to think that they are equally important," explains Campey.
Groups have the option to use other CordeValle meeting facilities, including three boardrooms and a ballroom, as well as enjoy resort amenities: several libraries, an art collection, a winery, horseback riding, guided nature walks, and hikes—both leisurely and strenuous.
"The professional planner today is looking for ways to enhance the experience and help that event stand out," says Campey. With the brainstorming package "you're shuffling the cards and giving them all of the components they expect, but with a twist. We're building in the ingredients that help people succeed."
Breaking Out: 11 Tips for Field-Trip Planning
One of Lisa Bodell's mantras is, "To think differently you have to do things differently"—especially when it comes to meetings. "I'm so tired of those ballrooms. You sit there with your mints and your water and flip through your binder," says the founder and CEO of futurethink, based in New York City. "For people to really understand innovation they've got to experience it." Here are Bodell's tips on how to create a successful field trip for your group:
Plan Your Itinerary. Expect to visit six to eight locations, unless they are museums or other places that require extensive time.
Research. Investigate your chosen destinations ahead of time to prepare questions and get a better understanding of the company.
Travel Light. Unless you brought your pack mule, start with as little gear as possible, because you will pick things up as you go.
Take Pictures. Capture anything that seems new and exciting; if you don't have a digital camera, have your pictures loaded onto a CD, which makes e-mailing and storing them easier.
Take Notes. Write down anything that strikes you as interesting; do not expect to remember everything about the day without notes.
Take Free Stuff. Gather matchbooks, brochures, and other materials that will jog your memory and give you more information.
Be a Consumer. Spend some money ($20, $30, $50) during the day, so you experience destinations as a customer.
Don't Be a Slob. Wear comfortable shoes, but strive for a business casual look.
Talk. Ask questions of owners, employees, customers—you will be amazed by what you hear.
People-watch. Take in the area as a whole by observing the people and environment.
Wander. Don't be so tied to the schedule that participants can't explore; spontaneity and serendipity play a role in field trips too.
Adapted from futurethink's "Fieldtrip Best Practices."