Longstanding Meetings: Making Repeat Venues Feel Fresh

Meeting planner Rikki Amos shares how the Public Affairs Council keeps its conferences interesting -- even when they return to the same venue

Casa Marina Resort

It's been said that the definition of "insanity" is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results. If that's true, then the definition of "brilliance" might be doing the same thing over and over again, knowing you'll get the same results. That's been the strategy of the Public Affairs Council (PAC), a Washington, D.C.-based association for public affairs and corporate social responsibility (CSR) professionals. For over 12 years, it's been returning to the same destination -- Casa Marina, A Waldorf Astoria Resort, in Key West, FL (pictured above) -- again and again for The Advocacy Conference, its winter meeting. To find out why, Successful Meetings spoke with meeting planner Rikki Amos, PAC's director of U.S. public affairs practice, about the opportunities and challenges that longstanding meetings face when they regularly bring the same event to the same venue.

First of all, can you share a little bit about The Advocacy Conference?
Because professional development and executive education is one of our primary focuses at the Public Affairs Council, we host a couple of annual conferences that are large marquee events. The Advocacy Conference is one of them. The folks who attend this event are grassroots professionals who manage advocacy communications. We host it every year, and roughly every second or third year we have been back with Casa Marina. I joined the Council staff in 2005, and we have been down there at least six times during my tenure. It's grown a lot during that time. When I first started we had about 160 participants; now we typically draw about 350.

So, you've been meeting at Casa Marina for over a decade. Why?
I think there are a couple of factors. First of all, a number of our participants are politically engaged. We like to do this event toward the beginning of the year, when they want to escape the winter weather in D.C. and go somewhere warmer. So, Florida is a common location for us.

When it comes to what particular location in Florida, there are couple factors that come into play. One of the most important is being able to encourage networking, idea sharing, and engagement with fellow participants. Many of our participants don't have peers in their organizations with whom they can brainstorm ideas, so we want to make sure that any facility we go to offers an onsite experience that is really conducive to community building. We like locations that keep our attendees close in contact with each other. Key West is really conducive to that. In the evenings, after networking dinners, you can walk everywhere. So, groups create social structures and outings amongst themselves, which is really great. Of course, gorgeous beach sunsets certainly don't hurt anything, either.

What have you found to be the advantages of returning to the same property again and again?
From an event management perspective, the nice thing about going back to a facility like the Casa Marina is that a number of us on staff know it incredibly well. We know which rooms are beside the places where noise might happen, for example. We know what's going to happen if it rains. You name it. So if a sponsor says, "I have an idea: I want to do X at this particular location," we know the facility well enough to say, "That's a good idea; you can probably do that here," or, "That probably won't work, but what about X?" It helps us a lot with our planning and allows us to think more creatively because we know logistically what will and won't work.

From a participant standpoint, you can't underestimate the pull of a destination like Key West. Our attendees look forward to returning because they have had such great experiences in previous years. Each year when we're getting ready to announce our location we hear, "Are we going back to Key West again?" because the location is very conducive to the experience that our participants are looking for. When we're at events in D.C., we feel very tied to our email and to the office. People like returning to Casa Marina and Key West because it's a place where they can take a deep breath and disconnect from the office enough to be present and really focus on the people they're meeting with.

Are there also disadvantages, or challenges?
If two years ago you had an attendee who had a problem getting into their room at check-in time, or it rained, that influences their memory of the experience. So, we have to help people remember their good memories if they've joined us down there before. To help us do that, we take lots of photos. Key West is an incredibly photogenic location, so we get great photos of our networking receptions and we post those on social media during the event so people who aren't there think, "I really should have made this happen because I hate not being there right now." When it's time to market the event in the future, we leverage those images and posts to remind people what the experience was like. That makes them crave going back and doing it again, which counterbalances any concern about returning to the same place.

Another challenge for us sometimes when we go back to Casa Marina and Key West is that people have a tendency to stay within their known groups. So, we try to find ways to mix people up. For example, we do mentoring pairings and first-time-participant meet-ups to connect new participants with members who already know Key West really well and can share tips and recommendations.

What about your meeting content? How do you keep it feeling new, even when the destination isn't?
We're always refreshing our content to make sure our participants won't experience the same agenda and hear from the same speakers. We want to make sure that we aren't too repetitious even with the format of our sessions and our breakouts. So, something we did for the first time this past year is we created shorter speed sessions on professional development topics that weren't directly related to public affairs. Instead of spending an hour and 15 minutes taking a deep dive into a [public affairs] case study, for example, we did a 30-minute session on creative web design and infographics. Our members aren't infographic designers, but they need to know how to more creatively present information to the people they're trying to engage. So, we broadened the scope of our content and created bite-sized sessions to give participants more movement during the event. We also focused more on small-group facilitated roundtable discussions. Instead of recruiting formal speakers, we brought in staff, advisory committee members, and sponsors who had a list of facilitated discussion topics to ask participants to get them to engage and share ideas. The Casa Marina is a great hotel to do something like that because everything is so conveniently located; you can send some of your groups outside to enjoy the beach and they'll still be right outside your hotel and your meeting room.

Your meeting has grown quite a bit during the past decade. How have you avoided outgrowing your venue?
Casa Marina is the only hotel in Key West that can accommodate the size of our event. If we have overflow, they will work with us on room blocks at [their sister property] The Reach. So that's helpful. Plus, I think the hotel has done a good job investing in its infrastructure and doing updates that have made it advance in its own regard, and that has made a big difference.

In terms of logistics, one of the things that's nice about returning to Casa Marina is that the property knows us well. They know what our attendees get frustrated about and what they really enjoy, so they've always been really willing to brainstorm with us and say, "OK. We need to get this many seats in this room. Here's what that would look like. Here would be a creative setup. Why don't we try this?"

We do take up a lot of space when we're there. That's obviously a hotel concern, so they are usually pretty proactive about communicating their logistical needs. I'll give you an example: Casa Marina has a patio area that they set up for breakfast for general hotel guests, because who doesn't want to eat breakfast on the beach? Well, they've been willing at times to break that down and change the location of their breakfast service so we can get more creative about space usage for our event demands.

Finally, how do you keep your relationship with the property strong enough to withstand the test of time?
We believe very much in transparent and fair communications. Whenever we are onsite with an event, we have a proactive conversation about the things that are going well and the things that are challenges. We don't do surprises. If a hurricane is coming through and it might create some issues with water or damage, let us know. We need to know before we show up so we can plan in advance. We've always been well received by the hotel, so when we have been proactive about concerns, they have taken them in earnest and responded accordingly. I think they try to be equally transparent with us about what is actually possible at the location. It goes both ways, and that's really been the key to having a good relationship.