Status Quo Reigns Amid Demographic Changes

In recent research conducted by SM's sister publication MeetingNews, that generated 381 responses, four in 10 meeting planners said shifting age demographics among attendees are not changing their planning process at all, and an additional three in 10 said they're changing their ways only slightly. Further, 43 percent said the average age of their attendees is remaining about the same as it has been traditionally.

Still, according to generational experts and some meeting planners, many meeting buyers just aren't paying close enough attention to age shifts among attendees. According to the survey, 31 percent of respondents are seeing their attendees trend younger. That's a significant enough number to negatively impact a meeting if it's ignored. "With 40 percent of meeting planners saying they have not made changes to accommodate the values, attitudes, and lifestyles of different generations, those meeting planners may be having good, workable meetings, but not great meetings," says Ann Fishman, president of New Orleans-based Generational Targeted Marketing.

Another interesting poll result: One quarter of survey respondents said their audiences are trending older. "Baby boomers are turning 60 this year, and we need—during the planning stage—to look at that in terms of issues of content, environment, and possible disabilities," says independent meeting planner Sandy Biback of Imagination+Meeting Planners Inc. in Toronto.

While some planners may say they're seeing fewer boomers at their meetings, that very likely could change, according to Maddy Dychtwald, vice president of San Francisco-based Age Wave and the author of Cycles: How We Will Live, Work, and Buy. In a recent survey she conducted of workers about to retire, respondents were asked if they planned to continue working in some capacity. Among those who said they would remain in the workforce, 56 percent said they would be going into a different line of work. "That means they'll need education, retraining, and networking opportunities," Dychtwald says.

Independent planner Daphne Meyers of the Red Barn Group in Durbin, ND, has experienced some of the challenges of planning for an older audience, like people in their 40s and above. "They tend to be more traditional food-wise, so you don't want to try an avant-garde menu with them," says Meyers. Also, "The older the audience, the more they prefer things that have service affiliated with them. For example, they prefer waiter service to buffets at meals." And that means shifting dollars in the budget.

Still, meeting planners don't need to shift their focus entirely onto a generation they've been ignoring or make too dramatic an overhaul. Their processes may just need tweaking. "You don't have to alienate one generation to attract another," says Fishman. "You simply have to fine-tune your product."