The New Age: Planning Meetings for Three Different Generations

They're rude. They're slackers. They dress unprofessionally. They love loud, raunchy music. They don't respect their elders. They're . . . Generation Y?

Wrong. They're you.

No matter what generation you belong to, readers, this is exactly what your parents' generation thought about you, once upon a time, when you were entering the workforce. "In my talks, I give people an exercise where I ask them to describe the younger generation," says Meagan Johnson, a Phoenix-based speaker on generational issues in the workplace. "They usually list things like, 'bad attitude,' 'sense of entitlement,' 'lack of work ethic,' 'rude,' 'disloyal.' Then I show them a PowerPoint slide of a 1968 issue of Life magazine about the generation gap--where the same words were used to describe the baby boomers!

"When I worked in the corporate world," adds Johnson (who previously did stints at Quaker Oats, Kraft Foods, and Xerox), "everyone complained about working with my generation, Gen X--that we were unmotivated, that we didn't care about our jobs, and so on. I thought, 'We're not that bad.' " So she set out to correct this misperception by becoming a generational expert.

Now, it's your turn, planners. With four generations in the workplace at the moment--the Traditionals (or Silents), baby boomers, Gen Xers, and Generation Y (or New Millennials)--you need to learn how to plan meetings that will communicate successfully to these vastly different age groups, without alienating any of them. More importantly, you have to retool your meetings to get your youngest attendees (who will be decision-makers sooner than you think) on board.
To help you out, Successful Meetings interviewed generational experts to learn the key characteristics of each age group and ways that you can apply this knowledge to your planning process.

Talkin' 'Bout My Generation(s)
The number-one piece of advice for planners who need to navigate generational differences at their meetings, says Ann Fishman, president of Generational-Targeted Marketing Corp. in New Orleans and 16-year expert on generational issues, is this: Rethink everything you've been doing. In other words, it's not merely a matter of hiring a DJ who plays Jay-Z as well as the O'Jays, or having servers mix mojitos alongside the Molson and Merlot.

The typical elements of most conferences--that long keynote address, the awards-night banquet, the "name" motivational speaker--are designed to appeal to baby boomers, says Fishman. "If you're the most successful planner in the world and you've been catering to boomers, everything is about to change," she warns. "If you assume Generations X and Y are younger versions of you, you'll find attrition at your meetings."

For instance, "Boomers love awards nights," says Fishman. "Xers couldn't care less about them. Boomers like to stand up after a 45-minute keynote speech and ask questions. Xers find all of that a waste of time. Boomers love motivational speakers. Xers can't stand them; they want informational speakers. Boomers love golf and spa. Xers like adventure--this is the generation that invented extreme sports."

One planner contacted for this story sighed, "When I think about this, my head nearly explodes." With such vast differences between just these two generations, is it any wonder? Indeed, planners with expertise in bridging the generational divide are few and far between; requests from SM yielded just one name (a corporate planner at a major pharmaceutical firm who was not available to be interviewed). But there are a handful of organizations and individuals whose stories show that multigenerational planning needn't be the headache it initially seems.

The Young and The Restless

A funny thing happened a while back at Planning the Globe, an independent planning firm in Mt. Pleasant, SC, whose principals--Veronica Walsh, president and founder; David Felix, director of creative and events; Lauren Cooke, senior meeting planner--are, respectively, a boomer, a Gen Xer, and a Gen Yer: Generational differences began cropping up at their corporate clients' meetings. "Lauren came to me and said we were losing the youngest attendees," recalls Walsh. "They weren't paying attention in the meeting room. They sat in the back so they could slip out."

Making use of its in-house generational expertise, Planning the Globe (whose clients include Carlson Companies, Merrill Lynch, Berlex Labs, and others) brainstormed a new room setup to keep attendees focused: It divides the meeting room into four quadrants, with wide aisles down the center of the room and across instead of the typical split-down-the-middle format. It's a minor change that yields major effects, according to Walsh. "It captures everyone's attention--when they walk in the meeting room, they see something unexpected," she explains. "Also, it's more intimate. The four smaller groups can bond better, and the facilitator can address each quadrant separately." (Another way to keep younger attendees focused in the meeting is to lock out all technology so that cell phones, PDAs, and Wi-Fi can't be used; sales managers at Aramark Harrison Lodging conference centers say their planner clients are requesting this service more and more--though they also insist that the technology be up and running again the minute they walk out of the meeting.)

Planning the Globe also found ways to accommodate age differences by tinkering with the meeting agenda. "Baby boomers like long breaks, but the younger attendees want no breaks--they just want to get the meeting over with," says Felix. So in employee meetings for BB&T, a Winston-Salem, NC-based bank, "during breaktime we let whoever's in the room drive the content," he says. "If the younger generation is hanging around, we'll talk about topics more relevant to newer employees, like how to set up your 401(k). That way, while the boomers are relaxing in their rooms, the younger generation can finish up the meeting."

Similarly, Fishman says she completely retools her talks depending on what generation predominates in the audience. "If it's mostly boomers, I give a typical 45-minute speech with a Q&A afterwards. If they're Gen X, I rewrite the speech so it includes information they can't get off the Internet and I make it no more than 20 minutes. If it's Generation Y, I whilttle it down to 15 minutes and get the audience involved."

Here We Are, Now Entertain Us

Eric Chester, a Denver-based public speaker on Generation Y and self-proclaimed "teenager in the body of a 50-year-old," wears another hat: meeting planner. Not only did he plan his 10th, 20th, and 30th high-school reunions and both daughters' weddings, he's now organizing the 2008 convention for the National Speakers Association, to be held at New York City's Marriott Marquis. In that, he plans to target everything he does straight at Generation Y.

Won't that alienate older attendees? Not at all, says Chester. "This is the first generation that has influenced upwards," he declares. "If you plan shorter, more purposeful sessions"--which is what younger attendees demand--"that will help you appeal to the changing mindsets of older members. You won't get boomers saying, 'Hey, I want longer sessions.' "

As a 20-year podium veteran, Chester says he's attended far too many meetings where every session begins with lengthy thank-yous, awards, "introductions to introductions," and so on, sometimes taking as long as 20 minutes. At his convention, he plans to devote a separate session just to those items, so that those who aren't interested don't need to attend, and other sessions can get down to business immediately.
Similarly, Planning the Globe has detached the awards ceremony from the closing-night banquet at its meetings. "We do a small awards presentation beforehand, then move on to dinner, drinks, and dancing," says Walsh. "Attendees like it because they can drink without worrying they'll have to get up onstage later to accept an award, plus their peers can congratulate them throughout the evening. And the younger people can just leave if they want."

Organizations looking to attract Generation Y, says Johnson, might take a page from the Produce Marketing Association's meeting agenda. The Newark, DE-based society got potential future members involved while they were still in school, by creating an essay contest: It approached schools and asked students who were majoring in subjects relevant to its industry to submit an essay explaining why they wanted to go to the 2005 annual convention in Atlanta. Those who wrote the best essays not only got to attend the meeting for free, but also became involved on a deeper level by working directly with Johnson, who was one of the speakers at the meeting.

"What PMA did was brilliant," says Johnson. "The organization asked me to include a couple of these students in my presentation. Here they are, getting to attend a big, out-of-town meeting for the first time, and now they also get to meet a professional speaker, so it's a very interactive experience."

Another organization that "gets it," says Chester, is Corinthian Colleges, a chain of technical and trade schools based in Irvine, CA, at whose convention he recently gave the keynote address. "From the moment the doors blew open, you were pulled right into the meat of the meeting," he says. "There was no pomp and circumstance. Every moment was loaded with energy. There was activity, motion, music, pyrotechnics, and tons of involvement. It wasn't just, 'Hey, it's time for our annual meeting and we're doing it because we've always done it.' "

If the thought of planning all that makes your head nearly explode, take comfort in Fishman's final words of advice. "I don't expect planners to make the jump to generational savvy overnight," says the head of Generational-Targeted Marketing. "In New Orleans, we have a cake called doberge. It's a layer of cake, a layer of pudding, another layer of cake, a layer of icing, and so forth, in chocolate, caramel, or lemon. Generational planning is like that: You just add things, piece by piece. All you need to do is add one generational layer to your already successful planning."

Sidebar 1: Six Facts About Each Generation That Will Help You Plan Successfully

Gen Y
-Likes short meetings with no breaks
-Techie: Loves PDAs, Wi-Fi, IM
-Very confident and empowered
-Loves to be asked questions, to get involved
-Craves interactivity (think MySpace, YouTube)
-Pampered from an early age

Notes: "They're very self-confident--at 20, they think they know as much as a 40-year-old," says Fishman. "Everything Gen X didn't get, Gen Y got in spades: strong values, strong religion, strong families."

Gen X
-Likes short meetings with no breaks
-Food on the go
-Speakers must be presenting relevant info they can't get elsewhere
-Independent;dislikes team events
-Hates award dinners

Notes: The U.S. Army slogan "An Army of One" was designed to appeal to this generation. They hate wasting time and are not brand loyal. "Every meeting has to be successful to get them to come back," says Fishman.

Baby boomer
-Likes meetings with long breaks
-Loves award dinners
-Loves motivational speakers, celebrity speakers
-Dislikes trendy hotels like the W (too dark and noisy)
-Loves golf and spa
-Loves group activities

Notes: Think teamwork: "This was the first generation to get a 'works well, plays well with others' grade on their report card," says Johnson.

Sidebar 2: How Meetings Can Bridge the Generational Gap

Texting the CEO. Borrowed from rock concerts, this one works well for large gatherings of over a thousand attendees, says Planning the Globe's Felix: Attendees text-message questions and comments to a centralized location, where a staffer vets, edits, and spell-checks them before posting them on a big screen.

Meeting match-up. Have your presenters sit on a panel so attendees can approach them individually. It's an easy way to appeal to different age groups, says Fishman, who sat on such a panel at one meeting. "Gen X is very entrepreneurial, so they like to ask business leaders how the game is played. And Gen Yers like to tell you their opinions."

Two-for-one. "Boomers complain about younger employees' dress code and the fact that they don't show up on time," notes Johnson. "And the younger folks feel they aren't taken seriously at work. If a meeting included a session called 'Getting Older People to Take You Seriously,' it would appeal to Gen Yers"--who will not, she adds, sign up for one called "How to Dress Appropriately." "It would also answer boomers' concerns by dealing with verbal skills, dressing appropriately, covering up tattoos, and so on."

Charity activities. These are great for Gen Yers and Silents (older folks, usually CEOs and others at the top end of the corporate ladder; they value expertise and education and are helpers). They can also work well for boomers, who love team activities. However, they may alienate Gen Xers, who dislike group events--unless you can appeal to their love for the environment.