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Future Vision

The story as it appeared in Speaking of IMPACT, Summer 2006.

A Second Look is an opportunity to revisit interesting stories from the Speaking of Impact archives. What better way to launch this new department than to re-read a futurist’s vision of the meetings industry written in 2006 and projecting the state of affairs in 2016.

 

The Life of a Meeting Planner, Circa 2016

By Richard Worzel, C.F.A.

Almost home. Laura had survived four straight events without a break, not enough sleep, too much coffee and no personal time. She couldn’t decide what she wanted first when she got home: plain food, a hot bath or sleep.

Her MacGenie buzzed. Groaning, she glanced at the display and saw that the call was from her business partner, Michael – the other half of Circonférence.

“Hi, Mike. Still breathing?”

“Yeah. I’ve got news about MaryLene.”

Laura sat up. They had been trying to hire MaryLene for two months. She was 29 and good at her job as the in-house organizer for an association, but she also seemed to have a sense of entitlement and kept upping her demands. They finally offered her a partnership if she was still with the firm after 24 months. This really rankled with 48-year-old Laura and 52-year-old Mike, who had built Circonférence from scratch, mortgaging their houses to get the company off the ground in 2006.

“Did she finally accept?”

“No. She’s accepted another job. But that’s not the worst of it. She’s now the conference planner for BayTarjet, the retailer we got a query from four months ago about a conference this weekend.”

“Yeah, so what?”

“She called to ask for a progress report on the conference.”

Laura sat bolt upright. “But they never accepted our proposal.”

“True, but MaryLene said the conference is a go and this is the only weekend that works for them. I tried to tell her that we haven’t even got an agreement, but she cut me short. She told me this conference will make or break her with the organization, and she’s not about to let us off the hook just because we misinterpreted our instructions.”

“Why don’t we just let the bitch flop, for heaven’s sake.”

She could almost hear Mike shake his head. “We worked too hard to land this BayTarjet account to kiss it off out of spite. And you’re going to have to handle it because I’m still hip deep here.”

Laura was silent, thinking. Finally, she said, “Okay, Mike, I’ll do it. But the company owes me.”

“Big time, I know. Me too, kiddo.”

Laura unfolded her MacGenie repeatedly until it formed a rigid keyboard with a small screen. She called up the details of the conference, then instructed MacGenie to reserve a business-class seat on the next flight to Vancouver and book her into the conference hotel. She also instructed it to make appointments with her favourite production company and the event manager at the hotel while she was in the air. Finally, she asked the limo driver to head back to the airport.

Next, Laura instructed her genie to do a precedence plan of the conference, outlining what had to be done, by whom and when, and how much it should cost. She tinkered with it, compressing timelines, squeezing costs where she could, and noting who would need to be contacted. By the time the cab got back to Pearson, she had a critical path of actions that needed to be taken by a dozen people, a list of contacts she was scheduled to speak to, and a set of approvals she would need from MaryLene. She paused when she realized she was going to have to call MaryLene, congratulate her on her new position, then work her butt off to make her look good.

Laura sighed. She had to spend most of the flight talking on the phone or working, but she would get the conference done if it killed her…

Laura’s story is a projection of the forces working on meeting planners today, extrapolated 10 years into the future. Some highlights of the forecasted changes follow.

PERSONNEL – There will be shortages of skilled personnel. For every 10 people moving into the 55 to 65 age bracket and approaching retirement, only two are moving into the 20 to 30 age group. Finding new professionals over the next 10 years is going to become progressively more difficult.

ATTITUDE – Every generation since Socrates has complained about the next generation, but sometimes the sky actually is falling. The echo boomers (children of baby boomers) have been bombarded by marketing since birth as the spoiled children of spoiled children. Consequently, they are more cynical and demanding than any earlier generation and often have an aggressive sense of entitlement. Combine this with labour shortages and there will be dangerous gaps in the marketplace.

VOLUNTEERS – Younger generations don’t volunteer as much as boomers, and as the boomers retire, more conferences will be organized by paid staff. This will raise costs and require conferences to provide greater value to participants, occur less frequently or cease entirely.

JUST-IN-TIME CONFERENCES – According to Helen Van Dongen, senior manager with Deloitte & Touche, lead times for conferences are already getting ridiculously short. Ten years ago, she was engaged for a presentation anywhere from two to 12 months in advance. Today, it is likely to be two weeks ahead and has been as short as six hours. Because of information overload, shorter attention spans, heavier workloads, and attitude shifts where executives and professionals focus only on the immediate to-do’s, meeting planners will be expected to work miracles with minimal notice. Laura has less than a week to plan and execute a conference – impossible today and just barely possible in 10 years.

TECHNOLOGY – What is seen on stage is going to get more sophisticated, shading into three-dimensional projections and videoconferenced talking heads for panels. With audiences of all ages having shorter attention spans, conference presentations are going to have to fascinate attendees either with content (less likely) or razzle-dazzle (more likely, especially as software makes it easier to produce). Infrastructure will improve. Someone will approach the registration desk, instantly be identified by computer and receive the proper registration kit immediately. Electronic presentation materials will be transferred to the proper room as the presenter walks in, so no one needs to worry about moving projectors, memory sticks, DVDs or laptops.

Similarly, meeting professionals will have sophisticated planning tools, starting with seemingly intelligent computer assistants that can map out the logistical needs of a conference and do most of the routine communications without human intervention, then schedule conference calls for human-to-human contact as needed.

CONTENT – With higher conference costs, shorter attention spans and greater expectations from delegates, conference deliverables will have to be more specific and immediately valuable. Conference presentations will have to deliver value for time and money, which might mean fewer unpaid speakers. Paid presenters will have less time to deliver. Even with new techno-tricks, holding an audience’s attention for an hour is going to be increasingly difficult, leading to progressively shorter presentations. This will make some professional speakers obsolete and raise the fees of those who can deliver customized, focused, content-rich presentations in engaging packages.

I don’t believe videorecorded or videoconferenced presentations will fly, even at lower prices than in-person presentations. People are gregarious and want to meet, see and interact in person. For instance, a promised video of Tom Peters won’t motivate many to attend a conference.

The primary purpose of meetings will not change – mingling with other professionals, engaging in hallway conversations, meeting new people over a drink and schmoozing with intent.

MEETING PROFESSIONALS – The good news for the future is that you will have more responsibility, decision-making powers, pay and recognition. You will be recognized as an important part of every organization’s executive team, and paid and treated as professionals – but then you will be expected to be able to make the Earth move on demand. This will be professionally gratifying and a personal nightmare. Welcome to the big leagues of tomorrow. My thanks to Kelly MacDonald, vice-president of Speakers’ Spotlight, and Helen Van Dongen of Deloitte & Touche for their insights. They bear no responsibility for my remarks.

Richard Worzel Takes A Second Look

It’s always interesting to look back at earlier articles and see which predictions “came true” and which didn’t. In this article, I foresaw that mobile computing would become much more widespread, but I thought it would come through a kind of stripped-down laptop. Instead, we have moved to the smaller screens and keyboards of smartphones.

Computer genies are emerging – Apple’s Siri, Google Now, Microsoft’s Cortana – but we don’t depend on them as much as Laura did in this article. They are progressing and will likely become our representatives in cyberspace, but it’s taking a little longer than I expected.

It’s true that meeting planners have significantly shorter time horizons to work with. I sometimes get called to speak mere days before an event, whereas in the past it was always weeks, months or even years.

Video-recorded or teleconferenced presenters have not replaced in-person speakers. Everyone still prefers meeting face to face and having the opportunity to interact with the presenters. And, while webinars are proliferating, they seem to be creating a new category of meeting rather than replacing in-person gatherings.

Perhaps my biggest miss was about the availability and attitude of younger meeting planners. Some millennials may have started with a sense of entitlement, but contact with the actual job market largely cured that and, today, they are capable professionals who are taking on their share of responsibility. The way they work is different from earlier generations, but they get the work done. In addition to the boomers’ tendency to stick around, the sluggish economy has eliminated the potential problems of not enough meeting professionals.

Leading Canadian futurist Richard Worzel is also a strategic planner and chartered financial analyst. You can reach him at futurist@futuresearch.com.

Appeared in Speaking of IMPACT, Summer 2006 Edition and was revisited in Summer 2015.

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