Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

December 2012

One On One: Robert B. Tucker

By Susan Sarfati, CAE
orchestrators, or architects, of conferences. The planner role is so linear, left-brain, so reductionist. If you define yourself as a meeting planner only, then it’s all about execution, checking things off your to-do list.

But what if that’s your title and what’s expected of you?

Even if that’s part of your job description, what the Elite Retreat really brought out was that if you are in the meetings role in your organization, you can empower yourself to enlarge your scope and view yourself in a larger context. If you begin to see yourself as conference architect, then innovative thinking is central to everything you do. And every decision you make. You’re really an artist, and you’re creating more compelling experiences.

The conference industry is the experience economy and the social-networking economy personified. People come to meetings from different ages, stages, places, and hopes, most of which are hidden from us. So conference orchestrators need to meet a very diverse set of needs, especially the nonlinear, human component. We were fortunate to have the seven-time Emmy-winning composer Gary Malkin join our discussion [at the retreat]. Gary was kind enough to not only perform for us on opening night, but talk to us about music’s role in creating what he calls “multisensory” experiences, as he did for [TED curator] Chris Anderson, at a recent TED conference in Beijing. Gary’s lifework is about the dire need to rejoin heart and head, logic and intuition.

You say that everyone who has taken a shower has had an idea, but the innovator is someone who dries off and goes on to implement the idea. You point to the “knowing” and “doing” gap. Why is this so wide?

We all know we need to do these things to become indispensible, but somehow we don't do what we know we need to do. The details drag us down to fighting figures and continuing longtime routines. What the Elite Retreat really highlighted is the need to nurture the visionary component of meetings and not allow ourselves to get beaten down. After putting on [my own] small conference, I am in awe of what planners do! They must put together a whole new team of people for each meeting — keynote speakers, breakout speakers, the hotel and production staffs, and other outsourced personnel. They contend with thousands of moving parts, and in distant cities. All of which activate the execution part of the brain instead of the part that needs to be exercised, nurtured, and supported.

And what part is that, exactly?

The founder, chairman, and co-chief executive of Panera Bread, Ronald M. Shaich, said recently in a New York Times interview that in all organizations there is a delivery muscle and a discovery muscle. He went on to suggest that most organizations focus way too much on the delivery muscle and give the discovery muscle short shrift. The discovery muscle in the meetings industry is about how attendees’ needs are changing and if they’re really being fed on an emotional level. The mega-question is: How engaged are participants at your conference and what can you do to turbo-charge engagement and become indispensable to people? This is a new frontier.

So, are you saying that people come to conferences because they instinctively know they need to exercise their discovery muscle and they see your conference as a way of solving that problem?

Exactly. The difficult global economy, the ramp-up in complexity, the amount of change in society, the explosion of technology, the sheer amount of information — all these forces and factors are like a fire hose coming at people every minute. These forces are literally rewiring our brains as we try to cope. But whether we feel exhilarated or exhausted, in control or out of control, is a function of how we integrate it all and make sense of it around the campfire! And that’s what a good conference does: It puts you into an immersive experience with other human beings on their journeys, and it lifts you up and renews your faith in the future.

How do we avoid burnout and live up to this potential?

On a practical level, I encourage meeting producers to actually write out a conference vision statement — [to] go off to their brainstorming space and write out the vision statement. Then measure — quietly and secretly — everything else people suggest that is not in sync with the vision, [such as,] “We can cut that out, we can put some filler in here, and we can cheapen that.” Measure input  against your vision before making any decisions.

Every decision that meeting producers make, every element, every component of conferences [should] be approached from the standpoint of how it can be better for the guests. 

Could you be more specific?

No detail is too small. For example, most conferences have someone who serves as an emcee. That’s an area for innovation right there. If the emcee is disconnected from your vision and goals for the meeting, they can destroy the culture and the deliverables pretty quickly. So if you put on your conference-visionary hat, you’ll search to find the right emcee and inculcate the emcee into the vision. Receptions are a typical part of every conference. But how can you innovate the reception, knowing that people often attend because of the Insight to Spare Robert Tucker asked each participant to share some of their ‘keepers’ — a sentence or quote that provides a reminder of a bigger idea — from the Elite Retreat. Among them: ‘Overenthusiasm for change creates resistance to change.’ networking? Instead of looking at staff as hands to implement, intimately involve them in value creation. The orchestration role becomes pivotal and will result in a more innovative conference. Another conference-architect requirement is to be an industry expert who anticipates hot topics in advance. Great conference producers share the vision and objectives with their speakers. And they have a finger on the pulse of their people.

Sidebar: Light Fires

A smattering of takeaways from Elite Retreat participants:
  • A conference on diversity hires an actor who performs a one-man show of James Baldwin, the African American gay poet. This addition to the conference becomes the highlight for many in attendance, and electrifies attendees with the message. 
  • The Economist ’s Ideas Conference organizes an Oxford-style debate at its annual conference at the Hass School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley — itself an “innovation” in changing the venue from the familiar hotel ballroom to a more stimulating environment. 
  • Ask what percent of your conference experience is in the category “things we’ve not tried before.” Ask what aspects of your conference are working so well that you would never think of getting rid of them. 
  • Hold brainstorming activities with committees or staff in a space that allows for creativity — a hospitality suite, someone’s home, or a museum — rather than in a traditional education room. Cover tables with butcher paper and have people write their ideas down and share. 
  • Music and art can help create an immersive conference experience that grabs attention and enhances retention. Consider hiring a music planner to help score your conference. 
  • Smaller, segmented meetings are more resistant to economic downturns because they are focused on information and networking that such targeted groups can’t afford to miss. Larger, more general-focused meetings are more subject to cost-containment pressure. Future conferences will segment and serve to the max. 
  • So many conference organizers have gotten so good at putting out fires that they’ve forgotten how to light them. To truly inspire and engage others, the design process must be more immersion, a combination of sensory overload and sensory deprivation with scattered outbreaks of constructive feedback and strategic focus. 
  • Build in more social networking with longer breaks; mix-and-match icebreakers; spot-me badges that identify attendees with similar needs/interests; sponsored events that mix vendors, existing clients, and new prospects; conversation areas in exhibits; and slideshows with conference pictures. 
  • In a world in sensory overload, sell the need before you sell your conference program. Like movie trailers, provide a picture of the threats, emerging unexpected trends, and short segments from speakers previewing fears and opportunities. Let them know they can’t afford to miss what will be provided. 
  • Spouse and family programs consistently increase attendee loyalty. Provide programming that serves their interests.

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