A Meeting Planner Geeks Out at SXSW

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Typically when meeting manager Astrid Schrier, CMP, attends events, it is either as a staff member or as an attendee at industry-related events, such as Convening Leaders. But when Schrier went to SXSW 2014, the massive music, film, and interactive conference held in Austin in March, she was a double agent: both meeting planner and meeting attendee. Schrier, one of PCMA’s “20 in Their Twenties,” gave us this report:

Driving into downtown Austin with my host, Amy Brown, northeast regional sales director for the Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau,  I noticed the big crowds of people that I was expecting to see for such a large conference, but I also noticed a massive number of pedicabs that were traveling along the streets. They provided by SXSW to complement more traditional shuttle busing. I also noted that many of the  buildings we passed were branded by the companies that had taken them over for the event.

At the registration area, I picked up a platinum badge, which allowed me access to all the events between the Film Festival, Interactive Conference, and Music Festival. I also picked  up a conference bag and materials, which felt like it weighed 50 pounds.

It held three separate conference bags, three conference programs, and three schedules-at- a-glances listing sessions and events in 100 different venues.  I realized that I could never complain about one of my single program, single-venue conferences ever again.

At registration, I also did what any meeting planner-outsider would do: examined  the signage and branding placed by the organizers. Most intriguing were the flyers and posters that were put up by attendees or made during the event.Convention Center pillars were wrapped in clear plastic so that attendees could post their own flyers that could then easily be switched by organizers between the different conferences — SXSW is three conferences and festivals in one.

Also, huge white boards covered with graphic summaries of the sessions that had already taken place were on display in the foyer area. But the digital signage designed to look like street signs that changed directions depending upon what events were being displayed was what sparked my major meeting-planner geek-out moment.

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One thing I thought was very cool that would be neat to put into practice at one of my own meetings was the white boards that were created by graphic illustrators throughout the sessions and then displayed in the foyer areas for attendees to view  This was done at the opening general session at PCMA 2014 Convening Leaders in Boston as well.

There were some incredible speakers — including Chelsea Clinton, Blake Mycoskie of TOMS and Biz Stone, Co-Founder of Twitter — but SXSW also drove home to me the power of providing great experiences.  For example, the  trade-show floor, filled with technology companies from around the world featured The Price Is Right wheel — and of course we had to spin it! It was only the second time it left the studio!

We enjoyed local and internationally known bands, and checked out the local culinary specialities the city offered the SXSW attendees. I had to try the breakfast tacos one morning, because I was told they are an Austin staple.  At the convention center I sampled a build-your-own burrito bowl.

We watched as staff pulled off one amazing conference, only to have it end, be torn down, and rebuilt again as another conference, twice. And we watched corporations take over empty lots and restaurants to build insanely ambitious and elaborate pop-up events, only to see them gone the next day.

SXSW is definitely an experience that I will never forget and that I hope I get a chance to experience again. I I am grateful to the Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau for the opportunity to enjoy this event and learn so much from it.

Astrid Schrier, CMP, is a meeting manager at Fernley & Fernley.  She attended SXSW thanks to Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau, Austin Convention Center, and the Hyatt Regency Austin.

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A Feast for the Senses

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For the second year in a row, the Melbourne Convention & Exhibition Centre (MCEC) scheduled a public showcase — called Open Space — to coincide with Business Events Week and Asia-Pacific Incentives & Expo (AIME), held annually at the convention center.

On Feb. 20, short talks fed the brain, and afterwards, attendees had lunch at street-hawker style stands in the Convention Centre’s foyer. The food was fresh and local and the setting was visually stimulating, with colorful seating — brilliant pops of yellow, pink, and turquoise — and lushly green vertical gardens. And as an MCEC chef explains below, as any feast for the senses, the sum was greater than its parts.

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Convene Reads: Eliot Ness

Eliot NessIt’s been quite a while — several years and one blog iteration ago — since I filed a dispatch for Convene Reads, the formerly semi-recurring feature that aims to prove that meetings and conventions are a part of every facet of life, popping up in nonfiction and fiction, even when you’d think there wouldn’t be an obvious connection. (It’s sort of like our version of “Stars — They’re Just Like Us!”) But an interesting new book that scores twice in that area — Eliot Ness: The Rise and Fall of an American Hero, by Douglas Perry — has convinced me to bring back Convene Reads. At least this once.

First, and most surprisingly, is something in Eliot Ness that wouldn’t be out of place as part of the Meetings Mean Business campaign. After making his name as a Prohibition officer, leading the famous Untouchables squad against Al Capone and other bootleggers in Chicago, Ness became director of public safety in Cleveland. It was the middle of the Great Depression, and people were looking for any hint that better times were ahead. Guess where they found it:

In the first sign that the economy finally might be improving, the city had lined up more than a hundred and fifty conventions and trade shows for 1936, ranging from the Loyal Ladies of the Royal Arcanum Supreme Council to the biggest catch out there, the Republican National Convention, which promised drama and excitement as the highly motivated opposition sought a candidate to defeat President Roosevelt.

But the real kicker is how Cleveland decided that the best way to fly its own flag was with an expo:

But best of all would be something even grander than the Grand Old Party: the hometown Great Lakes Exposition. Boosters had come up with the idea of a huge, summer-long bash. They billed it as a celebration of the city’s centennial, but its real purpose was to lift Cleveland’s reputation around the country and thus help pull it out of the Depression. The organizers sought to make it bigger and better than Chicago’s Century of Progress International Exposition of 1933. They were determined to outshine even the Nazi Olympics, scheduled to kick off in Berlin a month after the Cleveland Expo’s launch.

So, nearly 80 years ago, a big city used its trade-show bookings as a way to gauge its economic health, and saw a gigantic, high-profile live event as a way to announce its status as a first-tier destination. The more things change…

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A ‘Working Lunch’ With the Prime Minister of Ireland

Enda Kenny, Ireland's Taoisech, at yesterday's St. Patrick's Business Lunch in Washington, D.C. Photo by Chris Durso.

Enda Kenny, Ireland’s Taoisech, at yesterday’s St. Patrick’s Business Lunch in Washington, D.C.
Photo by Chris Durso.

The official name was the St. Patrick’s Business Lunch With An Taoiseach. But the Taoiseach himself, Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny, had a more practical take on the event. ”This is really a sort of working lunch for our country,” said Kenny, in a dark suit and suitably green tie, standing at the head of a ballroom in The Willard InterContinental hotel in Washington, D.C., yesterday afternoon. Hosted by Anne Anderson, Ireland’s ambassador to the United States, and a group of Irish agencies — including Tourism Ireland, which invited Convene — the lunch was designed to strengthen “the ties  that bind Ireland to the United States,” Kenny said.

In attendance were people who work with Ireland in a variety of sectors, including politics, business, education, and travel, and Kenny spoke of the importance of using the occasion to become acquainted and reacquainted with some of his country’s most valued partners. “It goes well beyond an economic relationship,” he said. “It is culture, literature, art, sport — anything you can think of. Ireland is in the veins of the States.”

Kenny also used the opportunity to summarize Ireland’s recovery over the last several years, following a devastating economic crisis and recession. And he took full advantage of something that face-to-face programs like yesterday’s lunch can help make easy: looking someone in the eye and saying thank-you. “I want to thank all of you for your consistency in believing that we will get through the economic nightmare that we have come through,” Kenny said. “… There are exciting days ahead, and you are all a part of that.”

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A Great Example of Self-Directed Learning

“We noticed that unfortunately students were tending to come into class and they were a little bit bored with the general English class. They weren’t really connecting with it. So we wanted to find a way where students felt more comfortable, they felt more at home, they felt more likely to want to engage in those disciplines that we’re teaching.”

Sound familiar? Substitute “attendees” for “students,” and “meeting” for “class,” and you’d have a pretty good summary of the problem of attendee engagement. The person talking is Jason Augustowski, a seventh-grade language-arts teacher at Belmont Ridge Middle School in Leesburg, Va., and he’s addressed his students’ disenfranchisement in two ways, News4 reports: He’s switched up the furniture in his classroom, replacing desks and chairs with sofas, coffee tables, and rugs. And he’s changed his teaching method, allowing students to work at their own pace, tackling material in the order they’d like and taking tests when they feel ready.

Students love the autonomy — the feeling of being in charge of their own learning. As one of them says: ”It’s not really about the couches. It’s more about how the class is now. It’s more student-centered.”

It’s a great story, right? Here are a few related Convene links: Barbara Palmer’s masterful article about online learning models, many of which prioritize self-paced learning; a Room Set spotlighting a meeting with lounge-style seating at its education sessions; and an interview with Drive author Dan Pink about the power of autonomy in motivating people.

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Walk and Work

DSC00687Last year, I stumbled upon a TED Talks video by Dan Pallotta, which changed the way I think about charity, and led to a CMP Series story in the August issue on rethinking the way organizations view CSR activities. That article led to a Convene Live session at PCMA’s Convening Leaders annual meeting in Boston on Jan. 15, “Do More Good: Rethinking Our Community Service Projects,” moderated by the Vancouver Convention Centre’s Claire Smith, CMP. (A nice way to close this loop: The TED conference will be held next month in Vancouver at the center.)

Today, Dan Pallotta captured my interest again with this post in the Harvard Business Review Blog Network on the value of taking walks — my favorite early-morning, mid-day, or late-evening activity (depending on the season). In the post, he positions walking as not just a way to take a mental break or as a source of exercise, but a way to “dramatically increase productivity.” Pallotta cites the findings from a “2013 study by cognitive psychologist Lorenza Colzato from Leiden University [who] found that people who go for a walk or ride a bike four times a week are able to think more creatively than people who lead a sedentary life. The British Journal of Sports Medicine found that those benefits are independent of mood.” 

Here’s to long walks on warmer days ahead!

 

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‘Frogs Are Big Right Now’

photo[5] copyThat’s what the Wild Republic exhibitor at the 111th American International Toy Fair told me about the frog plush display — part of an imaginative booth space set up like a home, with a boy’s room, girl’s room, and kitchen, filled with Wild Republic plush animals. The frogs are popular, he explained, because amphibians have been documented as an ecosystem marker and are quick to change, indicating an imbalance in nature. Each frog plush sold comes with a Frogwatch USA brochure, educating its young owner about amphibians’ role in the ecosystem.

As I walked the Toy Fair exhibit hall this week at New York City’s Javits Center, I couldn’t help but be awed by the dazzling variety of toys, crafts, games, puzzles, dolls, books, kites, (as well as jungle of plush animals), on display in one magical booth after another — in a record-breaking 400,000-plus net square feet of space. I pushed down the tug of melancholy (how did my daughters grow up so fast?) and decided to focus instead on the kid in me. I had just stepped into the biggest and best toy store in the world.

photo[5]As I squished a weird consistency of indoor sand mix between my fingers at one display — sort of like a mix between playdough and wet sand, but without any residue — my adult persona kicked in. Straighten up, I told myself, and start looking at this exhibit hall more like an industry observer. The exhibition industry is a serious business. Toys are a serious business — worldwide toy and game sales are expected to reach $95 billion by 2016. Buyers from more than 100 countries were scouting the aisles for trends and new products, and here I was getting lost in one creative play space (aka booth) after another.

In the end, after an hour or so, I decided that was okay. Every exhibit hall is meant to transport you to a world of possibilities. Too bad they can’t all be as fun as the Toy Fair.

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3D Glasses for Meetings

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Imagine sitting down at a console and working with a 3D model of your meeting that shows the exact placement of every chair and table, in a virtual environment that simulates the actual event space down to the color of the carpet and the texture of the walls.  And then  — working with an AV technician — running a kind of meeting dress rehearsal, checking out everything from the lighting to the sight lines to the number and placement of plasma screens.

That’s now possible at Melbourne Convention & Exhibition Centre (MCEC) in a newly launched  ”Visualization Studio.” MCEC offers the 3D visualization as a free service, giving clients the ability to  design, create, and view virtual 3D representations of their events  in MCEC spaces. The 3D model can be sent as a media file, so clients don’t have to be at the Melbourne center in person to benefit, said MCEC’s Director of Technology Operations Michael Walsh. The idea to let clients have access to the visualization technology that the MCEC staff uses came from the technicians themselves, Walsh added. “It should really improve the planning process.”

MCEC announced the creation of the studio as part of a rebranding of the center’s  technology services as IMAGINE Services.

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It Was 30 Years Ago Today

Copy of DSC_0058Just before the Destination & Travel Foundation’s Dinner and Dream Auction last week, the Convention Industry Council (CIC) cut the ribbon on its new Hall of Leaders Recognition Pavilion at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C.  Previously a static display outside a ballroom a few flights up, the new pavilion is more of a destination, occupying a small, elegant lounge space along Walter E. Washington’s lower-level concourse where attendees can work, network — and learn about the meeting professionals who have been inducted into CIC’s Hall of Leaders via sharp interactive touchscreens that are now part of the exhibit.

mus012The Hall of Leaders made its debut at the original Washington Convention Center some 30 years ago (pictured at left). And the same designer is behind both that first display and the re-imagined one that CIC unveiled last week: John Meyering, of Alexandria, Va.-based Archispherix, who specializes in event architecture. I chatted with John before the ribbon-cutting, and found that he was clearly delighted by the opportunity to revisit a project three decades later. In a follow-up email, he called it an “unusual example of continuity.” Indeed — and a time machine of sorts. Each of John’s designs is a product of its time, from the textured concrete and walnut plaques of the early ’80s to the sleek glass surfaces of today. It’s a comforting reminder that meetings and exhibitions themselves, as forward-looking and timeless as they aspire to be, offer a valuable snapshot of a single experience as it happened.

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The People Puzzle: Putting Together Convening Leaders 2014

photo by Jacob Slaton

photo by Jacob Slaton

Meeting spaces aren’t exactly blank canvases. In addition to the challenge of putting together what, for a meeting like Convening Leaders 2014, is essentially a 4,000-piece puzzle that has to be reassembled again and again every day, the Hynes Center Convention Center in Boston offered a few functional space challenges. Constraints, however,  are the gateway to creativity. Here are some of the ways in which PCMA made it all fit together:

hynesaudiencAn Intimate Space — for 3,400

PCMA’s goal is to seat a minimum of 3,100 attendees during general sessions, and record-breaking attendance meant that as many seats as possible were needed in the Hynes Veterans Memorial Auditorium.  PCMA worked with Freeman to design a custom stage that was flat against the back wall, eliminating backstage areas, and making 3,400 seats usable. Presenters came from the main floor, which erased some of the boundaries between the stage and the audience. Overflow rooms with video and audio were on stand-by.

© Jacob Slaton Photography

No Stage? No Problem.

Monday’s networking luncheon posed similar space challenges — feedback from attendees was that they wanted a sit-down, plated lunch in order to maximize their ability to connect with others. All of the space in the room was needed for tables, so PCMA dispensed with the usual stage  and presented the program via video on large screens. Note: wrapped pillars became part of the room decor.

© Jacob Slaton Photography

Everybody Gets Screen Time

Table props — moustaches, frames, and glittery lips — encouraged sharing on social media networks during the luncheon. Sponsor Tourisme Montréal provided the quirky accessories and attendees who posted photos to  Twitter or Instagram using were entered into a drawing for prizes.

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Building Learning Lounge 2.0

Learning Lounge 2.0, powered by Freeman, provided space that was both integrated with meeting content and allowed maximum flexibility for attendees to use however they liked. Pillars were pressed into service to help divide space into colored-coded zones, which offered a variety of ways for meeting attendees to connect with meeting content or with one another.

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Mini-Meeting Spaces

The Learning Lounge offered semi-private corners where attendees could meet one-on-one or in  groups of two or three with presenters, business partners, or one another.

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Softer Seating

Learning Lounge 2.0 offered the opposite of the “one-size-fits-all” approach, with seating options that allowed almost unlimited ways for people to gather together. The Learning Lounge also featured a Hackathon, moderated panel discussions, PCMA’s Town Hall Meeting, intimate chats with keynote presenters, and much more.

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