A Conversation about Questions

It’s easy to get so focused on having all the right answers, you miss out on all the rewards that come from asking the right questions. Senior Editor Barbara Palmer talks to Editor in Chief Michelle Russell the insights she gained in her interview with writer Warren Berger, author of A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas,

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Feed Me Friday: The Power of a Phone Call

shiro-plumsMany people jet of the office early today, this last afternoon before our last summer holiday. The weekend will start slightly late for me: I’m speaking at a historical society Connecticut tonight, at an event that will feature a guided tasting of colonial-era drinks.

Sipping grog (rum, water, sugar, and lime) and Stone-Fences (sparkling hard cider and rum) is certainly a relaxing way to kick off the holiday weekend. But due to spotty communication, I assumed the staff had their own bartender to mix the drinks; turns out that I’ll be blending them myself.

After a quick schedule recalibration, I kicked myself for communicating with the organizer solely via email; we waited to talk until the week of the event to talk, then played phone tag until it the day before the talk. With multiple devices in hand, and schedules packed to the gills, it’s an easy trap to fall into: We both forgot how much more is accomplished during a phone call (or even better, a face-to-face meeting or video call) than ever gets hammered out via email.

I wonder how many planners — who build their careers around the smooth execution of events — could have cautioned me that relying solely on e-mail can make for miscommunication and last-minute rejigging of plans.

Luckily for us, tonight’s gathering will probably have no more than two or three dozen people; yet another gap that emerged during our talk was which nonalcoholic drink would be served. Back in the day, nonalcoholic drinks tended to be more complex  — and take more time to prepare — than spiritous drinks. They also often derived their kick from vinegar. I scanned the kitchen: On my counter was a pile of locally grown shiro plums, with mild, sweet flesh but tart skins — perfect for shrub. I cored and chopped them, slathered them with a handful of white sugar, and left them on the counter for a few hours, letting the sugar leach the juices from the fruit. This afternoon, I’ll combine the juice with some rice and apple vinegars for a plum shrub that, when combined with some sparkling water, fills the hole in our program and may even sate a guest or two. Then I’ll grab the bottle and race to the event, which will be a lot of fun despite the last-minute scramble.

It’s a miniature version of what chefs, and planners, do every day: Improvisation. Next time, though, I’ll close my email and pick up the phone — with plenty of time to spare.

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Darting into Dallas

Drawing by a fourth-grader at McCoy Elementary School, Carrollton, Texas.

Drawing by a fourth-grader at McCoy Elementary School, Carrollton, Texas.

When I flew to Dallas last week to visit my sister Julia, I thought I would jump in a cab from the Dallas Fort Worth Airport (DFW) to make the 20-mile-trip to her house, which is near downtown. But, as it happened, the day I arrived — Aug. 18 — was the very day that Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) opened an airport station. So instead of a cab, I jumped at the chance to try it out.

DART is the longest light-rail system in the country, but until last Monday, it lacked a direct link from downtown to DFW, the third busiest airport on the world.  The long-awaited link makes Dallas more competitive as a global meeting destination, Phillip J. Jones, president and CEO of the Dallas CVB, told media. “When international visitors arrive at DFW Airport, they expect it.”

photo[2]The shiny new airport station is near Terminal A — I flew into Terminal C, but the airport’s Skylink train had me there in less than five minutes. From there it was a short walk from the terminal to the train.  DART was a snap to use. I bought a ticket from a machine, but you can also download a “GoPass” app to bypass the line.

The fare, which is calculated in time rather than distance, was $2.50 for two hours, which was more than enough to get to Kay Bailey Hutchinson Convention Center downtown, had that been my destination.

photoAbout twenty minutes into the trip, the train pulled along beside the Irving Convention Center, which rose like a piece of sculpture from the surrounding green landscape (and looks far lovelier than my snapshot at the left suggests).  I didn’t have time to stop, but the center is only a five-minute walk from the light-rail station. I got up off my seat when the center came into view — as part of an October 2010 story about the convention center of the future, I talked with architect Barbara Hillier when the center was still on the drawing board. It was very satisfying and more than a little exciting to see her vision to create a different kind of energy made real.

All in all, it took just a little over an hour for me to get downtown, on a route that also stopped at the West End Historical District and the Dallas Arts District. Julia originally had planned to come and pick me up at DFW, but had drawn jury duty on the day I arrived. But even had she been available, DART would have been a great way to go, especially at rush hour. It saved us time and money – I was in town for three days and we came up with plenty of fun ideas about how to spend both.

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Feed Me Friday: A Favorite Tool For Discovering New Restaurants

fed_screenshot_2Since joining Convene, I’ve gotten a taste of how much meeting planners travel each year. I’ve been to Chicago, Sydney, Brisbane, Minneapolis, and Calgary since late April (as well as New Orleans, northern California, Tampa, and Montreal) — a list that might elicit a yawn from some road warriors.

That hopscotching has given me the opportunity to dig deep into one of my favorite tools for finding restaurants in unfamiliar places: Find. Eat. Drink., an app that compiles chef, bartender, and sommelier recommendations for dozens of cities around the world.

It’s a concept so simple I wish I’d thought of it. After all, chefs usually  have the lowdown on the best places to eat, as they often spend  their scant free time checking out dishes created by friends, neighbors, and colleagues.

Find. Eat. Drink. has distilled that swirl of knowledge into a chef/crowd-sourced website and app with the motto, “Go Where the Pros Go.” On F.E.D.’s website, you can find articles such as “Chef’s Guide to Chattanooga” and “Sommelier’s Favorite Miami Wine Lists.” It’s the app, though, that’s a true traveler’s friend. Tap the orange icon, choose a destination, and you can comb through the bullet-short recommendations of chefs such as as April Bloomfield (who loves the fried fish at Blue Ocean in London) and John Besh (who recommends the gumbo at Dooky Chase in the Treme section of New Orleans).

Almost every time I open F.E.D., the app downloads new recs and regions (recent adds include Cajun Country and Tucson). It’s addictive reading, even when I’m sitting in my own kitchen, and makes each new place seem like a culinary wonderland.

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A #Techsytalk Lexicon


Yesterday I attended #TechsyTalk Live, a “for planners by planners” one-day conference designed around event technology, in downtown New York City. It was great to meet tech-savvy planners and vendors developing cutting-edge apps for our industry, and the conversation on Twitter was as lively as in the auditorium. Much of the talk was about using apps and social media to streamline event experience, but there were plenty of technical terms thrown around. Without further ado, here’s my #techsytalk lexicon: Continue reading

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How Can Meetings Change the World?

rain_cloud-wallpaper-1280x1024When I read A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas and interviewed author Warren Berger for our upcoming September issue cover story, I was especially taken by how he thinks organizations are better off changing their mission statements to mission questions. A mission question suggests a journey, Berger says, and invites people to join the cause, rather than thrusting a statement at them that they can either accept or reject.

For the meetings industry, I propose this mission question: How can meetings change the world? It’s both aspirational — how can we get better about creating conferences that bring about positive change? — and demonstrable. Because we see evidence of this all the time.

Just last week, Scientific American published a story on how dust might solve California’s drought. According to the story, new research suggests that dusty air blown across the Pacific Ocean from Asia and Africa could be influencing how much rain falls on California. The research was presented by Kimberly Prather, Ph.D., from the University of California, San Diego — at the American Chemical Society’s Chemistry & Global Stewardship national meeting and exposition, held last week in San Francisco.

I wonder: Who among Dr. Prather’s colleagues who heard her speak at the meeting might be inspired to add a piece to her research or work with her to move it forward to the next step? And who reading the Scientific American article might come at her research from a different vantage point — perhaps technology — to propel it forward? Or perhaps a reader might be inspired to fund her research?

Because Dr. Prather spoke at a meeting, her insights and ideas have been sprinkled and swept along — like the dust she studies — to potentially solve an age-old problem. Now that’s pretty mind-blowing.


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Rockin’ The White House

EventMobi - Regy Perlera - RWUIn our April issue, I wrote about hunger think tank Rock and Wrap It Up! (RWU), which had created the Rock and Wrap It Up Whole Earth Calculator mobile app for the Super Bowl. Since then, RWU founder Syd Mandelbaum and Meeting U. President James Spellos, CMP, have continued to spread the word about RWU’s mission — to recover leftover food at events for donation to those in need. The Whole Earth Calculator makes those contributions real, by converting the pounds of food into how many meals served — and how much CO2 and methane gas is saved by the food not rotting away in a landfill.

And last week, The White House released a press release/fact sheet on The White House’s Climate Data Initiative, singling out RWU and the Whole Earth Calculator as a noteworthy initiative. Jim emailed me the exciting news, saying, “We’re really thrilled about it, and as you know,  I’m trying my best to get planners to understand how they can be part of food recovery and feeding the hungry from [leftover] food at their events. Hopefully, this is the first of an extended app that will help planners better understand how they can integrate sustainability in their conferences.”

Well done, Jim, and congratulations to you and Syd on getting the recognition your good work deserves!

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#ASAE14: What a Difference a Venue Makes

ASAE 1The last time I was in Nashville, it was for a Convene Forum program at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention — which is a beautiful property, but so large and well-equipped that during our four-day event I never once left the Gaylord’s sprawling campus to explore the city. Now I’m back in Nashville, for ASAE’s 2014 Annual Meeting & Exposition, but this time the venue is the stunning Music City Center, which opened less than a year ago in downtown Nashville, followed quickly by the equally striking Omni Nashville Hotel directly across the street.

ASAE 2In things like design and technology and development, we usually have the advantage of riding a learning curve that bends toward the light. Through trial and error, use and feedback, things get better, stronger, faster, smarter; and my (entirely personal) sense is that’s what’s happened here in Nashville, where trends such as the revitalization of our downtowns and the growing importance of an aesthetically pleasing natural environment in adult learning have been fully exploited in this game-changing convention venue. Sunlight pours into every corner of Music City Center (even its exhibit halls), there are small and large outdoor terraces throughout the facility where attendees can enjoy an interlude of cool breezes and fresh air, original paintings and sculptures adorn the walls and dangle from the ceilings — and ASAE is making full and smart use of the building, with comfortable open-air spaces on every floor encouraging people to stop, sit, and talk. And work — I’m writing this blog post in ASAE’s Engagement Lounge, in a bright expanse of prefunction space just outside the expo hall. (Important note about the photo above: It’s Tuesday, the morning after some big parties, so the Engagement Lounge is much quieter that it’s been all meeting.)

All of this is a street’s width away from the Omni, a major-league conference hotel and its own stylish triumph — and together the properties sit just a few blocks from Broadway, Nashville’s historic street of honky-tonks, where an irresistible mashup of live music (country, western, blues, rock) pours out the windows pretty much around the clock. I ended up there last night, during on of my patented new-destination walkabouts: dinner sitting at the bar at Rippy’s, a stroll on and around Broadway, ending up on the John Seigenthaler Pedestrian Bridge, where I took the photo of Nashville’s skyline that’s at the top of this post. And now a little piece of Music City belongs to me. Kudos to Nashville for making that so easy, and to ASAE for taking full advantage of its destination.

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Feed Me Friday: Navigating The Food Restrictions Minefield With Tracy Stuckrath

gluten_freeEarlier this week, I attended MPI’s World Education Congress in Minneapolis. WEC 2014 was my first industry event, and it was dense with uplifting moments — such as a rousing opening video that called planners “superheroes” who “shape people’s ideas.”

That superhero simile became crystal-clear after attending planner Tracy Stuckrath’s session, “Serve This, Not That.” After learning of my interest in F&B, at least two attendees insisted that I shouldn’t miss Stuckrath’s talk. Because she’s both a planner (CSEP, CMM, CHC, CFPM) and someone with food allergies, Stuckrath — who owns Atlanta’s Thrive! Meetings and Events — has spoken and published prolifically on accommodating special diets.

As a food writer, I long ago learned how frustrated chefs can be with the snowballing onslaught of special requests: From diners allergic to gluten or nuts, to those who are kosher or vegan, or even those who eschew carbs, it can feel overwhelming to cook for people these days. But I’d never fully considered how dietary restrictions can complicate a meeting for hundreds, or even thousands, of people. I felt exhausted just listening to the particulars — from melon and MSG allergies to the preferences of those who follow paleo or raw diets.

The frustration buzzed amongst planners, too. While some previous WEC sessions were decidedly more buoyant, this one had more of a determined feel. “You come to a point where you’re just like, c’mon,” sighed one planner (presumably about food).

Stuckrath adopts a measured, can-do approach to the F&B obstacle course, and she  explained why that matters: 15 million Americans have food allergies, and “understanding those intricacies” is not only vital to a successful meeting, but can help avoid lawsuits (on the basis of discrimination) or even death. At the same time, ordering special meals that go uncollected by attendees can incur staggering expense. “We’ve got a lot on our plate already,” said Stuckrath. “How do you take small steps to implement this stuff, and learn?”

She shared some basic but useful facts: Eight foods — eggs, milk, soy, wheat, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, and fish — cause 90 percent of all allergic reactions. Pink peppercorns are related to cashews, and can be deadly to someone with a nut allergy. Steel-cut oats are not necessarily gluten-free, unless they are certified as such. There are 57 different words for sugar on food labels. Then there are the subtle particulars of certain diets: Paleo eaters avoid processed foods, sugars, sweet fruit, beans, dairy and seed oils, while vegans can’t eat eggs or honey in addition to milk and meat (and some wines are filtered with eggs or fish skin, Stuckrath pointed out).

It was enough to make a chef’s, or a planner’s, head implode. Stuckrath was armed with tips, however: Cover your bases during site visits, in contracts with suppliers, and during registration by communicating as clearly and fully as possible. Confirm that catering staff is properly trained in procedures and emergency plans. Have access to an EpiPen. And most saliently, streamline a meal plan to serve foods that can feed broad swaths of eaters. “Say you have 100 people and 49 different dietary requests. Instead of serving 50 meals, reduce that to 10 different meals that can be served,” she pointed out.

The overarching message seemed to be that whatever the causes of our skyrocketing allergies and intolerances — or even preferences — they’re not going away anytime soon. Rolling with restrictions results in repeat business, less waste, more trust, and sometimes even budget savings for planners. In an industry that spends $54.5 billion on F&B each year, they’re ideas worth chewing on.

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Why Meetings Need More LOL Moments

Weems-HAWhen Executive Editor Christopher Durso interviewed Scott Weems, neuroscientist and author of Ha! The Science of When We Laugh and Why, for our Bookings series in the August issue, some of what he had to say about the role of humor in meetings didn’t come as a big surprise: Laughter serves a really good social purpose. When you’re laughing with people in a room, it’s a form of bonding.

More surprising was what Weems said about the effect that injecting humor into presentations — even disorganized ones — has on the audience. Here’s my brief recap of Chris’s interview in podcast form. (You can download it here, or use the player below.)

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