A #Techsytalk Lexicon

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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:
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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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Are Circadian Lighting And Aromatherapy The Future of Meetings? Deepak Chopra Thinks So.

stay_well_roomAttendees at MPI’s World Education Congress in Minneapolis this week have much to take in: Workshops and master classes on engagement, technology and creativity; a string of inspirational speakers; a career fair; even a designated “puppy cuddling” area. One of the biggest twists so far, though, came during yesterday’s keynote speech from physician and bestselling author Deepak Chopra.

After telling listeners “Think of your body as a verb, not a noun,” Chopra announced an effort that he has consulted on: the MGM Grand Hotel & Resort’s Stay Well Meetings “experience,” a block of meeting rooms that draw on aromatherapy, circadian lighting and healthy (and sometimes color-coordinated) foods to engage and invigorate attendees. That a figure as esteemed as Chopra would use his stage time to announce a hotel chain’s meeting initiative was slightly surreal.

“We’ve been thinking about sustainability [in buildings] so long that we sometimes forgot about humans,” explained Michael Dominguez, the senior vice president of corporate sales at MGM Resorts and the outgoing chairman of the board of directors for MPI, the next morning. “It’s an essential part of the whole CSR platform.”

Two years ago, the MGM Grand rolled out a block of Stay Well guest rooms with purified air, vitamin-C-infused shower water, non-toxic surfaces, and light therapy; demand built so swiftly that the hotel converted an entire floor to the Stay Well model — and a year ago, began planning to introduce those same principles into meeting spaces.

The chain collaborated with Delos Living, a real estate company that builds ‘Wellness’ homes  — and counts physicians such as Chopra among its partners — to bring together ergonomic furniture, aromatherapy, air purification, periodic “brain teasers,” infused drinking waters, and even UV-cleaning-wands that “neutralize” microbes to create “healthy environments for high-performance meetings.”

The spaces also draw on changing light — chromatherapy — to energize or relax attendees, according to Paul Scialla, Delos’ founder, who wakes himself up each morning with cool lighting panels in lieu of coffee. “Light is medicine. The right use of blue light can boost cortisol and reduce melatonin, and increase mental acuity.”

Dominguez hinted that while the cost of a Stay Well meeting experience might come with a “premium on the room,” it’s not significantly higher than a conventional meeting. After Chopra’s speech yesterday — during which the author lambasted the harmful effects of stale air — a few planners reached out to Dominguez to find out more. “I think it’s going to take off quite quickly,” he said. The company’s belief in the concept must be strong: MGM is already planning to add Stay Well meeting rooms to a few more of its 19 properties, even before the first ones are ready for business.

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Where Creativity Trumps Cash

When I attended the C2MTL (Creativity + Commerce) business conference in Montreal last May, as a guest of Tourisme Montreal, I kept thinking back to my interview with  New York City-based designer David Stark.

Stark designs parties and corporate events that, like C2MTL, are not inexpensive undertakings.  But budgets are not, and should not be, the defining factor in determining what kind of an experience attendees have,  Stark said. Making the effort to think deepening about the meaning of an event to attendees, and the willingness to delight and surprise them are even more important. “Money can’t buy love,” Stark said, “and it can’t buy fun.”

And all of those elements were present at C2MTL, Imagination, a wealth of color and texture, and humor, not traditional luxury, created a lusciously electric environment. Some highlights:

Glamour on the Cheap Event designers created a defined space by filling in some of the area over participants’ heads with strips of white paper of varying lengths. The result was an intimate, arty feel.

All That Glitters is ... Tape In a similar vein, designers created sculptural shapes by wrapping metallic tape around poles. Stark also is a proponent of using everyday materials like paper, string, and tape  in unexpected ways.

DIY Chairs C2MTL designers created fun, lightweight and flexible seating by stacking colorful fabric cushions and securing them with webbed belts.

Photo by Sebastien Roy

Photo by Sebastien Roy

The Garage, an auxiliary space that really once was a garage,  was furnished with mismatched kitchen tables and chairs and murals painted on its cement block walls.

Don't Be Afraid to Be Dramatic   The lighting was fabulous at C2MTL. No surprise there — Cirque du Soleil is among its producer partners. But creating emotional impact by daring to be dramatic is something that everyone could emulate.

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Feed Me Friday: Eating My Fill in Nashville

Omni-Nashville-Hotel-Biscuit-Bar

It may be called Music City, but Nashville is almost as well known for its food as for its country tunes. When I visited earlier this summer on a Destination Nashville fam trip, I experienced firsthand the variety of cuisine on offer. Here are just a few of the bars and restaurants that highlight the city’s culinary scene:

Kitchen Notes, located in the Omni Nashville, serves up breakfast, lunch, and dinner, not to mention brunch. The spacious spot even has a dedicated biscuit bar, pictured above. The combinations are endless — I had a sweet, buttery biscuit that practically melted in my mouth as well as one studded with rosemary and sea salt.

The Southern, a popular brunch spot, offers both Tennessee favorites like a strip steak with eggs and biscuits and more far-flung dishes like Caribbean-spiced braised pork served over sweet potato grits. The restaurant often hosts local country music acts and private dining is available for 60 people. Continue reading

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Feed Me Friday: Home Cooking

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Jose Garces (center) at his new restaurant in Washington, D.C. — where he cooked for guests at a Philadelphia CVB reception.

Give Philadelphia credit for consistency. The last time the CVB was here in Washington, D.C., they hosted a lunch at Le Diplomate — a then-new French bistro that just so happens to be owned by a premier Philly restaurateur. This past Wednesday, they were back in D.C. to celebrate the opening of Rural Society, a new Argentinian steakhouse from Jose Garces, probably Philadelphia’s best-known chef, with a James Beard Award, an Iron Chef title, and 17 restaurants in seven cities to his name. He’s also an amazing cook and a terrifically nice guy, but more on that in just a bit.

Philadelphia did a good job of mixing business and pleasure by rooting its event in the culture and rhythms of the new restaurant— like they’d invited all of us to hang out at this cool place they just discovered, and by the way, here’s some information that might interest you. As guests arrived and began to mingle, waitstaff circulated with trays of drinks — the spicy El Diablo, with tequila, pineapple, and habanero, and the tart Macau, with rum, guava, and citrus. Eventually Lorenz Hassenstein — general manager of the Pennsylvania Convention Center, which last fall signed a management contract with SMG — stood at the front of the room. Against the clangs and sizzles of Rural Society’s grill-fired kitchen, Hassenstein spoke at length, with a sort of optimistic candor, about SMG’s ongoing efforts to resolve the “interesting jurisdictional challenges” involved in working with the six different labor unions that operate in the center. (Read here about a show that just announced its return to Philly specifically because of the convention center’s new work rules.)

Garces 1Then the chef took center stage. Gracious and unassuming, Garces invited people to arrange themselves around a table set with ingredients for two of Rural Society’s signature grilled dishes: pamplona de puerco (stuffed pork tenderloin) and mollejas (lamb sweetbreads). As he prepared the dishes, he alternated between discussing the influences on his cooking in general and this menu in particular (the pamplona, for example, was the result of a trip he and his team took to Uruguay) and, like a hospitality pro, talking up his city. A Chicago native whose parents emigrated from Ecuador in the 1960s, Garces called Philadelphia “my adopted hometown.” He said: “Attracting convention business is key, and we’re happy to be part of that allure just by offering good food.”

He wasn’t kidding. The pamplona and mollejas were both delicious, seared and smoky, crispy and chewy. Later Garces sat toward the back of the room, chatting and signing copies of his new cookbook, The Latin Road Home. I learned that he still roots for Chicago sports teams but also has a soft spot for the Philadelphia Eagles (my kind of guy — have I mentioned that I’m from Philly?), and we talked about the complicated fan dynamics of raising kids in a different sports town from where we grew up.

Garces moved to Philadelphia and began building his restaurant empire some years after I left, but I’ve always felt a connection to him because of my hometown, and it was nice to reinforce that in person with some good food and interesting conversation. I guess you could say it was just another successful face-to-face event.

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