Design Thinking: Meeting Content + Interaction

Zheela Qaiser makes a point. Photo by Jacob Slaton.

Zheela Qaiser makes a point. Photo by Jacob Slaton.

PCMA is very vocal about its strategy of taking risks at its meetings and about the value of talking about what doesn’t work, as well as what does. Even so, this was a gutsy move: At the 2014 meeting, held Jan. 12-15 at Hynes Convention Center in Boston, PCMA invited design students affiliated with MIT and Harvard University to spend a day at the meeting and come back the next day to critique its meeting design. As part of the program, as in front of everyone.

The panel, which was part of the BIG IDEAS initiative in partnership with the Dallas CVB, made lots of constructive suggestions. A number from an urban planning student, who offered ideas for pumping up the wayfinding and signage, making it easier for attendees to navigate meeting rooms and hallways.

But some of the most interesting observations were about what Sofia Berinstein called a “deep design problem.” It is a challenge that those in the leading edges of the meetings industry are also wrestling with: How do you present rich content in an interactive environment?

There seemed, to the students, to be a trade-off. Content with the most substance tended to be presented lecture-style, while more interactive formats seemed to produce more superficial conversations. How to better link those two — substance and interactivity — together?

Meeting attendees needed, they suggested, more time and space to connect after lecture-style sessions and panel discussions. Why not, Zheela Qaiser suggested, provide tables with food, right outside a session, where people could sit and talk about the content presented?

As they talked, little bells began to ring in my head — that’s a pretty good shorthand description of the design that planner Danielle Cote and Sarah Michel, now of Velvet Chainsaw Consulting,  created for the software conference, Sage Summit, in 2012. Sage Summit attendees gathered for keynote presentations, and then immediately afterwards, sat down, with food and drink, to talk. Michel and Cote did months of advance work to  design ways for attendees with like problems and interests to connect. Their efforts paid off: The level of attendee engagement more than doubled over the previous year.

In many meetings, there is a tendency toward longer breaks that allow for real follow-up, not just time to find the way to the next session and stop by a restroom. And meeting planners and venues alike are starting to rethink how they use space, as well as to accommodate people who might like to sit down during those highly valuable “conversations in the hallway.”

At the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center, for example, an area that once served mainly as a connector has been outfitted with sofas, tables, chairs, and a line of palm trees, dividing the space into a series of intimate conversation areas that also serve as recharging stations for smartphones and other devices. “We love the idea of mini-meeting spots,” said Steve Goodling, president and CEO of the Long Beach Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The expert panel also was a great example of how a meeting can take advantage of local resources — Boston is an intellectual and creative capital. All in all, it was a great learning experience and one that I hope to see continued at many more meetings.

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