by Sarah J.F. Braley | November 01, 2011

Jeffrey Cufaude of Idea ArchitectsThe meetings industry is in a giant rut, and if we don't do anything to shake things up dramatically, there will be little reason for meetings -- as we know them -- to exist. That's the strong opinion of folks like Jeffrey Cufaude of Idea Architects in Indianapolis, who specializes in creating keynotes, workshops and conferences that promote learning and community.

"Adult learners tend to want to bring their life experiences into the learning format and share it with others," says Cufaude. "This demands more participatory, peer-to-peer formats."

"Thinking is the most important thing that happens at a meeting," insists Jeff Hurt, the Dallas-based director of education and engagement for Velvet Chainsaw, an industry consulting firm. "In all the events I've ever planned, I've said, 'Let's cut your content in half.' "

Proponents have a number of names for this paradigm -- most prominent are Meeting Architecture and Meeting Design -- but it boils down to a few truths:

A) All of the straightforward information your potential attendees need -- whether they are corporate employees, trade association members or members of an esoteric social group -- now can be found online.

B) People attend events to network and learn.

C) Events that are built up from defining concepts, goals and desired learning outcomes have a better chance of engaging attendees and bringing them back for more.

That means meetings where people don't sit in rows but in circles or groupings; where participants (not "attendees") interact via iPads or other devices; and where everyone plays an active role in the learning experience. Sessions (sans PowerPoint) might last about 30 minutes, with 30-minute breaks in between to allow thoughtful discussions to take place in the hallways.

"I don't think the industry has a choice in going in this direction," says Hurt. "Our registrants have become more sophisticated. And over time, you can't stay competitive presenting an experience that is passive in nature. We don't want to go to a meeting where we are spectators."

An evolution of imperatives The shift in focus toward enhancing the participant experience has been prompted by factors such as the stubbornly anemic economy and the ever-burgeoning Internet. At the same time, there has been a growing emphasis on strategic meetings management programs -- essentially the gathering of data surrounding events, including sourcing, to manage spend, increase efficiency and streamline costs. A well-implemented SMMP allows meetings departments to articulate the return on investment of events in concrete business terms.

But in the wake of the Great Recession and the resulting downturn in the industry, which saw many events canceled and others come under intense scrutiny, content and interaction have come into the spotlight to make conferences important enough to attend.

Terri Breining of the Breining Group"Meetings are on the radar in a way they never have been before," says Terri Breining, CMP, CMM, a 30-year industry veteran and principle of the consulting/training firm the Breining Group in Encinitas, Calif. "The effect of canceling events, the introduction of procurement into the process, the growth of SMMP, the shift in looking at meetings as a whole instead of as a decentralized concept -- all are creating greater interest in this evolution we are experiencing."

Making this shift requires meeting professionals to get in earlier on the planning process, asking stakeholders what they want participants to learn, asking potential attendees what they want from the event, and then surveying participants at the end to measure the experiential return on investment instead of a monetary ROI.

But step one requires taking a look at the science of learning.