March 01, 2001
Meetings & Conventions: Planner's Portfolio March 2001 Current Issue
March 2001 Back to BasicsPLANNER'S PORTFOLIO:

Back to Basics

By Jeremy Weir Alderson


With no glitz, Alcoholics Anonymous stages thousands of critical meetings every day

There can be little doubt that America’s most successful meetings organization is Alcoholics Anonymous, which has been running multiple meetings in pretty much every town in the country since the 1930s. What can planners learn from this national phenomenon?

AA’s 10th tradition (a kind of bylaw) is to “have no opinion on outside issues,” so we can’t ask how the organization sees itself in the context of other groups. Just the same, sheer magnitude is hardly the only feature that sets AA apart.

AA completely dispenses with many staples of the meetings industry, starting, of course, with booze. There also are no signs, no attendance fees, no lavish meals and no publicity efforts beyond simple notices. AA proves the old industry adage that what makes people go into a meeting is what they get out of it, but the application of this principle must be tempered by the recognition that AA offers something the rest of us can’t.

The typical attendee believes AA meetings are the only hope for recovery from an otherwise incurable illness. That is a draw bigger than Elvis, and we would all look like geniuses if we could offer something with that much appeal. Still, AA’s example argues powerfully that glitz doth not a meeting make.

This absence of glitz extends to attendees. At AA no one needs to dress for success. It is strictly come as you are. And even those who do show up dressed to the nines admit they are powerless over alcohol, just like their scruffy compatriots dragging in from rehab. Planners looking for ways to set a convivial tone might bear in mind that in AA, at least, less pretense means more camaraderie.

AA meetings bear a striking resemblance to the gatherings planners arrange. The large speaker meetings are, essentially, plenary sessions; discussion groups are the breakouts; and “step meetings,” where members focus on the study of the organization’s Twelve Steps, might be seen as AA’s rough equivalent to technical meetings.

One striking difference: There are no experts in AA. Some have been sober longer, have been in the program longer and can “sponsor” newer members, but their experience is cut from the same cloth as everyone else’s. Where speakers at most meetings are interesting precisely because their experiences are different, speakers at AA meetings are interesting precisely because their experiences are the same. If planners were to move toward this model, it would mean creating forums that capitalize on the existing inspiration, wisdom and experience of attendees.

Planners might argue there should be a gap between speaker and audience because a primary function of meetings is to present new information. Why else would anyone come? AA stands this argument on its head as well, because its meetings are built around old information. The Twelve Steps can be read in a minute but studied for a lifetime. A speech or seminar that gives a deeper appreciation of what one already knows can be just as valuable as one that teaches something new.

It would be a mistake, though, to conclude that AA is just the world turned upside down when it comes to planning. While many meeting staples are entirely absent, others are present. Just as in more conventional events, AA meetings revolve around reinforcement and socializing (though at AA they call this “fellowship”), and they are as goal-directed as any gathering of a sales force (only in AA’s case, the goal is sobriety).

Planners can’t just copy AA, because it is too different from other organizations to allow for direct imitation. What can they learn from it? That’s simple: The heart and soul of the meetings industry is, well, heart and soul.

Jeremy Weir Alderson is a free-lance writer who works out of Hector, N.Y.

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