Saturday, January 09, 2010

Nick Morgan - Public Speaking Advice and Commentary: The Future of Conferences – Part Two: What are the current trends?

It took a year for the conference world (and the traveling public) to recover from 9/11.  How long will it take for conferences and meetings to rebound from the financial meltdown of Fall 2008?

In a way, the comparison is misleading; what we’re in now is a recession much like, the experts say, the 1991-92 one in its sharpness.  9/11 was a discrete event.  Different things. 

And this recovery may be slow; it may well take longer than a year.  That seems to be the consensus in the conference world; from a low of 13% in June 2009, the number of meeting planners who think conditions ahead are favorable has only bounced back to 19% (in October, the latest figures available).  That’s according to Meeting Professionals International (MPI), one of the two big organizations of conference people.   

So there’s not much optimism out there yet, though anecdotally I see and hear that business for professional speakers is picking up already from 2009. 

What are the current trends beyond the difficult financial times?  Below I highlight four trends that I’m seeing from my window on the industry.

Not surprisingly, it’s a no-frills era.

After all the bad press that organizations like AIG received when they continued to send top executives to fancy spas for retreats at enormous expense, the whole focus now is on the low-key, the no-frill, and the minimal.  That’s not such a bad thing as long as companies don’t go crazy trying to save money.  Somewhere between designer sheets and a lumpy mattress at a truck stop there’s a good balance to be struck.  Business travel is stressful and difficult these days, so people shouldn’t wear the hair shirt just for appearance’s sake. 

The good news is that ‘green’ still is a ‘go’. 

Partly because environmental awareness has become – slowly, with a long way to go – a part of business consciousness, it has become a part of the meeting planners’ world, too.  Again, that’s a good thing.  Minimizing the enormous waste that’s generated by meetings, from the bottled water to the bags of loot to the paper trail, is relatively easy and a boon for the environment.  And it saves money, too.  I’ll have more to say about this in a blog later in this series when I interview Tim Sanders, speaker extraordinaire and author of Saving the World at Work.  

The bad news is that planning cycles are shorter. 

The days when you started planning the next annual meeting as soon as the last one ended are gone.  Some conference planners are now getting used to the idea of planning a small meeting in 30 days – an extraordinary shortening of the cycle.  Because businesses can’t predict a year out, they can’t plan a conference a year out.  This shift puts enormous stress on meeting planners, but in an era of instant thinking and goldfish-length attention spans, they’re just going to have to get used to it. 

We can expect more virtual meetings in lieu of face-to-face sessions.  

This is perhaps the worst news to come out of the conference recession.  While of course virtual meetings have the enormous advantage that you never have to leave your office, or your den, to take part, they have the enormous disadvantage that you simply cannot achieve the same things that you can in a face-to-face meeting.  Trust, understanding, commitment, bonding, group cohesion – all of these are huge aspects of meetings, and they simply don’t happen virtually.  Virtual meetings can work well where there is already a relationship established, but they are very poor ways to initiate human relationships.  Any regular reader of this blog will know why this must be so.  Certain things only happen between people in personal and intimate space.  Perhaps the most important of these is trust. 

Next time, I’ll talk in more depth about green meetings and the future.  





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