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Navigating Changing Dynamics

All throughout the meetings industry, change is in the air, and it’s not just from COVID-19.

Even before the pandemic hit, meetings were morphing. Whether from millennial influence — after all, at 39, the leading edge of that age group is now heading companies — or because of larger, multigenerational trends, the industry has been changing in many ways. From a renewed passion for mixing business with leisure, recently dubbed “bleisure,” to a louder call for diversity and inclusion, attendees’ preferences have been altering how event planners organize meetings.

Want to ensure your events stay fresh and keep attendees coming back for more? Read on for some of the latest, greatest meeting trends.

Bleisure Pleasure

Gone are the days when groups would head into the conference hotel en masse and stay there until it was time to get on a plane home. Instead, according to Beth Surmont, director of experience design for 360 Live Media, millennials have been tacking on an extra day at the beginning or end of the business trip so they can immerse themselves in the cities they’re visiting.

“People want to get out; they want to experience the location,” Surmont said. “That was a trend we were looking at as we determined where to place events because not everybody wants to keep going to San Francisco five times a year. When we get back to traveling, I would expect something very similar. I know I’m going to tack on an extra day when I have to go someplace, just to have the experience of being able to travel again.”

Singular Spaces

Millennials are known for thinking outside the box, but it’s not just Gen Y that’s getting tired of the same old meeting rooms. If they don’t need their laptops on hand, meeting-goers are yearning for more welcoming areas that allow them to connect with their fellow attendees.

“At one of our meetings, the hotel had a lot of flexibility,” said Krista LeZotte, associate director of meeting operations and special events for the American Society of Association Executives. “So we brought in some of their foyer furniture and built out little pods within the room. People weren’t sitting at a table; they were sitting on a couch with another person or in a furniture grouping with five people. It depends on the demands of the meeting, but sometimes a unique setup helps with that goal of having people put down their device and really focus.”

Hybridization Here to Stay

The hybrid meeting, which is attended by people online as well as in person, was trending before the pandemic hit, and you can expect its popularity to continue after COVID-19 is long gone, said Cameron Curtis, president and CEO of the Association of Air Medical Services and the MedEvac Foundation International. Able to engage broader audiences than a strictly in-person event, it can also help overcome space limitations and potentially increase revenue, although the logistics of planning this kind of meeting can be a challenge.

You can tip your hat to the latest generation of workers, which includes people as young as 24, for this trend, too.

“I think millennials, people who may not have the travel budget or work for an organization that can afford to pay for them to attend a meeting in person, are a big part of what’s driving this trend,” Curtis said.

Time To Take a Breath

Want to win over the people attending your meeting? Give them some time off during the day. And give them something fun to do, too.

“I’ve heard a lot of different things where planners are trying to build in a little bit more break time to allow people more time for reflection and networking,” LeZotte said. It doesn’t mean giving hourlong breaks, but just making sure there is time in between sessions.”

Curtis agreed, noting that wellness centers in the hall, be they meditation spaces or areas dedicated to yoga with goats, have become popular. “Some meetings you can spend time with puppies,” she said. “They’re opportunities to step away to clear your mind and have some downtime.

Food and Beverage

Whether it’s accommodating dietary restrictions or giving attendees the ability to make healthier choices, customization has become key in event food and beverage. Food trucks, which allow for a variety of options and were first popularized by millennials, “were a really big trend that was taking off,” said Curtis. And just like in everyday life, their favored status could be lasting. “Think about giving a free lunch hour and gift cards,” Curtis said. “So you spend the same amount of money, but people can pick what they want.”

Or, you can go further and model eateries like Chipotle, “places where you can kind of co-create your meal,” said LeZotte. “I think people want that in their food and beverage at meetings, too. The trend right now is not having somebody say, this is what you’re getting, without adding too much cost or labor onto your food and beverage bill.”

Diversity and Inclusion

Just like in life, diversity and inclusion have been “a big hot button in the event space for several years,” Surmont said. “But just like we’re seeing in society with the social justice movement, every year there’s more and more and more. So, there has started to be a lot of intentionality around putting different types of speakers on the stage.”

Diversity in meetings is a trend that will, it is hoped, become a matter of course. It means not only adding speakers of different races, religions, cultural backgrounds, genders, sexual preferences and abilities, but also ensuring the meeting itself, including handouts and slides, is accessible to everyone. And, as LeZotte said, it’s also about being mindful you have a diverse pool of collaborators from preplanning on.

“I think it’s really just getting to know your attendees, your members, and not just dictating what you think they want,” LeZotte said, “but finding out what they do want and making that happen.”