The DNA of Meetings Industry Disruptors and Why We Need Them

Hospitality and entrepreneurialism and are two words that don’t sit together in the same sentence too often. After all, being hospitable is about your personal approach to others and how you make them feel. Good hospitality has existed for centuries on these values right?

I raise the question of whether corporate meetings and conferences would receive the same level of investment by organizations, had we (the meetings industry) relied on delivering competent hospitality alone and not created more dynamic meeting experiences? In other words, had the exciting new venue environments and experiences we see more of today not have changed, would organizations be running less meetings, conferences and training? 

Invariably some venues have not moved with the times. These venues will be focused on other lines of business or closed for business! It is likely our industry would not be as strong as it is today, with so much promise and the value of meetings would have been eroded, without quick thinking disruptors and entrepreneurs in our space.     

Looking for the Meeting Room of the Future

An initiative we started in 2016, IACC Meeting Room of the Future, has a goal to bring together the brightest minds to predict, create better meetings and shape the future using this knowledge. During our research, we identified a number of disruptors: those who are looking 3-5 years ahead and developing meeting spaces and experiences in readiness. I’d like to share the DNA and unique approaches of some of these people, highlighting the importance in thinking differently.
Convene (offering centrally located conference and meeting venues in New York, Washington DC, Philadelphia & Boston) set out in 2009 with a vision to provide for the changing needs of today’s workers in transformative ways.  Founders Chris Kelly and Ryan Simonetti looked to eliminate assumptions and start with the basics. They mapped out their culture in detail, determined the ways culinary and technology would be delivered and how the venue spaces would be built. 

One example of how Convene implemented this service and design-focused approach is through the development of their venue 237 Park Ave, New York. They used elements of human-centered design to anticipate the needs of meeting attendees and create a space that would be productive for meetings. This included a casual and residential look and feel with an emphasis on comfort, a variety of versatile meeting and event spaces, user control over room temperature, unlimited drinks and snacks and accessible and pervasive technology.  Chris and Ryan take pride in the entrepreneurial environment and “culture of gratitude” they have created for their network of employees.

Convene 237 Park Avenue New York Venue space

The second example I believe shows a great balance between forward-thinking in venue delivery and a culture steeped in history with equally strong values. 

A founding member of IACC, Benchmark (which operates 70 hotels, resorts and conference centers in the US, Hawaii and Japan), can be considered the pioneers of the model of purpose-built conference centers back in 1981, but which have evolved consistently and are properties specifically designed to create productive and innovative meeting spaces. These properties all meet the rigorous standards of IACC membership.

Benchmark’s service philosophy, Be the Difference, has long been a cornerstone of their corporate culture according to Alex Cabanas, CEO.  The concept of a portfolio of highly individual, independent luxury hotels and conference centers and a commitment to accountability, leadership, and responsible growth, was first created in 1981. That year, a Cuban émigré, Burt Cabañas, capped a distinguished hospitality career with the creation of Benchmark Hospitality. 

Burt’s vision led to innovations in hospitality that bucked industry trends and confounded conventional wisdom.  As hotel brands proliferated, Benchmark stayed the course with the concept of independent and individualized hotels that reflected the best a destination offered.  Today they stand by need to create guest experiences with a WOW factor. Guests can sail over Vermont’s Green Mountains in a hot air balloon, catch a wave and listen to the tales of Hawaii’s top surfers or sample the wares of 100 Washington State wineries.  Integrity and leadership are also key elements of Benchmark’s vision, according to Alex Cabañas. 

Benchmark Resort hotels santa barbara team buildingBenchmark state of the art auditoriums

etc.venues (15 venues in the UK) are recognised for their culture of innovation. They are city located and accessible by public transport and they focus on a new generation of delegates preferring contemporary venues.   Talking with MD Alastair Stewart about innovation, he said that venues, like any product, can sometimes have a shelf life and unfortunately unlike cars, scrapping them is not straightforward, which has left the industry with a legacy of venues now looking a bit historic.  Last year etc.venues closed two of their older venues and replaced them with new models in the same city. This was well received by clients who saw advances in design and tech innovation.  

Etc Venues Meeting Room

Change is the new normal

Today, the meetings model is all about keeping things fresh. I cannot remember a time in the past where the meeting model changed so much that venue groups would close and re-open new venues with new footprints simply to accommodate radical changes in the way meetings are run!  

So, what is the makeup of an individual or company that is positively disrupting the industry and why does it matter?  In several cases, it can be said that these disrupters who are bringing new venues, new meeting formats, new products or technologies into the industry are not shackled by the past. They do not have years of being in the hospitality or meetings industry and they come with no baggage. 

Or, they are savvy and look outside of the industry for creativity and innovation. They do not accept the current pain points and they dedicate time and energy into providing settings that will create something better than what we have come to accept over the years. The meetings industry will flourish on the opinions of those new to the industry and who are not be afraid to question the status-quo. 

For those charged with providing new venues and services, leadership may benefit from a different mix of people, including those who have very little experience in the venue industry working alongside those with years of knowledge. 

Meetings that consider human behaviour

The way we run meetings has changed and continues to change, influenced by specialists in human behaviours, creating companies that apply this science to how people should interact and how meetings should be run. Mike Van Der Vijver of Mind Meeting who helps IACC re-invent and plan our meetings around the globe cites: “Most meetings look like classrooms. Now it is true that learning is one of the main reasons why people attend meetings, but classroom teaching is usually extremely ineffective. Teaching science has known for many decades that it is a method that doesn’t fit well with how the human brain and body work: people want more variety, they need physical movement, they need to process the learning and they learn better when interacting with their peers. All of these needs are ignored by current meeting formats. How we run meetings needs to (and will!) continue to change.”

Another industry pioneer, Dianne Devitt, Chief Experience Officer of the DND Group, believes that providing new venue formats is not always about taking big risks to help craft better meetings.  “The concept of Meeting Design is to have a deliberately planned and blocked (as in staging) process that allows the meeting message to manifest,” she says. “If it takes too much time and effort for a meeting planner to work with the venue to change the set-up and the venue providing floor plans to them based on furniture they have in house, that is a barrier to the creativity and flexibility the meeting requires. Second, if there are complex labor costs that the client incurs, count that as another barrier to success.”
Planners and suppliers alike need to understand what is driving rapid change. Within the meeting planner community, we see an equal amount of desire for change and perhaps the millennial influence will be a catalyst for more rapid change in future. This generation also seeks inspiration from outside of the industry. Meeting organizers, many from the MPI community across the globe, participated in our research because they were curious and keen to drive change.  Let’s encourage meeting planners, venue operators and suppliers to continue disrupting this great industry. Fasten your seatbelts!   

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(This article was originally published on the MPI website).

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