People don't just meet and greet in a small meeting environment; they work side by side to sweat out the issues, gain knowledge, and learn how to use what they know to move toward a resolution. A good small meeting may be intense, but so are the issues we face today.

I experienced that small-meeting intensity and connection firsthand when I went to the first annual Continuing Medical Education Leadership in the 21st Century Conference, held at the R. David Thomas Executive Conference Center on the campus of Duke University in Durham, N.C., this past September. It was definitely an ugly baby on paper: a grueling 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. schedule lasting four days, and a binder heavy as my dictionary. It was tough, and tiring. It was also the best meeting I've ever attended.

QUIT YER WHINING

Just two short breaks a day, and we have to work through meals? “We'll never survive,” we moaned as we took our seats for the first evening's sessions. “We're renaming the conference ‘CME Boot Camp,’” Joe Green, PhD, associate dean of CME, Duke Office of CME at the Duke University School of Medicine, replied with an evil grin. Nevertheless, he and the other faculty decided to cancel some of that night's activities. They continued to shift activities and delete some of the least essential over the next several days.

But despite the long hours of sitting in a classroom, almost no one got up during a session to get coffee, make a call, or visit the rest room — when was the last time you saw that? It helped that almost all of the meeting space in the facility had strategically placed windows to let in the natural light, ergonomically designed furniture, and round-the-clock break food. And while we were supposed to be working through meals, at least the food was delicious.

The faculty members, while a bit technologically challenged, also helped to keep the energy up during the course of the meeting. Many never left the room, contributing to the conversations even during their “off” time. In fact, much of the most interesting information came from the faculty members batting around a topic with each other and the participants. And they volunteered to come — no one got paid to teach at this conference.

FROM IDEAL TO REAL

We walked into the conference with a clear, albeit lofty, set of goals in mind: to get help meeting individual leadership challenges; to develop a community of leadership for the profession; and to enhance our leadership skills. The organizers also had nine specific outcomes they wanted to happen, such as translating research on learning and change into leadership imperatives, and using different perspectives on the future of healthcare to create strategic visions and initiatives. It really got us jazzed to hear these faculty, who were some of the top leaders in the field, talk to us about this stuff as if we could really make a difference. By the end, we didn't just believe we could; we knew it.

One thing that really got us working together was the “leadership challenge.” We were asked to presubmit a leadership challenge we face in our workplace, which we later outlined before the group. We were divided into three small groups, with whom we would discuss our challenges during meal times. Great concept, but the team thing didn't work — we dropped it after a day. People really just wanted to relax during meals. So instead of one faculty “team leader” being assigned to each pre-assigned table of participants, everyone sat where they wanted and faculty mingled at large.

What did work was giving us a space in the conference binder specifically for writing down notes relevant to our projects, and questions we would like to discuss further. The faculty reminded us often to use those pages, and by the conference's end, everyone had a game plan and specific strategies to use to tackle their challenge.

And while I doubt it was officially in the program, humor was a key ingredient to the conference's success. The faculty all knew and respected each other and had no problem calling each other out on mis-statements, arguing a point, or making a joke. It showed participants what a working leadership community looks and feels like, and it looked and felt like something we wanted to develop for ourselves.

The mixture of formats presenters used helped to keep us focused as well. Interactive lectures, panel discussions, and Q&As were followed up with small-group breakouts to apply what we learned to a real-life case study. The mentoring program was surprisingly successful, seeing as it was the last thing on each day's schedule. We may have been bone-tired and brain-dead by 9 p.m., but we still lined up for the chance to pick the experts' brains one on one. Faculty also used a variety of media to get their points across, including videos (popcorn included!) and music, which helped get our minds wrapped around the concepts.

By the meeting's end, we were bleary-eyed, wrung-out — and packed with enough knowledge and enthusiasm to keep the momentum going. As we hugged good-bye, I found myself amazed, yet gratified, to see that this motley crew, coming from every perspective in the continuing medical education community, had made a connection that would help us all move forward in what had become our common quest to improve the state of healthcare in America and beyond. That's how powerful a small meeting can be.

Conference Centers Rethink F&B

Food and beverage is suddenly a hot topic for conference centers, according to a panel of executives whose facilities are members of the International Association of Conference Centers. The panel met in New York City recently at the JP Morgan Chase Conference Center to discuss trends in the conference center industry.

In the past, food and beverage “was a non-important piece” of a conference center's offerings, admitted Laura Neumann, vice president, Benchmark Hospitality, The Woodlands, Texas. “Now, when people book a meeting, food and beverage plays a large part in the decision-making. It's a very competitive environment, and we've learned a lot from our hotel competition. Consequently, she said, there are now fewer buffets and more food that is imaginative or “interactive.” She also noted that “a lot of people have different dietary needs. We need to gauge the customer's needs and be able to react.”

Conference centers continue to wrestle with the issue of the CMP (Complete Meeting Package). The all-inclusive CMP — guest rooms, meals, meeting rooms, some AV equipment and services, and continuous coffee breaks — offers the benefit of no-surprise pricing. Still, some planners don't want to be locked in, and there was a time when conference centers seemed to be loosening up on their requirements. But not these panelists.

“We hold our salespeople accountable for keeping the CMP intact — it's very profitable,” said Neumann. “We're becoming a little more flexible, but we don't do that lightly. For example, we'll allow them to take dinner out of the package, but we don't offer full credit.”

Geoffrey Lawson, general manager, IBM Palisades, Palisades, N.J., added, “We don't unbundle. We sell the value of the facility. But we do have a rate range.”