The crowd at the Professional Convention Management Association's 2012 Convening Leaders annual meeting in San Diego this week, January 8–11, is experiencing a revamped program that incorporates the live with the virtual, and a variety of format innovations.

For the opening general session, for example, which typically includes a discussion of association business followed by a keynoter, the conference organizers tried something new. They dropped the PCMA business entirely and scheduled three short keynote presentations—from Dr. John Medina, Jane McGonigal, and Sally Hogshead—a design PCMA president and CEO Deborah Sexton said was intended to be like the innovative TED Conference.

Medina, author of Brain Rules, underscored the benefits of the change in format. In his talk about how we process information, he explained that the brain takes in information for a discrete period of time and then wants time to digest it. Information is best processed in 10-minute chunks, he said.

The second speaker, video game designer Jane McGonigal, was not actually with the live audience at the San Diego Convention Center. She was broadcast in to talk about how gaming can be used in meetings to engage and create positive emotions among attendees as well as to solve problems and have real world impact. "The opposite of play isn't work,” she said. “It’s depression." Author Sally Hogshead concluded the general session with advice on how to fascinate and captivate an audience.

Closing out the first day of the conference, New York Times columnist David Brooks talked to PCMA’s attendees about presidential politics and the importance of face-to-face meetings to forge social connections, solve problems, and create harmony among people. "The quality of social connections is what makes people happy," said Brooks, author most recently of The Social Animal. Meetings also foster social intelligence, which is often overlooked in the business world, he said. "Emotion is the foundation of reason."

PCMA expanded its Learning Lounge concept to include four stages this year and more then 150 sessions, many as short as 15 minutes. Each stage or “hub” has a theme—Digital U, on hybrid and virtual technologies; APP4THAT, demonstrating mobile technologies; THINK, for new ideas; and SOCIETY, featuring an idea exchange.

The Virtual Edge Institute's Summit, which last year co-located with PCMA, is more integrated this year. Rather than beginning immediately after PCMA, the VEI sessions are running concurrently with PCMA breakouts.

With the addition of the VEI and Learning Lounge sessions, the schedule is more customizable, said Sexton. Sessions run for a variety of lengths—15, 30, 60, or 90 minutes—and attendees have more flexibility to use their time as they wish. She admitted that PCMA is taking some chances, but added that the leadership feels strongly that the association has to be on the leading edge of meeting trends. "We're very fortunate that our members allow us to take risks," said Sexton. "If members leave here excited about trying something new, changing it up, that's what it’s all about."

Final numbers weren't available at press time, but attendance was expected to surpass last year's total of 3,473, with a record amount of planners projected. In addition, about 600 virtual attendees had logged on by the end of day one and that number was expected to rise. PCMA also reported record membership numbers, with strong growth among corporate planners, according to True Value Co.’s Susan Katz, 2011 PCMA chair, who noted that the conference content reflected that change.

Among the attendees in San Diego, PCMA counted 120 who came in person after attending the virtual meeting last year. And none of them had attended a live PCMA meeting in at least six years. That's proof, said Sexton, that hybrid meetings drive attendance to face-to-face meetings.