There's no more powerful way of communicating than meetings, says David Rich. Then why, for so many companies, are they an afterthought?

Q:Are many meetings missed opportunities?

A: I think so. In an era of global competition, everybody wants the best and the brightest. One of the secret weapons--I say "secret" only because most organizations have yet to realize the power of meetings and events--is the tool of live communication.

The interesting thing about meetings and events in terms of missed opportunities is that there's really no more powerful way of garnering commitment than live communication. Those companies that figure out how to use this tool to their best advantage will be able to compete more successfully.

Q:Are more senior executives realizing the strategic value of their companies' meetings?

A: It's slow to evolve, but more and more I'm seeing it. I know a few who know the secret of the power of meetings, and they're running with the ball. There's a banking executive named Ed O'Neill, who was vice chairman of BankBoston, one of the largest banks in the world, for about six years. He used meetings and events as part of a "kit of tools" to help motivate, educate, and train people. The fact that BankBoston was doing so well is one of the reasons they were able to buy BayBank, the leader in retail banking.

Q:Are more companies evaluating the ROI of their meetings?

A: Absolutely. About three or four years ago, the MPI Foundation created a training model on ROI, so meeting professionals could help their clients achieve the best return on their meeting investment. More companies are saying, "Why should we spend this money on a meeting?" It behooves meeting professionals to figure out how to help organizations maximize their investment.

I go into this in my upcoming book. My hope is that at some point companies will automatically assume they have to use qualified meeting professionals (either in-house planners or independent consultants) to help them achieve their strategic objectives.

Q:You advocate that every decision regarding a meeting, from the promotion to the site to the speakers and entertainment, be tied into that meeting's purpose. Can you elaborate on this, and give an example of a meeting that succeeded in doing this?

A: It should be tied not only into the meeting's purpose, but the company's mission, goals, and culture. This is not only the new way of thinking about meetings; it's also the way to make meetings most powerful and to maximize the investment and the opportunity.

The idea is integrity. If you design a meeting and one element is out of sync, you lose design integrity. That's why every decision must be weighed against those elements--to insure that there's consistency, congruity, and clarity in the design structure.

The site makes a big difference in delivering that message. When I was part of Interface Inc.'s Global Paragon Award-winning team last year (see article on page 47), the site was a big factor. Yet after the site--the Grand Wailea Resort and Spa in Maui--was chosen, the planning team pointed out that it was the worst place to go in terms of being authentic. That's because Interface holds itself out as a company at the forefront of environmental sustainability, yet the resort, as magnificent as it is, is a big polluter of the local environment and a big consumer of local environmental resources.

Interface's environmental and planning teams came up with a brilliant idea: Let's use the experience of going to this resort as a metaphor for how we can all change our actions to lessen our negative impact on the environment. So they said to the hotel, "We're going to rent your entire facility for a little over a week. But we want to go to your property ahead of time and do an eco-audit so we can determine how you might be able to change your operations for that week to lessen the negative impact of our stay." Interface got the resort to take all the usual amenities out of the rooms--soaps, shampoos, etc.--in favor of amenities Interface ordered that were environmentally friendly. Since a big polluter at resorts is the oils from sun screens, they found a water-based sun screen. They also replaced the towels only every three days, so they wouldn't use so much detergent.

It turned out to be win-win on every side. The 1,100 attendees got to model for themselves the experience of changing their habits in a way that lessened the environmental impact of what they were doing. In other words, they got to support their own corporate mission. And the meeting reinforced that because every day a member of the environmental team got up in front of the group and told them what they had saved that day in environmental resources by changing their behavior. At the end, they tallied up the results, which represented over $1 million in savings.

Promoting the meeting can also be tied into the overall goal. For example, Interface's promotional materials for this meeting were printed in soy-based inks on recycled paper. Without environmentally friendly materials, they would have lost integrity.

You also want your speakers and entertainers to be in sync with the meeting's purpose and the company's culture, missions, and values. If you have someone who's not, the audience will ask themselves what that has to do with why they're there--and even if they don't, you've robbed them of the ability to hear your message. So how do you expect them to act on it?

Q:How have meetings changed?

A: The old style of meeting is, "We're going to tell you what we want you to do." Today's knowledge workers couldn't care less unless it's relevant to them. You have to provide an experience that makes it clear that you believe they're up to the challenge. That's not accomplished by telling people. You have to give people something they can do. You have to have goals. No longer is talking to your people, or having them talk to each other, the sum total.

Q:How do you see the role of the professional meeting planner evolving?

A: We need to re-define our profession. If meeting planners want to be in the most secure position and at the cutting edge, it's incumbent on them to educate themselves so they can position themselves to clients as strategic advisers. Companies are going to want consultants who can advise them about the strategic aspects of their meetings and events--not just the logistics.

Meeting professionals have to make sure they're equipped to assume this strategic role. The disciplines in which they will need to be experts and draw from are far greater than in the past. That means very aggressive education, which is one reason I'm such a supporter of MPI.

Q:As the New England chapter president of MPI, how is that organization evolving?

A: Over the past year and a half, I've focused 99 percent of my activity on getting our board and membership to think more strategically, and getting educational programs to focus on how our members can better position themselves as strategic advisers.

Our chapter has this message: We as meeting professionals have to do more to establish our value to our clients. Slowly but surely, more people are coming around to see that this is true.