For the third time, the International Association of Conference Centers brought together a panel of “thought leaders” during its annual conference for a wide-ranging discussion about meeting design that included participation from a virtual audience.

This year’s session, “Creating Compelling Meeting Experiences,” was again moderated by John Potterton, CMP, president of the Naperville, Ill.–based hospitality consulting group Potterton & Associates LLC and adjunct professor with Roosevelt University. Potterton opened the session by asking, “What do an architect, an accountant, a psychologist, a brain scientist, a happiness provider, and an educational-space consultant have in common?” The answer: All were seated around the table to take part in the discussion. In fact, the idea of involving many different disciplines in meeting design came up throughout the three-hour discussion, as each participant not only offered his or her own expertise but acknowledged the importance of a broad focus in creating compelling meetings.

As Jeff Vredevoogd, director, Herman Miller Education, who works with universities to design spaces for teaching and learning, put it: If the goal is to create “meaningfully different meeting experiences,” we need to consider “the facilitator, the attendee, technology, lighting, furniture, food … You need a much broader conversation than, ‘Can I fit 50 people in this room?’”

The other panelists were: Terri Breining, CMP, CMM, of The Breining Group, who is also a member of the Steering Committee for Project Meeting Architecture; Bob Dean, director, North America, for Profiling Online, who has long been involved in education with professional services firms; Amy Wickenheisser, CMP, general manager, Hamilton Park Hotel & Conference Center, in Florham Park, N.J.; Richard Flanagan, a psychologist and author of The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning: How to Turn Training and Development into Business Results; and Andrea Sullivan, president, BrainStrength Systems, whose focus is “brain-compatible meeting design.”

The idea of bringing brain science into a discussion of meeting design sounds at once new and obvious. Said Sullivan, “how we receive information, how we remember it, and how it gets translated into action all depends on physiological processes. Our biological state has a huge impact on everything that goes on around learning and meetings.”

Meeting rooms often are places of “sensory poverty,” she said. “Boredom actually hurts the brain—it’s use it or lose it. We need different stimulations. When everything is firing, we are thinking better and learning better.”

Amy Wickenheisser has seen that idea play out in changing requests from meeting planners during her 22 years with the Hamilton Park Hotel & Conference Center. Take the amphitheater, for example. It used to be a must-have for conference centers. Now, she said, “it’s the last room sold. People don’t want an amphitheater anymore. They want pods and clusters in their general sessions.” They want to capture the energy and focus in the room and dissolve into small groups there, rather than moving to separate breakout rooms. And many small groups, she added, are looking for soft furniture. “They want a coffee-house setting.”

One of the main points is that these setups are non-standard—they are giving attendees’ brains more to focus on. Sullivan pointed out that any kind of “novelty” is great for perking up the brain. You don’t have to go bigger and better, she said, just different.

Measuring the Experience

So you think you’ve created a compelling meeting. How do you know if you have succeeded?

Much of the panel’s discussion was about measuring return on investment, Terri Breining’s specialty. Moderator John Potterton asked her for the “secret formula” for measuring ROI. “It’s simple,” she said. “The secret formula is identifying clear objectives—know what you want to happen as a result of your meeting—and figuring out how you will measure whether those objectives were met.”

Stating it is simple, of course. Doing it is not. However, Breining emphasized, measuring ROI is not optional. “It’s not easy. It’s not a checklist. It’s a new skill set. But it’s something that can and must be learned to justify face-to-face meetings.

“ROI finally gives us something concrete to talk about,” she said. “Previously we spoke about the success of a meeting in anecdotal terms only: ‘People had a good time.’ Now we need to gather the data to support that good time. Corporations spend millions of dollars on meetings and few know if they’ve accomplished anything.

“Intuitively they know measuring outcomes is important, but there hasn’t been a method.” Now, she said, there is the ROI Methodology, which measures meeting ROI by the same process that is used to measure other business investments.”

Meeting Architecture: Not About Being Cool

Breining also is an expert in the emerging discipline of meeting architecture. “Meeting architecture is a process of meeting design that touches all the sciences,” she explained. “It integrates best practices from organizational development, marketing, adult learning, as well as using color, outdoor space … It goes beyond logistics to the larger experience.”

It is not, she added, about designing a cool meeting. It’s about a strategic process. Where does the meeting fit into your larger strategy?” And finally, it is about measuring outcomes and deciding on course corrections. While it may sound daunting, “It’s not a huge departure from what most planners already are doing,” she said. “It’s more about expanding what they already do.

“Conference centers are vital partners,” Breining continued. “Not many meeting planners are using the meeting architecture process. This is an opportunity for conference centers to help their clients. The philosophy of conference centers matches the philosophy of meeting architecture.” The idea, she added, is to change the mindset from how to set up the room to how the room setup, and all the other elements of the meeting, will help accomplish the organization’s goals.

Richard Flanagan also called on conference centers to recognize their opportunity to help clients define a successful meeting. “Help meeting planners understand and work through what success means for all stakeholders,” he said. “My mantra is: ‘What are people doing differently and better because of meetings?’”

Time to Flip Meeting Content

The panelists agreed that hybrid meetings, which incorporate both face-to-face and online components, are here to stay. But don’t worry that offering content for free on the Web will be a threat to attendance at future events. Potterton said studies have now proven that live-streaming and online archiving actually drives more people to meetings as they see the quality of the content and become hungry for the full experience of the meeting.

But there’s more to managing content than slapping conference presentations up online, said educational-space-design specialist Vredevoogd. It’s time to flip how we think about content altogether. There’s much meeting planners can learn from universities, where the trend is to have professors put their lectures online to be viewed as homework before the class, he said. They then use class time to discuss, practice, and put that content into context. Calling it the “what, so what, then what” model, he said meeting organizers can use online components to post the “what” content online beforehand, and follow up with the “then what” afterwards, and use the face-to-face time to give the content meaning so the learning will stick.

This will help lead to what the panelists called “transformational learning,” or education that will lead to a change in behavior, not just education for education’s sake.

It's All Connected

To get to that transformational learning, every aspect of the meeting environment must be in tune with the educational goals of the organization, the panelists said. Sullivan, who specializes in designing brain-compatible meetings, says every moment of the meeting is connected to the learning experience. “If I have a hard time finding a space to park my car, click, that’s a moment,” she said. That’s why, Vredevoogd added, you should think of every space connected to your meeting—from the parking lot to the dining area to the actual meeting rooms—as performance space that should be designed to meet your meeting’s goals.

Now that clients are sharing their experiences on Twitter and other social media in real time, Wickenheisser noted, conference centers need to monitor what they’re saying about both satisfaction and sacrifices in real time as well. She gets a daily report of comments being made about the Hamilton Park Hotel & Conference Center and its competitors on Twitter, TripAdvisor, and other sites. It may be time-consuming, she said, but nowadays constant monitoring is essential.

Getting to transformational learning can seem overwhelming, but Breining said the key is to remember that transformation generally occurs incrementally. “It’s about small changes. What’s the most important small thing each of us can do to get the result we want?”

And remember that it’s a process, not a one-time event, said Flanagan. Envision what you want for each piece of the process, which includes inviting someone to attend, entering into the learning space, the actual meeting experience, exiting the meeting, and extending the learning after the meeting is finished.

The members of IACC are 300 conference centers plus management companies and service providers in 13 countries. The 2011 IACC Annual Conference was held March 23–25 at the Kellogg Conference Center Hotel Gallaudet University Washington, D.C.