In the hours leading up to the Professional Convention Management Association’s 2012 Convening Leaders conference in San Diego, the word on the street was that PCMA had made a gutsy decision to blow up its opening general session and rebuild it from the ground up.

The word on the street didn’t lie, and the result was a session design that pointed the way for planners who want to make their conferences more relevant for the organizations that host them, and more compelling for the participants who attend.

Over the last few years, the industry has finally begun to abandon an approach to session content that relied far too little on substance and far too much on professional speakers with no particular subject specialty. But opening sessions still tend to follow a familiar, tired plan:

The organization tries to pump participants up with motivational messaging and heavy musical beats. … The stage lights come up, and the CEO (or chair or president) talks about the challenges facing the industry (or association or profession) and the giant strides the organization has taken to address them. … A generic motivational keynote delivers predictable anecdotes and formulaic advice that are sure to propel participants to ever greater heights of success. … And, if there’s a foundation, you can expect a fundraising pitch.

Very little of that describes the opening session at PCMA.

The association’s first gutsy decision was to move organizational messaging out of the opening and into a town hall that took place on the last morning of the conference. Board Chairwoman Susan Katz appeared for two or three minutes, mainly to thank the sponsors. If anything, Katz and the other dignitaries spent too little time on stage. Their job was clearly to introduce the speakers and get out of the way.

And, oh, the speakers. Molecular biologist Dr. John Medina brought insights directly from the lab to suggest strategies for making conference sessions more brain-friendly. Gamification pioneer Jane McGonigal described a project that used a scavenger hunt—probably the most basic of game formats—to build a powerful legacy for the New York Public Library’s centennial.

The third keynote was fluffier, but the overall effect was an opening that walked the talk. A colleague commented afterward that many meeting and event associations spend their general session time talking up the value of meetings and the importance of solid content. At those moments, as an industry, we’re very good at reassuring ourselves how very good we think we are at what we do. Refreshingly, PCMA spoke with actions rather than words.

That’s a good thing, because ours is the only industry where state-of-the-art general session design is worth demonstrating in the session itself. A surgical society or an architecture institute might use or adapt those techniques, but they have no need to convey them to members. The connection is more direct for our associations because meetings are our business, and it was great to see PCMA embrace the opportunity.

Mitchell Beer, CMM, is president of The Conference Publishers Inc., Ottawa, one of the world’s leading specialists in capturing and repurposing conference content, and founding chair of the GMIC Sustainable Meetings Foundation. Beer blogs at and tweets as @mitchellbeer.