The Color Marketing Group has a meeting that's to dye for: A twice yearly gathering of color designers from around the world whose mission is to forecast the color trends we'll see in coming years in everything from cars to cosmetics. Nearly half of the 1,100 or so members of the Alexandria, Va.-based association, many of whom are competitors, come to each meeting to collaborate, share their expertise, learn from each other, and come up with the palette of the future — all in just three and a half days.

It's no small undertaking, but CMG's executive director, Jaime Stephens, revels in the challenge. Though she hung up her director of conferences hat to take on the exec position over a year ago, she still is very involved in every aspect of the events, held twice a year, in the spring and fall. Part of the attraction is that it's very different from other conferences she's dealt with in her 20 years of working with associations. It's about more than just education and networking: “It's a true working conference that results in a tangible work product,” she says.

So how does this group do it? With a lot of forethought, participation, and collaboration — and acute attention to every meeting-planning detail.

Color My World

While most people don't give it a whole lot of thought, color design saturates every corner of our lives and, while it may not lead to world peace or ending hunger, what the group does at its spring and fall International Conferences is vitally important in the marketplace.

“Research shows that something like 65 percent of a consumer's purchasing decision is based on color and packaging,” Stephens points out. She notes, however, that, while the forecasts developed at CMG's two annual meetings outline coming cross-industry color trends, they aren't meant to be applied across the board so that, say, every car that comes out in 2009 is the same shade of red. Color designers take the forecasts, called Color Cards, and interpret the information to meet the needs of their industry and products.

Color designers in the consumer realm gather at the spring meeting to determine what colors will be hot 18 to 24 months out in toys, notebook covers, house paint, wall switches — basically, anything the general public buys. At the fall conference, they tackle the future palette for the contract market, which includes products for hotels, restaurants, healthcare facilities, and other commercial entities. Both conferences average about 400 attendees. Stephens says approximately 20 percent of CMG's membership attend both.

These meetings are held in North America, but CMG's reach is global. Not only do attendees come from as far away as Australia and Japan, but CMG also produces similar, though smaller, regional conferences outside the U.S. over the course of the year, including meetings in Europe and the Asia Pacific region. While those at the twice-annual International Conferences come up with worldwide future color trends, the regional meetings attendees decide what colors will be important in their areas of the world.

“We are constantly planning,” Stephens says, adding that the regional meetings are just as much work as the larger international meetings. “It's no more difficult to run a large meeting than a small one. The details are the same.”

Working the Crowd

“There's a lot more involved in the process than just gazing into a crystal ball,” says longtime member and attendee Sunny Maffeo, creative director, color and design global marketing, with the chemical company BASF. “It's intense, and an incredible amount of work is done both ahead of time and at the meetings to develop a workable, usable forecast that can be used on an international level.”

Well before the conferences, attendees are tasked with creating their own color predictions to bring to the conference, using worksheets provided by CMG. While they start out looking like your basic form, “You should see some of these worksheets when they're complete,” says Stephens. “They'll have feathers and rocks on them, even snakeskins.”

At the meeting, attendees are broken out into 30 to 40 different work groups, the exact number of small groups depending on the total number of attendees. “We don't like to go above 12 people in a group because it can become unmanageable,” Stephens says.

They also try to keep the groups as heterogeneous as possible so no one company's perspective is emphasized. This can be interesting because some companies have multiple CMG members in their ranks. (CMG is an individual membership organization.) “We might have a Benjamin Moore person and a Sherwin-Williams person in a group, but we would try not to put more than one person from the same organization in the same workshop,” she says.

In addition to the forecasting work groups, there also are workshops that look at what colors currently are in vogue in the marketplace and design workshops that track factors that influence color trends — which can be anything from social issues to politics to new technology. Sometimes, these influences can have unexpected results. For example, while a layperson might think that September 11 would lead to subdued colors, Maffeo says the opposite happened. “The colors and shapes of the 1950s came back, upbeat colors and simple lines. We retreated to times when things felt safe.”

A facilitator and co-facilitator referee the process as participants present their predictions and back them up with the reasons why they believe in that particular color's place on the palette. There are lots of strong personalities, Maffeo says, and “Sometimes, it becomes very passionate because people feel so strongly about their colors that they will fight for them.” Maffeo says that consensus comes as participants start to see trends in the colors presented.

Once the small groups reach consensus, they bring their results to the steering committee, which distills it all down to the final palette. “They work throughout the night,” says Stephens.

At the closing session, they report back to the whole group, giving them a first glimpse at the official color forecast. The actual printed Color Card, which takes a few months to produce, is disseminated well after the meeting.

Pretty Colors, Ugly Baby

While the palettes may be beautiful, the meeting logistics can be another story — especially when it comes to site selection. “One of my friends in the industry calls our meetings an ugly baby because we require a large amount of meeting space in proportion to our sleeping rooms,” says Stephens. “We have a 400-night room block on peak night, and we're using 30 to 40 small breakout rooms, in addition to the regular meeting space we require for our general sessions, luncheons, and other breakouts.”

One solution — using a convention center — is out of the question for this group, she says. “They are just too austere for our group.” CMG's constituency tends to be on the upscale side, Stephens adds. “This is the first association I've worked with that doesn't have four members sharing a double room with one additional person sleeping in the bathtub.”

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She says it's a constant challenge to find an upscale hotel, preferably in a first-tier city, that can take their ugly baby's requirements and not be what she calls “a cookie-cutter convention hotel.” Sometimes, she finds just the right place — for example, the Westin Diplomat in Hollywood, Fla., which they contracted before it opened — only to be priced out of the market later on. For the 2007 Fall International Conference, CMG booked the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel and Marina.

“We want to grow, but it gets more difficult to find places that can serve our needs,” Stephens says. Once the right hotel is found, CMG uses cleared-out parlor portions of suites to house the workshops. “A parlor suite can leave something to the imagination. The natural light also is something our members prefer.”

One thing that helps pretty up the ugly baby, she says, is having generally well-heeled attendees, who tend to go to the spa and spend money throughout the hotel. And CMG has a “fairly high food and beverage budget, so it's a nice piece of business for the hotel.”

Another plus is the nature of the meeting itself. “Hotel salespeople tend to be intrigued by us because we're such an unusual organization. Of course,” she adds, “everyone wants us to give them the take on their hotel — are their colors right? A lot of times we'll have to tell them that their carpet could use some improvement, which they're not too thrilled about if they just spent a lot of money renovating.”

Spectrophotometer, Anyone?

One would think that CMG's meetings would be very colorful affairs, but in fact, Stephens says plainer is better. “We don't put a lot into the stage sets and tablecloths.” But CMG does specify that tabletops and skirting in the workshops be white because “our members need a clean slate to look at their colors against.” CMG brings its own high-intensity lights, which allow workshop participants to examine colors in the cleanest possible light.

Audiovisual equipment, however, is “a huge expense,” she says. “We have two general session speakers, and some concurrent sessions throughout, and they need to be sharp. We're not AV-intensive, but the AV we need has to be impeccable.” Especially, she says, when it comes to the report back on the final day. “When they're showing the colors they've selected, we have to have the correct color projected on the screen.” They even use a spectrophotometer to calibrate the colors. “Members want to have a mental snapshot of what's on the screen, and it better be the colors they put forth the days before,” says Stephens. “What would be irritating to most other organizations is critical for us.”

But ultimately, she says, “it's the collaborative nature of the working process that really appeals to our members.” As a participant, Maffeo agrees. “The networking opportunities are some of the biggest benefits of this organization. People may be competitors, but they share everything” during the conference.

“There's something about these meetings that is different from other organizations I belong to: You don't feel like you're working, even though you're working really hard the whole time,” says Maffeo. “You form such close friendships that, even though you might not see each other for a year, when you do get together, everything just falls in place.”

Following the 7 Rules

Speaker Ed Bernacki of the Idea Factory, Ottawa, Ontario, has outlined seven rules that, when followed, result in more engaging and effective conferences. He says the Color Marketing Group's meetings follow all seven.

Rule 1: The experts at your conference are in the audience, not on the stage. CMG offers 30 to 40 small group workshops designed specifically to harness the collective brainpower of its attendees.

Rule 2: Think return on investment. “They engage participants in the process, and they come up with results,” says Bernacki. “There's your ROI.”

Rules 3 and 4: Design your conference with logistics and learning; let the learning objectives drive the design of your content. CMG's conferences have learning goals, expected results, and ways to get there. On the logistics side, all the details — from providing the right kind of light to using a spectrophotometer to get the colors right — go directly toward achieving those results.

Rule 5: Always use the brainpower of the audience to create something. CMG's meetings have the express purpose of creating a color forecast.

Rule 6: Put structure into your networking and mingling opportunities. CMG offers a mentoring program to help new members get acclimated and introduced to others with like interests.

Rule 7: Assume that your conference participants have weak skills for participating in a conference. CMG provides a mandatory training workshop for newbies to teach them how the color-forecasting process works and how to best participate.

A Rose by Any Other Name

Participants in the Color Marketing Group's two annual International Conferences not only predict the color trends of the future — they also get to name them. Inspiration can come from many sources, says CMG Executive Director Jaime Stephens, but about half of the forecasted color names have something to do with the meeting's host city. “For example, when we were in San Francisco, there was an orangy color called Golden Gate,” she says. Names also can be born from anything that's going on at the time, she adds. “Like a couple of years ago when we had Brokeback Bronze.”