The heavy lifting is still ahead for the scientists, negotiators, activists, and world leaders who are gathering this week for the global climate summit in Copenhagen. But long before the formal proceedings began, summit participants had proven two crucial points that meeting professionals often forget when we focus too much on day-to-day operations and too little on clients' objectives:
- Meetings are at their best when there is a compelling reason for a group to convene.
- For participants, the days on site are just part of a journey that began long before the conference and will continue long after.
For immediacy of purpose, it's hard to beat the 15th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP15). "If we don't deliver in Copenhagen, then I cannot see when again you can build up a similar pressure on all the governments of this world to deliver," said COP15 President Connie Hedegaard, Denmark's minister of climate and energy. Failure in Copenhagen, she said, would mean "the whole global democratic system not being able to deliver results on one of the defining challenges of our century."
Contrast COP15's focus with organizations that reflexively hold the same meeting year after year, just because it's time to meet again, with little or no reference to strategic purpose. The need for COP15 is clear with every new report of shrinking glaciers, extreme weather disasters, or record-high temperatures. But for too many planners, it's still an unwelcome chore to map every meeting back to the host organization's objectives, and rethink or cancel any meeting without a well-defined purpose.
The back-channel criticism of the annual climate summit is that a gathering of leaders for a few days can't hope to make a dent in a big, intractable problem like climate change—and unless it can, the dollars and carbon emissions spent in bringing delegates together will be wasted.
This brings us to the second lesson meeting professionals can learn from COP15. A meeting is at its best when it serves as a punctuation mark—ideally, an exclamation point—between the discussions that precede it and the actions that follow.
On the road to Copenhagen, the advocacy group 350.org organized more than 5,200 events in 181 countries to highlight the need for a global climate treaty. Cabinet ministers from the Maldives held a meeting underwater to dramatize the fate that awaits their island nation unless the anticipated rise in sea level can be averted. Nepal convened "the world's highest Cabinet meeting" at Mount Everest. And many of the world's biggest carbon emitters—including the U.S., China, India, Japan, and Indonesia—have shown new momentum toward a meaningful global climate agreement after a decade or more of political stalemate.
"In that sense," Hedegaard said, "Copenhagen has already delivered results. If we hadn't had that deadline, these governments would not have come forward with their targets."
As the meetings industry searches for ways to define and measure return on investment of meetings and events, it's hard to imagine a better example.
Mitchell Beer, CMM, is president and CEO of The Conference Publishers Inc., one of the world's leading specialists in capturing and repurposing conference content. Beer blogs at theconferencepublishers.com/blog. Send comments, facts, arguments, or column ideas to email@example.com.