Maarten Vanneste has long been fascinated by meeting format and design, how people learn, and providing the return on investment of a meeting.

Vanneste, who has been CEO of meeting production company Abbit Meeting Support, based in Belgium, since 1982, launched the nonprofit membership organization Meeting Support Institute two years ago to develop and promote support tools and services for the meetings industry, with a focus on learning, networking, and motivating at face-to-face events. But it wasn't until last year, when Vanneste published his book Meeting Architecture, a Manifesto, that his movement — and his vision for a new type of meeting professional — took hold.

Religious Conference Manager: How did you get the idea for the book?

Maarten Vanneste: It has to do with my quest for value and the constant questions: “Why are we doing this? Why do clients need us?” Meetings are a three-legged stool, and architecture is the third leg, the first two being logistics management and hospitality.

Without the third leg, we are not stable. Once we have a way to strategically align a meeting's values with an organization's values, focusing on the delivery of content and the way people learn, for example, we can measure a meeting's success and show return on investment.

RCM: Is meeting architecture the same as meeting design?

Vanneste: Designing the curriculum is part of what a meeting architect does. But meeting architecture still involves execution. Ultimately, the meeting architect sets objectives, designs the meeting, executes, and measures. A meeting architect builds a meeting in four “IDEA” phases: Identify objectives, Design, Execute, and Assess.

RCM: What skills does a meeting architect need?

Vanneste: A wide variety. We will reach out to more interdisciplinary associations, such as training and human-resource associations. Meeting architecture puts together science and sociology, psychology, organizational development, and the science of learning to give meeting architects the proper tools and techniques to create meeting excellence.

Meeting architecture will also result in specialists. Some meeting professionals will head in a new direction. We have developed a one-day course to be held as pre-convention sessions at our industry meetings. We need to interact with and invite C-level industry people to the discussions of meeting architecture as it goes through its evolution. Our first course took place at IMEX in late May.

RCM: How do you see the discipline moving forward? How can one become a meeting architect?

Vanneste: In addition to starting the Meeting Architecture Project, we are writing a paper with industry stakeholders called “Meeting Architecture 2011.” There will also be research for education for meeting professionals who say, “I've been there, done that.” I see a growing need for education for the junior and the senior meeting planner and for procurement executives and others in leadership in a corporation, such as senior-level marketing executives.

Eventually I see it as a two-year masters program at a university, where every student has to complete a thesis. Research will be the key. With it, we will finally be able to demonstrate our value, a meeting's value.

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