What’s the content at your meeting worth?

Not much, if you believe the comments of experts in the latest topic paper to be released by the Meeting Professionals International Foundation as part of its Future of Meetings project.

You need only consider the music, film, book, and game industries to see where the value of content is going—down. These realms “have seen the reduction of content value … as consumers find the materials they need easily online, but aren’t willing to pay much—or even anything—for it,” the paper states.

But that doesn’t mean attendees will stop paying for meetings; it’s just that these days they’re paying for “context” and “connections” rather than content.

As Bob Stein, co-director of the Institute for the Future of the Book and founder of The Voyager Company, puts it, even now “people don’t pay for meetings; people pay to be in the presence of other people. That’s not going to stop.”

How to charge for it? The whitepaper takes a cue from the videogame industry, which offers free downloads then makes money from “micro-transactions” within that environment—say, for better weapons or for “level ups” that unlock content. Gaming sector expert Jamie Sefton predicts we will see free-to-attend conferences where delegates pay per session or networking event.

As in the previous Future of Meetings topic papers, the third installment, "From the Outside In: Meeting Content," collects the opinions of a range of experts from outside the meetings industry: writers, teachers, and thinkers in fields such as science, population, technology, digital media, and business, as well as with economists and futurists. MPI and its research partner, the International Centre for Research in Events, Tourism and Hospitality at Leeds Metropolitan University in the U.K., chose this breadth of expertise in order to look at the larger forces at work in society, technology, and business that will affect the way we meet and connect.

Context and Connections

Live events offer the ability to connect with others and to have information put into context by experts—that’s what organizations need to promote and charge for, the paper states. Dr. Joe Redish, a physics professor at the University of Maryland, compares it to the current challenge that colleges and universities face from alternative content providers. “Anyone can get lectures on his or her own,” he says. “If you’re a teacher, and you think lecturing is what you do, your university will record your lectures and fire you.” But it doesn’t mean giving up on “brick-and-mortar universities”—or on meetings. It just means reinventing them, he says, “so they make good use of on-site interactions.”

In other words, says Bob Stein, “What people will pay for is context, meaning somebody who is able to guide them through a subject. And people are also willing to pay to communicate with other people about the ideas that are important to them.”

Flipping the Meeting

That last comment relates to rethinking how we deliver information at meetings. In one scenario, content is delivered to attendees before they ever arrive at a conference. Then, on site, it’s pure discussion and interaction with peers and experts about that content—understanding its practical relevance.

In the classroom context, this is called “flipping,” and it’s already happening. Students listen to lectures at home on tablets or computers, then arrive at school to do “homework” in class, solving problems with teachers on hand for additional guidance and clarification.

In fact, Dr. Graeme Codrington, co-founder of futurist firm TomorrowToday, says that by the end of this decade, “online education providers will offer the best teachers providing the best versions of every lesson, all for free.” Schools, therefore, will have to reinvent themselves as places of mentoring and peer learning, just as the meetings industry will do.

For example, Dr. James Powell, the U.K. academic director of the PASCAL Universities for a Modern Renaissance Programme, suggests conference speakers be given 10-minute time limit, after which delegates discuss and brainstorm with their peers.

One trend working in favor of meetings and trade shows, according to the white paper, is the reliance of companies on innovation for growth and success—innovation that needs to happen at an ever-more rapid pace. Bringing buyers, suppliers, peers, and colleagues together to share ideas can foster more efficient problem-solving and stimulate creativity.

The initial findings of the MPI Foundation Future of Meetings project were released in October at the IMEX America event in Las Vegas. The first topic paper in the series covers meeting design with regard to technology and the second considers meeting design and the attendee experience