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Generation Next: Are Demographic Shifts Having an Impact on Meetings?

Since 2011, when the oldest baby boomers turned 65, an average of 1,000 Canadians are reaching retirement age every day.  In the U.S. Pew Research reports 10,000 Americans are retiring each day -- a figure that makes sense since the U.S. has roughly 10 times Canada's population.  In both countries the recession may be delaying some leaving the workforce, but by 2014, the retirement wave is expected to hit.

While younger generations, commonly referred to as Generation X and Y, together outnumber boomers, they do not have the experience or aren’t necessarily interested in replacing boomers in certain sectors.  Industry groups from tourism to petroleum are warning of labour shortages starting as early as 2013.

So what does this have to do with meetings? If bringing people face-to-face is meant to facilitate learning and change, motivating and engaging employees, demographic shifts may represent important challenges to the way meetings and events are planned.    

In both her books, Rock Stars Incorporated (2007) and The End of Membership as We Know It (2011), American generational expert Sarah Sladek of XYZ University offers colourful descriptions of the factors that distinguish each generation at work.

Resistant to Change

She describes boomers as growing up in a time of affluence, “reared to pursue the American Dream.”  They show a preference for face-to-face communication and an appreciation for meetings. Boomers, Sladek says, generally assume “no news is good news,” managing their work accordingly. Because they’ve held a dominant position in society for so long, they may be somewhat resistant to change.

Canadian author Cheryl Cran echoes many of Sladek’s observations in her book 101 Ways to Make Generations X, Y and Zoomers Happy at Work. By comparison she says Generation X grew up with political and economic uncertainty, with Watergate, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the 1990s recession. As children of divorce, they grew up self-sufficient and most hate to be micro-managed at work. Many saw their hard-working parents dismissed by employers, so GenXers insist on balancing work and family, looking at meetings that infringe upon their private time with a jaded eye.

Tech Savvy

Both authors similarly describe Generation Y: They grew up with a full schedule of activities, being rewarded “just for showing up.” Preferring frequent interaction with peers and supervisors, they are easily hurt by negative feedback. They are used to group problem-solving, expect to have a voice at meetings and to use the technology they are so familiar with. Just as with GenX, GenY workers “work to live” and not the other way around.

So what are younger generations looking for in meetings?

Last May a study funded by the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) Educational Foundation weighed in with results about what the “millennial generation” (GenY) prefers in their meetings, conventions and events. This research was based on a survey of over 2,000 GenY respondents, making it the largest study dedicated to what the younger workforce prefers in events.

It found that younger meeting participants favour a content-delivery style described as “edutainment”; engaging speakers who deliver shorter, quick-paced audio-visual presentations, peppered with opportunities for audience members to use mobile technology and games to interact with presenters and other attendees. The study found this “is consistent with research that indicates that [younger participants] often have short attention spans, hence the desire for concise, entertaining meetings.”

Seek  Benefits

The study also identified the need by younger meeting attendees to understand the purpose of an event. Asking “what’s in it for me?” they want to know what the meeting will bring them financially (scholarships or rewards), professionally (networking, advancement or job opportunities) or socially (community service projects or destinations with many activities and fun social events).

Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be much research documenting what employers are doing to engage younger generations in meetings, to improve knowledge transfer and relations between generations. In our inquiries with meeting professionals, few could point strictly to generational differences for specific changes to their meetings.

Some believe value-based generational differences are over-blown. In a LinkedIn discussion on The Future of Meetings, corporate team building executive Kenny Zail insisted that “where people are in their life cycle is more important than what ‘Gen letter’ they are.” We turned to the field and asked Canadian meeting and event planners how their meetings may be evolving.

Some saw no impact. Jessica Ward, CMP, Manager, Events and Groups at MKI Travel & Conference Management in Ottawa says: “My clients have never asked me to tailor to Gen Y.  My medical events have very few Gen Y in the audience (if any). Government events, these days, are simply more focused on keeping costs down.”

Les Selby, CMP, CMM, of Planning for Success in Toronto, thinks younger generations are having some impact. “When I was at Aimia (formerly Carlson Marketing), I saw corporate client meetings getting shorter, not just to save money, but also because people are not willing to give up their personal time.”

Expect Perks

Technology seems to trump demographic shifts for some changes in meetings. “The biggest change that I see is in the demand for complimentary, fast, and dependable wireless internet,” says Ottawa-based Claire Fitzpatrick, CMP, CMM of CF Conference & Event Management Services. Many planners agreed with the PCMA study findings and felt that younger workers disengage if not allowed to use their mobile device at a meeting. “And they are shocked to be asked to pay extra for WiFi,” added a hotel manager on the promise of anonymity. “They see it as a right, not as an amenity. It’s tough when we try to get them to settle their bill upon check-out.”

Shawna McKinley, Director of Sustainability at Vancouver’s MeetGreen adds: “[WiFi] applies to the venue, and guest rooms. Mobile applications are also becoming an expectation. No one wants to pack an event program, or have to collect cards and collateral anymore. They are learning to rely on the app, and expecting it to be integrated with social media.”

Only a few planners felt that social media is being used effectively to promote meeting attendance.  More are using networks such as LinkedIn groups to encourage information sharing, said Les Selby. “I think GenY drives a lot of this change; they don’t want to be sitting in a dark room and having someone speak AT them. They expect to be contributing, want to give their opinion.”

More Interaction

Selby added that he has seen bigger budgets being invested in communication, some for more social media, some for content capture. This is to give participants the opportunity to interact. He observed attendees posting to discussion groups – “I did this and it didn’t work. Any advice?” This helped increase learning and the return on investment from information sharing at meetings.

Adrian Segar is a Vermont-based organizational consultant and author of Conferences That Work. He says he’s organized more participative events, for all ages, for the last 20 years. Unwilling to say these are driven for or by GenY, Segar sees the need for spaces that are more conducive to interactive and networked events, offering a variety of session formats versus auditorium-style.

The use of social media and more participative meeting styles may be more a function of the corporate culture, says Helen Van Dongen, CMP, CMM, National Director, Event Management at KPMG in Toronto.  In a conservative environment such as a professional services firm, there are still many meetings that deliver content in a lecture-style format and that eschew sharing information on Twitter or anywhere else.  “If I worked with a media company, we’d probably be having a completely different conversation,” she adds.

Changes Coming

Still, Van Dongen admits to some changes on the horizon. For an upcoming senior management meeting, they will be moving to a TED Conference delivery style where speakers have only 18 minutes to present, pushing presenters to be more dynamic. “It will either be a spectacular failure, or something that moves us forward on a new path.”

Most planners agree that they are more conscious of healthy and sustainable food and beverage choices. Fitzpatrick has found that, “in the past this was due in most part to cultural requirements but now it tends to be driven by young health and socially conscious attendees.”McKinley adds: “There’s an emerging focus on healthier options and food that is better for learning, stamina and wellness. I think in future as prices rise we may be forced to seriously look at new and different options, and evaluate portion size.”

While the verdict about who exactly or how younger generations are driving different meetings, one conclusion is certain: planners are best to execute events that suit the culture of the organization and its meeting objectives, with an eye to engaging all participants as much as possible.

This article was originally written for Corporate Meetings & Events Magazine, and was published in their Fall 2012 issue.  I have modified it for this blog by adding the U.S. references and links to each planner's public LinkedIN profile.