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Innovation in the Meetings Industry: Lessons from #PCMACIC13

While meeting professionals instinctively know that bringing people face-to-face creates conversations and sparks innovation, one could argue the meetings industry itself really hasn't evolved all that much since business events became more popular.

Sure, we've had innovations with technology, enabling better audiovisual presentations, and even hybrid meetings. But have meeting professionals truly been able to change the way meetings are conducted, beyond the traditional lecture models and tradeshow formats we have known for the last 40-50 years?

The organizers of the first PCMA Canadian Innovation Conference (#PCMACIC13), held in Niagara Falls November 10-12, tried to explore that very issue.  It was my first time attending any PCMA event. Like many in attendance, I wasn't really sure what form innovation would take at this particular event. 

What I saw at this conference was a lot of what we have all seen in the past. Elegant staging, beautifully decorated rooms, keynote speakers and breakout sessions. What was different about this conference is that the organizers really wanted to push the envelope about how we can innovate in our business. And for this they must be commended.

I've always felt that the true test of a great conference is what stays with you long after the event has passed.  Was this event truly innovative enough to make people think differently and behave differently? 

At this conference, it was the keynote speakers that did it for me.

The opening keynote speaker, Randy Cass, was probably not the favorite speaker of the conference. Many people I spoke to, who aren't entrepreneurs, felt that he wasn't speaking to them.  One association said to me, “he didn't really have anything to say that applies to me because I work for not-for-profit.”  That was odd to me because Cass gave me one of the best “nuggets” I could walk away with…

And that was to be innovative, you have to take risks.  You cannot be afraid of failure, because failure itself can be a huge learning experience.  He quoted Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin empire, as saying, “Screw it – just DO it!” (with apologies to Nike).  Unfortunately too many meeting professionals are judged only by their latest gig. Few can afford to look at failures as necessary and valuable outcomes to learn from. 

Yours truly with PCMA CIC closing
Keynote Speaker, Amanda Lindhout
Similarly the closing speaker gave me another precious “ah-ha” moment.  There probably wasn’t a dry eye in the room after Amanda Lindhout recounted her story of survival and compassion from her 15-month ordeal as a captive of Somali insurgents. Standing behind a lectern with only a hand-held microphone, she did not use any fancy visuals.  Her words and remarkable poise were enough for the audience to imagine all that they needed to understand her poignant message.

And from this I understood the power of storytelling.  Not to take anything away from the wonderful work that my AV friends do in the business, but human beings sharing stories can be more powerful than any production.   

So how could PCMA organizers kick it up a notch for next year’s conference in Montreal?  Here are a few ideas to start the conversation:

- Allow people to discuss the issues that they care about in a non-structured format. Have an unconference! We have a few experts in this industry that could lead us through a discussion like this such as Adrian Segar, Jeff Hurt or Chris Brogan, to name a few;  

– Enable people to experience peer-to-peer coaching. This involves having individuals share with their problems are and having the group offer potential ideas to remedy the situation. Sometimes the best solutions are not from so called experts but rather our own peers!

- Instead of traditional lecture formats, let’s have learning labs and hands-on workshops where people can design an actual conference program, marketing program, or other components of a conference.

– Bring experts who are not from the meetings industry. I love professional speakers (and clearly the above two keynotes are amongst the best from NSB), but maybe we need to hear from adult learning experts, sociologists or brain scientists so we can learn how face-to-face interaction truly leads to innovation.

This PCMA event helped open my eyes to the need for more innovation and story-telling in the meetings industry. Congratulations to the host venue, the Niagara Falls Scotiabank Convention Centre, co-chairs Chuck Schouwerwou and Heidi Welker, and the entire Organizing Committee!  

P.S.  I look forward to lending a hand next year for the conference which is planned for Montreal in late November.