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PCMA Convening Leaders: A First Timer's Impressions & Takeaways

Photo booth sponsored by Niagara Falls Tourism
At the First Timers' reception
Niagara Falls Tourism took green screen
photos of attendees which were turned
into souvenirs shots, printed on the spot! 
For the first time ever I attended the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) Convening Leaders' Conference, which was held in Boston Jan. 12-15. As a career-long MPIer, I had never attended this annual event.  My only PCMA experience had been the Canada East Chapter Conference in Niagara Falls a few months ago.

It had been a long time since I've been a newbie at anything!  Overall my impression was that this conference both pushed the boundaries and invited attendees to engage at a level I had never experienced before. Here are my top 10 takeaways:
  • A Mindset of Innovation & Recognizing the Value of Failures: at the first timers' session, we were informed by Kelly Peacy, CAE, CMP, PCMA's Senior Vice President, Education and Meetings, that her team looks to innovate with session formats, room layouts and even food and beverage. She openly admitted that they know some of these innovations will fail. But they consider failures to be valuable lessons. After all, if PCMA can't take risks to show its members how to organize better conferences, who can? This was echoed by Chairman Johnnie White, CMP at the opening session. And there were a few failures, such as the "out of the box" lunch on the Tuesday which ran out of food, and the congestion problems at the Hynes Convention Centre. But somehow I witnessed a willingness to forgive BECAUSE they were trying something new. I found the attitude of the leadership and the staff to be refreshing.
ASAE President & CEO
John Graham joins
the fun at the Montreal lunch and
poses for a #MtlMoment with
fake lips!
  • Embracing Social Media: aside from assigning the customary hashtag for the convention, organizers and sponsors truly embraced social media. From an Instagram contest organized by local DMC Advantage Boston, to the Tourisme Montreal's #MtlMoments lunch snapshots, there were plenty opportunities to engage through social media. A highlight for me definitely was the tweet up sponsored by Ottawa Tourism, where I finally met people in person people that I follow on Twitter: the Velvet Chainsaw's Jeff Hurt (@JeffHurt), the Tradeshow Institute's Traci Browne (@tracibrowne), the Grass Shack Events & Media's Mike McCallen (@mmcallen), Lindsey Rosenthal (@eventsforgood) and Plan Your Meetings' Kristi Casey Sanders (@PYMLive).
  • Sponsorship That Matters: I loved that key sponsors did more with their dollars than just give us the usual blah-blah-blah about their destination.  There was a concerted effort to tie sponsorship to the values held by the sponsor.  I was proud to be a Canadian and to witness the leadership of so many of our DMO's in sponsoring top-notch education; whether it was Tourism Toronto and the Metro Toronto Convention Center sponsoring the opening keynote with futurist Lisa Bodell, or Meetings & Conventions Calgary sponsoring a number of smaller breakout sessions, it was gratifying to see the Canadian presence and support of thought leadership.
  • Canadian Winners: speaking of a Canadian presence, two of our own were also honored with Katie Dolan of Ottawa Tourism as one of 20 in their 20s leader, Freeman AV Canada's Heidi Welker with a Chairman's award for her leadership in growing the PCMA Canada East chapter by 42% in the last year.
  • Mobile Meeting Movement: on the theme of innovation and Canadian pride, the JPdL bus from Montreal to Boston was a great experience. Aside from offering a cheaper, quicker mode of transportation (with the bad winter weather the bus got us there much faster than many people who are flying!), it was a great way to network, learn and debate issues along the way!
  • A Culture of Dialogue: because PCMA does not have a tradeshow per se, and because so much focus is on education, this convention felt very different from other meetings industry gatherings I've been to in the past. With a reported 50-50 ratio between planners and suppliers, I found most "buyers" to be very approachable and open to discuss their challenges or issues. One planner I met, who was also a first-timer, said that she loved not feeling like a piece of meat in a market! I even had a "very important planner" (someone whose department plans over 200 meetings a year), approach me! Yes, I was wearing a "first timer" ribbon but the whole conference had this feeling of collaboration and no "us versus them" feel.
A participant discussion board
in the Learning Lounge.
  • Engaging Formats: room layouts were varied, offering so much more than just the typical theater style or half rounds. I saw theater style combined with hightop tables and stools, small U-shaped groupings of chairs and half rounds, even chevron-style "hub and spoke" set ups. Most seemed to invite more networking and small-group conversations then what we typically experience with traditional setups.
  • Excellent, Practical Education: aside from four knockout keynotes, I had the privilege of learning in five excellent breakout sessions. Two qualified as traditional lectures, albeit with very energetic speakers. Two involved highly interactive presenters who engaged their audience with lots of group discussion including input from virtual participants. And one was a panel with four speakers, facilitated by a very able moderator. Except for one of the lectures which was more motivational in nature, all sessions involved highly practical advice with examples of actual meetings. It was clear that the audience craved real-life solutions and not just theory. 
Salman Khan dreamt of "free, world-class education for anyone,
anywhere."  His dream became Khan Academy.
  • Emotional Connection: The highlight of the convention for me definitely was Salman Khan's highly inspirational story about Khan Academy (proudly sponsored by Tourism Vancouver!).  A humble and engaging speaker, with a wonderful self-deprecating sense of humor, Khan described how he tutored his niece Nadia and progressed to posting math tutorials on YouTube to eventually create what is now the biggest provider of FREE online education, with over 10 million unique users per month.  Khan's story for me was a classic case of the law of attraction and his description of receiving a call from Bill Gates' Foundation reminded everyone that big dreams do come true.
  • Technology Trumped by People: At first glance this event was heavily focused on technology. The main hallway was lined up with various app vendors, the Tech Central meeting area and Learning Lounge seemed to be touching on everything technology. But veteran delegates were telling me those areas were a lot less busy than in years previous.  Was it because they were no longer in areas adjacent to the main session?  (a "failure" to learn from?).  All I know is that in the meeting rooms, the people I was conversing with were more focused on human connection. Could it be we've had it with technology and we are now craving good, old-fashioned, human relationships? Regardless, people were talking!
The PCMA Convening Leaders Conference for me was a great way to kick off 2014. It embodied everything I want to focus on this year: authenticity, engagement, learning and innovation.  I'm not 100% sure whether I will attend the Chicago Conference next year, but based on this wonderful experience it's at the top of my list!