January 26, 2011

Speaker Stranded and Can't Make it to your Meeting? Skype to the Rescue!

Recently I had a conference here in Austin that had multiple speakers from all over the US. The day before our conference started, a large storm hit the northeastern US and several of my speakers were unable to fly out of their destination. Rather than scrambling to replace them on the program, we met with our onsite AV team at the hotel and arranged to Skype them in. We already had large screens, laptop and an LCD projector in the room. It simply required wired Internet access in the meeting space, and a couple of additions to the AV Equipment order. The AV technician had a Skype account and each speaker had a Skype account. We made sure to Skype the night before to make sure it worked on both ends and to iron out any kinks in advance. It was a lifesaver and so easy to do!

Site Visits That Deliver Results

You’ve developed an RFP for your meeting, distributed it, received proposals from interested properties, created a spreadsheet for comparing properties and have narrowed down the list of all the potentials to the properties that look the best on paper. Your next step should be a site inspection of your top properties in order to determine which one works the best for your meeting.

If you have been working with the local CVB, they will be happy to make all the arrangements for your visit, setting up appointments at each property, picking you up at the airport and accompanying you on your visits. If you didn’t send your lead out through the bureau, you’ll need to make your own appointments; I like to allow at least two hours per property, more if a meal is included.

I use a checklist of items I have defined as being important to my group, so I can make sure I’m looking at the same things at each property and I provide the checklist to my hotel contact ahead of time so they can tailor the site inspection to meet my needs. If I’m conducting the site with several others, such as conference chairs, clients, etc. I find it can be hard to keep everyone in the group focused. One solution I’ve found works well is to give each person an area of the checklist that they are responsible for collecting information and making notes on for our discussions afterward.
I take a digital camera and a flip video camera along so I can capture images of the property for use later when I’m making my arrangements. This is really helpful for capturing the flow of public space and event space, which helps when I’m trying to visualize the layout for receptions, exhibit space or registration areas when I’m back in my office.

When you’re onsite, you’ll want to visualize how your meeting might fit into the facility and continue to adapt your vision as you tour. Once you’ve seen the entire space, you might completely change where you place meetings from what you initially planned. Stay flexible and adaptable, and keep an open mind when presented with options by the hotel staff for how your meeting might work best at their property.

Observe how other meetings going on during your site are staged, noting unusual setups, how the space looks set in your preferred manner, and see if you can identify any potential problem areas that might negatively impact your meeting. If you have a chance, visit with meeting planners onsite to see how their meeting is going and get some honest feedback on the property.

Try and spend some time on your own in the properties so you can experience the property as your attendees might. I usually try to come in the night before starting site visits and have dinner or drinks at one property, visit another for coffee the next morning before my appointments start and just observe how the staff interacts with guests.
Knowing what your attendees value the most in a meeting facility and what you need from a hotel to ensure a successful conference are essential to conducting a successful site inspection. Keeping those factors at the forefront of your decision making process, ensures you’ll find the right property for your needs.

August 22, 2010

Meeting Room Layouts Designed to Engage Attendees

One of the mistakes meeting planners frequently make is to not pay enough attention to the layout and design of their meeting rooms. Too often planners are more concerned with accommodating the most people possible in a space instead of designing an environment that is conducive to meeting the goals and objectives of the event. For your next meeting, why not commit to creating an environment that promotes interaction, engages attendees and provides a comfortable, safe space to meet?

Start with the meeting’s purpose, goals and objectives:

· Are you planning a session where attendees will be simply listening to a keynote or watching a presentation on screen? If so, then straight-row theatre seating should be fine.

· If your goal is to increase interaction among attendees, in an environment where they can see other attendees and share information, then you’ll need to create a layout that promotes interaction. In a large group, this might mean curved row seating, or placing the facilitator or speaker in the center and setting the room in the round. Anytime you allow people to see the faces of the other attendees you increase their opportunity to interact and engage with others.

· If your attendees need to have table space to work in small groups, you might want to consider a T set for the room, with two or three people at the head and two-three people on each side of the center row of each T. I find this preferable to using rounds or crescent rounds for a group, as it brings the participants closer together and controls the noise level as they aren’t talking across a large open table.

· Are you planning a formal banquet? Consider a mixture of different sized rounds for 6, 8, or 10 combined with some rectangle or square seating. This creates a more visually pleasing look for the room and instantly adds energy to the room as attendees react to the different set. While you’re at it, change up the linens and napkin colors and specify a different napkin fold for each type of table. A search for napkin folds will return several websites with illustrated folds to help spark your creativity. I always ask the facility what color linens they have available and make sure to vary colors at the events and if need be, allocate funds for linen rentals. Using colored linens is an extremely easy way to add excitement to an event for a small amount of money.

Create a comfortable, safe space for your attendees to spend time in:

· Too often rooms are set with the stage or speaker at the head of the room on the short wall, resulting in a “bowling alley” setting. When you have more than 100 attendees, set the front of the room on the long wall so as to decrease the distance between the last row of the audience and the speaker in order to make it easier and more comfortable for your attendees to see the stage and screen.

· How many times have you been asked to add chairs to a room with people standing in back when there are actually plenty of chairs in the room if people would just sit in the seats in the middle of the rows that are open? Too often those standing in the back and on the sides are clustered around doors thereby creating an unsafe situation in case of an emergency. I use some principles of audience centered seating outlined in Dr. Paul Radde’s SEATING MATTERS State of the Art Seating Arrangements book that help eliminate these problems. First, I have the facility set the last row of seating on the back wall, leaving a wide aisle between it and the second to last row. This allows people to walk in front of the last row to get to the side aisles but doesn’t allow them to stand at the back in front of those seated. Speaking of side aisles, make sure the facility leaves several feet at the end of each row to allow people to move up the sides to move in to empty seats. This is important in case of emergency and also helps those who might need to leave during the session. Another principle of Dr. Radde’s is to use cut-in access aisles by removing a center chair from each row to allow people in the back to move up the middle of a group of rows into those empty middle seats. To learn more about audience centered seating, you can obtain a copy of Dr. Radde’s book on his website at www.thrival.com.

· Make sure you create a comfortable, safe environment with easy access to all exits and comfortable seating. I prefer that the facility not lock the seats together in a row, as it limits the ability of the attendees to rearrange seating to be more comfortable or to move into small groups if needed. For one of my clients, we add a couple of rows of comfortable couches and easy chairs provided by the convention decorator to the front of the general session room, which has helped to make sure people don’t leave the front row empty and provides an option to those who need more comfortable seating than a meeting chair.

By creating an environment designed with your attendees’ objectives, goals, comfort and safety in mind you’ll ensure your meetings are enjoyable for everyone involved. So the next time you get ready to provide your meeting specifications to a facility take some time to take all these things into consideration and you’re bound to have a successful meeting enjoyed by all!

Planning a Company Outing Sure to Wow Your Crowd

Do your job duties involve planning the annual company picnic or outing? With the downturn in the economy, many firms are scaling back and looking for ways to trim expenses while still providing a fun time for their employees and families. If you’re in charge of this year’s company picnic, here are some tips to ensure a good time will be had by all:

· Think outside the box- If you are tasked with planning an event with less money and can’t afford an all inclusive corporate picnic facility or ranch, consider a state or local park to hold your outing. Your local parks and recreation department can provide a list of facilities, as can the local convention and visitors bureau. If you really have no money to rent an outside facility, consider holding the event on the grounds of your facility and rent tents for shade and shelter.

· Select Your Site Wisely- You’ll want to look for a space with ample room, diverse amenities such as ball fields, playscapes, ponds, etc. and adequate parking for attendees as well as a building or covered pavilion in case of inclement weather. Make sure there is electricity for the caterer, inflatables, music or sound amplification, and plenty of shade, trashcans, bathrooms and hydration stations or make arrangements to rent portable toilets, water fountains and hand sanitation stations. Having a rain date and method for communicating a change in plans to attendees is always a good idea. Make sure you make arrangements for first aid as well.

· Theme your event to provide a sense of cohesion- Whether it’s patriotic, county fair, traditional picnic, luau, western, Mexican fiesta, beach fun or Mardi Gras select a theme and match your invitations, decorations, games, craft activities, prizes, giveaways and meal choice to that theme. For decorations, crafts and paper goods, check out http://www.orientaltrading.com/ or your local dollar store, as I’ve recently seen all of those themes in both locations.

· Keep them well fed and they’ll be happy- When it comes to meal planning, determine how long your event will last and what meal times your event will span. Consider having your event start in mid afternoon and provide lemonade, tea, water, popcorn, watermelon, and snow cones to tide people over until the meal is served around dinner time. When planning the menu, take into account any dietary restrictions your guests may have and make arrangements for that. Remember, people will be at your mercy when it comes to food and beverage, so make sure you have a clear understanding of any special needs they may have and plan accordingly.

· Plan Plenty of Activities- Again, linking your theme with planned activities is important, so look for ways to personalize crafts and activities to match. If money is tight, consider paying a local youth group from a school or church to run crafts and games, paint faces, babysit toddlers, lead team building activities, etc. I’ve attended picnics where a local high school dance team ran all the games and provided child care as a fundraiser, and my local high school has a Peer Assistance Class which is experienced in leading team building activities; many schools have these same programs in place. If you want to try something current and topical, check out the site for NBC’s Minute to Win It game show where you can learn how to recreate the challenges. You can also go online and search for “Team Building Activities” where you’ll find sites to check out with plenty of games and activities that can be easily adapted to your theme. Don’t forget to bring bingo, Frisbees, volleyballs, nets, croquet sets, lawn darts, hula hoops, badminton sets, bats, balls and gloves as well as other yard games for your more active attendees.

· Look for Deals on the Internet- I find Craigslist a great resource for low cost rental of inflatables such as moonwalks and water slides, as well as pop-up tents, tables and chairs, snow cone, cotton candy and popcorn machine rentals. It’s also a great place to hire a DJ, face painter, balloon artist, clown or any other type of entertainment; just make sure to check references.

· Ask your Vendors for Sponsorship- If your company policy allows, consider approaching your vendors for assistance in sponsoring big ticket items, or even donations of smaller items for door prizes. From the company that provides your coffee and stocks your vending machines, to your printer or janitorial company, many would be willing to provide assistance or a donation of an item.

The key to a successful employee event is getting buy in from your group on timing, location, activities, theme, food and beverage. So make sure you involve co-workers from a cross section of the company so they can help with the planning as well as help build excitement and interest in the event. If you keep these tips in mind, you can have a fun, safe and uneventful company outing that people will remember fondly. Don’t forget to drink plenty of fluids and keep applying the sun block!

March 10, 2010

On Site Meeting Management Tips

· Make sure all staff and volunteers have clearly defined roles, with detailed job descriptions and adequate pre-event training.
· When thinking about training staff and volunteers to do their onsite jobs consider different scenarios and provide answers to FAQs and their job duties in writing. This document can be modified for your meeting each year to reflect situations that arise onsite.
· Empower staff and volunteers to handle issues that arise in order to free your time to oversee the entire conference.
· Provide plenty of communication tools for the staff and volunteers, to include two-way radios, cell phone numbers for all key staff printed on a laminated card that can be slipped into their name badge holders, volunteer coordinators, runners, etc.
· For a large conference with many volunteers, set up a volunteer lounge where all volunteers check in and get their work assignments. Designate one or two staff or lead volunteers to staff this room and manage all volunteers, making sure they have checked in, give them any materials, provide them a contact person to contact and tell them how to ask for assistance. I like to stock the lounge with refreshments, provide pizza or box lunches, and make sure there is seating for them to take a lunch break, etc. Make sure volunteers know that any questions go to the lead volunteers in the lounge and only allow lead volunteers to contact you or come into the staff office to prevent being overrun.
· Provide staff and volunteers with a uniform, be it a bandana, t-shirt or polo shirt, to clearly identify them as part of the meeting management team.
· Hold daily staff meeting, either late at night or over an early breakfast each day to update people to changes, answer questions and find out what is working.
· Meet daily with the banquet manager and/or accounting office to review all charges and make corrections as needed to the master account. I find that meeting after the morning coffee break to review the previous days’ charges works well. Meeting daily on accounting issues makes for a much smoother processing of the master bill when it arrives at the office.
· Make sure you have a pre-con meeting with hotel staff, including any of your key staff or volunteers as needed. If the GM doesn’t attend the pre-con, ask to meet them the first day of the event so you have a contact name in case of issues. Even if it’s only a small meeting, I will meet with the CSM, AV and Banquet managers. If it’s a conference that will be returning to the property, consider a post-con meeting to review what worked well and areas for improvement.

Tips For Engaging Meeting Attendees

I just picked up an interesting new book, Death by Meetings: A Leadership Fable About Solving the Most Painful Process in Business by Patrick M. Lencioni, and if that title doesn’t give you an accurate picture of how most people tend to view meetings, than I don’t know what would. What can we as meeting organizers do to create meetings that our attendees will enjoy participating in rather than dreading each time they see a meeting notice?

Here’s some simple tips for engaging your meeting attendees and creating dynamic learning environments:
· Set your meeting space up using audience centered seating principles that focus on attendee comfort and ease of interaction. Paul O. Radde, PhD, has an excellent book, Seating Matters: State of the Art Seating Matters that explains this principle in detail and provides excellent diagrams you can provide to set-up crews. You can purchase the book through http://www.thrival.com.
· Engage all the audience’s senses: Use different colored linens, themed props, toys, scents, etc. to promote the atmosphere you want to create.
· Create visual interest by using colored paper for handouts.
· Enhance learning by using black, blue, green or purple for text on flip charts, alternating colors for contrast and highlighting with orange, red or pink
· Personalize name tags to encourage conversation by adding personal information, such as first concert attended, favorite childhood game, subject area I need help with, subject area I’m an expert in.
· Pump up the Volume! Use walk in and walk out music to set the tone for the meeting, this also helps promote group movement which helps when transitioning between sessions
· Keep attendees focused: Use a “power clap” to increase energy level in the room, refocus attendees and get attendees on the same wavelength. Take short energizing breaks during long presentations with short physical activity, such as stretching, doing the wave, shouting out favorite movie titles, etc.
· Make Sure Everyone is on the Same Track: Use cell phone text polling to collect audience feedback; for low cost audience polling check out http://www.polleverywhere.com/.
· Twitter: Assign your event a hash tag and encourage users to twitter about their experience while in the sessions. Use a twitter fountain for Q&A to capture and display questions from the audience during the session.

February 4, 2010

Going Green: Saving Money while Saving the Planet, One Meeting at a Time

Despite what Kermit the Frog might think, it can be easy to be green, especially when it comes to planning environmentally friendly meetings. Corporate social responsibility is a hot topic right now in the business world, and since meetings are a highly visible reflection of your company, they have the potential to help make or break your firm’s reputation in this area. More and more companies are introducing sustainability practices into their corporate culture and meetings are ideally suited to assist with this goal.

Here are some helpful tips to help green your meetings:
· Consider the impact of attendee’s travel on the environment when making site selection decisions. Choose locations that are centrally located and easy to reach with minimal air or car travel as the first step to reducing your meeting’s carbon footprint. Is the destination on a train or rapid transit line, or are there public transportation options that would make it easy for attendees to reach the meeting?
· Consider including green criteria into your site selection/RFP process. Simply adding in questions about the location’s sustainability and green practices can assist you with determining which location would be a better fit for your own green initiatives. Sometimes, by you asking for this, it can cause a hotel to rethink how they conduct their own operations. Consider asking your hotel/convention center to: Provide compostable plastic cups and disposable cutlery; offer onsite recycling for paper, plastic and aluminum in the meeting space for attendees’ use; serve food and beverage in bulk, including bowls or dispensers of sugar, sweetener and cream vs. packets; replace water bottles with water coolers.
· Go Vegetarian: Replace one or more meat-based meals with vegetarian, locally grown or sourced entrees to both save you money and reduce your carbon footprint. Additionally, especially at lunches, these lighter meals tend to rejuvenate attendees rather than make them sleepy and lethargic. Work with the culinary staff, and consider doing a tasting of a variety of options prior to making your final choice. Many hotels now have wonderfully prepared vegetarian options on their banquet menus already. While you’re at it, ask the hotel their policy about reusing or donating your leftover food to local charities.
· Whenever possible, go paperless. Consider creating your program brochures and promotional materials as online documents, rather than printed pieces. Many groups have found little to no problem with replacing their promotional and program materials and, with the rise in use of social media, the ability to market your meeting online makes these types of materials ideally suited. Instead of producing conference handouts, load speaker handouts onto your website and grant access to conference attendees in advance so they print only the materials they want or need. I recommend you send an email with a direct link to the materials and keep the materials online for a specific period of time after the conference.
· Rethink your own policies and ways of doing things. Instead of producing signs that will be used just once and then discarded, rethink how you use signage. If your budget allows, consider replacing signs with plasma screens placed in high traffic areas with continuously looped slides promoting events, thanking sponsors, acknowledging exhibitors, etc. If you must print signs, use generic logos so they can be reused. Ask your sign maker to print signs on both sides so you can use a sign for one function and reuse it for another. Switch from bottled water to water coolers or water pitchers. Recycle name badge holders and lanyards.
· Take some time to sit down with your coworkers to brainstorm and think of ways you can reduce both your waste and your carbon footprint. Set a goal of evaluating your meetings with an eye toward making your meetings greener each and every time you plan one. You’ll find you can save money while saving the planet, one meeting at a time.