Category Archives: Food and Beverage

You’re Charging How Much?!: The Case for Smarter F&B Budgeting

Originally published Meetings Focus.

You’re Charging How Much?!: The Case for Smarter F&B Budgeting

Food and beverage (F&B) can make or break a meeting or event. And certainly, the complete absence of F&B can set in motion kvetching like you haven’t heard since the last time you managed a meeting without it. Just try to have a meeting break with no coffee!

I’ve been in this industry a long time. Years before my own company, Eisenstodt Associates, celebrated its 38th anniversary on June 1 of 2019.

Planning meals has never been my favorite thing to do. In fact, I would place it among my least favorite things tied to the involved process of planning meetings and events.

Guessing what others would want to eat on a given day is a nightmare especially when we are planning months out and have no idea what will be fresh, what will be available, and what factors impact what a chef can best prepare.

Or what an audience will want to consume.

Key Considerations When Planning F&B

In planning events where food and beverage elements play a starring role or for when any sort of F&B is offered, we must consider, at least, the following key items:

  • Group demographics
  • Availability of food and beverage
  • Chefs’ abilities and specialties
  • Religious practices
  • Allergies and food and beverage sensitivities*
  • Accompanying meeting and event activities
  • Service provided
  • Meal and item costs
  • Service charges and taxes**

*Tracy Stuckrath is a prolific writer and speaker about allergies and sensitivities. You can learn more about her and read additional insights about F&B on her website.

**These are likely to change if we are booking six months or more from the planned event.

Not only must we consider the above items related to F&B, we must convey all this information in our RFPs for meetings and events.

And we must clearly state that in order for us to respond appropriately and then create a contract, we need full and complete information.

Déjà Vu All Over Again: Coffee’s Cost Per Gallon

In all my years in this profession, there is rarely a month—or even a week!—that goes by when the cost of a gallon of coffee is not discussed.

As in, “Why does a gallon of coffee cost x?” Lately and frequently again on social media, the cost per gallon discussion has reared its head.

(We used to look at the cost of “dry snacks”—potato chips, peanuts, pretzels—when those were considered the budgetary best for cocktail receptions without “real” food!).

The discussions have been accompanied with questions about the amounts billed for taxes, service, and ancillary fees, on top of per plate or per person costs for various F&B offerings.

Other popular topics of discussion related to F&B include:

  • the number of, and charge for, servers for buffets, continental breakfasts or breaks
  • bartender and, if cash bar, cashier charges and minimum numbers to serve and the minimum hours we must contract
  • the administrative fees now added to food and beverage (F&B) events

Nothing in the discussion seems to change.

Calculating the Cost of a Gallon of Coffee

I looked back at 2012 menus*** from a contract negotiated for a client’s 2016 meeting.

At that time, a major Las Vegas hotel at which the meeting was booked charged $70.00 per gallon of Kona coffee plus 21% service charge plus 8.1% tax on both the coffee and on the service charge.

If one calculates that, and assumes 20 cups per gallon, it’s about $4.57 per cup.

In emails with James Filtz, interviewed here, I asked about the cost of coffee.

He said “In 2014 coffee at The Venetian in Las Vegas was $86 per gallon. Today it is $100 per gallon. That’s about a 16% increase.”

I checked with the same unnamed Vegas hotel above for their current prices. The price of coffee at the major Las Vegas hotel previously contracted, came out to $95.00 per gallon, with a service charge of 23%, tax of 8.5%, and the service charge taxed slightly over 4%.

How does that compare to what a cup of made-at-home coffee using a Keurig costs, considering the purchasing and labor that goes into how a hotel provides coffee?

Is it cheaper for each guest to run back to their rooms, use the in-room coffee maker (if there is one and the condiments are to their liking), and the time it takes for them to return for valuable networking?

I found this about Keurig, where the cost per cup is measured on a 5-6 ounce cup.

***A Pro Tip Regarding Food & Beverage Menus

Most hotel menus are now electronic.

When you negotiate more than a year out with an escalation clause on food and beverage, the menus from which you are negotiating will no longer be live on the website.

I recommend printing them out—on post-consumer paper—and attaching to the final signed version of the contract and saved as a PDF in your files and saved with the printed contract and menus and other policy documents on paper.

Otherwise, you have nothing from which to gauge prices.

Hidden—and Not So Hidden—F&B Costs

Hotel owners and management companies want to make money. Now more than ever. We want hotels to be kept up—that is, furnishings to be clean and updated.

I hope all or most of us want people who work in hotels, especially those who provide service, to make “livable” wages—though I’m not sure even $15.00/hour in most markets is “livable.”

Or is it “not on my group” mentality among meeting and event planners that is the issue—you know, charge other groups what you need but negotiate my costs to what I want to pay?

My meeting and event clients have almost exclusively been not-for-profit groups for whom budgets are tight. Yet, as chef and humanitarian José Andrés says:

“I realized very early the power of food to evoke memory, to bring people together, to transport you to other places, and I wanted to be a part of that.”

If we skimp on food or beverage, it reflects badly on the hotel, caterer or our group.

The Power of F&B at Your Meeting or Event

Food makes memories. Food brings people together. Harrison Owen, back in 1985, knew the power of breaks on the overall experience of learning at meetings. We know the power of available food and beverage to make or break a meeting or event experience.

See what three planners interviewed had to say about what’s important to them and their questions about costs. When will we budget differently and realistically and think about what the two NACE officers have to say when we plan and negotiate meetings?

Oh, and don’t miss the “bonus section” of the August 2019 Friday With Joan newsletter: I had the pleasure of dining with Tom Sietsema, food critic for The Washington Post, at a José Andrés restaurant. Read more about how noodging can pay, the ethics of dining with a food critic and Sietsema’s “go-to” food when he’s not on-duty—one of my favorites too!

Is Alcohol Needed at Meetings & Events?

Originally published Meetings Today Blog
The stories from Russia about the lives lost to alcohol poisoning (from both vodka and less traditional “beverages”) are devastating but no more so than this article about the how heavy drinking for women has been “normalized” or even romanticized.

I’ve written before about this topic and will continue to talk and write about it because it is a health and a safety issue—for those who consume alcohol, those who are in their paths when they drive and all those who surround them.

It’s an issue of host responsibility and liability when one has a holiday* (office, friends and/or family) party or a meeting or event or invites others to events as suppliers in our industry do. It astounds me that we still consider an event not “festive” enough if alcohol is not served. Given the make up of our industry (believed to be mainly women) you’d think we’d be more careful about wanting to not poison people.

I drink now and then. In my immediate family, alcohol just wasn’t consumed so I never developed a “taste” for it and I’m fortunate to not be an alcoholic, active or in recovery, as so many friends and colleagues are. I’ve always said I’m not “anti” alcohol consumption but after reading the above noted story about women and consumption, I may change my mind.

These guides from MADD and FindLaw cover dram shop laws; another from the Global Gaming Business Magazine provides more information. It’s always best to talk with your organization’s or client’s attorney and those involved in risk management to learn more about you and your organization’s responsibilities for alcohol service.

Laws vary by country. If you’re conducting a meeting or business outside the United States, learn more about customs and laws to ensure safety and protection and appropriate behavior.

Whether it’s New Year’s Eve or an industry event, a family gathering or a meeting you’ve planned, plan responsibly for alcohol consumption and consider if you really need it at all.

*If you’re already looking ahead to next “holiday season,” please try to be inclusive of all: not everyone is permitted to attend parties; not everyone celebrates the same winter holidays; and if you’re decorating in red and green, considered traditional Christmas colors [Hanukkah’s are silver or white and blue; Kwanzaa’s are red, black and green], call it a “Christmas party” since the decor won’t fool anyone!

I wish a safe and healthy new year to each of you. Watch for the Jan. 6 Friday With Joan newsletter for hopes and predictions from me and others in our industry.

6 Dots to Connect to the Industry’s Future

Originally published Meetings Today Blog

That was the title, minus the number, of a session I delivered for an industry meeting in January.

I agonized about what to include up to, during and after the session. What I wanted to say at the start was, “The industry’s future is bleak except for some hotel company owners, and maybe a few others. For the meetings and sales and marketing professions, for the service segment of the hospitality industry, we have exceptional challenges.”

I believe that statement because I see jobs lost to automation, interest in big issues like safety and security wax and wane depending on the events of the day, and a general sense that we are still an industry focused on logistics not content, delivery of content, and people.

So why didn’t I? <shrug> Because. I simply didn’t. It had been suggested that people want upbeat thoughts and easy-to-use information and avoiding politics would be best.

So now, here, I add to the “dots” and hope we all can take this information and move forward to energizing an industry that is stuck in so many ways, that believes that “hosted buyer” programs solve the buyer-seller relationship issues, that cool apps will ensure we connect with others—even though our eyes are looking down most of the time at apps, missing the world and people and ideas and inspiration around us, and that hotels will listen to all customers not just Millennials.

(Who, it turns out, want desks in rooms after all!)

1. Demographics

People are on the move. The population of almost every country is blended because of the ease of travel and the desire for new experiences or a hoped-for better life. The crises in Syria and so many other countries have forced people out of their homes.

The United States is much more a “melting pot” or “tossed salad’ or “stew” than ever before.

There are five generations alive, and in some cases, working and attending meetings; they are certainly traveling and staying in hotels. In the workplace, Boomers, many of whom are at “retirement age” want to continue working because there are more contributions to be made and in some cases, they can’t afford to retire. But they are being forced out of jobs or not hired for new ones because they are thought to be “too old” or too expensive and Millennials, hungry for work, are willing to take jobs at lesser pay.

Boomers and Xers are being managed by Millennials and are not always pleased.

We talk a good game of “diversity and inclusiveness” and yet, exclude many from jobs. People with disabilities are frustrated with the lack of accommodation and inclusiveness in travel and at meetings. The meetings and hospitality industry could (and should) be on the front line of adapting to demographic changes.

What we can do:

  • Get back to meeting (and marketing) basics: “know your audience” or your potential audience or customer.
  • Once known, determine what can be done to attract and include the diverse audience you have or want. Do speakers reflect a diversity or are they all alike in appearance, opinion, experience?

    Will the images and colors used to market your venue, service or meeting be those that will not offend? Are there dates over which holding a meeting or marketing your facility, because it’s wide-open, will be inappropriate? (Think religious, national or local holidays or festivals).

    Will what a guest at a hotel or participant at a meeting see or experience be reflective of a broader population?

  • Be inclusive in language and attitude. The term “politically correct” has been thrown about frequently during this U.S. presidential election season. C’mon—being caring and empathetic, including others in our language, is a smart way to market and work.

    I mean, referring to Boomers as “little old people” seems so yesterday! (One of my favorite columnists wrote this about the difference in politically correct and inclusive language).

  • Design meetings differently. My colleagues, Jeff Hurt and Jeffrey Cufaude, both write frequently about how to do so. Follow them, read and incorporate what they suggest.
  • Hire and retain a diverse workforce ensuring they reflect a diverse population. Know that those who are of different generations, ethnic and other backgrounds, gender identity—and all that makes us unique—have good ideas to add to the conversation.

2. Climate

Regardless of your belief in what scientists are saying, the climate has changed and has impacted travel, tourism and health. 2015 was the warmest year on record. El Nino has caused flooding rains, massive snow fall, tornadoes “out of season” and other weather events.

The Zika virus that is spreading and considered by the World Health Organization an emergency—and is now believed to spread through sexual contact—may also be a result of climate.

What we can do:

  • Consider climate’s impact on your meetings and travel to and from them. You can’t avoid weather and you shouldn’t avoid all places where climate could have, or has had, an impact! You can plan for contingencies.
  • Advise meeting participants on what they need to do to plan for weather contingencies. Not everyone is a frequent traveler and knows to pack an extra jacket or sweater (also useful for over-chilled rooms) or umbrella, or of their rights or what to do if flights or trains are canceled at the last minute because of a “climate event.”
  • Understand the impact of climate on the cost of food and beverage and other aspects of your meeting operations. Plan accordingly. When you budget, don’t use last year’s plus or minus 10 or other percentage. Consider where you are going and what you are serving and what the impact of climate may be on those costs.
  • Read the CIC’s APEX report on sustainable events and change how meetings and meeting venues operate to stop waste of energy, food, people and resources.
  • Read all that Nancy Zavada, friend, colleague, and “Queen of Sustainability,” writes for Meetings Today (Here’s her latest on what the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly did).

3. Infrastructure

The United States is falling down and apart. Literally.

While the crumbling infrastructure has political and tax implications, and you can try to influence the votes of your senators and representatives, the concern for meetings is great. Roads and bridges that are inaccessible can impact how people arrive, depart and traverse the destination you select.

The toxic water situation in Flint, Mich., is also part of the aging infrastructure made worse by the source of their water. Don’t count on other U.S. cities avoiding similar issues or even having access to water. When a water main breaks—which they are with frequency in the U.S.—we’re out of luck.

The American Society of Civil Engineers issues a report card every four years on US infrastructure. You may not have read it. You should.

What we can do:

  • Ask tough questions of DMOs and do your own research about cities you are considering for your meetings. If you work for a DMO or a hotel, be honest with groups who want to book. Show creative ways your destination is managing the infrastructure challenges.
  • Create alerts for the cities (I use and am city specific) and even for “infrastructure” or a specific city’s infrastructure so you are steps ahead in information.
  • Connect this dot to “climate” and see how destinations’ infrastructure is impacted by budgets used to combat a weather emergency.
  • Create emergency and crisis plans for all contingencies.
  • Find out what back-up (generators, bottled water, transportation, communications, safety, etc.) plans the venues you are considering have for any emergencies.
  • Take nothing for granted.

4. Biz Models

The sharing economy, co-working spaces and hotels, job sharing, contract or temporary workers—there is nothing the same as it was when some of us started in the industry even if you started just a few years ago! We will continue to experience changes in how work is performed, by whom and where. Technology of course has contributed to these changes.

Look at the impact of infrastructure and transportation and climate on just this one “dot” and you’ll see how the future of how we do business has changed. Why fight traffic when you can work at home or from anywhere because you are connected? (Of course this assumes good and free connectivity which can be impacted by infrastructure!).

The opportunities new business models open for different demographics—people with disabilities, parents, people who want or must work multiple jobs—is great. And it also means a change in how people are paid which could have a negative effect on the economy as it will on individuals.

It’s just not going to be the same any more. And those who work in a sharing economy may not have the financial or time resources to attend meetings. Another dot connected.

What we can do:

  • Decide how you’ll work within the changing structures.
  • If you are a “temp worker” or hire temporary workers, know the rights and responsibilities.
  • If you hire or outsource to individuals or companies that use new models, determine what liability you or they may have for any errors and omissions.
  • Read this article and understand this still new peer-to-peer economy.

5. Laws, Policies and Politics

Whether it’s taxes or civil rights or marijuana legalization, politics, policies and laws impact all we do including the meetings we present.

What the 2016 presidential candidates have to say about our industry and policies that may be enacted with new municipal, state or Federal lawmakers are likely to have great impact on the meetings, travel and tourism—the collective hospitality—industry.

What we can do:

  • Be informed about the laws of the destinations to which you plan to take meetings.
  • Know your company’s or organization’s bylaws and mission and if there are any hot-button issues that could cause a meeting to cancel if a law or policy were enacted, or, like a corporate planner friend, where your off-site events could and couldn’t be: hers can’t be near strip joints or marijuana dispensaries for appearances.
  • Be informed about impending laws.
  • Register to vote and then vote.
  • Participate in actions to be held on April 14, 2016, for Global Meeting Industry Day. If you’re involved in planning these events, request that it be more than a celebration and rather a day of action about issues that matter to and impact our industry. Engage others in conversations about these issues.

6. Technology

Technology is usually considered the greatest thing to happen to our industry ever! While I think it has an impact, it’s one that can have both positive and negative impact.

It does impact outsourcing of jobs (see “Biz Models”); automation of front desk procedures that may eliminate jobs; automation of site selection and meeting planning processes, again a potential job eliminator; virtual and hybrid meetings some of which may cause people to not attend face to face. Technology can help us do our jobs more efficiently, connect with others to learn, create communities before, during and after meetings.

Technology also keeps our noses in devices when we could be interacting with others when we are f2f at meetings! And technology is (one of) the greatest threats to privacy and security. We can’t live without it and sometimes we fear living with it.

What we can do:

  • Determine how to effectively use technology to enhance the meeting and show experiences. Don’t use it as a crutch!
  • Consider technology just one more tool in your creative kits.
  • Have contingency plans for data breaches, and outages. If it hasn’t happened to you, it will!

6. Terrorism

This is the one, at the January program, I called “The Elephant in the Room”—something we all think about and rarely address directly until there is an attack somewhere. When, recently the CEO of a major international hotel company, said that the acts of terrorism in Paris, Egypt and elsewhere hadn’t really impacted tourism and hospitality, I wondered in what universe he lived!

Statistics do show that people, though they didn’t stop traveling entirely, did think more about where they’d travel. After the Paris attacks, school groups said that they would not come in—even from the distant suburbs—to the District of Columbia, the U.S. Capital, for their usual school trips, so uncomfortable were they with the possibility of terrorism.

What we can do:

  • Don’t assume that your meeting, regardless of where it is held, is safe.
  • Be aware and know what you will do if there is an act of domestic or international terrorism.
  • Create a plan to protect people and property, to shelter in place, to move people to different locations.

Are there other dots and connections of which we should be aware? Yes. Do I think the meetings industry will continue? Yes. Do I think that we need to be more aware and do more to connect dots to other dots to move the industry ahead? A resounding YES!

And we can if we make a concerted effort to connect these and other dots … together.

Planning Events: Back to Basics

Originally published on Meetings Focus Blog

We’re the worst aren’t we? Planners who attend events in which we were or weren’t involved in the planning and execution. Yet, it may be because we know the best practices that we are more critical of what should be done or what is written in industry manuals as best practices.

We expect the best! After some recent experiences, and seeing some photos online of a large industry event, reminders of the basics seem in order.

Know your audience. That includes age, gender, gender identity, abilities, disabilities, allergies (food and environmental) and once known, plan to meet those needs. A venue that allows smoking in an area where it pours into the event or is prevalent in restaurants surrounding a smoking area like a casino is not healthy for those with lots of different health issues; a scented venue causes problems for those with chemical sensitives (covered under the ADA).

A venue with lots of steps makes it difficult for some (many in some cases) and certainly makes it more difficult for those who use mobility devices. Consider whether the entertainment and programmatic choices are appropriate for the kind of event you’re planning. If it’s a networking event, consider if people can hear and talk above the sound.

Develop and employ objectives for the overall event and for individual components. If one of the objectives is to showcase best practices in meetings then … do so! Set the rooms in something different than straight schoolroom or theatre rows. Use screens that are appropriate sizes so that all people can see any visuals used.

If peer-to-peer learning and social networking are objectives (and they should be, studies show, for all events, social, fraternal and educational) determine what space and conditions will most contribute to those objectives. Ensure appropriate seating for the demographics, space allocation.

Provide information about how to find others in the group, adequate and appropriate (including “handicap spaces”) parking, are other examples of meeting objectives.

Communicate—from RFP to post-con—with the venue and vendors ensuring they know what you want, can meet those needs, and that any surprises aren’t because of thorough communications. That is, take nothing for granted! Just because you used “one of their properties” (or a vendor) in a different destination or even of the same brand or the same property at a different time, doesn’t mean it will be the same again.

Put in writing, even before the contract, all the expectations you have and they have and provide your objectives so partnering can start from the beginning.

Plan food and beverage to match times, demographics, abilities, and needs. There’s nothing worse than an event that begins at 7 p.m. which is dinner time for many and to learn there will only be “dry snacks.”* If that’s the case, let people know ahead of time and provide a list of restaurants near the meeting venue for those who may not be familiar with the area.

Survey the needs of participants to know their food allergies or other dietary needs: vegan, vegetarian, lactose-intolerant, gluten-sensitive, etc. (I’m a fan of Patti Shock and her writing including “A Meeting Planner’s Guide to Catered Events”).

Practice sustainability! At a recent industry function, a colleague and I were surprised (OK, stunned!) to see water bottles v. water stations. Handouts are not the nemesis of green! As long as they are printed on post-consumer products using sustainable ink and fonts.

Giving gifts? If gift wrap is needed, use post-consumer wrapping paper and avoid over-packaging with lots of tissue. Food waste is a major issue in the U.S. If you want to overset, it’s OK as long as you know that the venue is going to reuse or donate what food they can. Or serve plated meals, asking participants ahead of time to indicate their preferences.

Two great resources for sustainability are MeetGreen and GMIC.

Program for maximum involvement and attention. Small screens for large audiences, long programs that go on and on, bad visuals, untested sound, ill-timed programs or those that are not timed as promised, unexpected guests at the mic/lectern (aka “podium” for those who insist!), lack of audience involvement, inactivity/sedentary audience for long periods, and more that you can list all lead to “fanny fatigue” which leads to brain fatigue and napping.

Not all programs have to be interactive; they do need to engage. If you’ve followed me here or in social media, you know I tout Jeff Hurt’s blog, and Paul Radde’s book, “Seating Matters”, and Adrian Segar’s work which, like mine, involves deliberate meetings and events.

Be safe! I wrote extensively here about AEDs and was surprised, at a recent industry meeting, to learn that the venue had AEDs, but not in the meeting space. One was required to go to the heart/back of the house to a house phone—no house phones in the meeting rooms—to contact security to bring the AEDs.

Select destinations and sites with safety first in mind: nearest hospital or emergency facility, AEDs on property, CPR-trained personnel on staff 24/7, and procedures to handle food allergies and other emergencies. Announce, at the start of every event, the location of the emergency exits and the procedures. Yes, you can do this at social events too: doing one’s “flight attendant routine” always gets a laugh and attention so people know what to do if they have to evacuate.

And about *dry snacks: they encourage beverage, often alcohol, consumption. Over-drinking can lead to many disasters: drunk driving, alcohol poisoning, and other dangerous behavior. Talk with the bartenders, even if it’s a cash bar or ticketed, to find out their practices and policies about stopping over-consumption of alcohol.

Yes, there’s much more to planning an event than most people consider. And there’s much more to selecting destinations (that have airports that are accessible for people with disabilities), sites, caterers, AV and production companies, and planning programs, and contracting.

This is a snippet that occurred to me after a few events that puzzled me.

Why Aren’t Meeting Breaks More Fun?

Originally published Meetings Focus Blog

(Photo Credit: Reiko Renee Tate)

Here’s how this blog came to be, and came to be the inaugural blog for Friday With Joan*: I saw this Washington Post article about the global dominance of Oreos and was fascinated. It caused me to make a puzzled face and wonder why I’d never (ever—in 40 some years!) seen Oreos on break tables at meetings or conferences, even at IACC conference centers!

That lead to some thinking and research about Oreos (do a search; the supply of links is endless!) and breaks at meetings; an interview with Patti Shock, hospitality F&B guru, an Oreo tasting for neighbors; and more thinking about why breaks are neither real breaks nor do they provide anything fun that could, in fact, be a great icebreaker!

Really? Can you eat or watch someone eating an Oreo and not wonder why they are eating it “that” way, which is clearly either different than what you do or the same?

Years ago, I wrote in another industry publication about why we scheduled at most 15-minute versus 30- or 45-minute breaks. Oh, I knew the answer then and do now; we want to cram the agenda with content, forgetting that one of the main reasons people attend meetings is to learn from peers, which we sometimes call “networking,” but we don’t give people adequate and appropriate time to do so.

I still and will forever question how a speaker/facilitator of learning, audience member or entire audience can stop what they are doing, gather their stuff, leave a room (because it’s needed for the next session), find and use a restroom, refresh with a nosh, talk with colleagues about what was learned, find the next session, and sit down again … in 15 minutes! Worse, today, no one looks up much—their noses, at breaks and at other times, are bent into their electronic devices rather than having a conversation.

And that nosh? I remember when Danish were cut in half to save money! In a lengthy discussion in ASAE’s Collaborate (for ASAE members and in this case, those in the meetings industry), it seems association planners are balking about paying hotels for coffee for breaks and are instead purchasing Starbucks—and they were specific—cards to give to participants to use at outlets versus providing any beverages or food at breaks. Talk about more time needed for people to get to the outlet and back to the meeting. Penny wise and pound foolish? The results aren’t in.

Jeff Hurt, Adrian Segar and I have written lots about meeting design. Andrea Sullivan—who will probably gasp at the idea of Oreos versus a nice healthy break snack—talks in this Meetings Focus article about the need for real breaks. And I am pretty sure we’d never have had Harrison Owen coin the term “Open Space” had we had short breaks and electronic devices in 1985!

But I deviate slightly from the topic of Oreos. When I asked a director of catering for a major convention hotel in D.C. why they didn’t serve Oreos, he said … he wasn’t really sure! He did comment that the new DC Trump Hotel would likely not serve them.

(Will that cause those who might have wanted to meet at a Trump hotel to boycott because there are no Oreos?! See my previous blog for reference.)

Here’s what I think we need to do at meetings, conventions and conferences:

  1. Put more white space in the agenda and hold that space as if it were sacred. Don’t agree to adding “just one more session” if it takes time away from breaks.
  2. Use that white space for breaks for refreshments, quiet time, thinking, discussing what we learned with others, and of course, biological and business functions.
  3. Serve foods that are healthy and that are fun. Oreos can be one of the choices because they are fun, create conversation and, in small packages, are portable for later.

Even if you’re not on board with the idea of serving Oreos during your next meeting break, there’s lots more that can be done to make the overall experience more interactive and enjoyable. Tell us your ideas and practices to create better breaks in the comments below, or even share your meeting break wish list!

Oh, and in case you missed them above, here are links to my related content and research:

*Friday With Joan will be accessible and sent the first Friday of each month.

It is an opportunity for us to engage in discussions about serious issues and some that are lighter, like this inaugural topic. And while this is lighter—than say contracts or ethics or risk—it is relevant. I promise to try to make all the blogs relevant to those in our industry and the work we do and the outcomes of what we do.

Why start the newsletter series with a lighter topic? Two reasons: First, it’s the start of the “school year” and that should always be fun; Secondly, from years (23) of engagement in online communities, more than 15 years moderating virtual groups, and as a facilitator of group process, I know that people engage more with comfortable, familiar topics and ones especially in which they know (or hope) they won’t be judged for their experience or opinion.

This will do it! As always you can weigh in or email me at with comments you want posted as an anonylister (c) Eli Gorin. I promise to keep those notes confidential. Also if you haven’t already done so, click here to subscribe to Friday With Joan.

Creating Options for Learning Meetings

This article was originally published on Meeting Focus Blog.

In the first of three blog posts about industry education, I wrote about the ‘us-them’ conundrum regarding who pays for and attends educational events sponsored by industry associations or private companies and the harm I believe is being done to overall knowledge, professionalism and service for our industry.

In this, part two, I’ve written about content and delivery, as well as scheduling and timing. This is, by the way, all adaptable for your own meetings: the status quo the industry meetings exhibit is the same for many other types of meetings.

Status Quo 1: Schedules limit time for the pursuit of learning.

I’ve maintained for years that someone once decided meetings should look and be scheduled like the worst grammar or high school any of us attended, at least as witnessed by those of us not in the Millennial generation! (I hear things are changing in some schools. However, in the U.S. we are dealing with “teaching to the test” which involves little learning to think and avoids creating a desire for lifelong learning, to be addressed in part three.)

School began with arrival and home room (“general session”), then short breaks where we were maybe allowed to use restrooms. Then on to other classes (“workshops”/”breakouts”) and then lunch period, and repeat the same schedule in reverse in the afternoon.

We were over-programmed with little time for peer interaction (“networking” in today’s parlance) and even told not to talk with each other if it appeared to interfere with a teacher’s lesson plans, not unlike some speakers who disdain interaction even to ask questions.

There is little deviation from this meeting schedule. If there are breaks (check some meeting schedules: one session time ends and the next begins with nary a minute in between), in that 15 to maybe 30 minutes, we have to exit one room, use a restroom, maybe grab a beverage and get to another session.

Time to mingle? Talk with colleagues? Only if we decide to walk in late or skip other sessions.

Different Thinking:

  1. Start sessions on time regardless of how many people are in the room. Use the mantra I have borrowed from Open Space Technology: whoever shows up are the right people.
  2. Provide breaks of 30 to 45 minutes. It may mean scheduling fewer breakout sessions  to accommodate more time between sessions. By doing so, you will provide time for people to connect, converse and share ideas.
  3. Provide places for people to sit and talk outside session rooms. Be sure the seating is accessible and convenient: not too high or too low, easily grouped, placed to not interfere with sessions in progress, and designed to encourage people to congregate to talk.
  4. 45 to 60 minute sessions are the new norm. Is that amount of time adequate for all learners and trainers (aka speakers)? As both a trainer and a learner, sure, I can deliver and absorb something in that time, but my learning styles (Aural and Kinesthetic) need more.
  5. If the sessions, because of “new thinking,” must be shorter (than they were) provide opportunities for those who attend them for deeper dives in other places and times, including right after a short(er) session.

Status Quo 2: Big(ger) is better.

Why is it thought that the bigger the meeting, the better it is? Sure, there may be more people to walk through exhibits and perhaps a greater number of opinions offered. But bigger also means that those great peer-to-peer encounters happen less because people—housed in many hotels and spread out over a large convention center or even throughout a large convention hotel—rarely encounter each other.

Further, sessions have to be huge to accommodate all those in attendance. And imagine the introvert surrounded by thousands when a few or maybe “tens” are the comfort level.

Different Thinking:

Instead of budgeting only on numbers (attendance, income, number of exhibits), budget on effectiveness, the ever-discussed, seldom practiced ROI for meetings.

Conduct Q-storming™ exercises around the meeting “whys”: Why is the meeting is being held? Why do people attend? In what will they find value? What do we know about the needs of the individual audience members? Do the trainers/speakers and meeting goers prefer interactive sessions with fewer people?

How have we measured and what have we found out about the anticipated outcomes and the actual effectiveness of the entire meeting, including size? These questions and others will help to develop different thinking. Maybe we can meet with fewer people in smaller venues where learning can occur more comfortably.

Status Quo 3: Content and speakers and room sets, oh my!

Industry programs, including those of chapters, look pretty much alike. For the national and international meetings, main-stage speakers tend to be mainly male (and too often white) in a demographic that is heavily female and still trying to attract people of diverse backgrounds.

The content is ho-hum, or perhaps it’s the way it’s delivered in ordinary ways that don’t involve participants except for the (dreaded, by me and others) Q&A at the end … long after the questions occur and right before the too-short break in which everyone must dash leaving no time for conversation with speakers or other participants.

We are told the rooms must be set in theatre or schoolroom (or maybe “crescent rounds,” though why aren’t facilities using the crescent tables they use for F&B for meetings to take up less space?) When one industry organization tried theatre-in-the-round for breakouts, they heard speakers didn’t know how to use it … so they stopped!

Aren’t there some new and creative things we can do?

Different Thinking:

C’mon, industry! Read the blogs and the social media discussions to learn what is really on the minds of planners and suppliers in our industry.

Look at the demographics and see how many are new to the industry and how many are those of us who have been around a long time and would like some new topics and new delivery. Always include issues that impact all of us all the time: ethics, legalities (and not just hotel contracts!), sustainability (including labor issues), creating new learning environments and deliver those in ways that are more experiential.

I recently moderated and spoke at the Hospitality Design Exposition & Conference (HD Expo) with two meeting planner colleagues. We envisioned having a session next year where we set a room to be the perfect meeting room and create things in there.

Why not try this concept at one of our own industry meetings?

For years, I’ve recommended Dr. Paul Radde’s book, Seating Matters: State of the Art Seating Arrangements to groups and even more, to hotels and convention and conference centers to learn how to create more audience-centric seating. Paul’s designs are superb for all kinds of audiences—when there are deaf or hard of hearing audience members too—and allows audience members to see each other (increasing eye contact that leads to sparked conversation) and for better visual lines to speakers.

Oh, and you can fit more people in the room, in better ways. Go buy it (Disclaimer: I wrote the foreword for which I wasn’t paid nor am I paid when Paul sells his books).

Status Quo 4: Networking only. 

What’s with the trend in industry organization chapters for only hosting food-and-booze-style networking events? No one seems to mix things up!

Studies, including one done years ago by MPI’s Foundation about why people attend meetings, indicate a key reason to attend is to interact with peers, what we commonly refer to as networking. People don’t know how to network at least not any more.

Go to any meeting and at breaks, see everyone, heads down, involved only with their electronic devices! (Imagine if it had been that way in 1985 when Harrison Owen coined the term and practice of Open Space. It wouldn’t have happened.)

Even if we teach people how to network, our industry meetings set a very bad standard for what they continue to call networking events: alcohol, food, and way-too-loud music, and they also don’t show how networking can be better done in sessions.

Different Thinking: 

  1. There’s big business around the how to network. Colleague, Susan RoAne, aka “The Mingling Maven,” has written and spoken about how to do so for years. Susan Cain, of Quiet fame, addresses networking for introverts in her book and TED Talk.
  2. Teach how networking—valuable connections!—can happen in education sessions, in hallways and at breaks (see Open Space Technology), and anywhere two people find themselves … if they would just look up.
  3. Teach improvisation (Izzy Gesell is highly recommended) so people can learn how to converse. One can’t really network if conversation is problematic!
  4. Music is great and helps people feel at ease especially at the start of an event where there are fewer people and conversation may be awkward. Ear-splitting music is never appropriate for an event where we want people to talk. Turn it down!
  5. Booze may be expected and it may also contribute to people acting “looser” than they might ordinarily. Is it a requirement? I don’t know. It’s sure a risk factor. Rethink why and how to use food and drink to bring people together.
  6. Food can be a great way to meet others if the food is accessible and there is seating for those who can’t stand, and if we create conversation places during food-focused events.
  7. Add the phrase “peer-to-peer learning” to the industry lexicon. Create engagement opportunities (interactive problem solving for example) in sessions and teach people how to have conversations. We have lost the art of conversation now that we tweet and text. Maybe this will help.

We can create better industry gatherings and education that can serve as models for others’ meetings. What will you do to increase the options our industry offers?

Upcoming in part three of the education series, I will write about “lifelong learning“—its pursuit and attainment—and how the industry associations can advance and support this pursuit.