Farewell to a Fabulous Columnist

I am saddened to have to say that our long-time, IMHO fabulous, columnist Mitchell Beer is packing up his considerable energy and insights and moving on from his MeetingsNet column as his focus widens beyond events. And that's OK, Mitchell. Really, we understand that things change.

But I for one will miss his environmental zeal, his willingness to take on controversial topics like if information should be free or for-fee and the costs of commoditization...there's seemingly no topic he wouldn't dig into, tear apart, and reconstruct in his own unique way.

After years of reading his work, I finally got to meet him at an industry event not too long ago. The couple of hours we spent just flew by—it was invigorating, if a touch exhausting, to follow his conversational leaps and twists as we talked about everything from global warming to dogs to a great project we came up with (whatever happened to that, Mitchell?). His is a unique voice, and one that I hope will again grace our pages.

As is his custom, he kicked over a few rocks on his way out the door, pointing to three problems he says "sap the industry's relevance and credibility, and just might erode its viability." I'll paraphrase them here, and add a few thoughts:

1. A seeming unwillingness to stay focused on content and strategy, and not get sidetracked by shiny toys and pretty places. That, he says, is what will attract participants (love that he didn't call them "attendees") and get their boss's OK to come.

It's human nature to gravitate toward the fun stuff (as do meeting participants, let's not forget), but I do think we've come a long way, and are now at least aware of the need to tie meetings to organizational strategy and/or the bigger picture in the content area the meeting serves. And I do think he's giving short shrift to just how important all aspects of the meeting environment (including shiny toys, "glitzy destinations," and cool F&B) may be to getting participants to truly participate and learn. One person's glitz is another's bare essentials, after all, so it really comes down to the old adage of "know your audience." Strategy is important, and there should be good business reasons that draw people to come. But without superb logistics, the learning you want may not happen. And it's OK to play as you learn. Some of us even learn better that way, and I believe that concept also needs to become more acceptable as we shift away from surface knowledge acquisition and into deeper learning.

2. A seeming willingness to accept greenwashing instead of really doing the work of making meetings more sustainable environmentally.

You got me there, we do have a long way to go. And there are a lot of people who don't consider this an issue. But there are a lot of meeting planners—and I would hazard a guess that the number keeps growing—who do care and are sincere about reducing their meetings' environmental footprint. I don't agree that it's an intractable problem. It's easy to be impatient at the slowness of progress in this area, but I do believe the desire is sincere, and now that more meeting properties are incorporating green technologies and practices, meetings will become more sustainable. Attitudes take a long time to change, and until "green" alternatives are mainstream, universally available, and universally acceptable—even demanded by participants?—we may have to content ourselves with baby steps. Which may take longer, but will eventually get you there.

3. "The fundamental misalignment between the product our participants expect on site and our sponsors' reasons for funding our programs (and our inevitable financial imperative to side with the sponsors)." (Couldn't find a way to paraphrase that one.)

This is huge, and I'm not so optimistic that we're going to get this one right any time soon. The funding disconnect seems to be growing, not shrinking, as meetings evolve from meet-and-greets and lectures to real learning environments. It's hard to bite the hand that feeds your meeting, but we need to rethink how conferences are funded, and be willing to consider other ways of doing things that maybe don't involve the words "platinum level sponsor" if those sponsorships are getting in the way of, instead of contributing more than financially to, your meeting's goals and objectives (which they may or may not be, depending on your organization's goals for the meeting).

Of course, it would be great if your content was so compelling that participants would be willing to foot the whole bill themselves so sponsorships become a non-issue. Why is it we seldom think that's a rational, reasonable goal to have?

So, after three and a half years of dropping thought-provokers in our laps, Mitchell is leaving in the style we've grown accustomed to. Whether you agree or disagree with his views, you have to admit he was always an interesting read!

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