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The Risk and Reward of Upending Traditional Meeting Formats

Linda McNairy, global vice president–strategic meetings at American Express Global Business Travel, gets the nod as a Changemaker for turning the North American annual customer meeting on its head.

MeetingsNet’s Changemakers list recognizes outstanding meeting professionals for their efforts to move their organizations and the industry forward in unique and positive ways. Find the full 2023 Changemakers list here.

Linda McNairy

Global Vice President–Strategic Meetings & T4M, Meetings & Events

American Express Global Business Travel

For infusing creativity and innovation into what had been a traditional corporate customer meeting

Linda McNairy is no stranger to change. Having spent nearly nine years in progressively challenging roles at American Express in the meetings, events, and business-travel arena, McNairy blossomed with each new assignment.

She took on the vice president–Americas role in the fall of 2019, charged with making structural changes throughout her business unit. That included rethinking the North American executive customer council, “a very high-level gathering on both our side and the client side,” she says. “We always discussed big issues, and it was very traditional. We sat at a U-shaped table; everyone had their laptops in front of them; and oh, how we loved our PowerPoints.”

She embraced the change-up challenge and set a new objective for the annual spring gathering. “I wondered how we could all interact in a different way. I wanted to make it ‘non-Amex,’ and I wanted it to be an incubator for new thoughts,” she notes.

When Things Go Differently

With a full-on pandemic starting in March 2020, McNairy’s baby bird would have to wait a couple of years before it took flight. When she and her team finally began laying the groundwork for the face-to-face gathering in spring of 2022, she realized it might be the first time many of the attendees would be taking a trip in two years, and they needed to be sensitive to those realities. “I also wondered, ‘what do we talk about?’”

She understood that meetings were playing a role in many companies’ recoveries by bringing distributed staffs together again for myriad business reasons. As a result, many of her customers had earned that coveted seat at the table, increasing the dialogue at executive levels. But McNairy recognized that while some loved the new role, others struggled.

“I am a silver-lining kind of girl, so I aimed to figure out how to elevate the conversation for all,” she says. “Amada Chamov [global head of strategic services, AMEX Global Business Travel], her team, and I brainstormed to come up with the name Changemakers, with a big call to action: thinking differently.”

It was easy enough to change the room design at their West Palm Beach venue and to create discussion points, says McNairy. “Where we got stuck was how to make people think differently.” During the pandemic, a motivational speaker had contacted her via LinkedIn. “We met for coffee, and I loved that he was a dynamic thinker. I told him what I was stuck on with our customer meeting. He helped me design an interactive agenda using my concept of zeroing in on three to five topics.”

She hired that cold contact, Jon Colby, who trained at Second City and uses improvisation for his facilitations, to help run that first face-to-face Changemakers event in spring of 2022. “Instead of leading off with traditional introductions, we used improvisational exercises, which scramble your brain, make you laugh, and open you up,” she says. Splitting into small groups, McNairy and Colby did the facilitating, asking for report-outs that the entire gathering got to vote on.

The event was an unqualified success, according to customer feedback, but McNairy and her team didn’t stop there. They created a weekly newsletter for attendees, pushing summaries of the group discussions along with five simple things to help them achieve the goals that were set. In addition, Colby did a follow-up webinar. These activities ensured that what was learned at the in-person gathering would actually stick.

What’s Next and Advice for Success

Coming off a successful launch meant that the 2023 Changemakers event would need to meet high expectations. McNairy had time to think about how to make it different, bringing in Colby again to help plan and facilitate because he specializes in never repeating an agenda. “I was a little nervous about the returning attendees, but they ended up helping the newbies,” she says. “In improv, there are no mistakes.”

Her advice for being a change agent? “Don’t do it all yourself; lean on others who challenge your thinking and who have fun brainstorming. Involve them in changing the thinking.” 

View the full list of 2023 Changemakers

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