Yes, this is another article about Millennials, planning meetings for Millennials, understanding Millennials, citing statistics about Millennials. But here’s the blinding flash of the obvious we had at MeetingsNet: Innovations at meetings, the changes driven by younger attendees, are things that older meeting planners and attendees want, too. We can ascribe today’s focus on engagement, experience, transparency, and compelling design to Millennials. But at this point, don’t we all expect these things? You may have lived for decades without a smartphone, but you have (and want and need) one now.
It’s a similar story in the workplace, as the 2013 PwC study “Next Gen: A global generational study” points out. “Just as notable…are the widespread similarities between Millennial employees and their non-Millennial counterparts,” the report states, “all of whom aspire to a new workplace paradigm that places a higher priority on work/life balance and workplace flexibility.”
In an October 2014 blog post titled “We’re All Millennials Now,” Forbes.com contributor Bridget Brennan, CEO of The Female Factor, wrote, “There used to be clear lines of demarcation between which brands and products were for kids and which were for grownups. No more. Kids love the brands their parents love (Exhibit A: Converse); grandparents love the brands their kids love (Exhibit B: Starbucks) and everyone from age 7 to 70 wants the same tech gadgets (Exhibit C: Apple). … So as we continue to adapt to the changes that are disrupting all of our businesses, remember to think broadly. After all, there’s a little (or a lot) of Millennial in all of us.”
Why Millennials Will Be Your Focus
Even if you don’t believe that generational desires are coming together—that we’re all looking for the same new things in our meeting experiences—the sheer numerical dominance of Millennials means you have to move forward as if you believe it. Millennials will be 75 percent of the work force in only 10 years (and nearly half the workforce by next year). You may have attendees or clients who remain tech-free and traditionalist, but they’re about to be vastly outnumbered.
Brookings Institution authors Morley Winograd and Dr. Michael Hais lay it all out in their report “How Millennials Could Upend Wall Street and Corporate America,” concluding that the Millennial generation’s influence will be all-pervasive. “In the future, most Americans, taking their cue from Millennials, will demonstrate a greater desire to advance the welfare of the group and be less concerned with individual success… they will display a greater reverence for the environment and less interest in the acquisition of things as opposed to experiences.”
The Blended Generation
There is no consensus on exactly who Millennials are (the range most widely used includes those born between 1982 and 2003), but we all agree that Millennials are the first generation to have grown up with the Internet. This has had a profound effect on their educational and social styles, as well as their needs and perceptions in the workplace—and at the meetings and incentive programs they attend.
As we explore 12 meeting elements that are being created or changed in response to those needs, one overarching point comes to the fore: Millennials are a tech-saturated group that nevertheless wants to connect face to face. A 2012 Edelman report on Millennials said they “see themselves as alpha influencers who shape the behavior of their larger social circles…[but] marketers tend to neglect the value Millennials place on face-to-face conversations.”
For meetings, that means Millennials want a blend of online and offline tools and experiences that give their learning and networking maximum impact. This is the great challenge and opportunity for meetings going forward.
The List: 12 Ways to Make Meetings Better for Everyone
1. Tech that Makes Things Easy
Douglas Hunt, senior vice president of business development for New York–based global events firm McVeigh Associates, is helping many of his clients move toward event apps not just because of their robust features, but also because doing so makes a positive impression at the earliest stages of the meeting’s life cycle, such as at registration. “Planners have to make the registration process more streamlined and friendly,” he says. “We like [apps] better than typical registration Web pages, which can be a mile long. That is just not attractive to Millennials.”
Karen Hamilton, executive vice president for Minding Your Business Inc., an experience design and engagement agency in Chicago, has clients who use comprehensive event apps such as CrowdCompass and Pathable for both logistical and strategic elements of their events. “Millennials want a tool that falls into the rhythm of their work environment, something they can use a lot of the time. So planners should find a platform they prefer that has multifaceted functionality, and not just for the days when the in-person event is taking place. Any app that will help you create a community by generating prior conversations among stakeholders—not just attendees but executives, presenters, and sponsors—is beneficial.”
2. Community, With Curation
To maximize the benefit and minimize the risk of free-flowing conversations in an event app, planners must have content curators (often called “community managers”) on their event teams—a new duty in the age of Millennials, who are not hesitant to share unvarnished opinions on social-media platforms. Meghan Schilt, CMP, global events manager of New York–based financial services firm Apax Partners and immediate past president of MPI of Greater New York, says that these curators “are not censors, but rather guides who keep conversations going in the right direction so that they can be as robust as possible.” She has experience with event apps from Concise and EventPad, which allow for discussion threads before, during, and after an event. “There is a responsibility to your brand to curate content,” she notes. One benefit of event apps: They work behind a meeting host’s firewall, so all interactions, from registration to stakeholder conversations, can be accessed only by those involved with the event, particularly important when it comes to corporate meetings.
3. The Social Sweet Spot
Planners who want to develop a presence for their events on public social-media outlets, including Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram, need a well-defined strategy. “Not long ago, many planners were saying, ‘We need a presence on every platform,’ but planners and attendees alike found that they could not keep up with that,” Hamilton says. “ Instead, find the sweet spot for your audience, focus on those platforms, and things will grow organically there. A social marketing strategy is what’s needed to connect with Millennials, not runaway social media.”
Crystal Kadakia, principal at Career Indulgence LLC, an Atlanta-based consulting firm focused on Millennials, notes that content curators are critical to the effectiveness of an event’s public social-media efforts, too. “They’re capturing key insights from sessions as well as generating discussion questions, then hashtagging all of those in order to start conversations that can be accessed or continued months after the meeting.”
4. Online Posts in Offline Space
To maximize excitement and participation during a meeting, Douglas Hunt will often install “social-media walls” throughout the event space. (Check SocialWall by CrowdCompass, Event Wall by Genie Connect, Postano, and TweetWall.) These large LCD panels display up to 20 posts from attendees at one time, and scroll down every 10 seconds or so to show the newest offerings from attendees, speakers, and content curators. “Millennials want to know that you are listening to them—that you’re letting them be part of the conversation about what they’re learning,” says Hamilton. “ These social media platforms and apps can do that.” They also represent the virtual/face-to-face blend that turns Millennials on.
Use Attendees' Devices to Your Advantage
5. On a Device, but Still on Topic
The latest tech trick for planners to figure out is how to use attendees’ own devices to keep them engaged and learning during meetings. “Younger people are using the ‘second screen’ that’s in their hands to look things up and to push things out, even while a presenter or a panel is delivering content to them,” says Karen Hamilton. “Organizers must get comfortable with this, especially when they are putting complementary content on their event apps and encouraging attendees to use their social media platforms. These devices have to be welcome in the meeting room.”
Meghan Schilt says it’s just an extension of how Millennials go through daily life: “The way the Millennials’ world has always been is to answer an e-mail, then take a call, then check a Web site for industry news, then have a departmental meeting, and then post something to Twitter or LinkedIn or Facebook. That constant variety is completely natural to their work life.”
Schilt sees “big adjustments in the way planners have to design sessions. Speakers and panelists now need to be able to handle attendee-generated content on the fly, and let a session become a fluid conversation based on what attendees bring up.”
6. All-Access Pass
“This generation does not believe that organizational hierarchy should be a barrier to the flow of information, because they’ve always had information instantly available to them,” says Hamilton. “Millennials want to interact with the leadership, and we have to make sure we have our leadership ready to do that—but not just to give a canned speech.”
So when leaders cannot be physically present, technology could bring them into a session where they address topics the audience requested, and even participate in a question-and-answer format. “This definitely creates value for Millennials,” she says.
This penchant for access is also a great reward, either as part of an incentive program or an on-site gamficiation element. An example: Gabe Zichermann, CEO of Gamification Corp., recently developed a game called LiveCube, for a client who wanted attendees to be “more present at the meeting, really listening and not so focused on their smartphones and social media.” So the game asked attendees to submit the most interesting thoughts or insights they gathered from speakers or other attendees during the event. As the event progressed, submissions were posted to the social media walls in the common spaces and attendees could vote for the ones they found most valuable, with awards presented on the final day. “This game created attendee participation in two ways, so that everyone learned more during the event,” he says.
The prizes were announced with a text message instructing winners to come to a particular breakout room at a certain time on the final day. When the winners arrived, they were welcomed to a private roundtable discussion with one of the keynote speakers. A prize like this, Zichermann says, “costs almost nothing to provide, and it’s the kind of experience that young people get really jazzed about.”
7. Session Format Shakeup
Crystal Kadakia has seen good results from breaking up a 60-minute or 75-minute session into 15-minute segments featuring different formats, some of which include unplugged presentation styles as well as small-group reflection and discussion. “What do we see in the lounge spaces and other common areas at companies like Google?” she asks. “Different colors and shapes on the walls, and things to play with. That’s because even the tech-oriented companies know there’s a point where our brains won’t process any more from technology, and that the tactile is critical to the learning experience.” Kadakia advises companies to incorporate at least one segment into each meeting session that uses no technology, and instead “develop a creative, collaborative atmosphere built around flipcharting, sticky notes, and other things that are really tactile and require interaction.”
8. Fun and Games and Goals
Gamification feels like a Millennial trend, but Trevor Roald, manager of industry relations for QuickMobile, a maker of event apps that include games, notes that “game-player types are not age-specific. It’s more based on personality, desires, and motivations.” Karen Hamilton notes that analog and digital games alike work well not only for fostering interaction among attendees, but also for reinforcing critical content such as new-product information.
Roald’s four basic rules for effective on-site games are: establish desired goals, develop clear rules for attendees, have a feedback system, and make participation voluntary. Also, by using an event app or a social-media platform to drive pre-event conversations among attendees, planners can make the competition during on-site games more meaningful to them.
Games can also be effective with a collective goal, not just individual goals. This is particularly true with socially responsible and civic-minded Millennials.
For instance, Roald had one client who used a digital board to display the number of environmentally friendly acts completed by attendees during the meeting, updated several times each day. The meeting host’s goal was 1,500 “acts of green”; the group finished up with more than 1,700. The prize offered by the meeting host: A generous donation to a charity in the meeting’s destination, in the name of the group. Roald notes that by working toward a common goal that was important to them, and seeing their progress on a continuous basis, attendees were energized and forged a strong bond—one that will always be attributed to that meeting.
Big Trends: Personalization and Uniqueness
9. Customized Incentives
Thanks to big data, Millennials constantly receive highly targeted ads and offers from brands that are continually learning about them and their buying habits and preferences. So it’s no surprise that Millennials expect rewards and recognition they earn in their work lives to be customized too.
“Millennials want options, and this means experiences in addition to tangible items,” says Karen Hamilton. “Luxury and reward mean different things to people across different generations, and even within this same generation.” For instance, one Millennial incentive winner might find great value in a round of golf with a board member at the incentive destination, while another might relish an opportunity to meet local artists in that destination. Still others might simply want to be able to bring a spouse or guest and have lots of free time rather than participate in many group activities. “Though it’s a lot of work for the organizers to coordinate at this level, it is often possible to provide all the options people want within the same incentive trip,” Hamilton adds.
Another option is “split” incentive tracks. Tony Wagner, vice president of CWT Meetings and Events in Minneapolis, worked with a client whose attendee demographic was divided roughly along the lines of those with young families and those who had no children or who had older children who wouldn’t be attending the program.
“So we did one track at a resort with lots of family activities, and winners were able to bring up to three children and even a nanny,” Wagner recalls. “For the other track we used a more traditional beach destination, with golf and spa available too. We also gave the latter group opportunities to give back to the community with activities focused on social responsibility. Overall, these salespeople were sufficiently motivated by one track or the other, and the participation rate was off the charts.”
10. Experience, the New Luxury Good
When it comes to incentive travel, research from the Wharton School of Business has found that what makes Millennials happy are experiences that align with their sense of who they are. Furthermore, Rodger Stotz, chief research officer for the Incentive Research Foundation, says that Millennials “value unique experiences that are rare and extraordinary.”
Adds Meghan Schilt, “The reason Millennials respond to ‘experience recognition’ is because they can tell the story on social media. That means something to them; it’s how they live their lives.”
11. Recognition: Keep it Coming
Meghan Schilt recommends a focus on quarterly incentive programs in organizations with large numbers of Millennials. “It would be exceptionally difficult to get Millennials to work a full year toward a goal,” she explains. “They need more recognition than that, because they were raised with constant acknowledgement and praise.”
12. Share the Why
However you shift your agenda, re-create your sessions, or introduce new meeting elements, explain the thought process behind the changes. “The Internet is about transparency, and these young people have always been able to search and find anything,” Kadakia notes. “So they have this constant need to know the ‘why.’ If you explain your meeting design to them, it will build buy-in and raise their engagement.”