Behind the Scenes

First Time Out of the Gate

In November, we hosted our first Convene Forum, a hosted-buyer event with about 50 participants, at Le Blanc Spa Resort in Cancun. It was the first time our editorial team had the chance to get our hands in the mix at an educational event, and it was exciting.

Everything we write about in these pages has to do in some way with planning meetings, but, obviously, as writers and editors, we don’t actually take part in that process ourselves. So what an opportunity it was for us – collaborating with our colleagues on PCMA’s education and meetings teams – to help put together the inaugural Convene Forum, Nov. 13–16.

We brainstormed with them about creating sessions that built upon stories and themes we cover in Convene(ITAL). We helped determine the session formats, using what we’ve learned from interviewing experts inside and outside of this industry, so we could best engage participants. And then, we got to be a part of it as it unfolded.

One-hundred percent of the respondents to a post–Convene Forum survey said they were satisfied with the way the event turned out – and we’re enormously proud of our first effort. I’ve asked my team to use this space to share their impressions of the two-and-a-half days we spent together in such great company and in such a breathtaking setting.

What I liked most about our first Convene Forum besides the ego boost of having a smart, ambitious meeting built around our magazine – was enjoying the power that a beautiful destination has to foster creativity and engagement. Much of Le Blanc Spa Resort is open to the air; even the meeting room where we had most of the Forum’s educational programming had floor-to-ceiling glass doors that opened onto a patio that offered views of Le Blanc’s fine-grained beach and the shimmering Caribbean Sea beyond. For some of our breakout discussions, attendees took it upon themselves to relocate to that patio, where they relaxed under the brilliant blue sky and participated in quite serious discussions about social media, sponsorship opportunities, adult learning, and other industry topics.

When our hosted buyers were busy with their supplier appointments, we Convene editors took to meeting outside, on the deep, shaded veranda overlooking Le Blanc’s pool. And the beach. And the Caribbean. Far from distracting us, the lovely, tranquil setting opened us up; we unwound and settled in, and did a lot of talking and planning. Or that’s how I felt, anyway – content, responsive, enjoying the power of face-to-face magnified through the lens of sensory fulfillment.

— Christopher Durso

For me, the best part, along with seeing the sun rise over the Caribbean every morning – was the opportunity to meet face-to-face with people I had spoken with only by phone or by email in the course of writing stories for Convene.I got a big kick out of having dinner with Jeff Howe, who coined the term “crowdsourcing,” and who appeared in our September 2010 cover story about how crowdsourcing can make meetings more relevant to attendees. Jeff was as down-to-earth as he is brainy—I don’t know if I would be that unassuming if I had made up a word that returns 12million hits on Google.

Another highlight was sitting next to Teresa Alfaro, CMP, meetings manager for Volunteers of America, at dinner our second night. In 2009, I called Teresa out of the blue to ask her about her experience working in NewOrleans on PCMA’s Hospitality Helping Hands project to rebuild houses, and I was struck then by her compassion and generosity. That was typical Teresa, I learned during dinner. I got inspired just listening to her talk about how much she values the work of Volunteers of America and its staff, and appreciates the opportunity to be a part of it.

—Barbara Palmer

During the planning stages for the Convene Forum, we honed in on a few articles from the past couple of years that had been particularly popular or controversial, and on which we wanted to base the Forum’s educational sessions. One of these was a story I’d written for the June 2010 issue about Generation Y, which set out to explode common misconceptions, both within and without the meetings industry, about this youthful cohort (of which I happen to be a member). The angle was to get the story straight from Gen Y members themselves, rather than from industry analysts and so-called experts. Thus, the thrust of the educational session was along similar lines: to interview a few Gen Y-ers in a sort of live sequel to the article, about their view of meetings from the point of view of both attendees and planners.

In a further extension of the “live article” format, I was tapped to be the panel discussion’s moderator. This made me anxious, as I’d never before moderated a session. Of course, I’d interviewed plenty of people in the course of working for this and other publications, but never in front of a live audience.

I was lucky in that we were able to wrangle two of the most impressive Gen Y members from the original article—Belinda Keota, CMP, meeting manager for the Produce Marketing Association, and Jodi Spivak, CMP, sales manager at Hotel LeGermain in Toronto—as well as Derrick Johnson, CMP, director of meetings and professional development at the National Association for Gifted Children.

The four of us had a pre-trip conference call, and met up during the Forum itself, prior to the session. I’d also had an idea that I wanted to pull the discussion off the stage—this always feels alienating tome, as it draws a line between audience and presenters—and into the crowd.

To accomplish this, I decided we would place four highboy tables in the midst of the audience, for the four of us to stand at, in order to better facilitate back-and-forth, cross-pollinated discussion, as well as Q&A from the audience.

On the morning of the session, I was still anxious— particularly about the unorthodox stage set—and worried we wouldn’t have enough to talk about in our 45-minute session. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Once we kicked things off, the discussion really flowed; I even found myself wishing for more time.

Furthermore, I felt as though my panelists had more energy and “spark” than most panelists usually do—perhaps as a result of not sitting in comfortable, drowse-inducing armchairs on a stage. On your feet, the blood is flowing more, and you are more actively engaged in what is happening than when you are seated.

And the audience really got involved in the discussion ,which pleased me. I couldn’t be sure whether it was because of the session’s content —some attendees felt we were being exclusionary and self-congratulatory with respect to Gen Y members, noting that they deal with the same problems we do—or the stage set, or (more likely) some combination of both.

But at least my worst fears, of an apathetic audience and timid panelists—to say nothing of a total crack-up on my part!—were not realized. After all, it’s better to be disagreed with than to have the audience just not give a damn about what is being discussed.

—Hunter R. Slaton

Michelle Russell

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.