Behind the Scenes

The Great Unknown

Risk-taking is beneficial for meetings, if you approach it the right way.

When I set out to write this month’s CMP Series on how to prepare for the unexpected at meetings, I planned on making it something of a refresher article on crisis-management planning. But once I started talking to people in our industry, the story took a different turn, because my sources shared a much broader interpretation of risk planning. When you think about the unknown, they said, it’ s not just how extreme weather events or the threat of terrorism might affect your meeting. The unknown also includes how every element of your face-to-face event — particularly new initiatives — will go over with your attendees.

I kept hearing from the meeting professionals I spoke with that this is a risk-averse industry, and that taking chances at events — new session and room-set design, adding or subtracting features — is something that is generally avoided. Perhaps that has to do with the live-and-in-person nature of our industry. Whereas a consumer products company, for example, can launch a new product and wait in the wings for objective market data to determine if it’s a hit or a bomb, meeting organizers experience whether something sizzled or fizzled right then and there. Different industries and organizations have different levels of tolerance for failure, ranging from acceptance to humiliation. Regardless of where in this range your industry’s culture falls, if you’re the public face of the meeting, you have to have some pretty thick skin and keep carrying on.

I tend to underestimate this reality because PCMA has always treated its own annual meeting — Convening Leaders, held last month in Boston — as a laboratory of sorts for meeting professionals, and has been very open about the fact that we deliberately take risks. Plus, I’m someone who tends to think that what’ s new and different and innovative will always generate a buzz. But that’s not necessarily true. For example, I was really psyched when I saw the creative and interactive spaces in Convening Leaders’ Learning Lounge 2.0 at the Hynes Convention Center right before our conference began, but I didn’t see attendees flock there as much as I had expected them to.

Overall, Convening Leaders was a big success this year. And as with any big event involving thousands of attendees and millions of details, it wasn’t flawless. But I’ve found our participants are more forgiving about the missteps and more enthusiastic about the successful components because we’re so transparent about our risk proposition. And sometimes they’re grateful, because they’ve now seen what will and won’t fly at their own events — and for them, that lesson was stress-free.

When it comes to taking risks, I’ve learned there’s an important distinction between the unknown and the unforeseen. You may not know in advance how something new will play out, but you can consider a range of possibilities, and weigh the potential pros and cons. And while it may seem contradictory, the biggest risk of all is to keep doing things the same way.

Michelle Russell

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.