Event Design

Designing Convening Leaders 2016

PCMA's planner-In-chief Kelly Peacy offers a detailed guide to what to expect at this year's annual meeting, and the thinking that went behind it.

VCC-West-Foyer_webWhat can you expect from Convening Leaders 2016 when it arrives at the Vancouver Convention Centre on Jan. 10–13?  Kelly Peacy, CAE, CMP, PCMA’s senior vice president of education and events, gave us a sneak preview.


SM0715KPeacy4782Convening Leaders tends to let its destination inspire a theme — like 2015’s “Make No Little Plans,” which was something architect Daniel Burnham said while he was helping design the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. The theme for 2016 is equally host-city-driven: “Cultivating Creative Moments.”

Kelly: “Not long after Convening Leaders [2015] in Chicago, [our team made] a site visit to Vancouver — the first time that the extended team really got to immerse themselves in the environment of the Vancouver Convention Centre and the surrounding hotels and restaurants and neighborhoods. We were beyond inspired by the beauty that the convention center has to look at. Beautiful water, mountains. We had the opportunity to see it everywhere, because the center is full of windows and bright, natural light.

“You feel differently. As the organizing team, we felt differently. We knew that if we could come up with a concept that embraced this — that didn’t compete with the outside, but somehow managed to make our learning environments and our experiences enhanced by this natural beauty that’s all around — that our participants would really like that and enjoy it. We came to this idea of how that beauty inspires creativity; how creativity is really one of those low-lying things that people don’t think about in terms of job skill, but for us, as planners, we need creativity more than ever.

“What we’re hoping is that this whole experience of the beauty of Vancouver and the Vancouver Convention Centre, our unique content, and most importantly, the people who are attending Convening Leaders, combine to create a lot of creative moments. That people stop and take a look at it and think about creativity in a positive way that will help them in 2016 and beyond.”


In addition to creativity, Vancouver’s beauty is inspiring Convening Leaders to embrace health and wellness.

Kelly: “I think people will really notice all of the ways we’re integrating wellbeing from a personal and professional standpoint into the meeting, from healthier food choices to physical activities. We’ve got yoga in the morning. We have a fun run on Tuesday for the [PCMA Education] Foundation. We have a wellness center in the Learning Lounge where people can go and talk about nutrition and staying fit and healthy on the road. We have education sessions on being fit to lead, how health and fitness impacts leadership, how to control stress in the workplace.

“All of that is a new concept that we’re infusing from top to bottom throughout Convening Leaders — again, inspired by Vancouver. A very healthy city. Very green. They’re inspiring us, everywhere we go.”


The Vancouver Convention Centre offers 466,500 square feet of flowing, flexible meeting and event space — and Convening Leaders will use most of it. 

Kelly: “The space usage is one of the main things that we’re working on. We have to turn the General Session [space] into two smaller breakout rooms. We don’t have to, we want to, because we want to use those spaces. It’s good for the content that we’re providing in there, but it also demonstrates how you can use space differently.

“There’s a lot of open space in the foyers and main function areas of the convention center. Our open-space learning [environments] will look different. Our Learning Lounge, our TechCentral, all of those things are going to look different, because the convention center in Vancouver is set up much differently than [Chicago’s] McCormick Place, for example. We had to be very thoughtful about the way we use the space and, more importantly, how we communicate that navigation to our attendees.

“We are planning to do a video in the Opening General Session for all the attendees, so we can explain to them where everything is located, how we’re using the space, why we’re changing the General Session room over, and be very transparent in the use of our space.”


Speakers will include Arne Sorenson, president and CEO of Marriott International; Juliet Funt, founder and CEO of WhiteSpace at Work; Jonah Berger, associate professor of marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On; and Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project and Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives.

Kelly: “We want people to [experience] different feelings and emotions for each time they’re watching a General Session speaker. You can go from Arne Sorenson, who’s going to talk about disruptors in the industry and different, really important things that we need to know about from a business perspective; to Juliet Funt, who’s going to talk about creating white space in your work, in your [personal] life, in your culture, to think and be innovative. Then we’re going to go to Jonah Berger, who’s going to talk about ideas and innovation and big-picture ways in which things catch fire and become contagious. We’re wrapping it up on Wednesday with Gretchen Rubin, who’s going to help make people more productive, more balanced, by giving tips on how to master the habits that make people great.

“You’re going to go through this landscape of emotions and ideas and thought process. The whole point is that [the General Session speakers are] all a little different, and that’s deliberate. We want people to not feel the same way every time they’re in the room.”


Convening Leaders will offer programming in seven tracks: Event Technology & Intelligence, Meeting & Experience Design, Operational Strategy, PCMA Business School, Thought Leader, and — two new tracks this year — Being Your Best and Leading Change.

Kelly: “The Being Your Best track is about being your best physically, mentally. Taking advantage of productivity tools and methods to make the most of your time. It’s pretty self-explanatory.

“The second new track is called Leading Change. As senior event professionals, people need to lead the charge back in the office on some of these new innovative concepts that hopefully they glean from Convening Leaders. We want to provide the skill sets to our participants to take that information and really effect true change in their organization. Whether they are proposing blowing up their meeting and starting over, or making incremental innovation changes, we want to provide sessions in the Leading Change track that help them be those change agents.”


The Closing General Session will be followed by the Grab & Go or Stay & Network Lunch — which will be followed by a new, three-hour, attendance-capped program called PCMA Women@Work.

Kelly: “The Women@Work program stemmed from a crowdsourced topic at the [PCMA] Education Conference in Fort Lauderdale [this past June], where we had an afternoon of freethinking topics people could choose from. One of those was about women in leadership positions in the industry. It was very well-attended — probably the best-attended crowdsourced breakout of that program. There were younger professionals, more-seasoned professionals, all talking to each other about how to advance in this industry through leadership and mutual support of one another.

“They expressed a great desire to continue these conversations face-to-face at Convening Leaders in Vancouver. We created a program that is limited to 200 participants. It sold out in three weeks; we have a waiting list. It’s about taking three hours of your time together and understanding various perspectives of how women have succeeded in leadership in this industry and in business, and learning from each other.

“We’ll have an outside-the-industry perspective from Michelle Stacy, who is also one of our Thought Leader–session speakers. She’s the former president and CEO of Keurig. We’ll talk about her leadership journey and the real stories behind the choices that she had to make.

“We’ll also have more crowdsourced topics for women to talk about what’s really on their mind, regardless of what it is, whether it’s salary negotiations, or work/life balance, or promotions, or how to manage teams. We’re going to tie it all together at the end with a reaction panel of women specifically in the events industry, so that we can make it relevant to this specific group of people who work in events.


Offering bite-sized education in a fun, freewheeling environment, the Learning Lounge has been one of Convening Leaders’ most popular components since it debuted in 2011. But last year, it ran into some hiccups. 

Kelly: “We definitely saw last year that we had some acoustical challenges with our open-space learning. We don’t want to give up on open-space learning — we know that our attendees enjoy it; we know that it creates a lot of energy and buzz in the open spaces. It gives people flexibility and options when it comes to their educational experience.

“We’ve spent a lot of time researching various ways to manage sound energy in open-space environments. Our participants will see within one of these open-space environments [in the Learning Lounge] various solutions. One could be headphones. One could be movable walls that help contain sound inside of a space. One might be directional speakers underneath the seats. We’re going to talk about this in the environment itself. We definitely heard our participants’ frustrations last year with the sound challenges. We’re going to keep trying until we can advance it as a concept, because we think it’s that important.”


Whereas the Learning Lounge is coming in for retooling, TechCentral is what it is — an ever-popular showplace for hands-on demonstrations of gadgets, apps, and social-media platforms.

Kelly: “We’re anticipating a lot of people wanting to engage in that area. We’re just making it bigger, to accommodate as many people as we can, because we absolutely realize that people bring their own device with them to get some help on something, learn about the latest apps, see some demos. We have 30 demos in the tech-demo area for people to participate in and learn, out in the open foyers of the convention center. As you’re engaging in your coffee break or you’re walking through or having a conversation, there’s an opportunity for you to pick up some content and learn if you want to.


Also new this year: Corporate Meetings HQ and Medical Meetings HQ, devoted exclusively to meeting professionals who work in those areas.

Kelly: “We realize that those two groups of planners have pretty specific challenges, and need peer-to-peer networking, content, and direction. Based on feedback that they’ve given to us, they want to get together and talk to their kind of planner only, just so they can have free conversations about the things that are on their mind. We created two spaces where there are sessions that are specifically geared toward medical meetings or corporate meetings. There will be soft seating and lounge areas for them to network, and one session per day will be open just to those planners.”

Christopher Durso

Christopher Durso formerly was executive editor of Convene.