CMP Series

The Meat of the Meeting

Overcooked themes are out. Expertly done content is in. Here’s why the industry has rejected empty-calorie high concepts and embraced a protein-rich approach to conference theming — seasoned with unifying taglines and modest mini-themes.

Back in the 1990s, when the economy was booming — and so were meeting budgets —it wasn’t hard to sell a board of directors on a big-time theme. Which is how Phelps Hope, CMP, vice president of meetings and expositions for Kellen Company, one year came to put on an over-the-top, “Gone With the Wind”–themed conference in Dallas, for an association of CEOs.

Hope’s team collected attendee measurements ahead of time for costuming purposes, and allowed each person to choose to be a member of the Union or the Confederate army. Throughout the conference, there were pantomime fight scenes and staff members in period dress, old-timey songs were sung, and news articles and dialogue of the era were seeded here and there.

“We really immersed the people in the theme,” Hope said. “You almost got to be part of a play.” The CEOs were at the conference to get some strategic coaching and high-level thought-leader training – and “Gone With the Wind” was used to reinforce the official conference theme, which dealt with how individuals can learn from history in order to avoid past pitfalls. Another fun layer to the theme was, as Hope put it, “We play a role in our work life, so play it up.”

Everything really came together for this meeting, because Hope and his team were able to fully immerse each attendee in the cinematic experience they created, thus allowing for more vivid memories and greater recall of the theme – and the true message the theme was meant to convey – after everyone had flown home. “But,” Hope said, “that was when we had a little more money to play with.”

Goodbye to All

That In the past, meeting themes were deployed to conjure emotions in and touch the senses of every single attendee – not just a few. Thus, meeting planners had to make sure their theme could “hold the weight of all that,” according to Lisa English, CMP, CMM, marketing manager for strategic meetings management for Cvent. Because “Gone With the Wind” is a cultural touchstone for a certain age group, at one time it made for a sure-fire meeting theme. But something like that may no longer resonate for a younger generation. “Where we go for inspiration for themes is interesting,” English said. “When you’re planning an event, you are trying to figure out, ‘What is the emotion, what is the feel I am trying to bring to people?’

To do this, themes commonly have been tagged to a glamorous destination (“Parisian Nights”), a movie, song (“Let’s Get It Started,” by the Black Eyed Peas), or cultural trend, or a particularly elaborate metaphor. (See “Sidebar: If You Must Have a Theme.”) Recently, TV has been a big inspiration, said English, who noted that the show “Mad Men” has influenced a lot of conferences over the past five years. But like the dramatic, genteel age of Scarlett O’Hara and her antebellum plantation Tara, the era of high-concept meeting themes mostly belongs to another time, one that is truly gone with the wind. “It’s definitely changed,” said Usha James, CMP, director of conference operations for SourceMedia, “and it changed drastically when the economy crashed.”

The first blow came with the dot-com bust of 2000–2001, followed closely by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, which in and of themselves helped usher in a new era of seriousness. Then came the financial crisis of 2008–2009 – from which theming has yet to recover. James said: “You just don’t see big themes like ‘Hawaiian Getaway’ anymore.”

And they may never come back – like catchy sitcom theme songs and smoking sections in restaurants. On the other hand, you shouldn’t necessarily count out theming for good. “I think its time has passed, or passed for now,” said Troy Starwalt, events manager for the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4A’s). “But it could maybe come back – like plaid.”

Another force exerting downward pressure on meeting themes – related to the general ebb and flow of the economy – is the awful press received in recent years by meetings that seemed to overemphasize entertaining their attendees when other groups around the country were tightening their belts. In the aftermath of the AIG Effect and, more recently, GSA’s Las Vegas–area conference, no one wants to be caught on YouTube basking in an opulent theme. “The environment has taken on a more serious tone,” said corporate meeting planner Susie Wiesenfeld, CMP. “You don’t want to come off as being gaudy.”

Phyllis Klasky, director of events management for the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), agrees. “My opinion,” she said, “is that these days you have to be more concerned that the meeting, the conference, or the convention is more serious versus fluff.” For example, the pharmaceutical industry continues to come under scrutiny from the media, regulatory bodies, and the public at large – and thus, even more than other sectors, its meetings need not to be seen as “going off to play golf and relax.”

A Conference of a Different Color

As a result of meeting themes largely having gone out of fashion, two things have happened. One, more emphasis is being placed on a meeting’s content rather than its trappings. That isn’t a bad development, of course. But the second thing that’s resulted from themes going away is that it’s now more difficult for planners to differentiate their meetings from those of their competitors.
It can be a hard balance to strike. “Yes, it’s very beneficial to attendees in terms of getting what they’ve paid for in a learning experience,” James said. “But you do find that you end up in the cookie-cutter mode of meeting planning, because you aren’t entertaining as much.”

For that reason, you have to pay more attention to the little things that set one meeting apart from another in the minds of attendees – such as invitations (including email invites), program handouts, signage, and overall conference optics. This is similar to branding, although if a meeting is going to feel different from last year’s iteration, it can’t share 100 percent of its sponsoring organization’s brand DNA. (Nor can it clash with or contradict its parent brand.)

This form of light visual theming is what Klasky has had more experience with, during her more than two decades in the meetings industry. And it’s not that ASME does “180-degree turns” with its graphics from one meeting to the next; rather, she said, “many attendees come to [ASME’s annual conference] every year – so even if it’s as simple as being able to differentiate programs, we have at a minimum different colors.”

But you do run a branding risk in changing up color schemes for your meeting. JDRF (formerly the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation) recently went through a big branding exercise, including adopting a new logo. Now, while Barbara Parker, JDRF’s director of national meetings and travel, might want to use a unique color scheme for the organization’s annual lobbying conference, held each June in Washington, D.C., she has to be careful. “Color is a doubleedged sword,” Parker said. “If you are trying to promote your brand in the marketplace, that’s how people see you – and Coca-Cola is red and white.”

In other words, the red-and-white color scheme is so integral to the brand – the identity – of Coca-Cola that changing it for the purpose of differentiating one of its meetings from another simply isn’t worth it.

This Tagline Must Not Be Removed One popular replacement for themes has been taglines – basically, a way of tying together all the disparate elements of a meeting under one central, unifying principle. Kind of like a theme, but not exactly. Tagline examples include “Energy Diversity” (from ASME) and “Cure, Treat, Prevent” (from JDRF). “Business messaging does not go away,” Hope said. “How you deliver it can be a victim of cost-cutting.” And anyway, he added, half the time, when clients say that they want to “theme out” their meeting – weaving a varied and colorful theme into its fabric, as Hope did with his “Gone With the Wind” conference – really what they mean is they just want a memorable experience for attendees.

Memorable experiences don’t only come from tropical drinks served in coconuts (“Tropical High”), or flower leis handed out at the beginning of the opening general session (“An Island of Innovation”), or even from an overwrought framing device (“Howdy, Pardners! Welcome to Best Practices Gulch!”). You just have to be smarter about delivering the message, so your audience remembers it when they go back to the office.

Which can be difficult. The first step, according to Hope, is to clear your ego out of the way, and ask yourself honestly: Is the tagline direct, and not convoluted? Are attendees going to be able to get it? Is the value proposition being properly identified and communicated to them? The tagline should effectively convey, in a clear and concise manner, just what the meeting is “about” – and it should be reinforced by what actually takes place in the breakout-session rooms.

Suzette Hewitt, CMP, manager of national meetings for Girl Scouts of the USA, can say “yes” to each of those questions as they apply to her slate of meetings and forums this year. The Girl Scouts’ year-long tagline – in celebration of the organization’s centennial – is “To Get Her There.” For the Girls’ World Forum in Chicago next month, Hewitt says that the focus of the event is all about encouraging girls worldwide to lead – to help them get “from here to there” – when tackling issues ranging from poverty to education.

James agrees about the continued importance of an event having some unifying element – which now, most often, is a tagline “centered around … what’s hot in the program part of your meeting.” She allows that you can still get away with theming one fun element of your meeting – a 1980s rock reception, say. Wiesenfeld, meanwhile, being in the corporate world, sticks with very corporate themes. “We don’t do Mardi Gras,” she said. For her, a good tagline is more about utilizing buzzwords in the marketplace – for example, “In a Changing World” or “At a Crossroads.”

A Sense of Place

Winding up in an experiential or visual rut is one of the potential consequences of big-deal themes falling out of favor. Where does that leave the destination-based approach? For most meetings, location is the one major element that changes every year. Can you leverage that without being overly cutesy, contrived, or elaborate?

Organizers show no signs of not trying. Even Starwalt, who says he doesn’t think 4A’s would ever do a full-on theme, said that at the group’s Transformation 2011 conference, in Austin, a guitars motif was used for the website and overall signage. “It’s all about keeping it fresh and new,” he said, “without an explicit theme.”

Or, you can try tying the theme of a reception to the destination, booking local entertainment and procuring local décor, to bring the flavor of the place home to attendees – while you’re still in a convention center or hotel ballroom. When ASME went to Vancouver in November 2010, it met in the city’s convention center, which offers great views of the mountains and the water. The association needed to divide the center’s foyer in two for its Honors Assembly Reception – so Klasky had tall spruce trees, ferns, and totem poles brought in to divide the space. Along with local beverages and “a couple of animal things in there, for some smiles,” that helped give attendees a themed experience of some of what Vancouver has to offer.

Counterintuitively, generic destinations also can be good for theming. “Some destinations really shout a theme,” Hope said, “and you’d be silly to go against it” – such as Las Vegas and entertainment, Orlando and theme parks, and New Orleans and Mardi Gras. Now consider Boise, Idaho, or Roanoke, Va. “These give you more of a blank slate to play with,” Hope said. “You’re not fighting a Mardi Gras theme.”

Tying your program to a destination is especially good for an incentive trip, according to English. “You can do a theme at a location that has nothing to do with the destination,” she said, “but it’s harder to do on a limited budget.” During the heyday of theming, planners used to do, say, “winter wonderland” at a beach resort – but that’s very cost-prohibitive.

Finally, for corporate planners, doing any sort of theme – even a relatively mild, location-based one – may not be appropriate. When asked whether her company would consider a destination-centric theme, Wiesenfeld said, “I don’t think so, because we don’t focus on a social impact. We focus more on a management and empowerment impact.” She added: “So the location of the meeting doesn’t really drive it. Instead it’s the content of the meeting itself.”

If You Must Have a Theme …

  1. Understand the objective of the meeting, and keep referring back to it.
  2. Ask yourself, “Will a theme enhance my ability to achieve the meeting’s objective?”
  3. Think like Goldilocks: Choose a theme that is just the right size for your meeting’s scope, time frame, and budget.
  4. Remember the demographics of your meeting attendees – will they appreciate the theme you’ve selected? Will they get it?
  5. Stay the course – be consistent throughout the entire lifecycle of the meeting.

Source: Meeting and Event Planning Certificate Program, California State University San Marcos at Temecula

Themes Fall Apart

Lisa English, CMP, CMM, is marketing manager for strategic meetings management for Cvent, and program adviser for the Meeting and Event Planning Certificate Program at California State University San Marcos at Temecula. Here she tells the story of one finance-industry meeting theme that didn’t quite come together – and why.

I used to work for a large financial-services company, and every year for 20 years we did a large national conference. There was always this conflict of having to outdo the year before. But it’s not about outdoing – it’s about outsmarting.

Everything was completely themed up, and every year we’d start working on the theme for the following year. One of my favorites was called “It’s About Time.” It was kind of smart, as it was a double entendre; it had multiple meanings. The whole conference was all about time, and all the visuals looked like clocks. From a business standpoint, it was about taking sales to the next level. The following year we did a conference called “Elements,” where we used fire, water, and nature – every day had a different theme. And the business tie-in to that was learning about the elements of success.

But one particular year we were trying to do an “I Spy” kind of theme called “It’s Confidential,” with the whole Dick Tracy thing, manila folders, and so on. It turned out that we didn’t think it through enough. We failed in that particular theme because it didn’t have enough layers to it, and didn’t translate well to writing and the content that needed to be developed. You have to make sure you have a broad or narrow enough theme to do what you need to do.

Also, given that this conference took place during a period of financial deregulation, the theme ended up having more of a negative connotation than we intended. It just fell flat.

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Hunter R. Slaton

Contributing Editor Hunter R. Slaton is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn.