Big Ideas

Generation Y and the Future of Meetings

It’s time to stop fussing over the rise of Millennials and start looking at the ways they’ve already influenced meetings and conventions — from event design to F&B to technology. Are those changes here to stay, or just a cyclical product of routine generational evolution?

In late October, author and speaker Crystal Washington was in Atlanta delivering a talk on social media at Rejuvenate Marketplace when one of her listeners stood up and performed 10 jumping jacks in the aisle.

Washington didn’t pause or break stride. Instead, the spirited speaker — who’s also a marketing strategist — knew what was going on. Before taking the stage, she had prescheduled a tweet that offered a $250 gift card to the first person to do 10 silent jumping jacks during her session. Only people in the audience — made up mostly of Baby Boomer–age faith-based meeting planners and industry suppliers — who were following her Twitter feed while she was speaking saw the offer. “Afterwards,” Washington said, “people from other sessions kept coming in to ask if someone had done the jumping jacks yet.”

Rather than view smartphones as competition for her audience’s attention, Washington weaves them into her presentation, using a mélange of unorthodox methods to encourage attendees to follow and add to virtual conversations via Twitter. “We [in the industry] are trying to find and create ways to keep Gen Y attendees engaged that are not traditional,” said Washington, herself a Millennial. “We [Millennials] were brought up multitasking. We’re used to adapting quickly.”

But we all know that already, don’t we? Buckets of ink — and countless breakout sessions — have been given over to explaining how to capture and hold the attention of Generation Y, aka the Millennial Generation, made up of people born more or less between 1981 and 1995. The original, reductionist assumption that those in their 20s and early 30s possessed fleeting attention spans has evolved into a more nuanced, realistic picture of a highly kinetic and engagement-driven group of people. And while 20-somethings certainly tend to share characteristics no matter what the generation, the nearly 27 percent of Americans who fall into the Millennial category grew up with a key difference: A skein of technology has draped them from adolescence and deeply influenced the way they interact with each other and the world.

Now that we’ve had a decade of talk about the need to understand and accommodate Gen Y, Convene wondered: How has the meetings industry already worked to address the needs, interests, and proclivities of Millennials? To find out, we talked to key players working in meeting planning, event design, venue management, and sustainability, as well as frequent keynote speaker Washington and an author who researches Gen Y — as well as the generation on their heels.


Many planners know that the rote format of keynotes followed by breakouts — rinse, repeat — may be tired, and Millennials are key to this shift, according to Joe Martin, 28, partner and conference director with Los Angeles–based event-planning company BDI Events. “People just don’t want to be in a room theater-style anymore,” Martin said. “I always encourage our planning committee to think out of the box and shake it up a little bit.”

For Martin, that means “not sitting at a conference table,” he said. “We’ll sometimes go for a hike or do something else outdoors.” At a recent corporate leadership conference, Martin recalled a general session with fitness leader Shaun T that began with a gentle 30-minute ballroom workout session, then segued into a presentation about how Shaun T grew his fitness empire. “I thought that was creative and different,” Martin said. “You were invigorated but still learned from the session.”

Martin is currently planning an association leadership conference in Las Vegas focused on work-life balance. Even though the meeting is in Sin City — not necessarily known for its green space — Martin envisions a general session that will take place outside.

“Engagement is just as important as education,” he said, “and the focus should be on both.” In other words, just because Gen Y may be glued to social media doesn’t mean they don’t want to connect face-to-face. “We like to engage with people, even when we’re tweeting. We absolutely love to connect,” Martin said. “That’s how you build relationships.”
Whitney Wilson, a meeting and event planner with Eventive Group, also in Los Angeles, echoes Martin, offering an example from a recent event — the 2014 Collaborate Marketplace — that was called a “regiception” by sponsor Collinson Media. As the name suggests, the program combined conference registration with a reception. “Registration is something that can be so mundane,” Wilson said, “and this made it fun and engaging.”

One of the things that TED got right is the 18-minute talk.

Wilson thinks that Gen Y characteristics are also being felt on the business side of conference planning — in the form of focused determination. “I’m not afraid to ask for things,” said Wilson, who’s 25. “If I really want something, I usually try and get it, and advocate for my clients. If your [hotel] rates are over $200 but I need your rate to be $145, and there is no flexibility, I’m not afraid to walk away.”

Likewise, Wilson is applying a dose of Millennial thinking to the look and feel of an upcoming conference for which she’ll handle exhibits and sponsors. “I don’t want our hall to be all pipe and drape, 10 by 10,” she said. “I want it to be less linear, have couches on the trade-show floor, have the fireside chat, have different elements to make it more exciting.”

Washington has also noticed that seating in particular is changing and evolving. “I have seen some amazingly creative setups,” she said. “I have seen rooms where part of the room has cocktail tables, part of the room has couches, and part of the room is theater-style. I’ve seen unique room setups that look like chaos, but when you see people in the space, they get so excited.” This is ideal for Gen Y. “Our brains are always going everywhere,” Washington said, “and we need options.”

In addition to cultivating simultaneous conversations on social media, Washington encourages physical movement — and not just jumping jacks. For instance, she might ask attendees to get up and slap ideas onto a sticky-pad easel as those ideas arise. “[Attendees] could get up in the middle of me talking, and it’s not a problem,” she said. “[The attendees] were refreshed, they were engaged, they were happy, and they felt free. You have to be open to nontraditional ways of dealing with Gen Y.”

For Karl Ronn, a Silicon Valley innovation expert who studies the behavior and potential of up-and-coming generations, the meetings industry’s response to Gen Y is cyclical and inevitable: Each generation’s paradigm is disrupted by the one behind it. The disruption from Gen Y, however, is especially pronounced because of how they grew up. “The media of your teenage years shapes the way you think about things,” said Ronn, co-author of the book The Reciprocity Advantage: A New Way to Partner for Innovation and Growth. “[Both Gen Y and Gen Z, which follows the Millennials,] are constantly on multiple screens at all times. They have very fast cycle times, and if they can have 10 contiguous conversations, they actually have an agility that we’ve always wanted people to have. They’re continually testing and collaborating.”

So Ronn is impressed by meetings that try to fuse the capabilities of attendees — as well as present information in shorter bursts. “One of the things that TED got right is the 18-minute talk,” said Ronn, a frequent TED attendee. “But it can also be important to bring the right people to the conference to collaborate, rather than hold a series of talks.”


When the 2.1-million-square-foot Nashville Music City Center opened in May 2013, it had an undulating façade of ground-to-roof glass, 845 solar panels, a green roof, an eclectic art collection, and an unusual assortment of terraces and small sitting areas. Was any of that generationally influenced?

“I think you’re seeing more and more that people are looking for places where two or three or four people can sit in a corner and talk and network, so we tried to design a lot of little cubbies and nooks in addition to the larger spaces,” said Charles Starks, the center’s president and CEO. But he resisted the idea that the design quirks were aimed solely at under-30s. “It works very well for people my age, too,” said Starks, a Baby Boomer, “though I’d rather sit down and talk than do social media.” He paused and joked, “One thing I’ve noticed about this group is they have no problem sitting on the floor.”

Starks does hint that Nashville’s significant investment in a bold convention-center design is a nod to changing demographics as well as evolving design trends. “We spent a lot of money on natural light, on unique ceiling treatments and different height effects because we believe people are tired of stereotypical convention centers,” Starks said. “First and foremost, [Millennials] want variety. This generation in particular has gotten used to having more variety than folks my age.”

Perhaps the area where this plays out most saliently is food-and-beverage — especially when it comes to convenience. Music City Center makes sure to have numerous portable options for events that skew younger. “This group is a lot more accustomed to grab-and-go kind of stuff,” Starks said. “They’re not always a captive audience — they’ll head to the street or to the park. Banquets are not something they’re accustomed to going to yet.”


But they are more accustomed than previous generations to going green. Music City Center is LEED Gold–certified, with a 211-kilowatt solar-power system and a four-acre green roof filled with vegetation that eases the heating and cooling demands of the building and counteracts its heat-island effect on the city. And it employs a full-time sustainability coordinator. “From a sustainability standpoint,” Starks said, “yes, I don’t think there’s any question that people of a younger generation might appreciate that more.”

Music City Center is LEED Gold–certified.

The Metro Toronto Convention Centre (MTCC) also has a sustainability officer on staff: Vivian Fleet. One of PCMA’s inaugural group of 20 in Their Twenties, Fleet helps planners construct green meetings that draw on renewable power, boost recycling rates, or donate food back to the community. “[Sustainability] is becoming more and more incorporated into the daily operations of both facilities and events,” said Fleet, 29. Besides the fact that sustainability can boost a “triple bottom line” in terms of cost savings, “I’m surprised more centers don’t have a program in place. I think people like the idea of sustainability in general but can’t put their fingers on why. Yet this is important to do, so you can attract ‘young’ events or young people to come work for you.”

Studies bear out that Gen Y cares deeply about green efforts, from a consumer and an employee standpoint. A 2011 Pew survey found that 80 percent of Millennials want to work for companies that care about environmental impacts. “With regards to hiring, there are benefits to having a strong social consciousness and strong environmental program,” Fleet said. “A lot of people are looking for organizations that take that seriously. We have a few people who we hired recently who said one of the reasons they want to commit to the MTCC is because of our commitment to the environment and giving back.”


What began as a trickle in 2006 has become a flood. Social media has saturated all age classes, as well as most events. Even if a planner hasn’t created a hashtag for an event, odds are that younger attendees will still tweet or Instagram it, and the event will take on another, unplanned, dimension. “There’s a principle [among Millennials] that if it’s not shared, it didn’t happen,” Ronn said. “The way to think about these Gen Y and digital natives” — which for Ronn means anybody under 18 — “is that they’re really looking for ‘shareable moments.’ Most conferences tend to be designed as if that’s an add-on, not as if the audience is going to have this participation in shaping things.”

When social media is smoothly integrated, it can have startling results. Since 1988, the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) has held an Annual Exposition of lectures, tastings, competitions, and a trade show; a full 43 percent of attendees are from Gen Y. This year, SCAA 2014 logged 3 million mentions between Twitter, Instagram, and other social-media platforms. “You have to make social media a priority channel, not an afterthought,” said Tara Smith, SCAA’s director of marketing and communications. How does that look on the ground? “We have a team of five from the marketing department that strategically designs our messaging, creates custom ‘talkable’ content, and manages conversations full-time during the show.”

Those conversations pivot around what Smith calls “a live event hub” — basically a function-defining term for a hashtag. “It’s a place for attendees and exhibitors to talk to each other, not for you to talk to them,” she said. “If you create a social space where the event can also occur outside the walls of the meeting space, you’ll see a lot more engagement, since it will be seen as a ‘safe’ place to congregate and not be bombarded with sales messages.” And that virtual conversation helps SCAA reach people who aren’t at the physical conference. By creating a live hub, Smith said, “You’ll very likely begin to see virtual attendees pay attention, as they’ll get the bulk of the show outcomes via the conversations happening over your hashtag.”

There’s one seemingly ubiquitous virtual space that doesn’t lend itself to hashtags or even real-time updates: Facebook. In fact, not a single Gen Y source for this article mentioned Facebook. Within the last three years, Facebook users over the age of 55 have grown by 80 percent, while the number of teenagers and under-24s has declined by 6 million. Yet 59 percent of Millennials had a Twitter account in 2014, according to data from GlobalWebIndex, while only 31 percent of Baby Boomers were on Twitter.

Katie Dolan, a 20-something convention sales manager for Ottawa Tourism, occasionally holds workshops on social media for planners — and rather than planners asking her how to engage younger people, she often has to push them in that direction. “In the realm of what I’m doing, I’m definitely one of the younger ones,” said Dolan, another 20 in Their Twenties honoree. “Most of the people in my sessions are older than me, and my focus is on why they should incorporate social elements into their existing conference templates.”

It’s social-media conversations, Dolan suggested, that can point the way to new content.

“They might be exposed to a Twitter chat that triggers the idea that, hey, maybe I can incorporate this into my conference next year,” Dolan said. “And as a meeting planner, it’s good to show you’re trying to enhance and offer new things each year, to keep [attendees] coming back.”

For Ronn, virtual conversations are part of the evolution “from control to curation. In the new world of social media, you can’t control everything; nothing is under wraps,” he said. “Rather than propagate stuff, the point should be to curate rather than control the outcome.” This “meta” level of engagement — of being responsive to events in real time, the way Crystal Washington’s sessions are — is what holds the attention of Gen Y.

That agility can be thrown off course by the lack of, say, an event mobile app. “We know Millennials are largely a mobile generation and come to [SCAA’s Annual Exposition] with the expectation to be able to navigate it through their device,” Smith said. Through SCAA’s mobile app, attendees can view digital handouts, create their own daily schedules, and text votes for the Best New Product People’s Awards. “We try to add functionality each year to better serve [Gen Y’s] needs and make the show ‘accessible in the palm of your hand.’”

From apps to programming, seating to food, Gen Y’s stamp is all over meetings — and that seems likely to continue and deepen, at least until the generation behind them forces another shift. “Certainly for us to continue to be viable and as we move forward, all of us have to cater to the group coming in,” Music City Center’s Starks said. “Millennials are part of the long-term equation.”

Corin Hirsch

Corin Hirsch is a writer who specializes in food and drink.