Big Ideas

What Futurist Mike Walsh Thinks You Should Know About Meetings

Futurist Mike Walsh wowed the audience as a plenary speaker at PCMA’s 2013 Education Conference. And he’ll be back on stage for Convening Leaders 2014 in Boston this January.


The ballroom at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver fell mostly silent following Mike Walsh’s presentation at PCMA’s 2013 Education Conference this past June: “Technology: Winning the War for Tomorrow’s Attendee.”

It wasn’t for lack of interest — Walsh generated a buzz that spilled into other sessions. Instead, it was that Walsh, founder and CEO of Tomorrow, a consumer innovation research lab, seems to have done that rare thing: given his audience new ways to think about familiar topics. Said one attendee: “I needed time just to process.”

Among Walsh’s takeaways: Don’t focus so much on the differences between generations; think instead in terms of the “smartphone” generation, consisting of attendees of any age who use mobile technology. And rather than zeroing in on technology itself, pay anthropologist-like attention to the changes in attendee behavior that come as a result of new technologies. 

The sustained interest in Walsh’s “Technology” session has led to another rarity: The futurist will be a returning PCMA speaker, and soon — delivering a General Session presentation at Convening Leaders 2014 in Boston this January.

And speaking of encores, Convene’s June cover story included Walsh among the 13 experts we talked to for our about how meeting planners need to prepare for the future. He described the need for planners to think like editors — content curators — and to consider their role in part as creating communities.

Here’s more from that interview that didn’t make it into the article.

Can you talk about why you think that technology is creating more, not fewer, meetings?

I think people see this a lot in my line of work — people often think about technology in binary terms, that one technology replaces the others. That the meeting industry was going to be in decline because new forms of communication would mean we were not going to meet anymore.

And it’s not just the meeting industry If you look at the whole, the business market in general, it’s really fascinating some of the kind of trends around human interaction and how they’re changing. [Yahoo! President and CEO] Marissa Mayer made quite a startling pronouncement when she said to everyone who was working from home at Yahoo! that they would start reporting to the office at 9 a.m. the next day This is in Silicon Valley, [amid] the companies that created the very tools which were seen as the end of having to turn up at physical spaces.

There are a bunch of these things happening. People are traveling more than ever, meetings are becoming more important than ever. People are redesigning their offices — moving them away from big corporate campuses into urban locations that people actually want to hang out in. Because they realize they’ve got to get people to actually interact physically now.

How do social-media connections intersect with physical meetings?

Let’s say 10 people [connect with you] on LinkedIn or Face-book or Twitter — you haven’t met any of them. Now, you form a view of them based on the content they generate. It’s quite a high threshold for you to actually take them seriously.

But let’s say that before they added you on those social networks, you met them first at an event. You spent even just five minutes over coffee talking about your mutual interests. When they then add you on a social network, you’ve got a context for that relationship. In fact, the social networks at that point will strengthen those ties. There is actually a kind of a symbiotic relationship between interpersonal physical interactions and social networks.

So when you meet face-to-face, your conversations start at a different level?

I would reverse that. I would actually say that when you meet face-to-face, your virtual interactions made more sense. Because it’s kind of creepy when someone you don’t know says, “I’ve been following you,” [although] we don’t admit it.

The other side that’s interesting is that it’s not just public social networks. The big trend now in companies is enterprise social networks. This is relevant, I think, to the people who organize corporate meetings rather than big public events. Because new tools like Salesforce, Chatter — you could think of them as kind of internal Facebooks — are just for the company The same logic applies inside a big company as well as [to] people connecting outside of the company

Because of technology and because of new business challenges, the company of the future is very global. It’s distributed, and uses internal social networks to get people to engage, to collaborate, and create value together. At the heart of the company of the future is communication…. Because meetings, especially for global companies, are going to be critical for their best partners to be able to meet to give themselves context for their relationships – and to effectively manage the complexity of a modern world.

What skills are going to be important to meeting planners in the future?

The first is the ability to think like an editor. To be very skilled at curating content: Have I found the right content that engages the public imagination? Is this meeting the business’ need? That is a very unique skill around editorial judgment — picking the right people to help bring [a meeting] to life. That’s really been the success of TED. They’ve managed to take people and subject matter that would have only appealed to supernerds, basically, and make them interesting and sexy.

The other thing I think is very important is community building. This is especially relevant if you’re building a conference. Conferences and trade shows have moved away from the monolithic model to very focused seminars and conferences.

And the ones that have been successful have been able to build a very tangible community around that topic.

I think the same logic applies to internal meetings: The role of the meeting planner is community building — understanding the key stakeholders and the key issues, maintaining contact with the participants and stakeholders. Not just during the event, but in the spaces between events as well, given every available communication platform.

For me the area that’s changing isn’t the stage, it’s the backstage. It’s what happens when people leave the sessions. I see my role as an agent to provoke ideas, but the real learning happens after I finish talking.

Anything else?

A final thing that’s going to be a critical skill for event planners is going to be [using] data and analytics. Meeting planners and meeting organizers used to have a bit of a “spray and pray” approach when it came to trying to engage potential event attendees. I used to work in the meetings business myself. In the late 1990s, I started a company in Australia that was the Australian operations of Jupiter Media. I have run lots of conferences — it was actually my first job out of university.

Do you remember Internet World trade shows? That was where we realized that innovation, at that point, was, rather than sending direct mail, to use targeted emails out of databases. Fifteen years on, the smart event organizers of the 21st century will use data to segment potential attendees or customers. [They will] only invite and talk to [potential attendees] about the things that are specifically relevant to their interests. They use all the available digital platforms, to not just communicate, but to learn about what interests and engages people.

Where is a good place to start?

I always thought the key place to start is what [has been called] the inbound market. Rather than trying to find more effective ways to market to people you want to engage for a meeting, you start by creating content that you think would attract people. Let’s say you’re producing a conference for people in the automotive industry. You might create a series of blog posts and YouTube videos talking about the latest trends and the key disruptors for 2014 — the things that you think that people would be typing into Google, looking for information, or the kinds of things you think people would be sharing on LinkedIn or Twitter. What happens is that if people discover that content, they’ll get drawn into a network. Then you can start to engage with them.

Barbara Palmer

Barbara Palmer is senior editor and director of digital content.