As a meeting planner, your job involves creating experiences that are effective and enjoyable for a large variety of people. It can often feel like a no-win situation, especially as the attendee base evolves and generations comingle.
One meeting format— Open Space Technology—allows attendees to create their own experiences, and that can take some of the pressure off you.
Kelly Peacy, former senior vice president of events and education at the Professional Convention Management Association, and now-owner, of Insight Event Strategy LLC, said the Open Space format appeals to attendees from any generation, but particularly millennials.
The format, which offers a variety of short, small-group sessions that people can pop in or out of and engage with as they wish, speaks to the way millennials were educated, Peacy said.
“They are used to participating in roundtables and engaging in other people’s ideas, which is really fantastic in adult learning,” she said. “What we learned is that we have to create more of that.”
In her role at PCMA, Peacy launched the format about six years ago. Since then she has seen the success with attendees of any age.
“Open space engagements are 30 minutes or less. Attention spans today, across generations, aren’t really longer than 30 minutes,” she said.
To be effective, the sessions need to allow people to get in, get the information they need, and then leave and go do something else. It opens the opportunity for them to network and possibly meet a future mentor or business partner while still gathering useful information, she said.
When the PCMA first tried the format, it was out of necessity, Peacy said. They were planning an event for 3,000 people in a room that accommodated 16,000. That left a lot of open space.
“We said: Let’s put some content there, some interaction, engagement, something different for people to participate in before the opening session every day,” she said.
Inspired by the popularity of 18-minute TED talks, they created small learning environments that people could visit during breakfast. “People could walk up, stand in the back or sit down, grab the information, one or two takeaways, and leave without feeling like they invested a lot of time,” she said. “They could still get breakfast and network.”
It was a big success: “What we realized is that people were craving something out of the ordinary rather than sitting in a breakout room.”
The format does come with challenges, however, most of them logistical, Peacy said.
Space: The layout of the small groups will be dictated by the venue. That means you must start from scratch with each new meeting space so that the format fits naturally into the environment.
Acoustics: This must be considered when designing the layout to prevent sound bleed from one group to another. It can be addressed through scheduling, spacing or the use of sound-adsorbing materials, personal headphones or speakers.
Engagement: With small environments, engagement is key, Peacy said. You need a speaker who isn’t just a talking head, but who is investing time in the experience, asking questions, getting feedback, and sharing information.
And most important, content: “There needs to be at least one takeaway, and people need to know what they’re going to take away,” Peacy said. “The organizer needs to ensure that it brings some sort of value to the group of people you’re trying to reach.”
Want to try your own Open Space meeting? There are plenty of websites offering tips and suggestions, OpenSpaceWorld.org offers a two-page primer.
Photo courtesy of Jacob Slaton Photography and PCMA.