Not Your Mama’s Meeting: Changes in Workforce, Strategy Revitalize Meetings

Classroom-style training and meeting setups are going the way of the dodo.

That’s according to Juan Garcia, executive director of sales at the National Conference Center in Lansdowne. Garcia is one of the creative minds behind some experiential meeting room setups debuted by The National last year, and it’s an innovative approach not unlike what other event industry businesses are taking.

As the current workforce includes about five generations, from baby boomers to millennials, many companies are taking a different approach on running meetings and team-building events. Just as creating experiences have become the hot trend for retail and restaurants, the meeting industry has also retooled to make meetings and training more engaging.

Take The National, for instance. Its cadre of experiential meeting room setups includes everything from a “Bean Bags and Bubbles Room,” with the meeting room floor lined with bubble wrap and bean bag chairs to sit in, to a “Nerf Room,” which encourages some friendly, but safe, competition with Nerf guns.

This out-of-the-box approach to meetings allows attendees to be fully engaged, said Chuck Ocheltree, chief marketing officer for The National.

“We call it designing experiences,” Garcia said. “It’s come to where professional planners are paying just as much attention to the design, food, etc., just as much as the content [of a meeting]. Participants can walk away renewed, participative, engaged.”

Another meeting room setup at The National encourages friendly competition, ala Nerf guns.

In addition to innovative meeting room setups, it can be even the simple touches to make meetings stand out—from themed cocktail receptions to cornhole competitions during meeting breaks.

Even team-building activities have taken on a new look. Maria Kopsidas, owner of Cookology, has used her corporate background to find an innovative way to engage employees during meetings. Cookology offers mystery basket competitions, which can be done both at one of Cookology’s two locations—in Dulles Town Center or Ballston—as well as offsite, even at an office. It’s a Food Network Chopped-style competition, where teams must use their ingredients, along with a mystery ingredient, to complete a dish, with the help of trained chefs. It’s a way to get employees engaged with each other and utilize some of the tools they use every day in the office, meeting a deadline, communicating and working as a team.

Kopsidas recalls her own time in corporate America, when some team-building events that involved more extreme activities, like ziplining, left some participants terrified instead of engaged. She used that experience to create the mystery basket idea.

“Cooking is just relaxing, and it can be fun,” she said.

Andrew Osborne, of Leesburg-based Osborne Events, has been planning events in the metro area for more than a decade. One team-building activity that has proven to be engaging for participants is the build a bike challenge, where teams complete a series of challenges to earn a part for a bike, which they assemble as a team. The bikes are then given to local children or community groups. Recipients of the bikes are even sometimes present at the end of the challenge, which brings an emotional climax to a group meeting.

Overall, it’s been a “radical change” for the meeting industry, Ocheltree said, particularly given some post-recession challenges. The National was able to withstand some of the immediate impacts during the economic recession, when many companies chose to do away with meetings, conventions and trainings to save money, he continued. The National’s proximity to Washington, DC helped it to continue to land government business, but that took a hit following some high-profile junkets and government expenses that drew national ire, including the MuffinGate scandal of 2011. But Ocheltree said now, with the economy booming, meeting business at The National is as strong as ever.

That assertion is backed up by Visit Loudoun, the county’s main tourism agency. Ann Hayes, Visit Loudoun’s sales director who focuses on meetings and groups, said the meeting industry has “come full circle” in the last decade. When many companies tightened their purse strings during and post-recession, cutting meetings altogether or keeping them in office, now the emphasis is on making meetings more meaningful, she noted.

“[Companies] really are doing more for their employees,” Hayes said.

This can include anything from scheduling off-site visits to wineries or other points of interest in Loudoun, to doing away with traditional banquet dinners in favor of food trucks.

The lead up to meeting planning sees Visit Loudoun staff asking a lot more questions of companies than they did before, she said.

“They’re looking for much more than they were a few years ago,” she said. “It really is a whole new meetings world.”

krodriguez@loudounnow.com

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