Has anything changed in the last 40 years?

There’s never been a shortage of people ready to claim that the meetings industry is going to change out of all recognition over the next ten or twenty years; it doesn’t matter what the starting date is, the next 10 to 20 years are always going to see dramatic changes. It often makes for entertaining copy but the truth is that they’re wrong.

Think about it: if the format of something has seen hardly any changes over the past 20 years, why should the next 20 be any different?

That’s not to say that the technology hasn’t changed. Obviously it has with PowerPoint replacing 35mm slides, video replacing film and data projectors now the standard. Similarly, computers and the Internet have revolutionised the organisational tasks but when the attendees arrive at the event, their experience is still pretty much the same as it was when I started organising car launches 30 years ago.

This was driven home to me when I was approached by an American company pitching for the job of launching a car for a British manufacturer. They wanted to know if I’d write the scripts if they won the contract. They sent me their proposal and as I read it I passed through a time warp back to the 1980s. The proposal was pretty much identical to those that I saw when I was a client. It left me wondering if anybody was trying anything new in the meetings industry.

Some of the people who have read this far will be jumping up and down and yelling about social media and apps and interactive elements and all sorts of other technological gizmos. But they’re missing the point.

The problem isn’t that people aren’t using technology, they are, often not very well but they’re using it. Unfortunately it doesn’t make much difference. What they need to use, instead of technology, is their brains.

One of the best examples of producers using imagination happened a while ago when I was invited to review two product launches for two computers. Both were for mini-computers that competed head to head; both were staged by the same conference production company; both were in the same venue. The only difference was that they were for two separate clients and, as a result, they were totally different.

The one for IBM followed the tried and trusted format of a standard auditorium with a professional presenter who linked the whole show. It was safe, competent and dull. The one for ICL was spread over a wider area, used different stage spaces and was much more adventurous and exciting. In that case, the two shows were very clearly shaped by the ethos of two very different clients.

So why was the ICL show so much more adventurous and exciting? It wasn’t because they used a different team; they used the same production company as IBM.

The difference came about because ICL had gone with a much more imaginative concept; they had been prepared to allow the producer to use imagination in putting the show together.

Perhaps the real problem today is that clients aren’t prepared to run with the imaginative idea. In the past producers often commented that clients told them they wanted ‘something different’ but when it was offered, they watered it down until it was just the same as before. No doubt there’s still an element of that but I suspect that it’s more likely that production companies find it easier to sell a shiny new gizmo than an imaginative idea.

Perhaps there are clients and producers who are staging exciting shows based on original ideas but if there are, I think they’ll be in a minority. And that’s  why I don’t believe the meetings business will see any major changes of presentation within the next 20 years.

(This article appeared in the May 2013 issue of Stand Out magazine)

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