As simpler in-person meetings stage a comeback, new solutions make face-to-face more effective and more efficient
By Ralf Walters
After two years of uncertainty, in-person meetings are staging a comeback. Before the COVID tsunami triggered disruptions in meetings, small gatherings were the bread and butter of most companies’ events. But small does not necessarily translate into simple, or easy. Fortunately, there are tools and techniques that make small meetings post-COVID more effective and efficient.
First the basics: What exactly is a simple, small meeting?
“The short answer is…it depends,” says Rachel Andrews, senior director of meetings and events at CVENT. “There really isn’t an industry-wide definition for what constitutes a ‘small meeting,’ and various factors like guest lists, budget, event duration, and venue size can all come into play. It also often depends on the event location as well. What constitutes a small meeting in Las Vegas would look much different than a small meeting in Tysons, VA. Some organizations put their parameters on the smaller end of the attendee and budget scale – for example, no more than 25 attendees, costs in the few-thousand-dollar range, etc. – while others count small meetings as those hosting fewer than 100 people. Others put ‘small’ somewhere in the middle of those two figures, and our study last year in partnership with GBTA took the same middle ground in defining a small meeting as having 50 or fewer attendees, with ‘large’ events having more than 50,” Andrews says.
“However you define it, the small meeting in its various iterations will continue to be the basis of many – if not most – companies’ events programs moving forward, and as such deserves careful consideration and thoughtful planning.” While the number of meeting attendees can serve as an “outline” or standard for a small meeting, Shauna Whitehead, VP customer solutions at BCD Meetings and Events, notes that the prospect of VIP’s attending may elevate the meeting, and keep it from being defined as a ‘small meeting’ due to the complexity or higher touch required in the planning process. But for starters, she says a small meeting has 25 attendees or less. Whitehead says there several key characteristics to consider when defining what simple/small meetings mean to your organization: “size, scope, cost, complexity, type of audience (internal/external/VIP), comfortable with risk (which is typically determined by legal/ financial policies), transient booking alignment, internal or external meeting space, and conversion/goals for virtual.” Robert Frisch, author and CEO of Strategic Offsites Group, provides a colorful definition of a small and simple meeting. Called the Two Pizza Rule, it helps determine how many participants should be invited to an in-person meeting. According to the rule, two large pizzas should feed everyone present. The rule, Frisch says, is credited to Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.
According to corporate legend, when Amazon was in its infancy Bezos favored two-pizza meetings to prevent groupthink, which can occur when a large group's drive for consensus overrules the opinions of individual group members.
At first blush, the rule elicits a chuckle, but many take it seriously. Frisch says the two-pizza rule is pragmatic and says a small group of “10-12” should be able to sit comfortably at a “big U-shaped table.” If two tables are needed for “15-20 attendees,” he says it morphs into a big meeting which has different requirements and logistics (and more pizzas).
Make a List, Check It Twice As a refresher, there are accepted norms on what it takes to plan and facilitate a successful small meeting that has the potential to provide great value to your company. Here is a generalized meetings checklist which professionals have been using, even well before the pandemic: • Identify the purpose of the meeting • Make sure you really need a meeting • Develop a preliminary agenda • Select the right participants • Assign roles to participants • Decide where and when to hold the meeting and confirm availability of the space • Send the invitation and preliminary agenda to key participants and stakeholders
Frisch sees much value in meeting preparation. “In addition to sending out a pre-read before an important meeting, we’ll have one or more ‘drip’ meetings with a couple of key attendees,” he explains. “I want them to know what we’ll be talking about to get their opinion, hear my opinion, and talk it through. Basically, you’re preparing certain key participants ahead of time to avoid surprises. For example, presenting the results of the economic analysis before the meeting or proposing that one of the company’s divisions be sold. No one wants to hear it for the first time at the scheduled meeting.”
Frisch advises getting consensus on meeting agenda saves valuable time. “Pre-meeting surveys are helpful too. You can spend a great deal of your time in a meeting going through that process, or you can spend on a pre-meet survey,” he says.
“I think meeting checklists are becoming the norm, particularly for new event organizers,” says Alisa de Gaspe Beaubien, CEO and COO of Groupize. “Checklists, tool-tips and interactive virtual advisors can help organizers save time and money while having the confidence to put on a good meeting. It is now indisputable that organizations really need an in-person meeting. Most departments in most companies have one in their 2022 budget.”
However, the planning of even simple meetings goes deeper than a formulaic set of procedures. “The standard checklist seems like how to manage an in-office meeting for a few people – basically a better agenda to make sure people participate,” de Gaspe Beaubien continues.
“This checklist doesn’t talk about the real things that planners are talking about – sustainable venues, carbon footprint, event experience, pre-event approval, virtual cards and reconciliations, duty of care for events, contingency plans for events that need to change from in-person to virtual. What about room block management, use of preferred suppliers, use of hotel addendum, air booking window, ability to SMS and message attendees during the event, contact tracing, travel restrictions? There isn’t equipment at events – there is technology for events. Also, what events need full service and what can be DIY?” she concludes.
Whitehead also believes more should be added to update the pre-pandemic checklist. It’s imperative for planners to have access to the meetings “playbook” and/or the organization’s specific guidelines or policy that may have been developed as a result of the pandemic, she says. “Many organizations now have much more specific guidelines on brand, risk, duty of care and on-site protocols to ensure they are keeping attendees safe, and mitigating risk for the organization.”
Communication & Content Ron Shah, CEO and founder of Bizly, says he has discovered there is more to a meeting than meets the eye. He says his company started out exclusively as a booking site. “You went to our web site, found thousands of venues, picked one, booked it, and – voilà! – you had a meeting space. However, what we realized was, that actually didn’t work. And the reason it didn’t work is because that’s all it was – a meeting space. In order to book a meeting or to actually get a meeting accomplished, I actually have to understand the content of the meeting.”
Shah says there are five key elements to staging a meeting. "I have to understand the content of the meeting. What are we talking about? Do we need a stage? Do we need a microphone? Do we need a projector? Where are people sitting, and in what format?” Knowing the number of attendees and whether they are participating virtually or in-person is critical, as well as food restrictions or dietary preferences and vaccine status depending on venue restrictions. “So I need to communicate with attendees, right?” Shah notes. “We learned through trial and error and evolution that you need to deal with content and communications.”
Whitehead agrees that communication is key. “You can’t communicate enough now, especially pre-meeting to ensure your attendees feel safe, comfortable and prepared for their experience.”
Fortunately, event organizers have tools to lighten the load. Cvent’s Andrews says that “while the name ‘simple’ meeting can sometimes feel misleading for those who organize them, with technology, there are more ways than ever to streamline processes and make managing them a bit easier.” She says that leveraging an event management platform for all event types and sizes can help keep event programs on track and help ensure all the boxes are checked – regardless of who is organizing the event.
“At Cvent, our self-service solutions can guide event planners through compliance management protocols, budgeting, attendee insights management, strategic venue sourcing, and more. No reason to be overwhelmed by options when a few helpful tools will do the trick.”
In addition, Andrews recommends looking for straightforward solutions to book their in-person meeting spaces, bypassing the traditional RFP process. “Also, look at leveraging the power of offers like multi-event contracts, which allow for clarity and consistency in your own risk management and protocol playbook,” she advises. Online platforms that offer planners direct access to vendors that support all event formats – whether large or small – avoiding the headaches of sourcing suppliers and equipment for their events from scratch.
Celebrating the Return “At the end of the day, it’s about leveraging technology and relying on solid internal playbooks and plans to help make things easier,” Andrews says. “Fortunately, with the digital transformation we’ve seen over the last two years, there are more tools than ever to make processes easier.”
As questions arise about which type of meeting format to deploy – in-person versus virtual versus hybrid – determining the return on investment is an increasingly important question. Even here, tech solutions can ferret out the data to determine the comparative success of different meeting types.
For example, according to de Gaspe Beaubien, the recently-launched Groupize Interactive Advisor, or GIA, “provides in-product guidance to help users of any level get started and adopt new features quicker than ever, allowing enterprises of any size the ability to implement rapidly and deliver ROI with the very first event.” Groupize created GIA in response to organizations “grappling with more meetings and fewer experienced professional meeting planners.”
Another issue, according to Shah, is determining the most productive meeting venue. The reliance on traditional spaces has changed due to seismic shifts in the head office. “Space is tricky,” Shah says. “The biggest thing we’re finding universally across all customers as it relates to space is that the equation has changed. In the past, there were only two options: Am I going to book a hotel or a restaurant? But, while those two are still important venues, there's a third, super important choice that emerged from the pandemic – your own office.” Shah says offices are empty and that the high projection for 2022 is 30 percent occupancy. “What this means is, there's going be a huge push for companies to use their own facility for meetings as much as possible. So rather than fly to a hotel destination to meet, employees will fly to one of their office locations,” he explains.
“Many, especially the large and mid-size ones, have food services on site,” Shah says. “Which means you have to leverage that because imagine your CFO seeing a really big line item showing $10 million in spend on small meetings. He sees empty offices and is thinking, why aren't we using our own offices for this?”
“Fortunately, we’re ahead of the curve. We’ve built a complete workflow to connect the dots with onsite food, onsite catering, and onsite conference rooms, so that a planner can use Bizly to have one hub for all small meetings, onsite and offsite using all the locations and workflows.”
Meeting planners need to get in front of these questions, Shah says. “Look for ways to leverage your office locations for meetings. Remote employees will be flying to the office to meet, but it'll be special. It won't just be the conference room. You might want to bring food in. So you use your onsite catering. And you might have balloons and flowers to make it really look and feel special,” he adds.
So before jumping in with meetings as usual, Frisch agrees that the resumption of small meetings after a two-year hiatus deserves to be celebrated with all the festive trimmings, including cake or deserts. In facilitating small meetings for business clients post-COVID, he says he has seen tenderness and joy among those who are reuniting with co-workers or meeting team members they only knew through ZOOM for the first time.
“People are just salivating to meet in-person,” Frisch says. “Don’t underestimate the power of emotional connection. Make space for the celebration – this is a wonderful moment in time. Humans are social animals. Let’s realize it!”