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“Does your future suck?” – my new article on meetings/events industry

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Does your future suck?

by Jim Carroll

Written for “Content Matters Newsletter, March 2010”, Content Management Corporation

So the big question, of course, is this: is there a future for the meetings and conference industry?

What a silly question!

Of course there is: the fundamental trends that are shaping our future demand that organizations continually deliver regular, short sharp shocks of updated knowledge, and despite all the new fangled technology that surrounds us, many will demand that we continue to do so in human-to-humanget-togethers.

You know what’s fascinating about a recession? We all know how the movie ends: we return to a period of economic growth. What’s also fascinating about recessions is that it provides an opportunity for all the naysayers to suggest that meetings and conferences are going to go virtual, and that we’ll all meet online. Then, when the recovery comes about, we all start scrambling to pull together our events, because people demand a form of non-silicon based networking. There’s nothing like people getting together at a conference for a cold beer or a glass of wine after a long day of sessions: that’s when the real business gets done!

Back during the last recession of 2001-2002, “those in the know” said that this would be the end of meetings and events. I wrote an article in Successful Meetings magazine, ‘Get Real,’ that said no, that wasn’t going to happen. And so from 2003 to 2008, we saw some pretty impressive growth in the industry, followed by an inevitable pullback. Such a cycle will continue.

I’m a futurist, and spend my time providing advice and guidance to some of the largest organizations and associations in the world. And as I futurist, I have to be optimistic about the future. After all, there aren’t a lot of folks who want to hear a futurist come out on stage and say, “Guess what? The future sucks!”

So here’s my belief on what is really going to continue to drive the meetings and event business forward, and why the future doesn’t suck.

We live in a period of ongoing, relentless, fast paced change. I’m dealing with associations who are witnessing the disappearance of traditional careers at the same time that new careers emerge. I deal with companies that are seeing product life cycles collapse due to the furious rates of innovation within every industry today. I’m witnessing companies challenged by new competitors intent on disrupting their business models. I see professionals who realize that the knowledge they need to know to do their job is going out of date at a ridiculous pace, and who realize that the way to the future is to concentrate on developing the capability for just-in-time knowledge.

Given all this change, what do people and organizations need to do? Continually adjust and prepare themselves for a future that will be constantly different, changing faster, with a lot more volatility. That’s going to require a lot more innovation, and certainly the ongoing delivery of a lot more knowledge and information.

And it’s the pace of change that is perhaps the biggest factor at work here. Bill Gates once suggested: “People overestimate the change that will occur on a two year basis, and underestimate the pace of change on a ten year basis.” Add to this the observation by Rupert Murdoch: “The future belongs to those who are fast.”

In essence, successful professionals, associations and companies will be those who can adapt to rapidly evolving trends.

How do we do this? I’m convinced that one of the primary tools will continue to be a get-together where people share insight, strategy, knowledge and tips.

Associations are in a world in which they must help their members adapt to massive, fundamental transformation in their role, scope, function and purpose. I’m a big believer that such transformations can only occur if the membership is given an overwhelming sense of purpose, passion and enthusiasm through the focus that an annual conference provides.

That said, I recently spoke to 4,000 professionals at the annual National Recreation and Parks Association annual conference in Salt Lake City. I challenged the audience — most of them responsible for civic or state recreational activities and park infrastructure — to think about the baseball bat of 2015 or 2020. From my vantage point, it’s going to look the same, but it’s likely to have a variety of sensors built into it that will provide a kid with instant feedback as to the strength and accuracy of their swing; the same sensors will trigger their nearby cell phone to automatically capture a video of their time at the plate.

Far fetched? I don’t think. Weird? To us maybe, but perhaps not to the next generation. As I stressed to the crowd at this event, “When we think of the strangeness of the future and our likely negative reaction to some of what might come next, we have to remember this: it’s not bad, it’s just different.”

The world is going to be different; the role and mandate of the recreation professional is going to be different; the concept of recreation will be transformed. You can read about this in a magazine or see it on Twitter, but it won’t have the same impact as having 4,000 people in a room realizing that their lives are going to change — fast!

Consider medical professionals – it is estimated that medical knowledge is now doubling every eight years, with the result that the vast majority of individuals in any field of medical science are unable to keep up to date with the most recent new treatments and protocols. One study suggests that the typical patient is receiving the most current medical treatment only about 50% of the time. The same holds true in almost every single profession and career, and leads to some significant association challenges, all of which revolve around the ongoing need for continuous knowledge delivery.

Sure, we’ll see more knowledge delivery online; new business models around the conference and event industry; and continued rapid change in the sophistication of online conference tools. And most important, the next generation of silicon-enabled 25 year olds might not think about annual meetings in the same way that their forebears do. But I believe they’ll still go — and as we are seeing now, will make it a far more different and interactive experience. Heck, maybe the beer bottles in their hands will Tweet each other. It’s still beer.

So the bottom line is this: you’ve seen this movie before. You know how it ends. So prepare for the future now, rather than waiting for the full economic recovery to be underway. The winners in the meetings, conventions and conference industry of tomorrow will be those who are willing to be an optimist about the future, as I am!

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