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Where, oh where, has my relationship gone?

By April Taylor

I love my job! Working in the hospitality industry all of my life in one form or another has allowed me to indulge in my love of people. I love learning what makes people tick, what they like and don’t like, what they would love to be able to do and what they would do if there were no restrictions, financial or otherwise. I thrive on finding an opportunity to spoil them by giving them something they would not give themselves. This whole experience rests on the backbone of developing relationships.

Learning about each other and then working with each other leads to respect, caring and protectiveness. We support each other and ultimately become a team. Together we deliver a product or more importantly, an experience, that is unique, rich and stands apart from the normal. In short, we care about others and are invested in ensuring that their experience is superior. Translate that motivation to the conference experience, and the result is that our clients, working together with us, deliver a superior member benefit which ultimately ensures retention is protected and new members are attracted.

Over the years, this relationship evolution has been whittled away by the corporate drive to maximize return on investment. Promotional budgets have been trimmed. Technology has invaded the workplace. Software programs have engaged our attention to the detriment of caring about each other. Now when you check into a hotel, the front desk clerk types away for what seems to be an eternity, and never once looks you in the eye...and this is called customer service!

E-mail has also dramatically changed how we work. Now it’s more about the relationship we have with technology rather than the one we have with each other. The majority of today’s communication is through e-mail and can also be accompanied by Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram , Pinterest, and whatever else is looming on the horizon. Phone calls and face-to-face meetings are practically a thing of the past. And all of this contributes to the weakening of relationships in the workplace and the erosion of good customer service. The increase of technology has produced a do-it-yourself society. We no longer speak with someone on the phone but rather technology records our prompts and weaves us through an unimaginable landscape that hopefully, and eventually (fingers crossed), successfully deals with our request.

Yet, in spite of this, conferences still exist because somewhere in the midst of all of this cacophony, people still want to interact with each other, learn, network and share experiences. Planning and managing these events requires detailed work plans, creativity and the need to work with a team that will deliver according to your standards and expectations. Each team member needs to be engaged in the pursuit of excellence and to share in the journey that ultimately culminates in the delivery of the conference. This starts with the client and planning team, but intrinsically involves the site team – from sales, to convention services, to banquets, to housemen, to reservations, to the front desk, to housekeeping and audio visual support. It takes all of these important pieces to deliver a thorough and exhaustive collective that becomes the conference experience. Although we all depend on technology as a partner to get us to the day the curtain rises, it’s still the people that make the difference. The stronger the relationship that exists between the planner and the hotel, the AV company and the off-site venues, the better the degree of service and delivery will be.

Although conferences have withstood the onslaught of all of these changes, one wonders what is trending for the industry. Conferences will continue to survive whatever is thrown into the mix, but what they will look like will depend on what’s happening in the background. This is where the planner comes in. Planners need to be aware of all the changes in technology that could be incorporated into the experience – and then successfully do so. They need to be aware of the demographics of their attendees, determine what they will accept effortlessly and what needs to be introduced slowly. They need to define the new length of attention span and design programs that engage the attendee for the exact amount of time that will highlight the message for future retention. They need to support their clients and find new ways to communicate with their existing and potential members to ensure that they gain insight and information for their own pursuits, both professionally and personally. Planners need to know their attendees’ profiles intimately and have a real appreciation for the psychology of the conference experience. In short, they need to be ‘people’ people, and the best way to be successful in all of these pursuits is to partner with others who specialize in their respective fields.

There is no better time to build and nurture existing relationships with those who contribute to successful conference delivery than now. They too need passion for their profession and find the same passion in others they work with. Ask questions and listen to the answers. Troubleshoot to the “nth” degree. By maximizing relationships and being able to depend on all conference partners, everything about the conference will be elevated for the attendee, while the caring and attention to detail will ensure success.

Today’s challenge is to return to the relationship model if we want conferences to not only survive but thrive. Relationships are far less personal today for a variety of reasons of which technology is probably the largest. As technology has evolved, its integration in society has caused personal relationships to suffer. We are not as mannerly a society as we used to be. We’re far more involved in multi-tasking today and far more impatient than we used to be. We spend far less time interacting with people and as a result, our people skills have weakened. As the millennial generation grows in the workplace, our industry faces a major dilemma: how can we teach the importance of developing the fundamental relationships they will need for success? We are losing many of our industry caretakers who have practiced this relationship model due to retirement or semi-retirement. Losing them has created a big gap in the experience for the planner. It is so much less personal because the passion and caring doesn’t seem to exist and the desire to know whom you are working with has disappeared in favour of the “analytics” of technology. We have become robotic and less human and yet, we all need each other to ensure our success. Somehow we need to shift attention from phones, computers and tablets to the planner, their peers and ultimately, our delegates.

Interestingly, marketing today is all about the ‘brand’. The ‘brand’ has replaced the relationship but it still embodies the same qualities; further proof that we still need each other and are looking for fulfillment. We need to identify with something that allows us to reflect our personalities but in reality, it does not partner with us.  The brand needs to be a part of it, but we still need relationships with others to make it work.  A brand doesn’t stand in the trenches with us and sweat out the long hours to produce an exceptional product. That can only be done by people. So, therein lies the rub. We need to get back to the relationship. The one that you can rely on to have your back, to help you to solve your challenges and to share in the accolades when the plan comes together. And you can step back and say, “I think that went well, don’t you?”, and all of the team shares in that success. That’s a relationship working at its best. Each person has their role, but each component is made that much easier because you trust the people you are working alongside. That’s what makes it enjoyable and creates the desire to return to the process and the people, again and again.

The younger and future generations have the challenge of blending the best of technology with the best of humanity. They need to mold their relationships so that service returns to the mix. When the relationships mix with the brand, then the service will follow. And ultimately, that’s what we all want – to be recognized, to be treated well, to be supported, to be cared for and to be acknowledged as being human and not a technological asset – in short, to be valued and receive good service. We all want help to navigate through the new landscape we find ourselves in. The relationship model supports this goal regardless of what generation you come from.

Ultimately, conferences are about learning and networking. As much as there are webinars and online education available on the internet, conferences will continue to survive because people want to learn from each other, share experiences, and feel validated. When the planning and delivery relationships are cultivated and invested in, we’ll find the conference experience will not only survive these dramatic changes, but thrive.

The trend has been the disappearance of relationships in the process. Our challenge is to convince our up and coming generations that only by developing relationships, will they be successful. I truly believe that if we are successful in teaching them this important truth, they’ll discover their necessity, understand the importance of their unique contribution to success, put down their devices… and love their job!