PCMA Convening Leaders 2015 Deconstructs the Modern Conference

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Discussing tech trends in TechCentral at PCMA Convening Leaders 2015

PCMA continued its aggressive experimentation with next generation meeting design during its Convening Leaders 2015 conference this week at McCormick Place in Chicago. The open learning concept incorporated four color-coded zones themed around Operational Strategy, Meeting & Experience Design, Globalization and Technology.

We participated in a behind-the-scenes tour with PCMA beginning in the main Skyline Ballroom, where Freeman created an amazing wall-to-wall video backdrop. The A/V setup integrated 13 video mapping projectors to independently illuminate both the main screen and large architectural cutouts designed like Chicago’s cityscape placed in front of it.

One of the most innovative elements for this year, PCMA set up bleachers for 100 people to sit behind the main screen to watch the Freeman crew at work. Additional screens were set up backstage so people sitting in the bleachers could also watch the presentations from the audience’s point of view.

“In recent years, our philosophy has been to open up everything, regardless of if we make mistakes, so people can see how it’s done,” says Kelly Peacy, CAE/CMP, senior VP of education and events for PCMA. “Really, it’s a learning opportunity for our attendees to see what it takes to produce a general session of this scale.”

In effect, PCMA is building Convening Leaders as a test lab where planners can experience experimental meeting design to see what works and what doesn’t before they incorporate it into their own programs.

Hybrid in a Hybrid

One of our favorite events during the week was a hybrid session discussing the evolution of hybrid sessions, called “VEI: Behind the Scenes: Planning PCMA’s Hybrid Event.” What better way to show best practices for live/virtual combo programming than with an actual live/virtual experience?

Located in The Hybrid Mashup Studio, the panel was facilitated by Amanda Marijanovic, founder/chief creative officer of InnerAction. Panelists included Kevin O’Connor with Sonic Foundry; Whitney Barrett with INXPO; Manuel Blancas, CMP, with Freeman; and Mary Reynolds Kane, senior director of marketing for PCMA.

During the session, we could walk around and watch the technicians operating the sound board and video feeds. There was also a virtual content facilitator sitting by the side of the stage who tracked social media conversation, and then commented on the social buzz for the live panelists to discuss.

Marijanovic was born for her role as facilitator, seamlessly weaving the commentary between the live and virtual audiences. That back-and-forth engagement between two dimensions felt like the beginning of a whole new world for meetings and events, still very much in its infancy, with virtual reality and wearable tech on the immediate horizon.

The hybrid session, sponsored by Meetings & Conventions Calgary, took place in the Operational Strategy section of the show, surrounded by multiple other concurrent sessions. This open learning design format works really well when it works, but there were a lot of comments throughout Convening Leaders about sound bleed and the ability to hear some of the panelists.

The hybrid session had lots of space around it so it went off without a hitch. But in other sections of the event floor with multiple smaller open venues, it was often easy to hear a session speaker and audience next to you.

To its credit, PCMA placed a board in the middle of the floor with Post-It notes to share feedback with the PCMA meeting design crew. On the last day of Convening Leaders, there were probably 100 notes on the board and the majority of them had to do with sound issues.

Speaking with many different attendees, the common thinking was that there should be some type of sound wall system, with noise absorption fabric possibly, but not so invasive as to destroy the open area vibe.

No one we talked to was quite sure of what that looks like, however.


The TechCentral section at Convening Leaders was brilliant in its overall concept. Dahlia El Gazzar, who runs The Meeting Pool, was contracted to design the layout. She developed a hub system with the main information booth in the middle, and then there were “spokes” of tables for event tech vendors emanating out from that.

The hub/spoke system provided a lot of great movement and traffic flow to the different vendors. There was also a long communal table for family-style sessions, with a monitor at one end, and then numerous smaller seating areas for short educational lectures on event tech.

With so much growth in the tech sector, however, the TechCentral area could have been twice as big to accommodate all of the exhibitors and the surge of interest in the tech sessions. Many of the sessions overflowed with standing room only.

After Convening Leaders, you kind of don’t want to go into a small breakout room ever again for educational sessions, but there’s still some work to do when it comes to designing these smaller “campfire” sessions in public spaces.

Interest in those is huge, and it will be interesting to see how the setups are tweaked for PCMA EduCon in Fort Lauderdale this summer from June 14-17. The Tech areas are getting bigger and bigger every year at all of the industry shows, so event organizers should anticipate that and increase floor space for 2015/16.


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