MPI’s recent World Education Congress in San Francisco was not only its first full-scale return to a face-to-face annual meeting—it was its 50th anniversary celebration. A recent Great Events podcast, hosted by Cvent, provided a behind-the-scenes look at what went into pulling MPI WEC 2022 in front of the toughest audience of all: fellow event planners.
MPI WEC 2022 hit all its major key performance indicators when Meeting Professionals International brought its World Education Congress to San Francisco in June. Attendance was up substantially from the 2021 event in Las Vegas. Satisfaction rates are trending well above 90%. MPI is hitting its membership recruitment goals for WEC 2022, and its revenue goals are on target. And, by all accounts, it was a splendid celebration for MPI’s 50th anniversary, from opening party to airport departures.
So how did they make it all work? Rachel Andrews, Senior Director of Meetings and Events with Cvent, spoke with two of MPI WEC’s key players — Melinda Burdette, Senior Director of Events, and Drew Holmgreen, Chief Brand Officer — in a recent episode of Cvent’s Great Events podcast to find out. Here’s just some of what they shared.
On building the design for an annual meeting that doubled as a 50th birthday party for the organization… “It really was more like a birthday 18 months,” said Burdette of the process of designing the celebration. Because MPI WEC is where the meeting planner association’s community gathers, it just made sense to celebrate the people who make up that community, she said. “What we wanted to do was get that mosaic of stories that have created was MPI has become over the past 50 years.”
It started last fall at IMEX America 2021 in Las Vegas, where MPI partnered with a video production company to gather some of those stories — some 200 or so, with another 50 taped on site during MPI WEC 2022 itself. To showcase these stories, MPI set up massive murals and artifacts representing a timeline of the best of the organization’s first 50 years at WEC 2022. This activation celebrated the MPI 50 Most Influential people who have driven the industry over the past 50 years, as well as the MPI 50up-and-comers who they think will lead the industry for the next half century, as well as the Legacy Contributors who created the foundation for what was to become MPI. “We had great sponsors that provided the museum and brought a lot of energy to it,” she said.
The timeline included milestones hit along the way. Some, such as when specific chapters began, doubled as great selfie opportunities, Burdette said. “It created a different energy — and it exceeded our expectations.”
On what, and who, it took to build MPI WEC 2022… “It takes a village,” she said. “We rely a lot on volunteers and local chapters, which we are fortunate to have around the world.” Because everything has to be scalable and hit those KPIs, MPI WEC 2022 planners did have a formal process that included the Event Design Collective, which developed the Event Canvas methodology for event design. The location also is a big piece of the puzzle, as is involvement of all the stakeholders, from attendees to the board to the staff.
On why and how the meeting focused on reconnection after two years of heavily hybrid conferences… “Remember, we’ve all gone through lots of reshuffling during this pandemic, so you’re reconnecting with colleagues and … bringing this whole new group of industry professionals into the fold,” she said.
On how they hit those KPIs… “As we approached San Francisco, we thought we would have 2,500 people, which would have been the number in 2019. But then gas prices accelerated and airline costs went crazy. That provided a hurdle for us to get over,” she said. To get over that hurdle, MPI WEC 2022 planners went aggressively after the airlines to provide discounted fares for their attendees, she said. They got about 1,700 in-person attendees in total, along with another 300 who attended virtually, which Burdette said was “success in my book.” The in-person attendance — which was 300 more than came to Vegas in 2021 and 1,000 more than made it to the meeting in Grapevine, Texas, in 2020 —along with a sponsorship team that, in her words, kicked it out of the park, made it possible to come close to meeting revenue goals.
MPI WEC 2022 planners also built a member-recruitment strategy into the meeting’s registration process so non-members could register for a year’s membership automatically. “We set ourselves up for success from a membership-gathering standpoint,” she said.
On how MPI took risks so planner attendees didn’t have to… “You don’t want to just hold the same event year over year — you’re not learning anything new,” said Holmgren. “Instead, we purposefully break things and tell people to be prepared, things are going to go wrong. Enjoy the ride.” But they don’t just break things for the sake of breaking them, she added. “We take an informed look at the trends, at what worked and didn’t work last year, and what’s going on in the industry.” For example, they noted that at last year’s WEC event in Las Vegas, the educational sessions were about half full but the hallways were packed.
The thought then became, “How do we take education and networking and marry the two together a bit tighter? That’s how the brain dates came around,” she added. They also included more small-group sessions and campfires — as well as yoga sessions and a playground — to give attendees more opportunities to engage and interact with each other in ways that are less scripted than hosted buyer appointments.
They also encouraged sponsors to create cool activations on the trade show floor where sponsors could align their brand with MPI and WEC in new and interesting ways, such as a headshot station, complete with makeup artist. These activations were specifically designed to drive people into the space to purposefully network with sponsors.
MPI reduced the space usage at the Moscone Center from three floors to two to make it feel a bit more homey, and gave San Francisco free rein to activate the first level with Ghirardelli chocolatiers and sourdough bread tastings. The idea, the MPI WEC 2022 planners aid, was to bring the surrounding area of San Francisco into the convention center. They also took out 90% of the airwalls on the second level of Moscone West to open the space up for new ideas and activations such as the Brain date area, the puppy-cuddling station, the Tech Tour area, and the HR space.
They also changed up the agenda to include lecture-type sessions for those who wanted to sit back and absorb information, as well as shorter and more interactive sessions.
One risk they wanted to take that just couldn’t be worked out was to hold the opening party at Alcatraz. After talking with the federal government and the Corps of Engineers, the site, which does not have running water or restrooms, just wasn’t going to be possible. So they held it at Oracle Park, home to the San Francisco Giants, and closed with its signature Rendezvous Celebration at City Hall.
On extending the experience to the digital realm… after going full-bore on the digital experience for the past two years, MPI WEC 2022’s hybrid participants had a more curated digital experience, they said. They livestreamed the general sessions and some of the deeper dive sessions, and then captured the content of other sessions for later repackaging and distribution.
Among the reasons they decided to scale back on the digital aspect for MPI WEC 2022 was the financial considerations, said Burdette. Because San Francisco is a union city, an already expensive proposition is even pricier. And you also want to create that fear of missing out, or FOMO. “Do we want to give them access to everything, or do want to streamline it and give them FOMO so they … want to deep dive into something later?” said Burdette. Also, MPI’s research has shown that interest in virtual attendance is now on the decline. “We knew it was going to be the right decision, and the number prove themselves.”
The bottom line, she said, is that, while there are still cost challenges with airfare and travel, “everything shows that in person meetings are coming back and they’re coming back full bore. That’s what we saw played out in San Francisco.”