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Pundit’s Mailbag — Should PMA Facilitate Meetings During Program Times?

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, October 25, 2007

We’ve been discussing the PMA convention and started off with a piece that asked a question: PMA Analysis — Does Houston Merit A Permanent Place In The PMA Rotation?

PMA’s Attendance Just Shy Of 16,000 focused on attendance. We then published a letter from Peter Dessak, Vice President of Six L’s Packing Company, that explained that his experience with a hotel room out in the Galleria area — or “the boondocks” as he put it — was that it increased costs and took up time. We incorporated that letter into a piece entitled, Pundit’s Mailbag — PMA Needs To Factor Bus Time And Taxi Costs Into Convention City Choice.

Then we wrote Pundit’s Mailbag — Selling Versus Learning At PMA which included a letter from Jack Vessey, Vice President and Marketing Director of Vessey & Company pointing out that being in California has a special value for the industry because the increased attendance of California growers creates educational opportunities for the marketing end of the business. This piece also focused on an occasional disconnect between many exhibitors who are focused on selling and some attendees interested mostly in learning.

Today’s letter comes from an executive with one of the largest buy-side organizations in the trade:

As a resident out in the boondocks (Galleria) I’d echo yours and other comments. In town just three days, I spent $265 on cab fare. It was time consuming, expensive and inconvenient.

One other observation — the lack of meeting space available to sit and meet with people. During the morning sessions on Sunday I was trying to meet with a supplier and there wasn’t any space. The Hilton lobby was packed, and the tiny PMA reception area tables were all full.

Meeting rooms weren’t available as sessions were underway, and as I do not have an exhibitor badge I could not go with him to his booth to use that space.

The reality is people pick and choose among the programming, and schedule meetings that are in conflict with the PMA educational sessions (not just exhibit hours). PMA needs to provide a venue for people to meet and gather, and not have to leave the convention center. Otherwise, just as you said, we’re getting offsite and it’s easier to stay away than to make a (in this case lengthy) trek back.

We have several more letters to run but it is pretty clear from the feedback we have been getting that PMA would be well advised to adopt as a criteria for accepting a city into its rotation — not only exhibit hall size and hotel room numbers, but a compact area for lodging and entertaining.

Our writer’s second point, the desire for more meeting space, is more problematic. There is a constant battle at PMA to try and get people to not schedule events during times that would conflict with PMA activities.

Although the ban doesn’t apply to private meetings and conversations, any event organizer will be hesitant to encourage competition by, say, promoting the availability and use of conference rooms during the convention functions.

Yet, for many, maybe most, the private meetings are a crucial part of the event and there simply are not enough hours when no PMA function is going on to squeeze them all in. Our correspondent is correct in saying that not accommodating people who want to have meetings is very dangerous because if those key buyers are taken offsite, it is not always easy to get them back.

Are there any options? A few thoughts:

  • Exhibitors pay a lot of money to exhibit, perhaps we could set up a system that would deliver extra value. If they trekked up to the registration desk exhibitors could already get anyone a pre-show pass just by explaining the person was going to be setting up the booth. Maybe we should set up a person with a computer right in front of an entrance and formalize a system where an exhibitor can invite a person into their booth for a meeting even during off hours. There are security issues but by tying a guest to a host, we might be able to ameliorate many of those.
  • Could we promote Monday as “Meeting Monday” — attendance is poor on Monday, especially many of the top executives leave early. Is it possible that we could promote “Meeting Monday” and offer free meeting rooms, AV, refreshments, etc. to those who want to schedule meetings and business review sessions? Perhaps we could close up the day with a Colin Powell caliber speaker or name entertainment. Could we persuade people to stay through Monday by making it such a day? Would this allow higher participation to events earlier in the show?
  • The biggest concern raised by this letter, was not raised by the writer. As an industry our real concern is that a buyer of this status doesn’t find enough of value in the breakout sessions that he decides to tell his vendors that the workshop time is off limits. This key buyer was at the Pundit’s workshop on Friday regarding Corporate Social Responsibility so the right speaker and topic can attract the attendance of key buyers. Perhaps because most of the attendees are always going to be sell side, we’ve allowed too heavy a slant on workshops to the general audience. Maybe we need more niche programs that provide profound value to particular industry segments. We’ve now restructured the schedule of the show — should we take another look at the content? In the end we certainly can’t force people to attend events they don’t find valuable.

When PMA or any organization wants people to attend its events, but the people ask for meeting rooms instead, what can an event organizer do?

Well the saying is “Vox populi, vox Dei” or “The voice of the people, is the voice of God.” But it has also been said that the obligation of a leader is to follow that voice shrewdly.

Which means that we have to accommodate but we have to recognize that we must maintain the integrity of the event or nobody would be there to go to a meeting to begin with.

Many thanks to our correspondent for raising such an important issue.

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