plantation Tara, the era of high-concept meeting themes mostly belongs to another time, one that is truly gone with the wind. “It’s definitely changed,” said Usha James, CMP, director of conference operations for SourceMedia, “and it changed drastically when the economy crashed.” The first blow came with the dot-com bust of 2000–2001,
followed closely by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, which in and of themselves helped usher in a new era of seriousness. Then came the financial crisis of 2008–2009 — from which theming has yet to recover. James said: “You just don’t see big themes like ‘Hawaiian Getaway’ anymore.” And they may never come back — like catchy sitcom theme songs and smoking sections in restaurants. On the other hand, you shouldn’t necessarily count out theming for good. “I think its time has passed, or passed for now,” said Troy Starwalt, events manager for the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4A’s). “But it could maybe come back — like plaid.” Another force exerting downward pressure on meeting themes — related to the general ebb and flow of the economy
— is the awful press received in recent years by meetings that seemed to overemphasize entertaining their attendees when other groups around the country were tightening their belts. In the aftermath of the AIG Effect and, more recently, GSA’s Las Vegas–area conference, no one wants to be caught on YouTube basking in an opulent theme. “The environment has taken on a more serious tone,” said corporate meeting
planner Susie Wiesenfeld, CMP. “You don’t want to come off as being gaudy.” Phyllis Klasky, director of events management for the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), agrees.
“My opinion,” she said, “is that these days you have to be more concerned that the meeting, the conference, or the convention is more serious versus fluff.” For example, the pharmaceutical industry continues to come under scrutiny from the media, regulatory bodies, and the public at large — and thus, even more than other sectors, its meetings need not to be seen as “going off to play golf and relax.”
A CONFERENCE OF A DIFFERENT COLOR As a result of meeting themes largely having gone out of fashion, two things have happened. One, more emphasis is being placed on a meeting’s content rather than its trappings. That isn’t a bad development, of course. But the second thing that’s resulted from themes going away is that it’s now more difficult for planners to differentiate their meetings from those of their competitors. It can be a hard balance to strike. “Yes, it’s very beneficial
to attendees in terms of getting what they’ve paid for in a learning experience,” James said. “But you do find that you end up in the cookie-cutter mode of meeting planning, because you aren’t entertaining as much.” For that reason, you have to pay more attention to the little things that set one meeting apart from another in the