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Wild and wacky: creative meetings: put a little zest into your meetings to keep attendees interested, and to meet the needs of all learning types.

In our information-driven culture, our senses are barraged by hundreds of television channels, thousands of advertisements and millions of Internet Web sites. We have cell phones, e-mail and text messaging so that we can constantly communicate with one another. We've shortened "ta ta for now" to "ttfn" and "laugh out loud" to "lol." We eat fast food while text messaging fellow employees to remind them to check their e-mail.

It's no wonder meeting and event planners must become more and more creative to keep shortening attention spans occupied. Meetings and events must now be entertaining and engaging. The event or meeting that features a straight lecture is fast becoming a thing of the past.

This is because, as many meeting planners and employers now know, the most up-to-date educational research shows that having a speaker get up in front of a crowd and just lecture is an extremely ineffective educational technique. It only speaks to one learning style (auditory) and leaves out the other two learning styles (visual, tactile/kinesthetic). Auditory learners learn by listening. Visual learners need to see firings to learn about them. Tactile/kinesthetic learners need hands-on involvement in the learning process and often need to take things apart to understand them.

Arthur Roraff, president of The Coordinators Inc., has been working in the field of conference planning and event management since 1991. Roraff has a Bachelor of Arts and Communications degree from Loyola University New Orleans. He advises employers to break things up and to keep gadgets nearby for tactile/kinesthetic learners. "Studies have shown that keeping little things to play with like squeeze balls on the tables stimulates brain activity and keeps people awake and alert," Roraft stated.

"I've also had clients who used their own version of the game show 'Jeopardy' to liven things up. Another client set up a fun committee that took pictures throughout the convention and presented a slide show at the end," Roraff continued.

According to Roraff, the expense of a convention is not in the creative activities, but in the food and beverages, audiovisual expenses, facility rental, printing costs and amenities. Amenities include thank you gifts, such as bags, notebooks and pens. Administrative costs, such as phone calls, have to be factored in as well.

QUICK PICK-ME-UPS

One primary means of keeping meetings from being too dull is to incorporate team-building exercises. When strategic planning and cooperation are needed to complete business projects, companies with team players do much better. So, not only do these ice-breaking and team-building exercises keep employees engaged in learning, they teach valuable skills that employers want their employees to have.

One team-building exercise that has been used at meetings and conferences across the nation to promote working together to reach a common goal asks two teams of six people to stand on 8-foot-long 2-by-4 boards, like skis, The front and back people hold rope loops on each end. To move effectively, the group must walk on the boards in a perfectly synchronized manner. The result? Lots of laughs and some real effort put into working together to move forward.

Another team building exercise asks employees to divide into two teams and build bridges. The employees are given building materials, such as paper-towel tubes, tinfoil and duct tape. The gimmick or catch? The two teams must use creative communication to build similar bridges without seeing one another's work or talking to one another. It's problem solving at its finest. Not only do the teams have to problem solve to build their bridges, but also to communicate and to build similar bridges.

Employees at Ribelin Lowell and Co. have played their own version of Family Feud. An employee-owned Alaska insurance brokerage firm pro riding personal and commercial insurance and risk management related services to meet the needs of their clients, RLC goes the extra mile when it comes to educating its employees, as well as meeting the needs of its clients. Dave Kester, account executive, RLC, explains: "We're accused of having a technical and boring product. In order to teach our employees what we need them to know, we try to lighten things up a bit. Life's too serious sometimes, so we try to make education fun and exciting."

ENGAGE THE STAFF

James Dooley, chief operating officer of RLC, shares one of the firm's creative approaches to employee meetings: "We have late afternoon get-togethers over a beer, glass of wine or other refreshment." The result? Better communication and camaraderie between management and co-workers.

Dooley even talked of future presentations that could include humorous skits to be performed by management, employees or committees to get their message across, as he once did in a Roman toga outfit using pig Latin.

Dooley mentioned there is no limit to how creative one can get and visions of a great set design with fantastic voice and dance to complement the learning activity with a slight tongue in cheek. Dooley's affiliation with the Anchorage Opera Board and Anchorage Opera Guild may have much to do with this.

Dooley continued, "A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. If we can perk up people's attention, then ultimately they absorb more of what we want them to learn. We are in a very serious business. When we are with clients we have to be very serious. So, if we can have some fun while still learning something, it's very helpful."

Dooley also discussed another added benefit of creative meetings. "When we go out to meet clients, we try to establish a rapport. These fun events establish a rapport between management and subordinate employees. There is a certain amount of guardedness that fun can relieve between management and subordinates.

This creates a safe environment for employees to make suggestions and allows for associative thinking to occur. This benefits everyone."

While RLC promotes associative thinking, negativity is strictly prohibited. "We charge a base rate fine for negativity and/or personal shots at another employee that goes into an employee fun fund," Dooley said. "However, people just naturally react better when they are having fun."

Alaska employers and meeting planners are finding that this fun-loving, motivational approach to meetings and conventions gets results. When asked about the expense of creative event planning in relation to the payoff, Melissa McCormick, president of Creativation Events/Rentals, commented: "The payoff to holding more creative meetings is to give a new perspective on business as usual. The more creative and innovative a meeting idea is, the greater efficiency and overall impact of the event. Big impact, small investment." McCormick holds a Bachelor of Arts in Communication from the University of Arizona, Tucson.

What is the protocol for writing a lesson plan for more creative meetings? Just how do event planners work? McCormick explained: "Our event planner first typically meets with the client to determine the basic elements of the meeting, the client's style and the type of meeting they want to have. The planner will establish a budget, come up with an initial concept and meet to discuss the meeting plan and present it to the client. We are very daring when presenting our ideas-some clients are very conservative but are actually seeking a hip and edgy event. We can always scale back, but our business is ideas."

IDEAS. IDEAS.

How do event planners such as McCormick keep coming up with creative ideas for their clients? "Our ideas are generated from a variety of areas--following current industry trends, market research, trade magazines, even home/garden shows, a store window display or a particular display piece or meeting concept. We also love to work on themed events--from French, Mediterranean, Moroccan, elegant, motion picture, Shakespearean, tropical, comedy, sports events, to outrageous entertainment. For the most recent Legislative Welcome reception in January, we chose the theme "painting a bright new future." We had a primary color scheme and used paint cans and brushes to design the event. Even the food that had sauces was brushed on. We did a mock-up of the front of the Capitol building with the four columns, each lit with a different primary color. We displayed children's artwork from around Juneau and each of the legislators were given cookies painted with their faces on them," McCormick stated.

Why are they really trying so hard to entertain as they educate?

McCormick remarked: "To give the audience something that they aren't expecting--novelty. By getting the audience to focus their attention on the entertainment, it captures their attention immediately. By combining entertainment with the educational portion of their meeting or conference, it keeps them interested in the material being presented."

What are the components of a creative meeting or convention? Survey says ...

Jeopardy, Family Feud, squeeze balls, beer, wine, togas, operas and fun! Today's meetings and conventions are becoming real events. Learning styles are addressed. Research is studied. Despite the serious nature of education, what meeting planners and employers seem to be learning is that it pays to make learning fun.
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Author:Williams, Colleen Flood
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Jul 1, 2004
Words:1490
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