Big meetings are back. Make them matter

Sub-zero ballrooms with massive presentation screens. An endless docket of breakouts, working sessions, and team-building events. The networking coffees, happy hours, and serendipitous run-ins. That’s right—annual meetings are back!

It’s a fact: meetings are one of the largest investments of company time and energy each year. Annual meetings and other large-scale events come with a major price tag to boot. But while the big-ticket items—the high-profile keynote speaker, the Top Golf team-building event, the after-hours tickets to Disneyland—might bring a “wow” factor, they won’t be worth the investment unless they’re actually helping you achieve your meeting goals. And what were those goals again?

Time after time, in my experience with clients, their inclination is to start with the fireworks and work backward from there. Instead, I urge leaders to focus their planning efforts on three key places:


Large or small, all good meetings have one thing in common: a strong purpose. When it comes to big meetings, start your planning with the purpose in mind: Why are you coming together? How do you want your attendees to feel? What do you want them to learn? Essentially, what should be different for the team and the organization when the meeting is over? Keep the answers to these questions at the core of all planning efforts. If a proposed activity or element doesn’t support the purpose, then it shouldn’t make the cut. 


Now, the fun part: reinforcing your purpose with an overarching theme for the meeting. We recently supported a global client in designing a large-scale virtual meeting to launch a reorganization that brought teams from all over the world together under one umbrella. In selecting a theme, we wanted to celebrate the diversity of the individual teams and reinforce how each one was required to reach the common objective. Our theme, “Recipe for Success,” centered on the teams as the metaphorical ingredients required to make a delicious dish.

This theme, which we carried throughout the launch year, provided a foundation for engaging elements throughout the meeting. Each attendee contributed a favorite recipe, showcasing local cuisine, which turned the member directory into a keepsake cookbook. Leadership members, many of whom were new, created cooking-show-style demo videos for their recipes, which were played throughout the meeting. While these elements were both fun and memorable, their role was to bring the meeting’s purpose to life.


Part of the reason those enormous ballrooms always feel so cold is because, for the vast majority of the time, attendees are just sitting there. Break the “sit and get” cycle by creating opportunities for interaction throughout the meeting—no need to save all the happiness for happy hour. If all you want to do is talk at attendees, there’s no need to bring them all together. A series of Town Halls could serve the same purpose.

Getting everyone together is an enormous opportunity to reset priorities, to inspire and motivate, and to encourage collaboration across functions and siloes. Don’t waste it on a design that inspires the team to multitask or skip sessions in favor of extra sleep.

Here’s how to surprise and perhaps even wow your team at your next big meeting:


Pick a location that offers activities beyond the hotel that reinforce your overall theme. In supporting a leader who wanted to spark innovation, we were able to find six innovative companies that were in close proximity to our meeting venue. Participants selected the industry that was most appealing and then did a site visit and a discussion with the CEO. Afterward, teams engaged in an interactive innovation session designed to tackle long-standing challenges, leveraging the new ideas they learned from the entrepreneurs.


When you have a heterogenous audience of levels and roles, it’s very challenging to bring in training that speaks to everyone. Instead, we recommend custom learning that targets real business challenges the team is facing. For a scientific organization trying to get a better handle on the external factors impacting their products, we challenged cross-level groups to build Lego models of their ecosystem to help them bring the dynamics to life. Hands-on activities are great equalizers for groups that have a large range of experience among the participants.


Many people struggle to make new connections at large group events, instead sticking close to familiar faces. Make it easier for everyone to network by creating welcoming environments. For several clients, we created a coffeehouse within the hotel where arriving ‘guests’ were paired up with someone new. Tabletop discussion cards encouraged moving beyond the name and role niceties and into chats with deeper meaning. If you ask the senior leadership team to hang out at the café to socialize with the team, it’s sure to attract customers.

Annual meetings and large-scale events are a big lift for all involved. By being intentional with your design, and exchanging flash for meaning, you’ll create effective, engaging, energizing events that will provide a much better return on your investment.