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What's in a Name?

Posted on December 06, 2007

By Joan Eisenstodt

This week, I've written about some broad topics (what the industry holds for 2008) and narrowed some of those to look at meeting demographics, meeting design, and risk management.  It occurs to me that we can bring the discussion back to what our industry is called and what meetings or gatherings should offer - hospitality.

At Merriam-Webster on line, 'hospitality' is defined:

Main Entry: hos•pi•tal•i•ty

Function: noun

Inflected Form(s): plural hos•pi•tal•i•ties

Date: 14th century

Definition: hospitable treatment, reception, or disposition <<

They further define 'hospitable' as "1 a: given to generous and cordial reception of guests b: promising or suggesting generous and cordial welcome c: offering a pleasant or sustaining environment2: readily receptive: OPEN (hospitable to new ideas)"

If one does not feel safe, secure, and included, it can put up barriers to learning or participation.

Think about the times you were a 'first timer' (wearing, no doubt, a bright ribbon identifying you as such) at a meeting, knowing no one or very few people, unsure of the organization's culture.  Think about the greeting you received at the registration desk:  Was it cordial?  Did someone offer to help you?  As you wound your way from registration toward sessions, were the looks on peoples' faces open and welcoming, or did they do their best to avoid your eyes and any conversation?

If you approached a group or an individual at a meal function, did they look up and welcome you to their table or their discussion, or were you made to feel like an intruder?  Or did you even bother to attend the social functions, preferring to go back to your guestroom and order room service, feeling safer with your own company?

How we planners help train key staff or volunteers to welcome those who may be new or those who may speak different languages than the language of the conference, who may be different (in age, dress, culture, ethnicity, abilities, etc.) from the majority at a conference, can make or break an event.  We have an obligation to help all participants feel comfortable in mingling in sessions and at events.   

Some years ago, as a first timer at a meeting, I gathered up all the courage I had to go into the first event - a buffet breakfast.  As an "Introvert" (on MBTI), just being in a large room with 1200 other people was tough enough; going up to a table of people asking if I could join them was daunting.  The group looked up, welcomed me, waited until I was seated and made introductions and brought me into the conversation.  It was a wonderful experience that kept me returning to this group's conference whenever I could, and provided an example of what I help clients learn about how to make their meetings more welcoming - more hospitable.

There are, of course, times when private conversations need to be held at meetings and it is perfectly acceptable to say "We are having a private conversation; we hope to be finished shortly so that you can join us."  Or perhaps you can take the new person to meet someone so that there is not the awkward moment of simply turning someone away.

In the new year, let's ask questions when planning our meetings about how to make all those who attend feel welcome - how to extend hospitality.  Consider these questions and add your own:

     What can we say (in e- or printed materials) prior to the meeting that will encourage new people to attend?

     If I were new at our meeting, what would make me feel welcomed?

     Which people at registration, or at the first event, are most observant and will notice the first timer or those who look like they have questions, and be willing to offer a smile or help?

     How will we encourage all our staff (or our key volunteers) to move away from those they know and welcome people?

     How can learning facilitators (aka speakers) encourage participation among all those in sessions?

In such a diverse world where people seem to have a need to reject others for their differences, let's find a way to include more people and help them feel welcomed at our meetings and events.


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