Interactive, engaging events keep people plugged in.

You can spot a lethal business gathering awfully fast: hundreds of chairs facing a podium, too many words on the first slide, digital media with endless branded visuals.

Then, as the first speaker begins, the sound system cuts out.

But interactive and engaging events—planners prefer that term to meetings—have become the standard of excellence, reaching hearts and minds with more than razzle-dazzle. Two who know what it takes to make a meeting work, Jim Merkel, CEO of Rockbridge Capital, and Jason Barger, author and motivational speaker, say properly designed events can touch our emotions, hopes and dreams, and how we live out our shared values.

“I've heard story after story: ‘Our meetings are boring. Our last retreat was a flop,'” Barger says. “They describe one-way, one-sided communication, people talking at people. The participants' role was to lap it up, retain it and somehow change.

“We live in a participatory world. Whether your examples are personal interaction via social media, or just the way we want to select a beer … or even how we select our food when we order, how we want it prepared to be uniquely ours, we all want to participate in the experiences we have.”

Barger's latest book, Thermostat Culture, promotes intentional expectations for organizations. Barger and Howard Behar, the now-retired president of Starbucks Coffee International, will make the concepts play out in real time on Nov. 10 at Franklin Park, in an event they call ”Thermostat Culture Live.”

It won't be dull, Behar promises. “What works is short speeches and a lot of conversation, so that's what I like to do,” he says. “People don't want to just listen, they want to participate. I try not to do just speeches anymore. You don't need a 45-minute speech; you need something interactive. We learn from stories that people share with each other, not from speakers reciting things.”

In “thermostat cultures,” Behar says, the thermostat controls and sets the temperature. Without that clarity around what an organization is trying to create, it's just a thermometer that reads the climate. “All day long we just react,” he says. “We need to decide what is the temperature I'm trying to set on the thermostat, not just what we do, but how we're committed to doing it.

“My belief is that cultures are directly reflective of the leadership. If the leader's a jerk, the culture will be filled with jerks. If the leader shows respect and dignity, that's the kind of culture you're going to have.”

Barger and Behar say organizational culture starts with individuals. “What do I have personal ownership of, and how can I play a personal part? If I'm passionate about an issue ... rather than sit around and get angry, I should be asking, ‘What is my control, my part of the solution?'” Barger says.

For Merkel at Rockbridge Capital, the way to become personally involved turned out to be a popular event that mixes support for cancer research, lots of bike-riding and lessons of leadership and innovation.

Rockbridge Capital, investment funder for hospitality properties, hosts the “Rock the Road Experience,” which much of the regional hospitality industry now supports.

RTRX is a four-day event (Aug. 3-6) at the Greater Columbus Convention Center that matches participants with Rockbridge-sponsored cyclists in Pelotonia, the annual bicycling fundraiser for the research efforts of Ohio State University's James Cancer Hospital. This year, RTRX features basketball great Bill Walton and Dan Pallotta, an advocate for building more dynamic and innovative nonprofit organizations.

Michael Caligiuri, MD, CEO of the James, and other experts from the hospital explore the frontiers of research each year with attendees, and a conversation between Merkel and Caligiuri was the genesis of this annual event.

More than 160 members of the RTRX Peloton rode in Pelotonia last year, and Merkel expects participation to grow to as many as 450 this year. Since 2011, RTRX has raised more than $2.1 million for cancer research.

The goal of the event is to energize participants around leadership, innovation and cancer research, and that has to touch the heart, Merkel says.

“For our event, the idea is we want people to come to be engaged, not to be over-programmed, running from one session to another, but to be really thought-provoking,” he says. “We believe if we can make all our materials high-end and high-touch, people will have a good feeling. If we make our content engaging and interesting, that will make them think more deeply when they leave.

“For us, and for them, by doing business in this way, we want them to feel they're doing great things for the community and themselves by attending, and that they're doing something significant for cancer research.”

Mike Mahoney is a freelance writer.

Trade Shows: Go or No?

Exhibitor costs for conferences and trade shows have grown in a massive over-correction since the Great Recession, so business marketers are examining their return on investment closely, says Greg Lindsey, vice president of Exhibitpro.

“So many companies in our world—show decorators, trade associations, union labor—didn't have multiple channels of business. When trade show attendance went down, and some shows canceled, those (groups) really took a hit,” Lindsey says.

“Now that our industry is healthy again, we're seeing this over-correction of costs, and so when we talk about what event we attend and why, we also talk about managing those costs and understanding the costs.”

It seems as if some vendors are trying to make up for the lost revenue, Lindsey says. Material handling costs are up 257 percent since 2010, a number he calls staggering. “We're seeing our clients get squeezed, so rather than just be a commoditized organization, selling exhibits, we're trying to help them every step of the way,” he says.

Lindsey recommends examining three areas of insights, especially in light of today's costs:

• “First, look at what shows you attend and why. Ten years ago, everyone had a trade show manager and a marketing manager,” he says. “Now, overworked marketing managers have that responsibility by themselves. We sit down and go through why they attend, what is our expected result, and do we really need to attend shows as an exhibitor or do we just go?”

• Second, clients should spend time considering how to attract and engage clients at the show. Ideas include asking an expert to provide clients better insights into new products, technology or industry forecasts.

• “Third, how do we understand who the qualified prospects are, and how do we turn them into clients?”

One Exhibitpro client, JPMorgan Chase, recently featured Mike Caplan of LinkedIn Marketing Solutions in its booth. He helped attendees from the investment field upgrade their corporate and personal profiles right at the display space, adding an online value to the face-to-face contact time that only meetings and conferences can offer, Lindsey says.

Exhibitpro practices what it preaches, and Caplan was also the featured speaker—on “Powering High Touch With High Tech”—at the company's July 12 open house. Despite going for the high-tech caché, Lindsey feels trade shows will survive technology disruptions.

“By 2012, it became an arm's race for technology: bigger screens, cool looks ... But there wasn't (much) good content with it,” Lindsey says. “We lost our face-to-face marketing skills to engage people at events, user conferences and trade shows.

“Trade shows are the final frontier in face-to-face marketing, still the best way of getting in front of people. Compare the trade show to trying to set up meetings with your 50 best customers and prospects and flying around the world.”