The more than 4,200 people who attended PCMA’s 2024 Convening Leaders in San Diego this week and another 700 who registered to stream the education sessions were encouraged to “Think Bigger.” The directive was meant to be an inspiration for attendees and a mandate to lead by example for PCMA, according to Sherrif Karamat, president and CEO of Professional Convention Management Association.
That bold approach included scheduling not one, but both Clintons. President Bill Clinton and 67th Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton took the stage on Tuesday morning to share their perspectives on everything from immigration, current global conflicts and economic trends to the weaponization of loneliness and what it is like to be a woman in the public eye today.
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President Clinton ventured that meetings could be the antidote for bad decisions being made by divided, angry people. “When you come together and acknowledge their humanity, you can learn something,” he said. “The best politics is empowerment, not victim politics.”
Secretary Clinton observed that while some progress has been made to welcome women into the workplace, more work needs to be done. “Women have to be perfect and men just have to be, well, men.”
Karamat saw the big-name draw of the Clintons as a factor in the record attendance along with the popular sunny location, easy accessibility and desire to return to select gatherings for a big population of meeting professionals. Total registration was 66% higher than the 3,300 who signed up to attend PCMA Convening Leaders in Columbus, Ohio, last year where Viola Davis was scheduled to speak (but dropped out days before to attend an awards show).
Leonard Hoops, president and CEO of Visit Indy and incoming PCMA Chair, agreed. “Names like that move the needle when people are deciding whether to attend. We saw a surge after the announcement,” he said. “That made a difference.”
Beyond the gain in attendance, Karamat saw giving a platform to informed perspectives to start discussions as a valuable service. “I believe in listening to a variety of opinions,” Karamat said. In the past, PCMA has hosted Condoleezza Rice, the first female African American secretary of state and the first woman to serve as national security advisor, now director of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. The group has also shared thoughts from conservative columnist David Brooks.
This year, Karamat considered the current state of global uncertainty geopolitically, economically and socially. “These are two people I felt could touch on leadership in general. And I’m a firm believer that if we always listen to people that we agree with, we would have an echo chamber, and never grow. But if people have different points of view than our own, it will enlighten our thinking. It just made sense this audience would find their perspective interesting,” he said.
Another Kind of Intelligence
The overarching topic, however, was the impact of Generative AI on events. Secretary Clinton called the emerging technology a social, political and economic challenge. “We need more rigorous debate, regulations and guardrails so we can maximize the upside,” she said.
Author and strategic innovator Shawn Kanungo suggested that even with all of the hype, the buzz around Generative AI may actually be underrated because of the fundamental shift it will trigger. He suggested that one way to add value in the future will be to provide the human touch missing from an automated world. “In a world where friction has been removed—the soul has been sucked out—we need to be in the business of soul,” he said.
Author and former Google executive Mo Gawdat explained, “Your advantage will be your humanity—the ability to feel, respect, admire each other. The soft skills will be the ultimate skills.”
AI consultant Nina Schick predicted a mixed autonomy human and computer world working together in a multimodal model. She had her AI avatar speak for her in the end. “Be critical without being cynical,” she advised.
Looking back on the last morning, Karamat felt that some of the experiments worked and some left room for improvement. “We think that we always need an expert to come in and lecture us but the collective learning from each other is also very critical in the room and we need to do more in that area,” he said.
The Middle of the Action
By design, The District activations in San Diego Convention Center’s sun-bathed atrium of an Expo Hall felt more like an adult playground than a trade show floor. Karamat explained that the goal was to integrate partners into the meeting so instead of a booth with salespeople talking about rates and dates, Visit Seattle built a pickleball court and staged grudge matches to highlight that the game was invented in the Pacific Northwest. Orlando brought the citrus vibe with swing slices. Visit California took professional photos and Caesars Entertainment offered digital aura reading in their lounge. “People want to get involved. That’s how you build relationships,” Karamat said of the format.
Behind the Scenes
The Sodexo Live! team at San Diego Convention Center worked out of two flexible kitchens to sustainably feed 4,000 people at buffets set up in The District. Chef Sufi Karaien explained that the two full-service kitchens source largely locally in reusable containers and divert waste for food donations, animal feed and recycling.
Director of Sales Clifford “Rip” Rippetoe pointed out that the 26 million-square-foot building has experience delivering large quantities of food. During one year of the pandemic, it served 1 million meals as a shelter for adults experiencing homelessness and later for unaccompanied children seeking asylum in the United States.
Now the audience is conference attendees, including annual visits from the wildly popular original Comic-Con and more than 30,000 for the American Society of Hematology Annual Meeting and Exposition. The convenient location between Rady Shell at Jacobs Park (where Boys II Men played on the final night of PCMACL) on San Diego Bay, Marriott Marquis San Diego Marina, Hilton San Diego Bayfront Hotel ad the Gaslamp Quarter helps all types of organizers draw record crowds.
Time for a Moon Shot
Hoops has a 2030 plan that includes exponential growth for PCMA from the current 8,000 members now with an engaged community of 30,000 people to 25,000 paid members and 300,000 engaged. “It’s a huge leap. Obviously, you don’t get there overnight,” he said.
“The trick is to not lose North American members while adding value that will incrementally build on what exists there,” he said. The biggest growth opportunities in his mind are international. “Asia-Pacific and Latin America, we’re just scratching the surface is that surface and all those markets,” he said.
PCMA has been growing through acquisitions of Corporate Event Marketing Association and Event Leadership Institute and partnerships with groups such as Destinations International. PCMA has become a house of brands,” he said.
Next, he plans to zero in on the different personas in terms of gender, years of experience, geographic region, type of job and grow those brands.
“We want to reenergize the senior event strategist and attract next-generation planners,” Hoops explained. That may require a more robust university connection to build a pipeline.
The launch of Project SPARK AI platform at IMEX could help meeting professionals move ahead with a tool that will improve quickly because it was built specifically for meeting professionals and will be trained by fellow event professionals.
In 2025, PCMA is bringing Convening Leaders to Houston and plans to draw on the intellectual and social capital there with participation from women leading aerospace advances, and some surprise guests.