Young versus old. It's a tale as old as time. Ever since there have been parents and children, teachers and students, bosses and new hires, there has been a divide of authority. So, in this era when boomers and millennials coexist in a world so polarized by lifestyle choice and growing technology, we have to wonder: is age really just a number anymore?
It’s a question that continually surfaces in the general workforce, but especially in the meetings and events sphere. With more and more industry employees delaying retirement, and just as many young counterparts graduating from college, hungry for their first gigs, these vastly different generations have the chance to convene like never before in the office, at conferences and in corporate and social functions. So, can they work and play in harmony? Even better, can the two groups learn from each other?
Illinois Meetings + Events decided to try an experiment to find out. We interviewed two sets of co-workers from the same event planning company (one veteran, one novice) and asked them about how they collaborate as a team and how they go about planning events for attendees of different age ranges in order to keep everyone engaged. What we discovered was an interesting glance into boomers and millennials’ minds and habits—just look at how they answered identical surveys on the following pages for proof. But while age can still be a factor, ageism is not. Young or old, it appears there’s room for everyone in our industry.
It’s All About Respect
It’s a lesson Sheila McLaughlin quickly learned when, at 22 years old and fresh out of college, she immediately fell into the role of banquet manager in one of her earliest jobs. That meant overseeing a 55-plus employee team of all ages. “It was a little weird managing people older than me, some even my parents’ age,” the current account manager at The Meetinghouse Companies, Inc. in Elmhurst says. “But they knew I respected them and that their job was their livelihood, and we were able to work together to accomplish what we were hired to do. In the end, I had a lot of mentors who gave me the room to grow.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by another industry rookie, Emma Newman, a sales and production assistant at Total Event Resources in Schaumburg who just celebrated her first year with the company. The public relations major from Illinois State University first met Total Event Resources Founder (and future boss) Kathy Miller when she scheduled Miller to give a keynote speech at the school’s noted Communication Week last year. “I talked to her after the event and pressed her to take me on as a intern,” Newman says. Even though Miller already had an intern lined up, she took a chance on Newman, who went on to be a full-time employee. “Even though I’m the youngest full-time employee in the office, I’m constantly learning something new from everyone I work with.”
The Education Gap
Education is probably the biggest difference between ages, admits Miller, who says her office has a 50/50 split of younger and older employees ranging in age from 20 to 60. “Our industry has been so organically grown over the years,” she says. “It wasn’t even on the map in terms of education when I started, and now so many youth are coming out of schools with programs in event and hotel management and marketing and communications, so there’s a number of ways to enter the industry now that didn’t exist before.” According to Miller, this could be a good or bad thing considering how much competition has grown for jobs in this market.
When Miller started in the industry 37 years ago, she says, “I didn’t have a college degree, I went to a business secretarial school and then worked as a bank secretary.” That was until she heard her friend talking about a great job she had with Hyatt Convention Services, and Miller gave it a shot, too. “I worked my way up. I would night owl and tell the managers, ‘You don’t have to pay me anything to do stuff after work, just train me on the front office.’” It’s a trait that has stuck with her throughout the 20 years she’s helmed Total Event Resources.
“There’s definitely still a need for the young, emerging professional to come into the business, but [jobs] might not be as readily available or progress as quickly,” admits Miller. “But then again, maybe I was fast tracked out of need and necessity.”
Don’t be mistaken, the drive is there for younger employees, says McLaughlin (who also works in an office with a 50/50 split of younger and older employees), but many get unnecessarily plagued with doubts that they are flighty or too transient.
“One reason I jumped around a lot is because in my particular class year, we entered the employment market right before the economic downfall, so I hit the ground running in any situation I could find,” she says. “I experienced two layoffs in just as many years, and that’s more than I know anyone before me had to deal with, so it challenged me.”
Communication is Key
Margarita Heinzel, a veteran and current vice president of special events at The Meetinghouse Companies, Inc., says it’s made very clear from day one that there is no room for flakiness from anyone on staff. “I establish parameters right away that being late or apathetic is not acceptable. There’s too much responsibility put on us to have that happen.” By verbalizing things clearly, there have been minimal problems in those regards, even though Heinzel says communication has been a work in progress with her younger cohorts. “I’ve had to personally understand the way the younger generation likes to communicate and adapt to have a better connection,” Heinzel says.
One of these communication methods is through technology. “I think that’s one of the assets I bring to my job,” Newman says of her tech savvy. In the fall of 2013 she introduced and trained her coworkers on a new cloud-based presentation program called Prezi, which has had significant results. “We’ve used the tool to pitch to new clients and have actually won business from it,” she says, noting that different audiences need different formats. “For older clients, they like Word and PDF-based presentations, but if we are trying to attract young companies, we need to focus more on enhanced technology and mobile apps, which is where their attention is at today.”
It’s this type of idea springboarding between younger and older coworkers that can make magic happen, McLaughlin says. “I’ve learned a lot from my established co-workers and respect their professional views completely, but at the same time I try to challenge their thought process and put my own spin on things. If it’s more outside the box, they need to be open-minded and trust me even if they haven’t come across my methods before,” she says. “Sometimes it really gets their wheels turning, which makes it really interesting when we brainstorm together.”
Heinzel can vouch for that, too. “The boomers around me appreciate the younger input because millennials bring a new look and feel to events, which can only help us.”
Miller could not agree more. “The younger generation brings forward an energy that you want to be contagious; they’re wide-eyed and excited and make us so, too,” she says. “As my generation grows older, we need the youth to take over, and our industry needs their knowledge of technology and their innovation.” Miller also says having younger people on her team helps immensely when she has younger clients. “They feel they can relate better and trust their vision more if they’re in the same age group.”
When the Two Meet
The same facets dogging the workplace come into play with planning actual meetings and events, too. From conferences to weddings, younger and older crowds are constantly commingling and the same sort of strategies that are considered for offices have to be thought of for the shared meeting space.
“A considerable amount of events we do are in the corporate and association world, so they do have a wide age range. What I’ve found is that everyone, regardless of age, wants something instant in that environment,” Heinzel says. Boomers, she says, normally want to be entertained or experience some kind of activity while also relaxing and not thinking too much about it. On the other hand, millennials are always looking for the entertainment and the benefit. “If you have a wine tasting, they’ll want to learn about the wine and not just taste it,” Heinzel says. “If we set up a lounge, younger attendees don’t only want a cocktail, but also want networking opportunities and less noise levels to be able to talk. So we have to approach it by appeasing both groups of needs and wants.” Miller has found the same experience with one of her clients, a truck manufacturer that hosts annual trade shows and that, each year, has younger attendees in the mix. “You have to provide the experience for both audiences, and it has to be custom fit,” Miller says. “If you have entertainment it might be mixing an orchestra and a DJ for later in the night when the younger audience will still be present. Food and ambiance should also be a good mix of formal and casual for those who want to eat and party and those who want a quieter environment suited to social media activities.”
A lot of it does come back to technology, says Newman: “Especially mobile apps and the different components behind them. Younger generations may want more features
and more interactivity, while older guests want a simple tool.”
Her co-worker, Miller, finds that phenomenon in a parts dealers’ meeting that Total Event Resources has organized for a number of years. “Some older-geared groups still want a paper agenda,” Miller says. “They don’t want to fumble with an iPad on the trade show floor. In fact many don’t have them.”
However, a party they threw for a younger group of beauty insiders, ages 20-40, was the complete opposite. “Everyone had iPads and iPhones and wanted to take pictures and immediately put it on Facebook and Twitter,” Miller says.
Heinzel has seen this trend at her events, too. “One thing I have noticed from the younger generation is that when they network at events, it’s not just the people in the room, but also their whole social media networks,” says Heinzel. To combat older attendees from feeling left out, Heinzel says, “We offer assistance and support them, but don’t expose their lack of knowledge, and that makes them want to participate.”
For McLaughlin, the biggest age divide comes into play when she has wedding clients. “Let’s just say brides and grooms and their parents have very different ideas,” she says. “The engaged couple is trying to make their stance known, but the parents think they have the authority, especially if they are footing the bill, so you have to figure out a way to make both parties happy.” Just like McLaughlin has learned in her own office situations, she applies the same sense of collaboration and team work to her clients, affirming, “There’s always a way to work together.”