PHILADELPHIA – One night while attending a Million Dollar Round Table (MDRT) meeting, Steve Plewes came down to the lobby of his hotel after the day’s sessions with no one to join for dinner.
Although he said he has no problem striking up conversations with strangers, standing there alone that evening gave him insight to a problem that he had been hearing about—a problem that MDRT is addressing this year with MDRT Dinner Connect.
The problem is the loneliness that some members say they feel at MDRT’s annual meeting. They may attend the formal programs but never connect with anyone for dinner and conversation, explained Plewes, a 26-year MDRT member who began looking into the problem last year.
When he first heard of the loneliness, he was puzzled. “How could people be lonely when there are maybe 8,000 people from 45 countries at MDRT annual meetings?” he asked himself. Then, he said, “It happened to me.”
His own evening of isolation helped him see the problem—and develop a solution. The solution is MDRT Dinner Connect, an informal means for members to meet and go out to dinner with other members at MDRT meetings. (Interested MDRT members can go to well-marked locations in each convention hotel and wait for others to join. Together the groups decide where to go. For suggestions, they can consult MDRT’s list of popular Philadelphia restaurants.)
This is one of seven connection-oriented sessions that the association is hosting here at MDRT 2013. Other “Outside the Box” sessions, as they are called, include activities that industry veterans might not expect to see at an industry meeting.
These include not only Dinner Connect, but also a Zumba dancing class, an early morning run in downtown Philadelphia, relaxation breaks between focus sessions, a self-guided walking tour, a public speaking class and a session on using the iPad tablet for business purposes. Some sessions are ticketed, others are not.
The Outside the Box sessions are in addition to the platform addresses, focus sessions and exhibit area events, common to all MDRT annual meetings. They are also in addition to the first-timers session, the women’s networking event, the annual reception and various other meet-and-greet opportunities that MDRT has hosted in previous years.
Since MDRT already offers a variety of educational programs and networking events, why add the extra Outside the Box programming? The answer has to do with the changing demographics at MDRT.
The culture has been evolving, pointed out Plewes, who is president of Advisors Financial Group, Bethesda, Md., and captain of the Outside the Box sessions at MDRT 2013.
“We have more members who use the Internet. We have more younger members, especially from Asia and other international areas. We have a rising female population. We have a graying population with waistlines that are, well, appropriate for their age. And we have people attending this year who have never before been to Philadelphia, or even to America.”
In reflecting on the changes, MDRT leaders decided that that they want to create many opportunities for its diverse constituencies to meet, interact and share. That includes offering something that may be of interest people attending solo (Dinner Connect), health enthusiasts (Zumba dancing and the “Run to Rocky”), people in need of a refresher (relaxation breaks), tourists (the walking tour), technology buffs (the iPad session) and so on.
Some members tend to slip out of the meetings, particularly in the afternoons, or not attend sessions, Plewes pointed out.
They might do this because they feel tired or because they want to get out, move around or see the city. Whatever the reason, the MDRT leadership decided to provide opportunities for members to have some of those alterative experiences via the meeting.
“We didn’t want to offer a long bus trip that would take them far away. Instead, we wanted to offer a diversion from the classroom that is still part of the meeting culture. We want them to feel that they really went to the meeting, and that they really went to Philadelphia, and that they really connected.”
Plewes said he believes these additional activities can deepen the experience that members take away from the annual meeting, and deepen the experience in a powerful way. That has to do with the content of these additional sessions.
Gone are the days when MDRT members can get to know one another by chatting about, say, Vietnam War heroes, God-and-country, and other topics familiar to American members, he explained. “We now have other constituencies at MDRT, too, so we need to look for other ways to make the conversations valuable” for all.
MDRT is thinking that dining, exercise, touring and similar activities are common links that may make for shared experiences that open up relationships among the newer members.
Without such opportunities, “it’s too easy for the boys and girls to sit by themselves,” Plewes said. “We need that interaction in order to grow professionally.”
By attending Outside the Box events, he said, “People will meet for the first time. They will have fun, laugh a bit and maybe go out for a meal. Then the next day, they might see each other again, perhaps sit together, invite some other friends to join and, in the course of connecting, talk about their businesses, their country or a shared learning experience.
“Then the shared learning comes to life. One will say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that!’ Or ‘did you ever talk to so-and-so about this?’
“Then you get more information and you might get that one idea that changes things for you. It might set off a chain reaction, maybe even for life.”
Peer-to-peer sharing is not new to MDRT. In fact, longtime members view the relationships they have built up through MDRT to be a major benefit of membership. What is new is the growth of a diverse membership that could use some help in making connections with other members. The Outside the Box events represent MDRT’s attempt to open up opportunities in that area.
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