It’s not easy being a meeting planner these days. Along with the details involved in booking rooms, selecting a menu, and sure the video equipment works on cue, you face the larger of ensuring that attendees are (and remain) engaged, and productive. The bottom line: You’ve got to wow them. Hilton’s popular Meet with Purpose program grew out of this insight and is now in almost 300 hotels. Based on three core principles—mindful meeting, mindful eating, and mindful being—it gives planners a creative and flexible offering designed to resonate with attendees on an individual, even emotional level. The goal is making attendees feel something, through a combination of healthy food, energizing exercises, social impact activities, and puppies. Yes, actual puppies. But more on that later.
To understand how the program works, we spoke to Frank Passanante, Hilton senior vice president of group sales and industry relations, and to its vice president of culinary Americas, Marc Ehrler (aka Chef Marc), who also happens to be a French master chef.
FastCo.Works: How did you know there was a need for Meet with Purpose?
Frank Passanante: Our customers—the meeting planners—were expressing an incredible thirst for more customized and creative offerings. They’re feeling challenged to plan not just meetings, but memorable and surprising experiences. Then we looked at the research. We learned that four out of 10 people get drowsy or doze off during meetings, and three out of four report feeling lethargic and less productive after heavy lunches. More than half are not satisfied with their ability to stick with healthy eating habits. So the events are taking a personal toll.
Finally, we looked at general trends, such as the ever-growing number of people committed to health and wellness, and the renewed focus on sustainability and social responsibility at the corporate level.
FCW: How did this translate into specific elements? How do you prevent people from feeling groggy after lunch?
Purpose menus offer a number of healthy and locally sourced meal options. One of my favorites is the “Cut and Create” salad bar—you snip your own lettuce off of living plants.
But it’s not just about food. The overall goal is to keep people invigorated, physically and mentally. So planners can also choose instructor-led group fitness activities like stretching and meditation. An event could also include a volunteer opportunity, like packing up meals for the homeless or putting together backpacks for children who need school supplies.
FCW: What do you say to a meeting planner who thinks, “Our meeting agenda is so full—I’m not sure we have time for exercising or volunteering.”
Passanante: Well, I’ll answer from my own experience. Earlier in the year, we had a meeting with a dozen of our high level customers. And we chose to do one of our Meet with Purpose events, “Yoga and Yogurt.” So you had myself and others doing yoga in the morning poolside with our top customers. And, you know, it was a healthy way to start the day. But even more than that—and just as important for business—it was also an unbelievable bonding experience. Some of these customers, when I see them, we still kid about, “If we can do yoga together, we can accomplish anything together.” Experiences like that are what the program is all about. We call them “wow” moments.
FCW: What’s another experience designed to wow?
Passanante: We created a mid-afternoon break called “Puppies and Ice Cream.” A local animal shelter brings in a group of puppies or service dogs for attendees to pet and watch. And we serve ice cream. I’ll admit I was bit skeptical at first. For a business meeting, it seemed a little, well, fluffy.
Passanante: Yeah. But there’s all this research saying that dogs relax people and make them feel happy. I’ve seen it firsthand and it’s always the same: People are completely surprised and delighted. Instead of running out and answering emails, they’re interacting with each other and petting the dogs and smiling. They’re getting their energy back, and they bring that energy back into the room, refocused and ready to work.
FCW: Some of them probably want to bring the puppies into the room too.
Passanante: [Laughing] We have to draw the line somewhere. But we did have an adoption. One man liked a dog so much that he flew the dog home with him when the conference was over.
FCW: Food is also an important element of the program. Chef Marc, what does mindful eating mean to you?
Marc Ehrler: Growing up in France, I learned that food is emotion: You can touch people with food, and move them. Ice cream, for example, is emotional, and it’s fun—you can get creative with toppings. Or the live salad bar, where guests cut the lettuce to make their own salad. It’s a way of making a meal into an experience.
FCW: You’re also creating culinary experiences tailored to the area. What’s a creative way to incorporate local foods?
Ehrler: If you go into Texas or Southern California, we feature a taco bar where the tortillas are made fresh, in front of you. So we have someone connected to that food, who really knows how to make it, which takes the meal to a totally different dimension.
FCW: The salad and taco bars definitely sound distinctive. What do they contribute to the overall experience of the day?
Ehrler: We want our guests to see, touch, feel, and experience what we’re preparing; we want them to know that it’s “real.” It’s usually a profound experience, honestly, because you’re doing something unique and a little unexpected, and that’s part of what Meet with Purpose is about.
This article was created in collaboration with Hilton