Y Are They Here*

In June 1967, the groundbreaking Monterey International Pop Music Festival literally destroyed traditional notions of major event programming when The Who, after playing “My Generation,” demolished their equipment, followed by Jimi Hendrix, who torched his guitar before smashing it to pieces.

In the decades since, California has disrupted another arena innovation. From San Diego’s flourishing start-up scene to Silicon Valley, home to game-changers like Apple, Facebook and Google and seat of global venture capitalism, the state continues to deconstruct and reinvent the corporate landscape. Employed throughout this entrepreneurial ecosystem are Gen Yers – the 20 to 35-year-olds who are also altering the agenda for meetings and events.

Joseph Adams, 26, is the archetypal Gen Y go-getter. Originally from Ohio, the self-described Bay Area “marketing hacker” (his adaptation of “growth hacker”; a person skilled at using technology and analytics to test the market-worthiness of new ideas and products) reveals how the Gen Y ecosystem works.

“We are a meritocracy of highly social, mobile, networked multitaskers, passionately engaged in creating and evolving our environment,” says Adams, presently “hacking” alternative asset strategies for an investment firm while also consulting on multiple fronts.  “Our mode is challenging the status quo to achieve different or enhanced outcomes. That’s how we live, work and play-and want to experience meetings and events.”

In the Gen Y world, hotel ballrooms, sit-down dinners and other traditional solutions, including paying for Wi-Fi, are out.  “Box us in and we disengage, typically then alerting others about the experience on social media,” Adams says. “Our more natural state is mobility, with multiple environments and experiences.”

He cites South by Southwest (SXSW) and Salesforce.com’s events as prime examples. “Bottom line: The event must surprise and delight,” Adams says.  Along with some insider tips, Adams identifies The Village, a new 17,000-square-foot space in San Francisco’s tech-heavy Mid-Market Corridor (Twitter is here, among others) with a brewpub, dance floor and its own “experience design center” and Dinner Lab, a national concept new to the city where top chefs cook gourmet meals for groups in unconventional spaces, as on-target choices.

In the 1976 sci-ti classic Logan’s Run, citizens reaching the age of 30 were ceremonially vaporized.  Is that fate at hand for traditional meetings?  In California especially, Gen Yers are disrupting the scene, but for Gen Xers and boomers, it’s more about just adapting to changing times.

Gordon Thompson is president of Cappa & Graham Inc., a boutique San Francisco DMC specializing in meeting, conference and event services throughout the Bay Area since 1979.  While continuing to expertly deliver the “well-conceived, well-structured” experiences preferred by traditional groups, Thompson is keenly attuned to the Gen Y pulse.

“For a generation that likes to run with ideas, collaboration, creativity and fun are the operative words,” Thompson says. “Music, technology, specialty venues and unique environments are key elements, along with a casual, free-flowing atmosphere and interactive stations like food trucks and photo booths. This is a sophisticated audience with discerning tastes-so ‘special’ and ‘elevated’ are also key criteria.”

Reflecting on recent successes, including a private event on Alcatraz, a Gold Rush party at the Fairmont Hotel and a corporate appreciation event in Justin Herman Plaza across from the Ferry Building on the Embarcadero, Thompson offers his thoughts on planning for the younger generation.  “Be the shepherd, the curator, the mentor;,” he says. “It’s the way to collaborate on the fun and ideas.”

Planners savvy to Gen Y tastes and sensibilities are enjoying the greater creative freedom.  Constance Adamopoulos, founder of San Francisco-based Organized Chaos Events, has created edgy happenings for local entrepreneurs, including underground tours of Chinatown opium dens, art tours at Gap Inc’s headquarters, Dinners in the Dark at the Braille Institute and visits to Kink.com at the Armory, where attendees manned the phones with-gasp!-former online sex operators.

“There is no greater disaster than a dull party,” “Madamopoulos” says. Gen Yers can also energize a meetings destination. Reinvented after a $1.6 billion renaissance, surprising Riverside, roughly an hour east of Los Angeles, has experienced an 8.3 percent growth in residents aged 20 to 29 over the past three years and is No.2 in the U.S. on Forbes’ 2014 “Millennial Boomtown” list. This influx has produced an energetic entrepreneurial and networking culture, which combined with Riverside’s hip new vibe and revitalized product set, has primed the city to attract a whole new generation of meetings and conventions.

Based in the Bay Area, Candice Boaz is the Burlingame-based business development manager of global conferences and events for FROSCH, a conference and event management company.  In her view, Gen Y trends merit understanding and acceptance.

“Older folks may not ‘get’ the younger generation, but given their often huge successes, I think it is important to learn what makes them tick,” says Boaz, who herself understands the key principles of organizing Gen Y events. “The big themes seem to be freedom, variety and choice, so the approach is to create programs that tap into each attendee’s individual desires, while being responsive to changes.  That can be difficult, but with social media and instant feedback, adjustments can quickly be made to keep attendees engaged-and coming back.”

While Gen Yers have attracted labels like “bratty” and “narcissistic,” Boaz has a different perspective.  “What older generations might consider selfish may actually be the key to life,” she says. ”The younger generations seem to have figured out work-play balance, and how to get the most out of every day!

Gen Y Checklist:

Tips for planners and venues catering to the “in” crowd:

* Keep your Web and social media presence fresh and engaging-online is where Gen Yers look first and out of date can say “out of touch.”

* Don’t know?  Ask.  Gen Yers are happy to talk and share.  Just don’t assume, fake it or try too hard to fit in-they are not fooled.

* Know what Gen Yers like: unconventional, unstructured, unusual, and unique.

*Article by Jeff Heilman in Meetings Today, Sept 2014

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