How a Chicago Planner Event Mastered the Roundtable Discussion

February 26, 2020

When I first learned about Chicago Planner Master Class, I was intrigued. Put on by Ateema Media & Marketing, this series of events designed specifically for professional event planners and event marketers isn’t a typical talking-head education session or a loose networking opportunity. Instead, events (which take place several times a year) are structured as a brief introduction from a partner sponsor followed by 10 roundtable discussions on topics pre-selected by attendees.

I attended my first one last week and not only did I learn a lot, I was also impressed with the layout and flow of the event. Here are a few tips for planning your own event roundtables, based on Ateema’s success with this series.

Choose the right venue

The Master Class I attended took place at SX Sky Bar, in the recently overhauled Hotel Essex in Chicago’s South Loop. With a wide range of oversized, colorful furniture and unique nooks throughout the space, this new venue — also filled with natural light and overlooking Grant Park — lends itself perfectly to intimate group discussions. It was fun to flow through the space and pick a new perch, from a cozy booth to an Alice in Wonderland-esque high-backed chair to a low stool. In a typical ballroom setting with standard round tables, the structure of this event would not have been nearly as engaging.

SX Sky Bar

Carefully explain the format to attendees ahead of time — several times

Ateema did a great job sending out informative email communications several days in advance of the event. This pre-event information, combined with an agenda handed out on-site (see below), ensured all participants knew exactly how the event would flow.

Pick relevant discussion topics

The discussion topics at the event were preselected in advance based on feedback from attendees, which was an excellent way to encourage participation and build interest. It’s important to pick relevant and timely topics that pique attendees’ interest (for example, we could have easily added a topic around health at events, based on the current coronavirus outbreak). 

Here’s what we talked about in the class:

  • How to draft a site plan while in a unique venue
  • Questions to consider when partnering with a DMC
  • Benefits of gamification at your events
  • How to find local planner resources
  • Digital marketing strategies for your next big event
  • Using events as an outlet for CSR
  • What to look for when inspecting a potential event site
  • Choosing spatial assignments to best fit your event
  • How to incorporate new technology into your event design

Make agendas that are easy to follow

Building schedules in advance and assigning each person an order of tables would have been complicated and time-consuming for event staff. Instead, a staffer simply had a stack of schedules and handed them out one by one, in no particular order, during registration. This was an easy way to ensure everyone had a unique schedule and groups would be randomized, so that you’d interact with different groups at each session.

Stick to the scheduled times

While the event intro kicked off about 10 minutes late, the rest of the morning went as planned: From 9AM to 12PM, attendees visited all 10 roundtable discussions, following the format of 1 minute for brief introductions, 3 minutes of sponsor pitch and then 10-12 minutes of group discussion. Event organizers raised the volume of the music when it was time to switch areas, an easy way to signal the transition without being intrusive. We had 2 minutes to migrate to the next table, just like musical chairs. Keeping to schedule meant there was no confusion over what was taking place, when. 

Incorporate at least one active station

Two of the 10 stations featured something active. At one roundtable, we talked while making DIY candles from sand wax and fragrance in partnership with Live Art International (a company that sources live entertainment for groups), and another “roundtable” was a quick tour of Hotel Essex. We walked and talked quickly and got our blood flowing, which stimulated learning and knowledge retention from the morning.

Create sponsorship activations

Having a sponsor for each roundtable discussion was a killer way for event organizers to help cover their costs (or maybe even make a profit). For the most part, each sponsor was experienced with the topic at hand (for example, Luxe Productions led the group on new event technologies) and as such, attendees were keen to ask questions and be involved in the discussion.

Want to check out Chicago Master Planner Class for yourself? The next one is set for March 24 at City Winery; learn more here. Ateema also holds events in San Francisco.

How have you incorporated roundtable discussions into your events? What formats have brought you success, or what challenges have you learned from? Share with us in the comments or email me.


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Partner Voices
Less than six months ago, Lisa Messina joined the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA) as the first-ever chief sales officer after leading the sales team at Caesars Entertainment. A 12-year Las Vegas resident, Messina is a graduate of Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration and serves on MPI International’s board of directors. TSNN had a chance to catch up with this dynamic leader and talk to her about her vision for the new role, current shifts in the trade show industry, creating more diversity and equity within the organization, and advice to future female leaders. Lisa Messina, Chief Sales Officer, LVCVA With Las Vegas becoming The Greatest Arena on EarthTM, what are some of the things you’re most excited about in your role? Our team was at The Big Game’s handoff ceremony earlier this month, and I couldn’t help but think, “We’re going to crush it next year!”  These high-profile events and venues not only drive excitement, but also provide unmatched opportunities for event planners. Allegiant Stadium hosts events from 10 to 65,000 people and offers on-field experiences. Formula 1 Grand Prix will take place in Las Vegas in November, after the year-one F1 race, the four-story paddock building will be available for buyouts and will also offer daily ride-along experiences that will be available for groups. And, of course, the MSG Sphere officially announced that it will open in September, ahead of schedule, with a U2 residency. It’s going to be the most technologically advanced venue as far as lighting, sound, feel, and even scent, and it will be available for buyouts and next-level sponsorships inside and outside. There’s no ceiling to what you can do when you’re doing events in Las Vegas.  Allegiant Stadium As the trade show and convention business returns to the pre-pandemic levels, what shifts are you noticing and how do you think they will impact the industry going forward? Our trade show organizers are very focused on driving customer experience. Most of our organizers are reporting stronger exhibitor numbers and increased numbers of new exhibitors, with trade shows proving to be almost or above 2019 levels. Now our organizers are really doubling down on driving attendance and focusing on the data to provide that individualized, customized experience to help attendees meet their goals and get the best value. Some companies continue to be cautiously optimistic with their organizational spend when it comes to sending attendees, but I think it will continue to improve. As the U.S. Travel Association makes more progress on the U.S. visa situation, we also expect a growing influx of international attendees. What are some innovative ways the LVCVA helps trade show and convention organizers deliver the most value for their events? We focus on customer experience in the same way that trade show organizers are thinking about it. We got rave reviews with the West Hall Expansion of the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC), so over the next two years, we will be renovating the North and the Central halls, which will include not just the same look and feel, but also the digital experiences that can be leveraged for branding and sponsorship opportunities.  Vegas Loop, the underground transportation system designed by The Boring Company, is also a way we have enhanced the customer experience. Vegas Loop at the LVCC has transported more than 900,000 convention attendees across the campus since its 2021 launch. Last summer, Resorts World and The Boring Company opened the first resort stop at the Resorts World Las Vegas , with plans to expand throughout the resort corridor, including downtown Las Vegas, Allegiant Stadium and Harry Reid International Airport. The LVCVA also purchased the Las Vegas Monorail in 2020, the 3.9-mile-long elevated transportation system that connects eight resorts directly to the convention center campus. This is the only rail system in the world that integrates fares directly into show badges and registration. For trade show organizers, these transportation options mean saving time, money and effort when it comes to moving groups from the hotels to LVCC and around the city. Also, the more we can focus on building the infrastructure around the convention center, the more it supports the customer experience and ultimately supports our trade show organizers. Scheduled to debut in Q4, Fontainebleau Las Vegas will offer 3,700 hotel rooms and 550,000 square feet of meeting and convention space next to LVCC.  What are some of the plans for advancing DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) within your organization? We’re currently partnering with instead of working with a leading consulting firm, to lay the foundation and create a solid DEI plan and be the leader when it comes to DEI initiatives. The heart of that journey with the consulting firm is also talking to our customers about their strategic approaches to DEI and driving innovation in this space.  What are your favorite ways to recharge? My husband and I have an RV and we’re outdoorsy people. So, while we have over 150,000 world-class hotel rooms and renowned restaurants right outside our doorstep, one of my favorite things to do is get out to Red Rock Canyon, the Valley of Fire, and Lake Mead. Five of the top national parks are within a three-hour drive from Las Vegas, so there’s a lot you can do. We love balancing the energy of Las Vegas with nature, and we’re noticing that a lot of attendees add activities off the Strip when they come here.  Valley of Fire What advice would you give to women following leadership paths in destination marketing? I think it’s about being laser-focused on what you want to accomplish; building a team around you that lifts you and helps you achieve your goals; and being humble and realizing that you do it as a group. No one gets this done alone. Thankfully, there are a lot of women in leadership in this organization, in our customers’ organizations, and in this city that we can be really proud of. We’re a formidable force that is making things happen.   This interview has been edited and condensed. This article is exclusively sponsored by the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority. For more information, visit HERE.