Jim Spellos is a futurist, which works out well because speaking about the future and its convergence with technology, specifically in the meetings sector, is the basis of his career. Jim started out in the meetings industry, spending twenty years as a meeting planner and running an audiovisual company. He found he loved talking about technology—making it more approachable and getting people more comfortable with it so he made a pivot, founding MeetingU, his educational and speaking services business. Today, he helps organizations do just that. He also supports Rock and Wrap It Up, a food-recovery organization.
We recently spoke with Jim about his predictions for the future of meetings in a post-pandemic world, as well as the wonderful work of Rock and Wrap It Up, and how meeting planners can get involved with its mission. Below are excerpts from our conversation.
Meeting Moments: Hi Jim, thanks so much for sitting down with us. We’re excited to share your story, and for our readers to get to know you. For those that don’t yet know about Rock and Wrap It Up, could you give some background on the organization?
Jim Spellos: Sure. Rock and Wrap It Up is an organization that provides a turnkey solution for meeting organizers and planners to donate excess food to those in need. It was founded over twenty years ago by a man named Syd Mandelbaum and his wife, Diane. They brought me on as a digital media director and I’m also on the board of directors.
You’d be amazed at the amount of food waste that is generated by the meetings and events industry. Understandably, we never want to run into a situation where food runs out during an event, so typically, there’s an excess of about 3-5% of food that is prepared ‘just in case,’ and this is oftentimes the food that gets thrown out at the end of an event. This is what we focus on: the food that is prepared, but not served, that can go toward feeding people who need it, that same day.
MM: Sounds like a win-win situation for everyone.
JS: You’d think so, but we run into a lot of resistance when approaching organizations about donating the unused food. There are typically three reasons we hear for why we can’t recover unused food after a meeting. The first is that they’re not allowed for legal reasons. Pardon my language, but that’s just baloney. In the 1990s Congress passed the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, which essentially protects an organization from any legal liability when they donate food in good faith to any organization that needs it. Second thing we hear is, they don’t have any excess food. Which, as someone who has decades of experience in the meetings industry, I know isn’t true. As I mentioned there’s usually that ‘just in case’ food that is prepared. We also sometimes hear that the excess food is used to feed staff, which we are totally cool with because it means the food isn’t going to waste, but then the reasoning for not wanting to give food away because it could be a liability is moot.
MM: For those that have excess food and want to help, how can they do so?
JS: There are a couple ways. They can reach out to us directly and we can help connect them with an organization in their location that could use the food. We’ve built a lot of great relationships with organizations across the country that we’ve already vetted to make sure that they have the capability, resources and equipment necessary to be able to transport, store and serve the food. They can also find an agency to donate to on our website. They’d just plug in the location of their event and a list of local organizations comes up.
The other thing they can find on our website, which I’m particularly excited about as it marries the intersection of sustainability and technology, is the Whole Earth Calculator. This allows you to calculate the number of meals you can serve, plus the carbon emission and gallons of water saved based on the number of pounds of food you’re donating. So, you can see in a very tangible way, the impact on sustainability through your food donation. If your organization has sustainability goals it’s trying to meet through its events, this is a direct KPI that is measurable.
MM: We know technology is something you’re very passionate about. What advice would you give meeting planners on how to incorporate technology into their meetings?
JS: First, I’d tell them to be open. Don’t be resistant. What I’ve found in teaching over the years is that there’s a fear factor with technology, and it is in part generationally driven, though not entirely. Second, they should listen to their constituents and members, because oftentimes that’s where you’re going to get the ideas about what to implement. Lastly, I would say don’t be afraid of failing with technology, because it will likely fail, especially if it’s new, it’s not going to work perfectly.
MM: Apps and technology in general can be a very costly line item for meeting planners. What are ways meeting planners can save on costs in this area?
JJ: The first thing you have to do is think about the process well before the day of the meeting. A lot of the time overruns occur when you’re doing things at the last minute. I saw this all the time with things like basic a/v. Oftentimes a/v needs weren’t considered until the last minute and you’d end up paying premium prices because you weren’t able to do due diligence in bidding and all the steps you’d normally take when selecting a vendor like catering or ground transportation.
And while I think an app is a critical component of a conference, I know they can be cost prohibitive. Depending on what your needs are, you might be able to create your own at a fraction of the cost using tools like Glide and Bubble, among many others out there.
I would also encourage planners to talk to their peers to see what kinds of solutions and vendors they’ve worked with and ask about any add-on costs they incurred that they’d wished they’d known about in the budgeting process.
MM: What do you think the future of meetings looks like?
JJ: I think physical meetings will become smaller and more regional, especially over the next few years as we enter this late, or post-pandemic stage. And this is where I think virtual meetings have huge potential and value in extending an organization’s reach beyond its local chapter or membership. Through technology, organizations can reach international audiences and members. This re-thinking of what an organization looks like is going to be a part of what moves our industry forward.
Technology itself will also have a huge impact on meetings, of course. Things like artificial intelligence, augmented and virtual reality are going to have an impact on event design and how we can provide more customized content for attendees. I can see a future where attendees can build their own programs, because the content is technologically modular. So, one attendee can select a certain class or training, based on their level of knowledge and build a curriculum that is entirely different from what another attendee might have at an event they are both simultaneously attending. I think this is going to come with the incoming 5G renaissance and revolution that’s about to occur with the increase in technological speed and reduction of latency.
MM: Thanks for sharing your insights with us Jim. We’re excited to see the vision you’ve painted for the future of meetings come to fruition!