Where to meet?
How Covid changed the criteria
A recent report by the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA) identified a ‘significant gap’ between what associations think destination marketing organisations should be focusing on and what the destinations think themselves. Holly Patrick talks to association experts to better understand what destinations need to do to attract their attention...
Tangible legacy building
Legacy building has been a buzz phrase in the meetings industry for some time, essentially meaning, ‘what positive impact is this association and its meeting going to leave?’ and if a destination, convention bureau or venue can’t help to answer that question, it’s going to lose business.
That’s according to The Iceberg founder James Latham. “Take the 2021 ESTRO (European Society for Radiation Oncology) Congress in Madrid, for example,” he says. "The organisers radically changed the RFP (request for proposal) to reflect the mission and purpose of the event. Instead of going out to several cities, inviting them to tender for the event, using the ‘functional element,’ they put a 60 per cent weighting of the RFP towards a legacy project.” And Madrid delivered.
“Madrid won the congress through the Madrid Project, a legacy programme it has in place that is actively replacing all the radio-oncology kit in every hospital in Spain through a public-private investment of more than 700 million euros. Beyond equipment, the project works to turn research into practice, raises awareness of radiotherapy as a profession and communicate to the public the value of early diagnosis and treatment. This legacy will last for as long as that new equipment does, 20 or 30 years.”
Sharpen the intellectual capital narrative
Legacy building will become clearer through ‘strong destination narratives’, says Jane Cunningham, director of European engagement at Destinations International. “A destination needs to have a crystal-clear narrative of why that association should come to that destination,” she says.
“Every destination is going to display their facilities, give you room figures and tell you why they’re excellent, but they should be focusing on why you should bring your congress there and why it would benefit every single delegate.”
Maastricht’s ‘Where Heart Meets Matter’ campaign makes the point. The Netherlands city launched the campaign in late 2021 to attract large-scale medical conventions, deliberately foregrounding its knowledge institutions. Maastricht University’s Brightlands campuses, specialising in future health, materials, food, and data science, serve as intellectual hubs to attract conferences that want to work with the destination’s community.
“Glasgow demonstrates this well too, with their People Make Glasgow campaign,” Cunningham adds. “They have the open innovation centre; they’re all singing from the same hymn sheet
and looking at how they can bring public health association conferences to the city and connect them to the people of Glasgow. I think it’s time to be very clear with what you’re wanting to achieve.”
Sitting in a convention centre for three straight days without a whisper of the outside community to inspire you, might be the dullest experience in the world. A focus on connected communities—the delegation, the conference topic, and the destination – is more engaging and stimulating than a PowerPoint presentation on what exists ‘out there.’
“Take an architectural conference, for example,” Cunningham says. “A delegation wants to know they’re not just meeting in the convention centre. Destinations can work with the association to
integrate tours of award-winning buildings into the itinerary or visit an area in the city where new housing has been set up.”
Sustainable meetings tools
Offering sustainable meeting solutions beyond the convention centre is a bid-winning method destinations are tapping into.
Madrid launched its PLUS tool in 2021, which generates specific reports for meetings in Madrid before they are held. This can be used to reduce the impact of the event from the initial planning stages and help implement Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). “These tools make it easier for event planners to hold sustainable meetings by showing them how they can reduce or offset the emissions the event will produce, before it’s happened,” adds Cunningham.
“These tools can also help connect the association institutions and NGOs, to create partnerships that help advance the destination and the association.”
Don't rely on historical data
“Calculating where international conferences would go next used to be predictable", says Martin Sirk, owner of strategic consultancy Sirk Serendipity. “Every couple of years the association would rotate in a certain pattern. You knew roughly what the numbers were going to be, you knew whether they would have an exhibition. You could gather that information through the Union of International Associations or through ICCA. There were sources of historical data that helped you to predict the future as a destination.
“History is now dead. These old assumptions no longer hold. Predictability based on historical patterns has been upended, and destinations need to ask much more searching questions to find out associations’ new aims, not rely on past patterns and norms.”
Associations have used the pandemic to revaluate their entire strategy around international meetings. “Should they have a single large annual meeting that rotates between different parts of the world? Do they go for a hub-and-spoke type arrangement? Or do they go thematic? Do they organise a myriad number of smaller meetings?” Sirk adds. Starting afresh means destinations must have a more sophisticated approach to their research, their targeting and working out what the association is planning.
Be a risk partner
Risk has become a top priority for associations, and Sirk explains
that people have been shaken into realising the world is much more uncertain than they thought it was. “Destinations that can become good risk partners and can help to, for example, coordinate the risk policies of their stakeholders - the hotels, the venues, suppliers, so that when an association chooses a destination, it can help to mitigate all the risk: that’s going to be a powerful driver.”
Along with being a trusted destination that can practically show how it mitigates risk for the meeting, Sirk adds that destinations should also be striving to be ‘experiment partners.’ “
Associations are revaluating and experimenting, and so if a destination can
express that they are willing to experiment with them and help them with those experiments, it helps put them in the frame.”
Solving big issues
Intellectual capitals and knowledge hubs can be seen as essential drivers for winning association conferences, but Sirk suggests a destination might look to the association to solve a problem it has rather than showcasing the solutions it has already found.
“I call it the barbell strategy. You either go for your top university professors, Nobel Prize winners, or the Max Planck Institute, or you go for the fact that you have a big problem that needs solving. This could be a hospital system, high levels of pollution, or high levels of diabetes among the population.
"The fact that you can articulate a strong need is another good argument for bringing in organisations that want to make a powerful impact.
“In many cases, they don’t want to go where the problem has been solved, they want to go where they can change minds, change government policy, influence inward investment.”
But don’t be in the middle - not having great expertise and not having a particularly big problem is a bad place to be for a destination.
Make yourself known
Destinations and their convention visitor bureaux (CVBs) shouldn’t take it for granted that association meeting organisers know what they do and how they function. Many associations, as Chloe Menhinick, director of communications at the International Currency Association explains, think CVBs just provide tourist information and are unaware of the help and partnerships that could be fostered.
“Before I worked with destinations, when I was only working with associations, I had no concept of the role of convention bureaux in the meetings industry, and that’s not uncommon for associations.
“While associations are revaluating what their events will look like in the future, it’s time for CVBs to step in and help in that process. They need to be forming relationships with associations, asking the questions, and showing that they’re engaged in what the association is wanting to achieve.”
Recuperating losses is a hot topic for both associations and destinations, but contract flexibility, for both parties is more important than making a quick buck, as MCI’s global vice president of engagement, Nikki Walker explains.
“Destinations, CVBs, hotels, venues, and conference centres need flexibility when it comes to contracting. We must partner to find a way of helping all parties have a win-win future, but if the destinations and venues are very rigid, and try to go back to more draconian cancellation clauses, down payments, penalties, or hefty pricing, they are going to alienate the not-for-profit association sector.
“How could an association know today how many delegates will attend their meeting in 2023 or 2024? Just because it was once a 5,000-person meeting, it doesn’t mean it will be in the future. We need variable pricing and flexible contracts – this collaborative approach is a win-win for everyone.”
Don't sell, demonstrate
“I don’t want you to sell me your destination, I want to have a conversation with you about what we can do for each other?” says Tracy Bury, deputy chief executive officer at World Physiotherapy.
Destinations should be asking: “What can we do together that has impact, that sits alongside your purpose and objectives? Where’s the strength that we can bring to that? What can we do better together? What can we do to justify you bringing your community to our destination? What have we got that will act as the draw card?
“It’s not about heads on beds, it’s much more about legacy impact and the whole partnership building. I don’t want to be sold to in those conversations. I want someone who’s going to build a relationship, get to know us and know what we can do together. We look for destinations that are ready to build partnerships around the whole ecosystem of congresses.”
Every industry is suffering staff shortages in the current climate, but CVBs, hotels and venues can’t afford not to pick up the phone to meeting planners, as Bregje Frens, association director at the conference match-making platform Conferli, explains.
“The hardest thing right now is to speak to the venues. There’s obviously a shortage of staff at the venues, but if it has taken three weeks to get the proposals in, how am I going to convince an organiser to hold their meeting there? The organisers I’ve been speaking to say that if they can get their proposal in within the first week, they would be more likely to give that venue their business.”