Stop making it a 'thing' (And other ways we get event legacy wrong)


body of water can be seen through the tunnel

Photo by Erlend Ekseth on Unsplash

Photo by Erlend Ekseth on Unsplash

Has event legacy (associations and host cities working together to ensure meetings leave a lasting benefit to society) hit a brick wall? Or is it just getting started? It's a question causing a great deal of anguish amongst meeting professionals right now. Either way, it’s hard to recall a subject that has caused so much debate - and confusion - amongst its proponents. What’s more, the gap between advocate destinations and sceptical associations is proving difficult to close.

Here’s how those banging the drum for legacy can start to bridge that gap…

Stop telling associations their meetings aren’t good enough.

Because that’s the implication. The way legacy has been communicated implies that meetings no longer pass muster without a legacy component. But if a meeting needs a legacy project to justify its existence, then it shouldn’t exist in the first place. Meetings matter because they allow for the high-level exchange of industry or subject-specific information between people who might otherwise never meet in person. They matter because they help people make valuable and lasting connections. They matter because, in a world where everything is mediated by screen technologies, they bring people together. Have we lost faith in these basic principles or just forgotten them in pursuit of a higher ideal? Legacy is great. But we don’t need legacy to justify meeting.

Stop selling the impossible dream.

We’ve all heard the wonderful story of how ESTRO used its 2021 Madrid congress to spur a private-public partnership in Spain into spending €700m on life-saving radiotherapy machines. But that was a unique set of circumstances; an alignment of the stars that might occur only once in an association’s lifetime. In any event, this kind of ‘society-level’ impact is simply beyond the reach of associations with narrower interests or smaller budgets.

We need inspirational case studies, absolutely, but if legacy is going to get past sceptical volunteer boards, we need realistic examples, too. Stuff that makes sense to smaller, resource-poor associations. Also, we need a reality check: not all associations are in the business of saving lives. Most aren’t. Many have no higher purpose other than to safeguard the commercial interests of their members. And, yup, there’s an association for everyone - fossil fuel producers, private jet owners, gun owners…

Stop making it all about you.

Although cities host conferences and events, legacy is best driven by the association. If host cities have a specific local need, they should approach the association in a spirit of cooperation, emphasising how legacy could help them achieve their organisational visions and goals.

Again, something has got a bit squiffy in the positioning of legacy here. Having happily accepted the tourism dollar that comes from hosting meetings and events, some legacy advocates appear to be suggesting that destinations should expect a legacy programme from visiting associations as a sort of quid pro quo. This is a stark reversal of ESTRO’s pre-Covid RFP strategy, which demanded that host destinations show how they could support the organisation's legacy strategy.

According to Bas Schot, head of Hague Convention Bureau, which carried out research on the topic recently, destinations risked being seen as ‘selfish’ for pursuing their own legacy agendas.

That might be over-egging it.

Legacy programmes can be extremely effective - and perhaps work best - when the association and the destination work in partnership. But in most cases, legacy should start with the association’s needs and objectives.

...the best legacy initiative in the world is not going to save a tired, anaemic conference programme...

brown tree

Photo by Neil Thomas on Unsplash

Photo by Neil Thomas on Unsplash

Stop overstating the case for legacy.

Whatever ‘legacy’ is, its success or failure is not going to decide the future of the 13,000 internationally rotating meetings on the ICCA database. The word you’re looking for there is ‘relevance’. Ultimately delegates will decide if a conference is worth the time out of office, the carbon footprint, or the financial expense. One argument in favour of legacy says that it is the only way to safeguard the future of international conferences against carbon taxes, commercial competition, and the apathy of Gen Z digital natives. Sure, meetings are going to have to evolve! But on its own, the best legacy initiative in the world is not going to save a tired, anaemic conference programme. Meetings are a product in themselves. They will stand or fall on their own merits. Which takes me to the final, perhaps most important, point about legacy…

Stop making it a ‘thing’…

The biggest mistake we make about legacy is making it a thing - a project or activity that needs its own steering committee. This approach is ultimately to blame for the endless agonising about the difference between legacy, impact, and outreach. Sometimes this ruminating has reached almost Pythonesque degrees of absurdity, with people trying to define how long a benefit should last – or at what point it should start – before it can be considered a legacy. Where does impact end and legacy begin? Are they really the same thing? Could one exist without the other? Does planting trees count as legacy or just an outreach activity? What if we plant a million trees? Yada, yada..


…Start making legacy about purpose.

The concept of legacy works best when it is framed as something intrinsic to the meeting, that shapes and informs the conference programme and elevates the entire delegate experience. If an association has legacy embedded in their organisational strategy, so much the better! Event legacy should start with the question: ‘how will this meeting (not activity) have a positive impact on the world?’

The answer need not be earth-shattering. It could be a modest aspiration that benefits only a handful of interested parties, like a group of academics building links with a local university to further a particular field of research. That’s fine. So long as it can be shown to do long-term good.

None of this is to stifle ambition! If there is scope for a meeting to improve – or indeed save - the lives of millions of people, that should be its legacy. And if that involves having a legacy committee and organising extra legacy activities around the conference, that’s great too. But ultimately, legacy should be about making meetings better, not a way of justifying them. No one is going to fly halfway around the world to attend a tired, irrelevant meeting because it has an excellent legacy programme.

There are numerous definitions of event legacy out there, some better than others.

I’d settle for this: legacy is the fruit of purpose.