Betting on the future

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The speed at which convention centres are being built is one example of the real world doing one thing, while the media world, with all its opinion-shapers and pundits, suggests precisely the opposite should be happening.

Convention centres are enormously expensive – they typically cost tens, even hundreds, of millions of dollars to build, before you get into the running costs. Often they rely on public subsidy. Many are in public ownership. As an investment in the future they are hugely symbolic. Pinpointing where this confidence comes from, however, looks like a fool's errand.

Millennials, the media keeps telling us, lead virtual, strangely atomised lives, based on a pick-and-choose culture of instant gratification. Theirs is a culture of the self - where the world dances to their tune. Even if this is the crudest of caricatures, it is easy to see where it comes from. From Spotify to Netflix, to the emphasis on choice and ‘flexible learning’ at universities, the way we consume, and our increasingly central role in that whole process, has changed dramatically over the years.

It is hard, therefore, to imagine millennials filling plenary halls in their thousands in twenty or thirty years’ time, as baby boomers do now. Will the type of organisations needed to facilitate such meetings even exist? Associations are still going strong, but how big a role face- to-face meetings, especially the large annual congresses, will continue to play decades hence is anyone’s guess.

There are already associations that look very different – ones based entirely online with no formal membership structures. These are open communities not hierarchical monoliths. They might organise local, topic-specific, symposiums, but they’re not interested in opening ceremonies and gala dinners.  In many ways they are more responsive, more democratic, more... well, millennial.

And if, as the media keeps telling us, robots are about to take all our jobs, what role then for associations? Will they even have enough members, let alone delegates, to fill a modest-sized plenary hall? If I were pumping millions into a new meetings space, I would want answers to these questions, but the reality is we simply don’t know. The future will always be a question mark.

Meanwhile established meetings destinations - like Paris and Sydney – are going for bigger and better convention centres, while destinations heavily reliant on leisure tourism, like Costa Rica, for example, now regard meetings and business events as a way to achieve greater economic security.

Then there are those oil-based economies in the Middle East who see large-scale conventions as a means of weaning themselves off the black stuff. For them shiny new convention centres have become totemic of the shift from fuel to knowledge-based economies. So what do we make of it all?

In effect those pumping millions into new convention centres are taking a punt that will pay huge dividends if they are proved right. They are betting on the claims about millennials being wildly overstated, betting that there will always be a natural tendency for humans to meet face to face, in large numbers, that will override any other external factors. They are betting too that a future when robots are not just doing all the heavy lifting but highly complex medical procedures is much further away than the futurologists would have us believe. And they are betting that the continued shift from fuel-based and agrarian economies to knowledge-based economies and the corresponding growth of cities, will secure the relevance of business events for the foreseeable future.

James Lancaster
Written By
James Lancaster

AMI editor James Lancaster is a familiar face in the meetings industry and international association community. Since joining AMI in 2010, he has gained a reputation for asking difficult questions and getting lost in convention centres. Proofer, podcaster, and panellist - in his spare time, James likes to walk, read, listen to music, and drink beer.


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