Supplier view: ‘bureaux are getting the crumbs from the table’

International associations like to think ahead. Some will issue a request for proposals (RFPs) from cities competing to host their meetings many years in advance. My consultancy is working on bids for conferences that are happening in 2032! But after a dreadful year for destination marketing organisations (DMOs), are they really in a position to compete? Some are. Some, sadly, are not.

As spring pushes through in the northern hemisphere, there is a growing sense of hope in the air. The success of the vaccine rollout in countries like the UK and Israel is extremely encouraging and should give everyone confidence that Covid-19 will not be a serious health problem forever.

At our consultancy, we are seeing an uplift in the responses we are getting for our client DMOs and it is exciting to be having positive conversations with potential new clients. They are starting their recovery now and want to include strategic research into that plan, which is great news.

But there is a huge disparity in general readiness for recovery.

Some DMOs have managed to keep activities going throughout the pandemic, staying in touch with the association conference market. Not only were they able to keep up their research and lead generation strategies, but they also continued to win business. But others have faced severe budget cuts in 2020 which meant they had to down tools completely, with teams put on furlough (or equivalent), or on reduced hours, seconded to other departments or laid off completely.

European Cities Marketing, the association of 120 urban DMOs in Europe, conducted a Funding Survey in 2020 which showed a “severe impact of the COVID-19 crisis on Europe’s urban Destination Management and Marketing Organisations (DMOs). More than three-quarters of the DMOs have seen budget reductions – many with more than 50%.”  And this is now filtering into 2021 with continued cuts or budget freezes and staff still being deployed to other departments. This means some DMOs will be woefully unprepared when the recovery starts. Crucial opportunities will have been missed, and many won’t come back for many years.

The pandemic has highlighted the need for an urgent review of business models for many DMOs.

There are many political, financial, organisational and cultural differences between DMOs across the world, but it has always been widely accepted that those which operated with widespread financial support from multiple stakeholders would be better able to withstand shocks. And we have seen this in the past year.

Those that are heavily reliant on partner funding and visitor/city tax have struggled the most. Whilst most DMOs have seen some government support, the immediate impact to leisure tourism and hospitality is being given priority (and rightly so given the devastation in this sector). Unfortunately, this means that ‘business tourism’ departments – including convention bureaux – seem to be getting the crumbs from the table.

Once again, this is further evidence that business events and conferences should not come under the ‘tourism’ label. They should sit firmly within their local government’s economic-development entity and be a vital component in the economic recovery of their city for the long-term.

Now is the time to beat this drum harder than ever.  It is time for decision makers at local and national levels to recognise the need for recovery funding specifically for business events so that they can play their crucial role in the rebuilding of economies. They should be integral part of the strategic recovery roadmap and agendas.

I would urge those who are still being held back by budget cuts etc, to rally support from your partners, colleagues and stakeholders. There is no doubt that a post Covid-19 world will be different and challenging but in terms of whether face-to-face meetings will be part of our future, the message we are hearing from associations is a firm “yes”.

When speaking to academics they are convinced that collaborative R&D and innovation means a need for a physical context in which to meet, share, and improve knowledge; to present their latest works, ideas and technologies and showcase their research. Sure, we do not know when we will get back to the levels of face-to-face meetings that we had pre-Covid-19, and maybe we never will.

But the story we are hearing, is that the most people want to meet again.


About the writer:

Sarah Fleming is the owner of Sarah Fleming Associates  (SFA), which provides research, lead generation and destination marketing for destinations, venues and event agencies around the world.

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