“I have read the runes. The meetings industry doesn’t know what’s coming…”

What will the meetings industry look like in 2029?

It is tempting, for the sake of argument, to prophesy major disruption, a tipping point that will change the landscape of the industry beyond recognition.

Reader, I have read the runes, and the industry doesn’t know what’s coming.

Over the next decade a mixture of technological innovation, spiralling travel costs, environmental legislation and ‘flight guilt’ will create a dog-eat-dog world for event professionals.

Face to face meetings will not go away, but, more often than not, our faces will be facing each other through a screen. It’s time to face facts: virtual reality will soon be the new reality.

Virtway, the world’s largest 3D virtual conferencing platform, has just raised €4m to open an office in the UK, its first outside Spain, in response to what it called ‘high demand’ from the Anglosphere.

Blue chip companies like AstraZeneca, Accenture, and Manpower are already using the platform, which allows users to choose their own avatar, present, talk and network in real time.

The cost-savings and environmental benefits are significant, and that’s why Virtway’s modest fundraising shouldn’t be dismissed as an outlier, but indicative of something more significant.

How long before most high-profile companies have swapped at least some face-to-face meetings for virtual ones to help decarbonise the economy? As a way to keep shareholders happy and show the world you’re taking your environmental responsibilities seriously, it’s a no-brainer.

We have grown accustomed to relatively cheap flights. Cheap enough, anyway, for businesses and organisations to make a case for sending their staff around the world on a sales mission or, as might be the case with association meetings, continued professional development.

But when the aviation industry is hit by ‘polluter pays’ taxes, the office bean counters are going to have a much tougher job justifying the monetary expense, let alone the environmental one.

Some countries, notably France and Sweden, have already introduced their own ‘eco’ or carbon taxes on the aviation industry. While modest in size, they set down a clear marker for future policy.

A leaked European Commission report, currently being finalised, suggests a tax on aviation fuel would raise prices by around 10 per cent. That would cut the yearly number of airline travellers by 11 per cent and the sector’s carbon emissions by about the same amount. With airline emissions set to have grown by 68 per cent between 2010-2020, pressure on governments to act is mounting.

The end of frequent flyer loyalty programmes is inevitable.

That people should be rewarded for flying more than their peers already sounds counter-intuitive. When airlines start urging their customers to fly less, you know the background music has changed.

Instead what we could see is the introduction of a frequent flyer levy. The idea, which will see people charged incrementally more for every flight they take, already has public support, and is politically acceptable in as much as it allows people to make choices for themselves: a family taking one flight a year will not be hit by the charge. People who jump on planes every other week, will.

These are just a few tangible examples of how change might happen.

But change will also be driven by more ethereal factors, like ‘public opinion’.

Rickard Gustafson, the boss of Scandinavian airline SAS is convinced the ‘flight shaming’ trend in Sweden, which corresponded with an eight per cent uplift in rail journeys, led to a five per cent slump in Swedish air traffic in the first quarter of 2019. Will this trend be confined to Sweden? It seems unlikely.

And yet the prevailing mood in the meetings industry seems to be ‘business as usual’.

Destinations still boast about the number of delegates in attendance, the airlift, and the economic impact of meetings in terms of tourism receipts. This seems shortsighted at best.

The meeting of the future will be a smaller, slicker, in many ways better affair. There will be greater balance between virtual and physical delegates, with more of the former in some cases. As technology improves multi-hub meetings linked by satellite will become commonplace. Face to face meetings will be more focused, and only those who really have to be there in person will be.

This is not a bad thing. The industry will thrive and prosper because the need to ‘meet’ will not go away. But everyone involved in organising and hosting meetings needs to bear in mind that change is coming. And anyone cruising into the future on autopilot is going to hit severe turbulence.


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