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Is the meetings industry doomed to repeat itself?

I suspect there was a bit of head scratching when event professionals received an invitation from the Joint Meetings Industry Council (JMIC) to attend what it called an ‘historic’ webinar promising an ‘unprecedented collaboration’ between itself and trade shows IMEX, IBTM, AIME and Meetings Africa, who had come together to ‘align behind common messaging to speak with one voice!’

Besides the linguistic oddity of calling a webinar ‘historic’ there was the jarringly inflated language. Six months into a global pandemic, with economies circling the sink hole, it all seemed a bit puffed-up, a bit self-regarding. More than that, however, there was the nagging sense of déjà vu: didn’t we already do the ‘unity’ thing?

But if the packaging was clumsy, the content was laser-focused.

The purpose of the webinar was to promote the launch of a manifesto, to be published by JMIC, setting out how business events should form a central plank in economic recovery strategies when COVID-19 is no longer a health crisis.  And it was engaging stuff, with the supernaturally articulate ‘urbanist’ Prof Greg Clark stitching together the various threads of business events, including association meetings, and showing us how they are essential to the fabric of healthy, prosperous cities.

I found myself nodding along as the great and the good talked about how business events were catalysts for innovation and enterprise and should be regarded as ‘strategic tools’ for destinations to grow their ‘economic and intellectual eco-systems’. It was a bit jargon-heavy, but, essentially, this was the industry trying to distill the essence of what it does, and I thought the panelists spoke with passion and sincerity. No one could have been left in any doubt about why they felt meetings mattered.

And yet… and yethaven’t we heard all this before? Are we, in the meetings industry, doomed to repeat ourselves forever? Does the retail industry have to endlessly remind itself why it exists? Does the advertising industry suffer this level of introspection? Do telecoms operators or financial services providers spend so much time trying to locate and justify their place in the grand scheme of things?

It goes back, in my opinion, to an old nut that is proving fiendishly difficult to crack.

At some point during the webinar, there was the time-worn call for the meetings industry to align itself with ‘trade and industry’ or ‘business and skills’, and distance itself from the tourism and travel sector. There is growing consensus among industry leaders that this shift is not only desirable but critical.

There is a great deal going for the argument, particularly from the perspective of association meetings, where the purpose is to spread knowledge, spark innovation and seed fruitful partnerships. To talk in the language of ‘tourism dollar’ is to ignore the long-term value of meetings of this type, and, indeed, commercial and corporate meetings with similar aims.

And yet decoupling meetings from travel and tourism is not straightforward. The basic remit of most destination marketing organisations – which often house the convention bureaux – is to attract visitors and boost local economies. Therefore, a good year for a convention bureau is one in which delegate ‘spend’ has increased by virtue of it having attracted more visitors. This chasing of immediate, quantifiable returns – the industry’s contribution to GDP – ties the industry to travel and tourism whether it likes it or not. Until governments, local and national, recognise the longer-term value of meetings, the industry, or parts thereof, are likely to remain under the umbrella of tourism.

But that’s not the only problem with taxonomy. Martin Lewis, former managing editor of AMI and M&IT magazines, said in a webcast recently that he didn’t think the industry he had played a central role in for 30 years was part of the travel industry. ‘We might as well measure our value in the number of bread rolls delegates eat as the number of hotel bed nights we generate’, he said. It was a good line. But it didn’t take long for someone to helpfully remind him what the T in M&IT stood for.

What struck me about JMIC’s webinar was how narrowly it seemed to define the meetings industry. For political purposes it seems the industry is about all the things described above – spreading and creating knowledge and generally helping to make the world a better place in which to live. This is the message being pushed upstream, the value proposition industry wants government to hear.

On the street, ‘meetings and events’ cover everything from Christmas parties to glitzy product launches, academic conferences, exhibitions, trade fairs, science festivals, and yes, incentive travel. It is a sprawling, unwieldy, glorious beast of a thing. And it is the sum of this inclusive club the industry boasts about when making its economic case to politicians. And that includes bread rolls.

There’s nothing wrong, you might say, in wanting to have your cake and eat it. In a world where messaging is paramount, all industries must tailor theirs accordingly. But I’m increasingly convinced that the question ‘who are we?’ matters more to the ‘meetings’ industry than just about any other, and one of the reasons governments don’t ‘get’ the industry is because of the contradictions that arise when it seeks to explain its value proposition.

The ‘meetings’ industry needs to do one of two things. Either accept that it is currently too broadly defined and do something about it (what, after all, does a meeting of oncologists have to do with a sales rep going on an all-expenses paid trip to Mauritius?) Or else embrace the chaos – after all, in terms of a career trajectory, organising an incentive may well lead to organising 30,000-delegate medical meetings. If industry takes the second option, I would advocate ditching ‘meetings’ in favour of ‘business events’, which has the virtue of being more inclusive than meetings, while maintaining a clear distinction with activities that would fall under leisure or entertainment.

The next thing the industry should do is stop naval gazing. If meetings and events are so important to the health of an economy and society in general, they will happen regardless of whether politicians can wrap their heads around the industry that makes them happen. They will happen because industries know they are the most efficient way to communicate with clients and customers, to exchange information, to inspire innovation, and forge productive partnerships. They will happen because people need to shake someone’s hand and look them in the eye to have trust. They will happen because meetings matter.

For me the best quote in the webinar was a recorded clip of PCMA president and CEO Sherrif Karamat who was making a plea for the industry to have a bit more self-belief. “We need to take our power back. We should not be going to governments looking for help. They should be coming to us for help.”