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Closer to home: how Covid-19 is reshaping the future of meetings

International association meetings – particularly those that attracted thousands of delegates – were once the prized target of convention bureaux. They were the proverbially goose that laid the golden egg.

They were seen as a guaranteed source of income, providing a huge cash boost for local businesses like hotels, restaurants, and taxi firms, while giving cities the chance to flaunt their expertise on the world stage.

Associations, too, would boast about the size of their meetings – and year-on-year growth in international delegate numbers was regarded as the best indicator that the organisation was in good health.

But the coronavirus pandemic has upended old norms and it’s possible that the huge investment in event technology we have seen over the last few months has triggered a permanent shift in mindset.

Once deemed an awful lot of hassle, the idea of the hybrid meeting (part face-to-face and part online) has gone mainstream. I have spoken to numerous associations in recent weeks who are planning this type of event for 2021. Sure, their hand was forced by COVID-19 – but it’s clear many now see this format as a long-term option, allowing them to hold smaller in-person events in the ‘host’ city while encouraging far-flung delegates to participate digitally. Other associations are exploring the idea of multi-hub or ‘hub-and-spoke’ meetings where a series of live regional meetings feeds into the main event. It’s difficult to imagine associations simply forgetting these innovations once the immediate health crisis has passed, especially if they produced wider engagement.

None of this should alarm destination marketing organisations (DMOs). In a strange way, it could make their role more important, the bidding process more meaningful. We’ve all left international gatherings none the wiser about the city in which we have just spent the previous 72 hours. This tends to happen when the host city has been chosen purely for logistical reasons: venue capacity, room stock, transport links. But if associations are no longer so restricted by those concerns, they can concentrate on the intellectual value a city can add to their meeting – links to universities and R&D institutions, access to business clusters etc. This is where cities and associations can work together to create better, more meaningful meetings.

The attention given to huge international congresses in the media paints a distorted picture. Crunch the numbers in ICCA’s database of international rotating association meetings and you’ll find almost two-thirds (65 per cent)  attract 250 or fewer delegates. In fact, only around seven per cent of the 13,254 meetings welcome more than 1,000 delegates and a mere 1.3 per cent attract 3,000 people or more. But perhaps these numbers only serve to highlight why netting very large events – provided you have the capacity – has been viewed as the ultimate prize for competing DMOs. After all, why would you choose to host 40 meetings for 250 people if you could roll out the red carpet for 10,000 delegates in one headline-grabbing hit?

And yet even before COVID-19 laid waste to the 2020 conference calendar and forced us to rethink what constitutes essential travel, the idea of the ‘mega-meeting’ was beginning to lose some of its lustre. The spectre of climate change had removed the gloss, and those press statements bragging about a record number of delegates jetting in from every corner of the world were beginning to sound, to put it mildly, a little tone-deaf to the concerns of the wider population. A recent article in Nature suggests various ways of reducing the carbon footprint of international conferences, including merging regional conferences, turning annual conferences into biennial conferences, and, what they call, ‘going virtual’. Greta Thunberg’s decision to cross the Atlantic in a boat to attend a climate conference in New York may have been a deliberately eye-catching stunt, but it spoke to wider concerns about the link between air travel and business events that are only likely to become more pressing.

Meanwhile, the depredations of mass-tourism had seen many cities – particularly in Europe where ancient street plans and creaking transport infrastructures have often struggled to cope with the influx of tourists – begin to rethink their visitor strategies. Notably, Wonderful Copenhagen – the tourism organisation that houses the city’s convention bureau – issued a mission statement to ‘put an end to tourism as we know it’, which argued that, ‘visitor growth’ could not be seen as ‘a goal in itself’. It wants to create a more harmonious relationship between visitor and resident where the former is encouraged to think of themselves as a local for the duration of their stay – rather than heading straight for the Little Mermaid with their selfie stick.

There is another very significant statistic to mull over, however, and it is this: the proportion of meetings rotating worldwide has decreased from 77.4 per cent in the five years from 1963-1968 to around 43.7% today, losing ground to regional rotating meetings of which Europe is the biggest rotation area. In other words associations have already been catering more towards their membership’s regional needs, a tacit acknowledgement perhaps that while meeting colleagues from the other side of the world is always nice, sometimes productive, business is more likely to be done with your continental neighbours.

It is not inconceivable that the attitude that says ‘bigger is better’ in regard to international conferences might be changing for good; that international membership organisations will start to think more strategically about who they want to be physically present at their meetings and who can just as easily attend online, and that destinations will start to think more carefully about the real value of meetings where size really isn’t everything.