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Beaches to brains: destination marketing

The value of international association meetings has long been measured in the ‘tourism’ dollars they generate. But now you’re (almost) as likely to hear destinations talking about knowledge transfer as delegate spend. James Lancaster charts the evolution of destination marketing…

Destinations have long regarded international association meetings as a way to fill hotel rooms and restaurants – to generate valuable income for city coffers. That’s not surprising. Attracting conference business has been the responsibility of government tourism departments – or subsidiaries thereof – and the success of a conference has been measured on those terms.

If you think that’s a short-sighted way to measure the value of meetings, you’re not alone.

Conversations about the positioning of the meetings industry have been rumbling on for many years, with prominent voices insisting it should escape the clutches of tourism and instead make a permanent home under the umbrella of ‘business development’ or ‘inward investment’.

The idea here is that by showing policy makers the wider benefits of meetings, how they can help to advance targeted growth sectors, foster lucrative collaborations, or attract talent to a city, for example, the industry is better positioned to advance its own case for government support.

Over the last decade this thinking has made headway with changes to how destinations measure the impact of international association meetings and how destinations sell themselves to associations.

Rod Cameron, chairman of the Joint Meetings Industry Council (JMIC), which comprises associations like ICCA, MPI, AIPC, and PCMA, said two factors had provided the impetus for change.

“Where the real urgency started was from the backlash against meetings-related spending that kicked in with the onset of the global financial crisis and the rise of the pharma-codes that very specifically penalized leisure or luxury-based marketing for meetings in the medical area,” he says.

The most high-profile backlash came from the mouth of incoming US President Barack Obama, who took a sideswipe at ‘corporate junkies to Las Vegas’ on the ‘taxpayers’ dime’. It may have been a throw-away remark, but it caused ructions in the meetings industry, and not just in Las Vegas. A new era of austerity would mean the meetings industry having to prove its worth.

Industry bodies released economic impact studies to prove to governments that meetings were a major revenue earner. An attention-grabbing PricewaterhouseCoopers report for the Convention Industry Council found that the US meetings industry in 2009 worth $263 billion in direct spending, supported 1.7 million jobs, and contributed $106 billion to GDP. That was hard to ignore.

The messaging in these studies was still very much focused on direct expenditure, however, taking in things like retail, food and drink, accommodation and car rental. In other words it was still reinforcing the idea that international meetings were primarily about boosting tourism spending.

The first study to break away from this was Business Events Sydney’s ground-breaking Beyond Tourism study, in 2010, which employed researchers at University of Technology, Sydney, to prove that business events had longer-term economic and societal benefits based on knowledge transfer.

The study, which may have been the first in the meetings industry to use the word ‘legacy’, explored what delegates learnt at conference, the dissemination of knowledge, the development of business relations and research collaborations, and how the destination’s reputation was enhanced.

Meetings industry associations took up the mantle, stressing the role of destinations as knowledge hubs rather than tourist traps, and the role of meetings in providing deeper social benefits beyond tourism. The messaging worked, with more destinations focusing on their areas of expertise in their promotional and PR material, rather than Michelin-starred restaurants per square mile.

The publishing wing of the meetings industry was quick to catch on. In 2014 Cat Media – publishers of AMI Magazine – launched Intellectual Capitals an online, print and video product that allows destinations to profile their centres of expertise to potential clients and decision-makers.

More recently, JMIC, in collaboration with the University of Technology Sydney, launched The Iceberg project, a website that promotes stories from the international meetings press pertaining to the lasting-benefits of meetings – or ‘legacy’. No mention of bed-nights or tourism receipts allowed.

JMIC President, Joachim Koenig, said: “The focus of our value proposition as an industry has been shifting from one based on delegate and organiser spending to the value of what these events actually achieve for organisers, participants and host communities. As simple as it sounds, this in fact has huge implications, because it places us at the very centre of both the global economy and the underlying scientific, professional, academic, business and social advancements that drive it.

“The new collective view of the industry – and certainly those who actually develop and carry out these events – is that such outcomes are their real purpose and value, however attractive the related spending impacts may be. However, they are also the most challenging to quantify or monetize because they are often long term and based on things like the benefits of knowledge transfer and relationship-building that are hard to attribute to a single factor.”

The destination

Sandrine Camia, Director Convention Bureau, Monaco Government Tourist and Convention Authority, says: “Intellectual Capitals converged exactly with the strategy of Monaco Convention Bureau and above all allowed us to present new arguments of legitimacy. Monaco needs more than any destination to capitalise on its knowledge, experts and industries to be relevant for congresses because those assets are unknown and unexpected from the Principality. We have had many initiatives to promote Intellectual Capitals including an official launch, press conferences and presentations to a large audience of clients. Feedback from customers has been unanimous. IC has helped to overcome negative stereotypes of Monaco, and boosted its image for the MICE market”

The association

Giuseppe Marletta, executive director of the International Association of Young Lawyers, says finding a link between the host destination and the aims of the association is crucial.

“When we decided to go to Tokyo to support our Asian expansion, we chose to hold an event on the impact of Artificial Intelligence and technology on the legal profession: it was a no brainer considering that the city of Tokyo is always at the top when talking about innovation and technology. It was then relatively easy to put together the programme, have outstanding speakers and market the event appropriately. We let the identity of the city influence the choice of our topic.

“The same is happening this year with Brussels. After the choice of the city we thought of using the opportunity of being in the capital of Europe and symbol of international integration to discuss about globalisation and whether we are going towards greater integration, international co-operation and cross-border trade; or in the opposite direction, such as Brexit and various populistic political approaches in the Western world.”