Something that has haunted the meetings industry for many years has now become a matter of real urgency, courtesy of the global recession and its fallout. That is our collective failure to more clearly distinguish between travel for personal and leisure oriented reasons and that which for business purposes.
Those who make decisions about the organization and financing of meetings, conventions, exhibitions and conferences, as well as those who decide who should attend them, are now highly sensitive such events appearing as simply vehicles for personal enjoyment at public or corporate expense. In fact, just using the word “tourism” in association suggests a purpose other than their actual role as a primary tool for economic and professional development.
This is no small issue. In fact, there are now very specific professional codes and even legislation aimed at exactly this point, with the result that any suggestion of event attendees from certain sectors like the medical area attending meetings to pursue personal enjoyment rather than to engage in business or professional development can be sufficient reason to question attendance and/or remove financial support for them entirely. At the same time, many governments have implemented restrictions or outright bans on meetings-related travel as a first line of cost-saving measures, illustrating clearly that concerns in this regard are anything but theoretical.
We in the industry haven’t done much to encourage such a distinction and, even worse, actually blurred the lines by continuing to promote meetings destinations and attendance on the basis of leisure qualities like beaches, golf courses and nightlife – a practice that perpetuates the notion that business travel is in fact a thinly disguised excuse for a holiday paid for by someone else. When that “someone” is a shareholder or taxpayer it becomes almost impossible to rationalize participation, which accounts for challenges we’ve seen recently like ongoing reductions in meetings participation by governments and corporations in various parts of the world.
Over the long term this failure to distinguish these two elements of the overall travel equation – and reflect that in our promotional activities – will ultimately reduce the aggregate amount of global travel, and impact not only the revenues associated with meetings and conventions themselves, but also the associated travel and even incremental investment in hospitality infrastructure and services that this sector supports. The losers will be both those providing travel products and services as well as the broader economy that depends on business event-related interactions to advance their economic, professional and academic objectives.
That tourism is a beneficiary of the meetings industry is both inevitable and beyond dispute, but so is the fact that both we and they are damaged by the association when it results in less support for participation in business events. In other words, we risk shooting ourselves in both feet at the same time.
Why, then, are we not addressing the problem? A few possibilities suggest themselves. First, there is a large part of our industry and that of our sometimes partners in the tourism sector that simply don’t seem to see it as a problem. For those who have always regarded leisure-related qualities as the best possible way to promote a destination, there appears to be a real difficulty in understanding that a very different audience requires a very different message.
Secondly, we have fallen into the trap of measuring industry value primarily on the basis of spending, particularly related to hospitality revenues. Again, this creates the strong impression that it’s the hotel stays and restaurant meals that really count rather than the values inherent in holding the meetings in the first place. This approach not only vastly undervalues what this industry really achieves, but also has the unfortunate effect of antagonizing our clients who would much prefer to have the value of their events seen as the professional and business outcomes rather than the money left behind by their members in somebody else’s destination.
Third, the primary sources of funding for destination promotion are in many areas controlled for historic reasons by those with more of a tourism than business events orientation – and it has been a tough sell to make the case that ours is a business rather than a tourism sell, if only because the relative size of the tourism lobby in many countries or communities is usually much more heavily weighted toward the leisure side. To the extent that we have what are essentially third parties marketing on our behalf – and potentially putting the emphasis in the wrong place – we will continue to suffer the consequences.
But if the name of the game is extracting the optimal benefit out of the investments made in the meetings sector – as it surely must be if anyone is really paying attention – we need to get beyond turf discussions and into a recognition of the fundamentally different ways in which the markets associated with these two very different sectors must be addressed.
In short, by failing to make a clear distinction between leisure and meetings-related travel, we are trivializing our real role in global economic and professional development, threatening our individual competitiveness in the market and offending some of our most important clients, and that just doesn’t make sense for any destination that wants to achieve the diverse benefits associated with success in the meetings sector. The sooner we put some distance between these two areas the better all around, but that will only happen when we as an industry take some action toward re-aligning ourselves with the sectors that really count in today’s economy and achieving a better understanding with our tourism partners that clarifying the difference between our respective audiences and their travel motivations will benefit everyone in the end.
Given what’s at stake, that objective should be getting a lot more attention.
Rod Cameron is executive director of Joint Meetings Industry Council and co-executive director of AIPC.