by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua
The United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) is just over 10 years in existence. Headquartered in Madrid, Spain it publishes a comprehensive annual report on tourism as well as occasional reports on specific segments, sectors and geographies of the broader tourism industry. It’s recent report (March 2014) on The Meetings Industry is a collaborative effort drawing input from 7 meetings industry associations as well as some private entities such as MCI and TEAM. It’s presented in English although much of the content (and some of the phrasing!) is of hispanic origin, contributed by MPI’s Spanish chapter, for example, or various Latin American associations.
For a global report, input from the United States and Canada – the leading meetings destinations in the world according to ICCA rankings – is conspicuous by its absence. For an industry that’s often accused of being US-centric this is beautifully ironic and not a little amusing. In an interview on the weekly broadcast Event Alley, Martin Sirk, the bright, beguiling CEO of ICCA, called it a “wide ranging document with something for everyone”. He welcomed it as “a major report on the Meetings and Events industry under the auspicious of UNWTO”.
Key Theme: the Value of Meetings
Key themes and variations thereof recur across the articles contributed by the various bodies and entities, none more so, perhaps, than value determination and measurement: how do we measure the true value of our industry? In the report itself Sirk references previous work undertaken jointly by ICCA, MPI, Reed Travel Exhibitions and UNWTO which established an agreed methodology for measuring the direct impact and value of meetings that complied with Tourism Satellite Accounting standards. Subsequent national studies in USA, Canada, Mexico, Australia, Denmark and the United Kingdom all reported
that approximately half the direct expenditure generated by organisers and delegates appear under non- tourism related headings (everything from audiovisual hire to entertainment, and from meeting Apps to exhibition stand contractors), so are not included in standard tourism statistics or visitor surveys.
The full extent of the economic impact of the meeting activity, therefore, is not captured by the agreed protocols.
The Biggest Gap
Jesús María Gómez, President of MPI’s Spain Chapter, agrees but claims
the fact that such measurement isn’t easy to gauge is no reason to abandon efforts or discount the value meetings, conventions and exhibitions generate.
He goes further
The biggest gap of all is reserved for the most important factor – the value that meetings tourism generates in terms of professional development, knowledge transfer, investment generation, jobs creation and retention, talent acquisition, technical progress and all other areas that define why these events happen in the first place. Here, there has typically been an abandonment of any real effort to even try and, as a result, the most valuable benefit of all is simply ignored.
Gomez is correct in this regard but his point applies to leisure tourism too and to the broader concept of travel. UNWTO’s measurement criteria for the impact of travel and tourism in general are quite one dimensional, focusing almost exclusively on economic metrics and overlooking the formative and transformative effects that visiting other countries and cultures can have on human beings. Mark Twain’s famous dictum captures this perfectly:
So what’s the true value to humanity of an activity that, ultimately, has the power to break down barriers between peoples and foster peace and harmony?
Rod Cameron, Executive Director, Joint Meetings Industry Council picks up on this and stresses the wider but ultimately intangible benefits to destinations of the meetings industry
… as attractive as the financial returns are from the meetings business, these are often far outweighed by broader community and economic development benefits. Meetings and conventions essentially take place for the purposes of business, professional and scientific development as well as sharing knowledge and expertise -so it’s not surprising that both the events themselves and the people who attend them have a lot to offer to the host community.
Some destinations are already measuring this. Mady Keup, formerly of VisitBritian and London & Partners and now a specialist consultant and lecturer in the MICE sector shares how Sydney is doing it:
In 2011 Business Events Sydney released the second phase of its Beyond Tourism Benefits: Measuring the social legacies of business events research, which quantitatively examines the extensive social, innovation and knowledge benefits of the meeting industry. The research reveals that it is important to measure the effect of business events in tourism terms but also to consider other outcomes from business events – educational, intellectual, trade and investment. These benefits in turn nurture local expertise, which then will bring about further meeting business to the destination – a virtuous circle.
Clearly MICE Professionals must welcome this report. As stated by Martin Sirk, it’s of supreme significance that a global entity such as the World Tourism Organisation is lending its name, reputation and resources to a report on what might appear to be a very small, niche activity within the broader tourism sector. It’s up to us now, at local level in destinations all over the world, to ensure that our own tourism policy makers know about the report, read it and take on board that the true value of meetings and events goes way beyond the numbers.
NOTE: The UNWTO report is a loosely linked compendium of opinions, case studies, policy statements and executive summaries all about MICE, Business Events and the Meetings Industry (the 3 terms are used interchangeably throughout the report!) I recommend, in particular, the excellent article aimed at DMOs by my former MCI colleague Oscar Cerezales Highlights to consider for a city that wants to develop a strategy through meetings.
Pádraic Gilligan and his business partner Patrick Delaney have been in the MICE industry for a lifetime and now offer destinations and meetings industry enterprises “another viewpoint” on meetings and events