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Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua & Chief Marketing Officer, SITE

Business Events: a USD$1.6 trillion industry

Last May the Events Industry Council published the latest iteration of its Global Economic Significance of Business Events and valued business events’ contribution to global GDP at USD$1.6 trillion. This figure, in fact, would rank business events as the 13th largest economic stream globally.

The EIC study, conducted in partnership with Oxford Economics, also highlighted the catalytic effects of business events, that is, “the broader impacts that occur as the result of business events, ranging from new business opportunities, knowledge transfers and future sales generated through exhibits at trade shows, to innovative research collaborations fostered through medical conferences, new skills learned through training, or career connections made through technology or creative sector conferences”.

Poor communications

Within our industry it is globally accepted that we don’t do a good job at communicating our value neither in relation to our sector’s massive economic power – after all USD$1.6 trillion is not an inconsiderable sum – nor in relation to the wider, but, perhaps, less tangible impacts of our sector, on a nation’s reputation, on its competitive advantage, educational performance, on its socio-cultural realm, even on its quality of life.

Good communication, we’re told, is all about knowing your audience and channelling your message to this audience but therein, perhaps, lies the source of our problem. The “audience” for whom, these wide-ranging benefits might resonate most meaningfully and impactfully is not, actually, a single, uniform community but comprised of many and varied communities. Likewise the “channel” for reaching them is delta-like, splitting off into many individual streams, each with its own colour and nuance. So how can we realistically communicate the true value, both in hard dollars and soft power, of the business events sector?

Key relationship – Policymakers & DMOs

It starts with the channel between policy makers and destination marketing organisations (DMOs). One difficulty here is that the DMO sector, say, in the United States is sometimes private and commercial, funded mainly by bed / tourist taxes while in Europe its mainly public, not-for-profit, and, usually, government funded. Some DMOs add “management” to their brief and play an active roles in destination development with a focus not only on visitors but on local citizens too. Others focus exclusively on the visitor economy operating strictly as “convention and visitors’ bureaux (CVBs)”, with strict tourism marketing and promotion roles.

More pertinently, most DMOs in Europe fall under the aegis of the national tourist office (NTO) and report revenues and volumes under business tourism despite the strong case that business events could / should be reported under an economic development agency as its revenues and volumes are really another form of foreign direct investment (FDI).

Whatever the prevailing structure, DMOs and policy makers must establish frictionless channels for direct communication so that the unique, complex and richly textured characteristics of business events are appreciated and understood and not shoe-horned into general tourism policies that may even damage or harm them. In this regard IMEX’s Policy Forum is a welcome platform for discussion, debate and dialogue between our industry and the policy makers who can shape it for better or for worse.

DMOs and the wider Business Events community

Besides establishing effective channels of communication with policy makers, DMOs must also act as the conduit or channel of communication for the wider business events community. This is not always the case with many key entities and organisations working in isolated silos. In addition to the global and regional professional associations that most mature DMOs belong to and actively support – Destinations International, UFI, ICCA, IAPCO, MPI, CityDNA, SITE, PCMA and so on – there needs to be a national association that brings together the widest possible stakeholder cohort.

In this regard I believe the annual Business Tourism Conference powered by the Association of Irish Professional Conference Organisers (AIPCO) in co-operation with SITE Ireland and supported by Fáilte Ireland, Ireland’s national tourism development agency, is a powerful example of an destination striving to speak with one voice about the power of business events.

Inter-departmental communication: Policy makers communicating with other policy makers

Policymakers must connect and communicate with other policy makers. Business Events Canada, for instance, launched a knowledge-based business development strategy in 2017 to leverage the country’s wealth of industry and academic leaders in seven key sectors, including aerospace technologies and agri-food.

However, this is not an exclusive initiative of Canada’s DMO but involves collaboration amongst federal, provincial and municipal government agencies; foreign affairs bodies; local economic development authorities; universities; corporate companies; research institutions; and destination marketing teams.

Thus policymakers need to communicate with other policy makers and connect the dots for effective joined up thinking that leads to tangible destination returns.

Citizens at Large

Crucially, policy makers, DMOs and the business events industry at large need to engage meaningfully with their own citizens, particularly in the context of the difference, and real alternative, business events offer to mainstream tourism, in volume and revenues terms and in relation to overall impact.

Venice, Barcelona and Amsterdam are high profile examples of the over-tourism backlash that’s bubbling to boiling point again having dissipated somewhat during the pandemic pause. Business events’ visitors are not day trippers and cruisers putting pressure on facilities and sanitation and often leaving nothing but their litter. They are attendees at company meetings, participants at conferences, qualifiers on incentive travel programmes, patrons of exhibitions. Their tangible hard dollar contribution is in the region of €1650 per trip while their soft power benefit is incalculable – albeit great strides are being made by the likes of Copenhagen Legacy Lab.

Clearly massive work needs to be done in this regard, particularly with mainstream media who tend to favour the “jolly” or “boondoggle” narrative when reporting on any company activity that involves getting on a plane and staying in a hotel. Academics and medics who attend conferences have historically been tarred with a similar reductive brush with zero, or at least scant reference, to the indispensable educational benefits of the event.

A lot done, a lot more to do

Undoubtedly our industry has made great strides in how we communicate our value. The Meetings Mean Business campaign / initiative that started in the United States in the immediate aftermath of the infamous AIG effect has developed important messaging around our value, impact and legacy. But we must be more proactive, capturing both data and stories that illustrate what’s good about business events. And, of course, a great first step in this regard is the Policy Forum hosted by IMEX where policymakers, DMOs and a plethora of smart people gather to continue the important conversations!

Pádraic Gilligan is Managing Partner at SoolNua Marketing and will be collaborating with Martin Sirk (Sirk Serendipity) and others to deliver the IMEX Policy Forum at IMEX Frankfurt.


3 thoughts on “Communicating what’s good about Business Events – Policy Forum at IMEX Frankfurt

  1. Mr Wayne Wallgren CIS, CITP says:

    Well said.

  2. Paddy Paul says:

    Thought provoking Padraic

    1. padraicino says:

      So lovely to hear from you! Hope all is well there. Will you be at IMEX?

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