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by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua

Screen Shot 2015-03-28 at 14.16.05IMEX is both Google and Amazon for the Meetings Industry. It’s a search engine and a showroom for network building, knowledge transfer and business exchange. It has a robust digital life but IMEX principally pivots around real people in real places in real time. It is by now the de facto nexus for our wonderfully elusive industry with its multiple names, many faces and multifarious profiles. At this year’s Frankfurt edition of the show SoolNua was given the opportunity to  share our viewpoint on meetings and events with some of the board at the Convention Industry Council, a unique industry coalition of elders and leaders from the associations within our industry.

Crème de la Crème

In our pre-presentation deliberations we wondered what we could possibly say to such a powerful parliament, representing, as it did, all iterations and interpretations of “MICE”, that unfortunate, unloved acronym that we often deploy as an industry descriptor: meetings, incentives, conferences, conventions, congresses, exhibitions, events. These august ladies and gentlemen, after all, were the crème de la crème, the all-seeing, all-knowing executive directors of our industry associations, wily, worldly individuals who had seen more industry trends – and presidents –  come and go than Italy had seen changes of government since world war two.

We structured our conversation around the following 5 points and enjoyed a truly inspiring dialogue and exchange that definitely merits a more public airing at a future IMEX in Las Vegas or Frankfurt. Regular readers of this blog will recognize some recurrent themes:

1. What do we call ourselves?

As an industry there’s no doubt that our voice is getting stronger. We’ve now grown beyond those awkward, toe-gazing adolescent years when, like Harry Enfield’s Kevin, the most we could muster was a monosyllabic grunt. We’ve shaken off that simian stroll to become an upstanding, confident specimen. We can give a good account of ourselves and justify our worth in a marketplace that craves numbers like vampires lust for blood. But we still don’t have a name that we all agree upon. Mom still insists on calling us Robert and is appalled that our high school buddies call us Bob. In work we’re known as Rob and Bobby and there are some intensely irritating folks in China and parts of Europe that keep calling us RODO because it’s short for Robert Dowd.

2. Where do we sit?

We’re also the guy at the High School reunion who doesn’t know where to sit. He could easily go with the Geeks as he’s a brilliant chess player but then the Jocks have an equal call. If he went with the Jocks or the Geeks then the Cool Kids would disown him and he really does fit in there too. Our industry is the bridge and point of intersection for many disparate, normally unconnected sectors. The various descriptors we use ourselves (Business Events, MICE, The Meetings Industry etc) need further elucidation for the average citizen (and, particularly, for the not-so-average taxman as I discovered last week) so what default category do we connect back to? Tourism? Travel? Marketing? Communications? Do we all agree on where to sit?

3. What’s our purpose?

The turbulent gales that started in 2008 with the collapse of Lehmann Brothers caused untold devastation across all sectors of our industry. Sensing an easy, vulnerable prey the media attacked like a lawless lynch mob and, for a time, we were helpless spectators at our own hanging. Thankfully the pan-industry coalition that emerged under the aegis of the US Travel Association (oh so we do below in the travel industry?!) has created a powerful response. Meetings Mean Business has now delivered incontrovertible, evidence-based data around the economic impact of what we do as an industry and this is a wonderful achievement.

Now, however, I’m afraid we’re falling into a reductionist analysis of our impact. We’re starting to regard our contribution to society and humanity only through the filter of money. Our value as MICE professionals extends way beyond this and we need to be sure that our messaging highlights our wider influence in terms of knowledge transfer, inter-personal and inter-cultural dialogue, the fostering of reciprocal understanding and respect, the nurturing of world peace, the saving of human lives.

4. What’s our métier?

It’s important too that we communicate the full extend of the skill set and knowledge base involved in carrying out our métier. We’re still too often categorised as “party planners”. Last year Forbes magazine ranked “event co-ordinator” as the fifth most stressful job in the world with only military roles, firefighter and airline pilot considered more stressful. Meetings and events planners, typically, draw on learnings from many faculties. We knows about logistics, room set up, AV, technicals, production, room measurements, types of seating, ergonomics, catering, wine pairings, food allergies, special diets, first aid, table décor, lighting, sound, mood music, dinner music, accommodation, hotels, budgeting, accountancy, return on investment, speaker topics, digital media, social media, supply chain management, account management and so on. We also know how to dance diplomatically between the many stakeholders involved in the average event.

5. How do we deal with the dark side?

Many industries have a “dark side” and need to put in place codes of practice and regulations to deal with this. Sometimes this impacts on us too – regulations around the interaction of the Pharma industry with Physicians, for example, have had a far reaching effect on meeting planning and added another layer of required expertise to our métier.

But we have our own internal dark side too and need to be more more engaged, active and vocal in dealing with it. I’m really impressed by how the Board of the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence (SITE), under Rhonda Brewer’s leadership, has grasped the nettle of child prostitution, pornography and the trafficking of children for sexual purposes through it support of ECPAT. This appalling abuse of children is, regrettably, a by-product of international travel but SITE is acknowledging this and endeavouring to do something tangible about it.

There are many other causes that we need to confront not least the wide-spread practice of paying rates to support and service staff at hotels all over the world often significantly below minimum standards. Tim Chudley of the Sundial Group in the UK, a member of the International Association of Conference Centres (IACC) is an impressive pioneer in this regard and has become the first hospitality company to be accredited by the Living Wage Foundation.

Pádraic Gilligan and Patrick Delaney are principals at SoolNua, a boutique consultancy offering marketing and strategy advice for destinations, hotel groups and venues around Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Events. This year they facilitated and curated the educational content at IMEX’s Exclusively Corporate event.



3 thoughts on “The Meetings Industry: 5 questions we need to answer

  1. Joan Eisenstodt says:

    Thanks for saying some of what I’d written a few times in a few places: that we are only focused on the dollar contributions to the economies of the world and not stating the importance of meetings .. the content and outcomes of people learning. Thank you for questioning what I’ve questioned for some time about what we call ourselves, how we portray our industry, etc .

    And too for reiterating our dark side against which I’ve spoken out for years. It’s the human side of sustainability that we have forgotten.. while we were intent on having no handouts at meetings to pretend to save the environment when reality said we were saving our budgets.

    Your opportunity to present at IMEX is a great one. Only a fraction of our industry has the opportunity to be there or the NA IMEX or any industry program. Budgets are tight for individuals and organzations and training is low on the list of where to spend it.

    SO now what do we do?

    1. padraicino says:

      Thanks, Joan, as always. I guess the voice of the prophet isn’t always heard, appreciated or acted upon and usually not within any short or reasonable time frame. I’d just glad to be amplifying your wisdom and insights and hope that this brave new digital era will facilitate their dissemination!

      1. Joan Eisenstodt says:

        Ah, there is some sexism involved in the reaction to the voices that offer and there always has been. Perhaps that too makes it difficult to speak and be heard. More, I fear we will continue to focus on the direct economic impact of dollars/pounds/rupees/yen etc. v. the seemingly intangible value of learning at face to face meetings. What body within our industry is advocating the latter? Where is the grassroots effort that is needed to make a difference? If we continue to do what we’ve always done…well, you know the rest. Thanks, always, for good conversation.

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