by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua
James Lancaster of CAT Publications’ Association Meetings International (AMI) hates “annoying inconsistency” and “an excess of meaningless verbiage” (see his excellent recent article here). I’m with him on both counts although now I’m second guessing whether hating an “excess” of meaningless verbiage means that we both actually tolerate small amounts of meaningless verbiage, only detesting it in its superlative condition?
I’m not with him, however, on his conclusion that the recent joint statements from JMIC (the Joint Industry Meeting Council), UNWTO (United Nations World Tourism Organisation) and WTTC (World Travel and Tourism Council) constitute “utter madness and a depressing step backwards for the industry as a whole”. While not sharing his conclusions I do, however, wholeheartedly applaud him for raising this vitally important issue and for generating some great commentary on the PCMA Linkedin group.
James takes issue with JMIC for aligning with UNWTO and thinks this undoes the extensive efforts of the past years to distance the Meetings Industry from what he disparagingly describes as “the bucket and spade” brigade, aka Leisure Tourism. There are actually two issues here – one is the coupling of business and leisure, the other is whether it’s fair to characterize travel and tourism as the “bucket and spade” brigade.
A Rose by any other name …
The first issue brings us back to previous discussions on these pages regarding how we name our industry. We’re been singularly unsuccessful, despite years of trying, at establishing our own clearly delineated taxonomy. We seemed to agree more than a decade ago that “The Meetings Industry” was the acceptable, collective catch-all term to define our particular sandbox. However, those damn Asians, Middle Easterns, East Europeans and Latin Americans resolutely refused to exterminate MICE to the point that now the Executive Director of Site characterizes the mission of his Association as the “I” in MICE! The Canadians and the Australians have countered intelligently with “Business Events” but what serious medical practitioner wants his city-wide educational conference reduced to mere commercial activity? Thus the Meetings, Incentives, Conference and Events and/or Exhibitions sector is variously known as The Meetings Industry, The Meetings and Events Industry, MICE, The MICE Travel Industry, Business Tourism, Business Events, The C&I sector … Without a name there’s little wonder we’ve been unable to differentiate our value with respect to the wider Travel and Tourism sectors.
But is it feasible or even desirable to isolate MICE completely from the broader travel and tourism industry into which JMIC seems happy to have it inserted? I don’t think it’s feasible. I posted on the PCMA Linkedin page that we didn’t have a snowball’s chance in Hell of getting the average John or Jane Doe from outside our industry to feel anything other than extreme envy when we tell them we’re off to Rome or Paris for a business meeting. Once you go to an airport, fly on a plane, stay in a hotel and walk around a city not our own you’re outside what most folks experience as work or business and no amount of indignation on your part will convince them otherwise. So it’s simply not feasible to separate business travel or any travel associated with attending a meeting, incentive, conference or event from leisure travel in the mind of the average person.
But is it even desirable? Why would it be so absolutely necessary to do so? If, as an industry, we want to pitch our tent and justify our inclusion amongst the higher echelons of economic activity then we simply need to extend and amplify the type of outputs that Meetings Mean Business have been producing and use every channel at our disposal to get the message out: for every dollar spent on meetings, according to Oxford Economics, a return of $9.50 is generated. A leisure visitor to a destination generates on average €450 per visit while a MICE visitor generates €1450 – €1650, according to data from Tourism Ireland. Other geographies need to follow what took place in the US – albeit a knee-jerk reaction to the chain of events of 2007, starting with the AIG debacle – and develop their own compelling statistics that prove the value of MICE, at least from the perspective of economic contribution.
The Bucket and Spade Brigade?
This leads to the second point. Should we refer to travel and tourism in derogatory terms and deploy catchy epithets like “the bucket and spade” brigade? I don’t believe we should. I actually think that to do so reflects negatively on our own sector and is a form of self-harm. Travel, and the tourism industry which has grown up around it, is, in ideal terms, the great liberator. It frees us from the narrow confines of our own limited perspectives by exposing us to a wider world of viewpoints, opinions, cultures, ways of doing things. My own favourite travel quote comes from Cesare Pavese, the Italian novelist whom I studied 35 years ago in UCD:
Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.
Travel gives us information, formation and sometimes transformation and, in Mark Twain’s words “is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness”. It has an astonishing capability to bring about radical change for good. In this context it surely contributes as much to society as social workers, medical researchers, fine artists and bloggers.
So, yes, I do think it’s OK to link MICE with Travel and Tourism. I think it connects us with a worthy, noble field of human endeavour and I’m proud to belong to an industry that, in turn, sits within an industry with such an astonishing capacity for effecting human transformation.
PS For additional viewpoints from some major industry heavy hitters, including the peerless Joan Eisenstodt, check the PCMA Group on Linkedin.
Pádraic Gilligan and Patrick Delaney run SoolNua, a marketing consultancy working in the MICE sector