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by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua

Today @Supergreybeard and I spoke with two corporate meeting and event planners about return on investment aka ROI. It was a fascinating conversation with two highly experienced professionals from global organisations. By the end of the telephone conversation, however, I knew we were no further down the line with ROI today than when it first “trended” in our industry over 20 years ago.

ROI is still that bright elusive butterfly that bewitches, bewilders and beguiles us all. We can see it flapping, floating and fluttering about and sometimes we even get really close to it. However, just when we think we have it in our grasp it slips away from us with the ease of a dolphin and we’re left with nothing tangible, just the inner conviction and certainty that our meeting or incentive or event had great value although we’ve very little to show the stern faced, humourless beancounter.

So is calculating ROI on meetings and events a waste of time? At the risk of being kneecapped by my esteemed friend and colleague, Elling Hamso of the EventROI Institute, I think it might be. Here’s why.

It’s apples and oranges – 1

The Teachers’ Unions in Ireland have been fighting for years against successive governments’ efforts to introduce “benchmarking”, ie, the systematic measurement of educational success against pre-determined benchmarks or metrics. Their core argument is that it cannot be done as education is a holistic process connected with the social, physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual growth of the child.

Much of its success is hidden, latent and unseen, maybe not properly emerging until years after it has taken place, much like the autumn harvest comes months after a spring sowing.  Education, they say, is about information, formation and transformation and benchmarking is only capable of evaluating one of these.

I think the impact of a meeting or incentive or event is akin to the complexity of the educational process and, therefore, trying to properly measure its ROI is probably a waste of time.

ROI is bound by time and space – 2

Any ROI calculation is bound by time and space whereas the impact of a great meeting or event or exhibition is definitely not. I learned this a long time ago when I performed crude ROI calculations on my trade show investment using a version of Mr Micawber’s famous model:

Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery. (Dickens, David Copperfield)

My version ran something like this:

Cost of trade show participation: five thousand five hundred pounds.
Number of conversations had: Unknown.
Number of leads received: 10.
Number of confirmed pieces of business 0.
Result: Shit trade show.

What this neophyte trade show participant didn’t realise, of course, was that the unknown number of conversations and the relationships built as a result of these would lead to confirmed pieces of business for years into the future.

At my first SITE International Conference in Puerto Rico in 1994 I met an Australian DMC and we spent time chatting and exchanging best practice stories. More than 6 years later, having changed jobs and gone to the buyer side, that person brought a programme to me in Ireland that constituted 25% of our total revenues that year.

Who knew?

We know instinctively that it works – 3

Another reason why ROI is a waste of time for MICE programmes is that we already know they work because they pass the duck test:

When I see a bird that walks like a duck and swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, I call that bird a duck (attributed to poet, James Whitcomb Riley)

Financial and Insurance companies, in particular, have been investing heavily in incentive travel experiences for decades but most companies rarely, if ever, run the rule over them. That’s because they know they work – the outcomes have all the external appearances of success so why waste time and effort  trying to drill down and prove what your own instinct is telling you?

The easiest way to measure return on investment on incentive programmes is to stop doing them. This happened involuntarily during the years of austerity and recession and the results were not pretty. The net result is that companies that paused or postponed their MICE activities in 2009 are back doing them again.

In its White Paper (May, 2010) on the Anatomy of a Successful Incentive Travel progamme, the Incentive Research Foundation asked the CEO of XYZ Company how they measure ROI. He replied:

We don’t. We don’t measure it exactly, relative to the investment. I think our return or measurement is when we look around at the 300 people there. Are those really the people that I, along with the senior management, feel are the movers and shakers and the drivers of our success? If they are and they’re there, and they have a good time and they want to come back next year, then I think the investment’s been worthwhile.

It’s heartening to note such a “touchy feely” response from the CEO of a major US corporation with obligations to report to the stock exchange. “If it doesn’t have a number it doesn’t count” might be a great motto  with a clever play-on-words but, somehow, it manages to miss the point: human relationships are at the core of corporate exchange too and these don’t always add up!



In an effort to by-pass the potential tyranny of ROI, many event professionals use alternative acronyms such as ROO (Return on Objective) or ROE (Return on Effort or should that be Return on Equity?). I especially like Return on Objective as it implies that meetings or events have or should have objectives while allowing that these may be tangible or intangible. The 2 event professionals mentioned above, for example,  both have wide and extensive metrics around event objectives that include empirical, verifiable metrics such as attendee numbers, speaker evaluations, net promoter score etc. However, they are also concerned with less objective qualities such as changes in attitude, behaviour etc.

Pádraic Gilligan, Patrick Delaney and Aoife McCrum run SoolNua, a specialist agency working with Destinations, Hotels and Venues on Strategy, Marketing and Training. 

PS – There has been some interesting commentary on this post via Linkedin. Michael Piddock from Glisser made some great comments and directed me to a blog post of his own on ROI that takes a contrary view. Here’s a link to Mike’s excellent blog.



4 thoughts on “Why ROI for meetings, incentives, exhibitions and events is a waste of time

  1. Mike May says:

    Nice thoughts as always, Padraic.

    Two big problems with calculating Marketing ROI – attribution and allocation. Assessing how much of a sales increase to attribute, or allocate, to each of many influencing marketing tactics. Determining the direct cause-effect relationship between marketing and revenue is almost impossible. See more:

    1. padraicino says:

      Great comment Mike and wonderful post post on a related topic.

  2. Elling Hamso says:

    Thank you Pádraic for your entertaining blogpost, I like your style. As for substance, I think you may need some guidance. Please allow me to shine some light on your path. Just pick up a copy of Meetings International at IMEX for your enlightenment 😉

    1. padraicino says:

      Thanks for taking the time to comment Elling – again just using headlines shamelessly to attract readers! You know I’m a true believer!

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