by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SooNua
The Tipping Point
In The Tipping Point, the book that catapulted Malcolm Gladwell to stardom, the author examines how some social patterns, phenomena, trends and fashions evolve from minor to major. They start as decidedly minority interests in tiny, peripheral communities but then reach a “tipping point” that takes them mainstream, gives them mass appeal, causes them to be regarded as normal. In the book, for example, he traces the extraordinary rehabilitation of the Hush Puppy brand from the long forgotten shoes your Grandfather wore to cutting edge fashion accessory in the hippest neighbourhoods of Manhattan.
But does this apply to the MICE industry? What are the underlying phenomena in MICE that are approaching the famed “tipping point” and about to go mainstream? Many of the trends that are bubbling under are connected with technology: for example, I don’t think we’re too far from the tipping point where all meetings and conferences will automatically use some form of audience engagement platform with slide sharing and annotation, live polls and interactive Q&A. Many, too, are connected with the wider reality and capability of the web: the so-called sharing economy will undoubtedly impact on key revenue streams for professional conference organisers like transport, accommodation, food & beverage, AV before too long.
Hardware v Software
The trend, however, that I see most rapidly evolving is connected with destination marketing and is turning traditional routes to market upside down. Let me explain: until recently, destinations exclusively marketed their credentials as conference locations on the basis of their built infrastructure – “we have an international, well connected airport, we have a convention centre, we have lots of 4 and 5 star hotels and we don’t charge a lot so bring your event to our city!” In fact check out the full page advertisements in any industry magazine and you’ll see many cities still take this approach.
Here the focus is hardware and the baited hook is that mine is bigger than yours. Trouble is that hundreds of cities listed on the annual ICCA rankings simply cannot compete with each other on hardware matters – there will always be someone bigger, better and cheaper so competition along these metrics is a proverbial “race to the bottom”. There is also, amongst savvy meetings and events professionals, a strong sense that hardware is a “given”. If you’re a serious MICE destination then you MUST have airport access, convention centres, hotels etc. These are Herzbergian hygiene factors that are taken for granted now much like hotels no longer vaunt the fact that they offer satellite TV or, for that matter, free WiFi!
So if buyers of destinations expect the hardware and if most “serious” destinations have it, then how do you stand out? How to you get buyers to pay attention to your location? What new wave in destination marketing can you try to catch early in its cycle so that when it reaches its tipping point and breaks you’re confidently surfing away there like a natural pro?
It’s all about the software
There’s a dramatic switch amongst savvy destination marketers – Australia and Canada are to the forefront – from hardware to software as they key differentiator. It’s no longer the tangible things that I can see that define my difference – bricks and mortar, built infrastructure etc – but the intangible things I cannot see – creativity, innovation, intellectual capital. My power as an attractive destination is more in the soft power of culture, knowledge and expertise than in the hard power of buildings, roads and runways.
Case 1: Australia
This is at the heart of how Business Events Australia is currently targeting the global MICE marketplace. Its current advertisement in PCMA‘s excellent monthly publication, Convene, is a two page spread that combines a full page display with a full page of stories highlighting Australia’s contribution to global innovation:
Already over a billion people around the world rely on Australian discoveries including Spray on Skin, the Cervical Cancer Vaccine, Ultrasound, high speed Wi-Fi and the Bionic Ear. And this is only going to increase, as innovative Australians across a number of sectors develop new cutting edge technology such as the bionic spinal cord.
Contrast that with a full page display in the same magazine from Irving Convention & Visitors Bureau that focuses exclusively on numbers, size and bricks and mortar. Its almost a benefits v features situation: in Irving I might get amazing features (50,000 square feet of column free exhibition space, 2 ballrooms etc) but in Australia I get the benefits (connection to a community of innovators).
Case 2: Bratislava
This underlying trend is at the heart of our own (SoolNua) work with Bratislava too. As a European capital city it is has lots to recommend it but on a like-for-like infrastructural comparison Bratislava will under-perform: it has a wonderful castle and old town but so too do many other European destinations; it has great wine making traditions but can it really compare with the Tuscan, Piedmont, Bordeaux or Rhone regions? It has Danube facing 4 and 5 star hotels but so too does Budapest and Vienna etc
Working with the local MICE community in Bratislava we looked beyond infrastructure and indeed beyond tourism and found some rare and precious “soft” gems in the city’s recent evolution. From its industrial past, Bratislava inherited a substantial legacy in execution, making things, putting things together. This has translated today into an extraordinary car manufacturing industry which makes Slovakia the world’s per capita capital for automobile manufacturing and assembly – VW, Kia, Jaguar and Citroen are all there. Likewise we identified a burgeoning culture of innovation that is world class – Robotics at the VW plant, non-invasive pre-natal screening with Medirex, anti-virus and firewall products with ESET, even meetings industry favourite Sli.do are all Bratislava based.
We added these “soft” attributes to the city’s undisputed claim as Europe’s most accessible city (2 international airports, Bratislava and Vienna, are within 40 minutes of the Old Town) and the 3 brand pillars were born: accessibility, innovation, execution. With these brand pillars Bratislava can credibly compete as a serious MICE player because these are attributes unique to the city.
Pádraic Gilligan, Patrick Delaney and Aoife McCrum run SoolNua, a specialist agency working with destinations, venues and hotels on strategy, marketing and training for the MICE industry.