For decades, famous and time-honored European destinations such as London, Rome and Paris have been wildly popular among meeting planners and attendees. Over the last year — and just last month in Manchester, England — a series of terrorist attacks has prompted increasing security concerns that have markedly dampened enthusiasm for some destinations.
Yet it’s also true that aside from the security concerns that have recently become a factor in destination decision-making, the market for European meetings is evolving and growing, says Pittsburgh-based Teri Curry, CMP, CIS, CTC, CMMM, senior international sourcing manager at Maritz Global Events. “Companies are becoming more global, so a lot of mid-range companies are opening offices in foreign destinations and doing local meetings in those destinations,” Curry says. “But for companies that source international meetings in the U.S., they are still primarily incentive programs or meetings being held by large global companies, such as technology or pharmaceutical companies.” But, she says, the meetings portion of the market is growing and will continue to grow.
Nevertheless, demand that was robust for European destinations for the last two years is down slightly this year, Curry says. “For the last couple of years, demand has been very strong, because of the strength of the dollar and the obvious appeal of European destinations,” she says. “And as a result of Brexit last year, both the British pound sterling and the Euro fell drastically in comparison to the dollar, so that gave U.S. companies strong buying power and enhanced any interest in Europe that already existed. And that buying power is still there.”
“Our situation, when it comes to European meetings, has not changed at all. For us, there is no hesitation to go to Europe.”
— Sharon L. Schenk, CMP
But growing security concerns have dampened the enthusiasm of many U.S. companies for European events. “For Paris or some places in Germany, security concerns are definitely a major factor, Curry says. “But for other places, like London, where the environment is very stable right now and the buying power is strong, demand is still strong.”
Asked to comment on whether last month’s terrorist attack on Manchester Arena would impact decisions to hold meetings 200 miles south in London, Curry responds, “I think the political and economic environments in London are still stable. I think that the attack in Manchester is a sad statement that nowhere is 100 percent safe in the ‘civilized world.’ …We can’t let what happened yesterday prevent us from living tomorrow.”
Despite the security concerns about European travel that have generated newspaper headlines and TV coverage in the U.S. this spring, Sharon L. Schenk, CMP, director, conventions and event management at corporate conglomerate CCA Global Partners in Manchester, New Hampshire, is still enthusiastic about Continental destinations for the incentive travel programs she plans.
“Our situation, when it comes to European meetings, has not changed at all,” Schenk says. “For us, there is no hesitation to go to Europe. We are still very interested in taking our incentive programs to international destinations, and Europe has always been popular with our attendees and it always will be.”
However, she does acknowledge that, in general, “there is more trepidation about going to Europe than there used to be. For example, I think the recent bombing in Manchester, U.K., is certainly going to have an impact on how people perceive Europe and the climate there. And part of that is the acts of violence we’ve all seen on TV. But at the same time, there have been acts of violence that have happened within the U.S. (Terrorism) is just a reality now.”
Schenk also points out that one can make an argument that much of the current sense of danger in Europe is more perceptual than real, based on statistics. “But the perception is what matters, since most people are more ruled by emotions than facts, she says.” In addition, the U.S. media makes the problem worse by hyping terror attacks around the clock for days and even weeks after the event, she says.
However, Schenk acknowledges that the unprecedented travel warning issued by the U.S. State Department on May 1 — for all of Europe — understandably increases the perception of danger and accentuates security concerns for both companies and attendees. “And that’s not the media saying there are safety concerns,” Schenk says. “That’s our government saying it. So naturally, that is going to have more impact on international travel. And, in a general way, I can’t see how that won’t have a negative effect on demand for European meeting destinations. There are just going to be some companies that say ‘we’re not going to even consider going to Europe while that is in effect.’ “
To make matters even worse for prospective meeting hosts and planners wanting to go to Europe, the State Department advisory singled out airports, hotels, restaurants, nightclubs and shopping malls as high-risk venues.
The warning has particularly exacerbated security concerns for historically popular destinations such as Paris. “And because of that,” Curry says, “I think a company would have to do a lot more now to sell Paris as a destination. For example, at the very least they’d have to provide information on what has been done to enhance the safety of visitors and what measures the company will be taking to keep their attendees safe.”
As result, she recently saw a client choose to avoid Paris. A meeting proposed for the City of Light was relocated to Barcelona. “And why did they change their minds?” Curry says. “Because they got opposition from top management to doing the meeting in Paris because of security concerns.”
For meeting hosts or planners who want to use a European destination, the important thing is to understand the underlying issues and make an informed decision, says Tim Bradley, a former FBI agent who now works as a consultant to Pembroke Pines, Florida-based travel security advisory firm Incident Management Group Inc. “The fact is, it’s hard to determine where the risk is,” Bradley says. “For example, with regard to the police officer that was recently shot in Paris, does that increase the risk of going to Paris? In a general sense, it’s hard to quantify risk. On the same day the police officer was shot in Paris, two were shot in Seattle. And we didn’t hear as much about that. So part of the discussion becomes about how much media coverage is doing to perpetuate the sense of risk.”
Christopher Hagon, Incident Management Group’s Orlando-based managing partner and a former member of the protective detail for Britain’s royal family, amplifies the media-hyped perception issue with a specific example. “A few years ago, we did the security planning for a President’s Club-level event in Paris,” he says. “And just prior to the trip, the London bus and subway bombings happened. And if you watched the BBC presentation of those events, compared to CNN, you wouldn’t believe you were seeing two reports of the same attacks. And of course, people in the U.S. were watching CNN and not the BBC.
“The point is that London is a large city of 820 square miles. And people who were just three or four streets away had no idea the attacks had even happened until they saw the police cars and so on. But for our group, the discussion was immediately about whether or not to cancel the trip to London, which would have cost millions of dollars to do. We explained to them that we had contacts in the security services in London. And we told them we could modify the comprehensive plan that was already in place in order to meet the changing circumstances on the ground. We also told them that we did not believe the risk in the future would impact them. But at the same time, the decision was being made on the basis of the coverage of the London attacks being provided by the U.S. media.
“However, once they were presented with our expertise and information, they decided to go forward with the program. And they did so safely.” Nevertheless, Bradley adds, “There is definitely risk in going to Europe right now. And when you have a U.S. company doing an incentive trip to Europe for several hundred people or more, and they have leisure time to wander around on their own, keeping track of them and being able to locate them quickly if there is some kind of attack is the key element of preparing for these events. And the more time you put into planning and preparation, the more prepared you are, by definition, for anything that could happen. And whether the risk is real or not, the indisputable part of the issue is that people do not feel as safe going to Europe today as they did a few years ago. And that’s a fact. So that means more needs to be done so that people can feel safe.”
Given the risks and potential liability of a terrorist attack, the ideal situation is to have an expert security consultancy such as Incident Management Group get involved in the threat assessment and planning process even before the destination and the hotel are finalized, Bradley says. “No decision should have been made yet on activities or excursions, either. That gives us a chance to assess and vet the entire experience, as it is being discussed and considered. The point is to avoid any kind of decision that can in and of itself put people at risk.”
The next step is detailed contingency planning. “You answer questions such as, ‘What do we do if this happens? What do we do if that happens? How do we get in touch with people?’ And one of the things that we find most companies have overlooked when they come to us is a medical plan. And that doesn’t just mean in the event of a terrorist attack. It means an attendee stepping off the curb and spraining their ankle, or having a heart attack. And those kinds of common medical emergencies are much more likely than a terrorist attack.”
As a practical matter, the key component of a security plan is for attendees to know that in the event of a terrorist incident, they can be located and accounted for quickly and efficiently, and their loved ones back home can be notified quickly and efficiently that they are safe.
As a result of that fundamental need, five years ago Incident Management Group developed a proprietary, innovative and patented “FoneTrac” smartphone system that performs the key function of accounting for attendees in real time in the event of an emergency. “What clients like about it is that is it very robust,” Hagon says. “It tends to work almost everywhere, unless there is no Wi-Fi available. It’s also a simple system. It’s built to account for people as quickly as possible and then, in turn, to inform their loved ones back in the U.S. of their status. And those are by far the two most important practical functions in an emergency situation.”
Just as is the case with other elements of meeting planning, there can be no hard and fast rule that dictates how decisions should be made about using a European destination. Each company must base its decision on its own unique factors.
“For example,” Curry says, “one big factor is who your attendees are. Young people, in the high tech field, or more sophisticated and well-traveled industries like financial services, tend to see a trip to Europe, and even to Paris, as more of an adventure than a risk. On the other hand, a major company that is going to be discussing sensitive information at the meeting, is probably going to be less likely to consider what is perceived as a risky destination. So I think the decision often comes down to the type of attendees and the type of meeting.”
All planners understand that if a company is doing an incentive program, they’re going to want to take their people to some place where they can either see or experience something that they would generally not easily have the ability to experience on their own, Curry notes. “And the good news in that regard is that Europe currently offers a wonderful range of less well known destinations that deliver both safety and a strong value proposition.”
One current example Curry likes: Dubrovnik, Croatia. “It’s a destination that is pretty exotic,” she says. “It’s one that most people would not think about traveling to on their own. And it’s very safe because it has a very stable government. Most of all, it’s a real medieval city with a lot of great history and architecture. It also has an incredibly beautiful coastline. The HBO show “Game of Thrones” is filmed here, so it’s the kind of place that will get people really excited. It has good hotel product and also offers a very good value proposition. So, it’s a good example of the great European destinations that are out there that are unique and safe.”
Other current examples of European destinations that offer safety, exotic appeal, and good value are Prague and Budapest, Curry says. “And then there are the destinations, like Lisbon, Portugal, that are also exotic, but also known to most people. And there is a lot going on in Portugal now that is very interesting. It’s just a great destination for a meeting or incentive program.”
Schenk will use Lisbon as the destination next year for a 600-attendee incentive program.
“Our people have never been to Lisbon and they’re super-excited about going there,” Schenk says. “And from a planner’s perspective, Lisbon is exotic. It offers very good value. It’s safe. It also has very good meeting infrastructure for the size of the group I’m bringing over. And you don’t always find that in the less well-known European destinations. And when it comes to Lisbon, the best thing is I have not gotten any negative feedback from our top management or our attendees about going there.”
Despite all the current chatter about the risks of going to Europe, Schenk says, there is a reality about destination selection that will endure forever. “When I look at destinations, I try to find a place we haven’t gone,” she says. “Then I try to get a sense of the infrastructure as it relates to the type and size of the program we’re doing. And when it comes to European programs, that is always a consideration, because we’re an American company with American employees. And we want the level of property and service that Americans are used to. And if you’re going to a less well-known or smaller European destination, you have to pay attention to those things. But it’s a fact that Europe has always been popular for meetings. And that will never change.” C&IT