In 2009, in the wake of a severe economic downturn and the throes of what came to be known as the “AIG effect,” which made many corporate executives afraid to hold meetings, an emergency coalition of industry leaders from organizations such as MPI, ASAE, PCMA, IAEE and SITE came together under the leadership of U.S. Travel Association president and CEO Roger Dow. They mounted a defensive campaign dubbed “Meetings Mean Business” that is credited with saving the meeting industry from disaster.
In January, Meetings Mean Business (MMB) re-launched as a proactive campaign designed to ensure the long-term health of the meeting industry.
In June, its leaders convened for a panel discussion at IBTM America’s annual meeting.
In August, they spoke with Corporate & Incentive Travel about the progress that has been made and what lies ahead for the initiative.
“In 2009, U.S. Travel helped quickly convene Meetings Mean Business (MMB) with industry leaders in large part to respond to a crisis,” says Roger Dow. “Our industry was under attack and we needed to mobilize quickly. We pushed through that trying time, showed the industry’s incredible value, and reset the tone of the conversation.”
Essential to that ongoing mission are some key facts.
For example, the meeting and events industry in 2012 generated more than $770 billion in total output and $280 billion in direct spending, as well as $90 billion in federal, state and local taxes, according to a study from PwC. The industry also supports 1.8 million jobs — more than the computer, trucking or broadcast and telecommunication industries, notes Dow.
Likewise, Kevin Hinton, chief excellence officer at the renamed Society of Incentive Travel Excellence (SITE), invokes data released earlier this year by the Convention Industry Council in an Economic Significance of Meetings to the U.S. Economy report, which states that during 2012, 1.83 million meetings were held in the U.S. and attended by 225 million participants. The economic contribution of meetings to U.S. GDP surpasses that of the air transportation, motion picture, sound recording, performing arts and spectator sport industries. More than 67,000 motivational events and incentive travel programs were held in 2012 with more than 9 million delegates. Although incentive travel programs represent the lowest percentage of all meeting types, the direct spend per delegate of $1,570 is the highest, Hinton says. It accounts for $22.5 billion in direct spending in the U.S. Furthermore, Hinton says, the SITE Annual Forecast for Incentive Travel predicts that the industry will continue to grow at a significant pace through 2016.
Earlier this year, Dow says, Rockport Analytics released a report detailing the economic value of IPW (Pow Wow), the U.S. travel industry’s premier international convention, and found that it rivaled the economic impact of the Super Bowl. For the host city, IPW produces more than four times as many direct expenditures; delivers more than five times the amount of GDP value-added direct impact; and generates greater federal, state and local tax revenues. Moreover, the economic impact carries over for three years, Dow says.
“We need to keep telling these kinds of stories that speak to the industry as an economic engine,” he says.
Since its creation in 2009, Meetings Mean Business has had significant and ongoing impact on the perception and performance of the U.S. meeting industry.
And its importance to the future of the industry cannot be overstated, says Paul Van Deventer, president and CEO of Meeting Professionals International (MPI). “MMB represents an effort where, for the first time,” he says, “a significant majority of the leading organizations and influencers in our industry are speaking in a single unified voice — telling a clear and consistent story of the value of our industry.”
Telling that story clearly is vitally important to the future of the industry, says Larry Luteran, Hilton Worldwide senior vice president of group sales and industry relations, who moderated the panel of industry association CEOs at the IBTM America event.
“For a long time, the public focused on a negative rhetoric about frivolous spending during industry meetings,” Luteran says. “But something that got lost in that conversation was a focus on the real impact and benefits of face-to-face meetings. With MMB, we’ve created a mechanism to tell the positive stories, to gather facts and figures, and make sure business leaders, policymakers and other stakeholders understand the value of bringing people together for in-person meetings and events.”
The progress made toward that goal in 2014 has been significant, says Deborah Sexton, president and CEO of the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA). “What’s different now is that we have all the leaders from across the meetings and events industry — destination marketing organizations, professional associations like PCMA and all the others, hotel brands, suppliers, incentive travel organizations and others — uniting behind one campaign. That gives us a louder voice and a broader platform to stand on as we promote the critical importance of face-to-face meetings.”
Although MMB has had a positive impact on the debate over meetings, its biggest accomplishment has been rallying a broad range of industry leaders and influencers to a common cause that is being addressed with a collective and focused voice, Van Deventer says. “That will enable us to provide a consistent and strong message outside of our industry, bringing awareness and recognition of the significant economic scope and impact of the industry to a much wider audience,” he says.
Dow agrees that MMB’s key accomplishment is creating an unprecedented, industry-wide alliance. “For the first time, we have all of the different industry leaders, representing all of the different sectors, united behind a single, proactive campaign. MMB has successfully created a dialogue within the industry. It’s an effort that reaches across business, professional associations and destination marketing organizations, and the greater travel industry, to offer one voice that extols the undeniable value of business meetings, events, conferences and conventions to all sectors of the economy.”
“For the first time, we have all of the different industry leaders…united behind a single, proactive campaign. MMB has successfully created a dialogue within the industry.” — Roger Dow
That said, Dow adds, now the attention will turn to the education of rank-and-file stakeholders in the industry, such as meeting planners and hosts. “We need to continually look for ways to capture the true value of a meeting or event whether it’s in terms of the business value, return on investment, local impact or, sometimes harder to measure, relationship-building, and make sure that stakeholders within organizations can communicate that to their own management and beyond their organization to the broader industry.”
Sexton concurs that a more broad and far-reaching educational initiative will be a critical step in the next phase of MMB’s evolution. “We have to educate people about the real economic impact of the industry and how meetings and events create jobs, stimulate local economies and lead to stronger business outcomes,” she says. “As an industry, we’ve come a long way since 2009, but there is still work to be done. As MMB looks towards the future, I think there will be a heightened effort to reach mainstream audiences. This includes a larger push towards consumers and key policymakers, as well as engagement with national and business press. These audiences are critical to the overall success of our sustained campaign.”
Hilton Worldwide’s Luteran believes that continuing to build the brand momentum of the Meetings Mean Business campaign is critical to a full recovery of the meeting industry.
“We need to continue the momentum that we’ve built,” he says. “We need to keep highlighting the industry’s value to businesses, the government and communities. The next crisis is around the corner, and the more proactive we are now, the better equipped we will be to handle it.”
John H. Graham IV, CAE, president and CEO of ASAE, stresses the importance of increasing awareness of the economic impact of meetings to corporate America and the mainstream media. “The coalition is now working to reach these audiences, as well as educating corporations about the vital role the meetings industry plays in strengthening our economy,” Graham says.
Another extremely important goal, Hinton says, is “engaging with the federal government so that they stop their harmful rhetoric and avoid the passage of legislation that would be punitive to our industry. That’s an ongoing effort, but real progress is being made. Beyond government, we need to align our interests with the interests of the business community so that those who make financial decisions about meetings and events see them as productive investments and that we as meetings and event professionals are part of the solution to the complex issues businesses face.”
Graham agrees that encouraging more understanding and less criticism from government officials is important. “We are definitely making strides on Capitol Hill, as well as with other people outside our industry, but there’s still plenty of work to be done,” he says.
To be successful in the long run and generate results that endure, MMB will require a broad, sustained effort over many years, Van Deventer says. “We also will need to expand our partnership to include other strategic partners, such as more global corporate executives and the airlines,” he says.
The U.S. Travel Association has invested in tools that help quantify the value of in-person meetings and events, Dow says. “For instance, a report by Oxford Economics reaffirmed that business travel drives corporate revenues and delivers profits to the bottom line. Business travel fuels growth, with every dollar companies spend on business travel generating $9.50 in new revenue. Face-to-face meetings are essential for keeping customers and winning new business. Conferences and conventions are vital for gaining new insights and improving sales.
As the MMB juggernaut continues to move forward, Dow says, “it will continue to leverage such compelling data points while also identifying qualitative examples that attest to the travel and meeting industry’s return on investment and economic impact.”
An immediate next step for MMB, Sexton says, is to continue gaining new supporters and advocates throughout the meeting industry. “That includes event planners, incentive travel leaders, exhibition coordinators and more. MMB is looking to engage with all the members of the broader meeting community to ensure that all voices are being heard and the undeniable value of each facet of the meetings and events industry is continuously communicated through social channels, member communication, social media and public advocacy to all stakeholders. Additionally, we need to advance and broaden this initiative beyond the U.S. and engage the global stakeholders; utilizing organizations such as JMIC, SACEOS, IAPCO and forums such as IMEX and EIBTM to reach their audiences with our global message.”
Van Deventer adds that the far-reaching success of MMB “will be dependent on each member of the coalition successfully engaging and activating their employee and partner networks to build the grassroots momentum. MPI has done this with our own Meetings Move Us Forward Initiative, which was launched last December to help our members tell their own stories.”
Graham agrees that it’s very important for MMB to create and widely disseminate testimonials from a diverse group of people within and outside our industry so that the ROI of face-to-face meetings can be clearly and powerfully demonstrated. “These profiles, white papers and articles will help communicate how these meetings have impacted people personally and professionally, and how these events have led to the creation of new groups and opportunities.”
Luteran puts it even more simply: “We have to keep reinforcing the importance of meetings and events,” he says.
Meanwhile, says David DuBois, CMP, CAE, CTA, FASAE, president and CEO of the International Association of Exhibitions and Events (IAEE), fundraising and effective public relations and communications programs on behalf of MMB are other vital objectives. “Our fundraising efforts have been very successful,” DuBois says, “and that has allowed us to further enhance and execute a more proactive public relations plan.”
Although MMB is, by definition, a complex and challenging undertaking as the meeting industry continues to evolve rapidly, its essential message must be kept simple and clear, its organizers say.
“The campaign name captures our essential message— Meetings Mean Business,” Dow says.
“Organizations depend on face-to-face meetings to win new customers, close new deals and develop high-performing talent. The business outcomes of face-to-face meetings far exceed any other. Nothing replaces face-to-face meetings when it comes to getting the job done.”
Sexton corroborates the opinion that a clear and unwavering message is at the core of MMB’s efforts. “The message is that face-to-face interactions are irreplaceable tools as we look to advance business and find solutions to hard problems,” she says. “Throughout the coming months, MMB will continue to show how meetings drive positive business outcomes and provide a return on investment for both the private and public sector.”
And a big part of that message must be communicated to and fully comprehended by meeting planners and hosts.
“We are now actively engaging with meeting stakeholders to drive a conversation around the value of our industry,” Dow says.
Corporate meeting planners are critical to the conversation, Sexton says, because they are the audience that must continuously see measurable successful and solid ROI from their efforts.
Hinton concurs. “We need all meeting and event professionals to realize there is a lot at stake here,” he says. “My message to planners is that the upside here is real, but it’s not someone else’s cause to take up. It’s yours. Practice your answer to the question, ‘What do you do?’ Make sure it’s compelling and positions you as a business professional, which you accomplish through the planning and execution of meetings and events.”
At the same time, Dow makes the point that the new incarnation of MMB is meant to be proactive and positive. “We re-launched MMB as an offensive campaign, not a defensive one,” he says. “With our front foot forward, we are enlisting the help of leaders across many industries to help share our story and explain to our customers, the business community and political elites, that investing in collaborative, face-to-face meetings and events has a real and measurable return.”
Graham cautions that neither MMB nor the meeting industry at large can take for granted that the public, elected officials and policymakers understand the value of face-to-face meetings. “We must continue to assertively advocate on this important issue because at some point in the future, meetings will again be under attack,” Graham says. “But next time around, we will be much better prepared.”
A key element of that preparedness, Luteran says, is the “tool kit” MMB developed earlier this year available at www.meetingsmeanbusiness.com. “It includes messaging, talking points and social media content, to ensure that we all are speaking with one voice,” Luteran says. “Along with the tool kit, MMB released a mobile app that features industry-relevant news, MMB-specific content, and updates.”
In early August, MMB launched its official Twitter handle @MeetingsMeanBiz with the hashtag #MMBusiness.
“That enables all of our supporters to track the news and join the Twitter conversation by following the handle and hashtag,” Luteran says. “These new tools are critically important for the industry as it allows us to stay in touch with all of the announcements and news stemming from MMB and the industry as a whole. Moreover, it encourages us to get involved throughout the year, whether that involvement means a tweet or adding MMB language into our corporate newsletters.”
Five years ago, the meeting industry faced an unprecedented challenge that represented an existential threat.
Today, thanks to the innovative and aggressive efforts of MMB and its coalition of committed industry leaders, meeting and events are on their way back to the forefront of most corporate activities.
And next time there’s an economic downturn or another optics scandal, the industry will be in a much better position to respond.
But MMB needs your help, its leaders stress. C&IT