As with so many other business sectors, Canada’s convention centres are looking forward with a sense of anticipation to the impacts that the current global economic crisis may bring in the coming months and years. This concern, coming as it does on the heels of some of the strongest performance years on record, will affect not only marketing but also performance measurement, operating efficiencies, business priorities and even the ways in which centres calculate and report the benefits they bring to their respective communities.
However, early indications are that Canada’s centres are well positioned to deal with an evolving future and as always, those that anticipate and respond best to current challenges — and who at the same time are able to find new business opportunities — are the ones that will weather the storm most successfully.
In assessing the current situation, it becomes immediately apparent that there are some significant differences in how various centres are impacted based on the composition of their business. There is, for example, a clear differentiation between corporate and association events, with corporate events tending to show the most immediate and profound effects, while association events have remained largely stable even though there may yet be impacts on their attendance.
It’s the same for the timing of event bookings, with associations again demonstrating greater stability given their typically lengthier booking periods which may actually “straddle” the current recession. As a result, the weighting of any particular centre’s business in these different areas can have a profound effect on overall performance.
One challenge is that it is becoming increasingly difficult for centre managers to estimate financial impacts. While the more stable business remains on the books, there are potential declines in attendance and revenue which will remain unknown until the events actually take place and it is difficult to estimate these in advance.
Food and beverage in particular continues to be an unknown until late in the process, and this is a real consideration given the growing proportion of revenue this area delivers in many centres. Centres are also seeing significant and growing delays in the booking process — particularly in terms of contracting — as many organizers defer their decisions for as long as possible.
There is also a need to address growing competition, as many centres continue to expand and renovate, raising the performance bar not just across the country but around the world. This understandably has the effect of raising the expectations of clients. As a result, it is becoming increasingly necessary for destinations and owners to recognize a need for ongoing investment in facilities and services simply to remain competitive in a market where so much high quality product is readily available.
At the same time, there is a new factor that relates to how meetings and conventions are perceived. Beginning with the advent of “pharma codes,” which impacted the relationship between pharmaceutical companies and their funding for medical meetings, and exacerbated by some of the conditions associated with government bailout funding for corporations, meetings are increasingly seeking to position themselves as serious business, primarily concerned with education, professional and academic endeavors and business advancement rather than social activities. While these have always been key components of meetings, they are now shaping how clients select a destination and even whether or not a particular event takes place at all.
FACING THE CHALLENGES
It’s an impressive array of challenges, particularly when governments (which make up the vast majority of centre owners) are facing a whole range of their own economic crisis related issues. However, centres are already responding to these challenges in a number of ways.
First, they are re-engaging with clients to see how they can work better together in addressing their common concerns over attendance, facility requirements and potential changes in programming. This kind of dialogue benefits both parties because it enables centres to plan more effectively and clients to better avail themselves of the experience and insights of centre staff as they seek to respond to the pressures they themselves are facing, including, in some cases, reduced staffing. At the same time, it can help build relationships in ways that will have positive long-term benefits and, in some cases, re-shape the whole way in which centres and clients work together.
Second, they are looking at other revenue sources. This includes re-examining the opportunities to diversify business across a wider range of geographic areas and market sectors in order to reduce dependence on any particular segment and thus enhance overall business stability. It also often leads to a re-evaluation of the importance of the local client base, which may be less impacted by some of the financial considerations such as travel costs and which may offer more workable alternatives to larger events in challenging times. Many such events offer good sources of revenue to the centre which can help offset any revenue reductions from other event types.
Third, they are increasingly seeking to demonstrate global standards in operations and services, for the simple reason that such credentials are visible evidence of quality — something that is important in times when clients are looking for the best possible value. Client expectations are increasingly global for the simple reason that the rotation of events which is characteristic of our industry exposes clients to a wide range of facilities and enables them to be more critical about what they are getting in any particular location.
Fourth, centres are engaging with colleagues through industry associations and events which enable them to keep better track of market developments and share strategies for business survival and growth. This kind of communication is more important than ever, given the need to identify effective strategies for survival, and is made possible by the spirit of cooperation which characterizes the industry. The majority of centres long ago recognized that they had much more to gain through the free exchange of information and experience than they did from hoarding it, and this has become a particularly important strength in the face of a challenging economy.
Finally, many centres are recognizing that the current crisis is a good opportunity to demonstrate the key economic role they play in their respective communities. By showing how the events they host can stimulate business growth and confidence, they have the opportunity to create a positive impression that will last long after the current crisis is over.
This latter initiative is likely the most important from the perspective of the long-term health of the industry as a whole. As an industry, we have not done a good job of communicating effectively what we do, the wide range of benefits we generate and why we deserve the support of the community. In particular, we have not been effective in underlining the key role that convention centres and the kinds of events they host have in advancing overall economic development.
In this respect, the current economic crisis offers an important opportunity to do what we have not been able to do previously — and that is to position centres and the meetings industry overall as a key player in economic recovery.
The argument is a pretty simple one: there is no better way to create stimulation than by engaging people in the processes of product development, education, new investment, professional development and the exchange of new ideas and technologies. This is what meetings, conventions and exhibitions do — and why they inevitably play a key role in getting the economy going again.
In fact, there are at least five reasons why a time of economic contraction is a time to advance the role of the meetings industry:
First, and most obviously, these events help to advance business activity when that’s needed the most. Meetings, conventions and exhibitions are occasions for the exchange of information and the advancement of ideas — the kinds of things that lead to new products and services and the adaptation of existing ones to meet new commercial opportunities. By creating a forum for this kind of activity, meetings play a key role in stimulating business activity from the bottom up, as well as creating a platform for promoting and selling the resulting products.
Second, they are a fundamental underlying component of research and development. Economic stimulation requires innovation, and that in turn means an exchange amongst those in the development process. New investment in formal R&D programs will only come when there is an evident potential, and by getting a good sense of what is going on worldwide in any field — again, the kind of thing that takes place at meetings and conventions — those engaged in the development field can determine the directions in which they should be headed in a much more efficient way.
Third, they play an important role in professional development. One of the first casualties of an economic downturn is confidence, and not just in institutions. Individuals, too, particularly when faced with an uncertain future, start to lose confidence in their own ability to stay afloat. The opportunity to gain new knowledge and expertise — tools that can be put to work as conditions improve — can deliver a major boost to personal confidence, and that leads to improved attitudes and more positive perspectives across the board.
Fourth, meetings, conventions and exhibitions can play a strongly stabilizing role in the transportation and hospitality sectors because they stimulate travel in a way that just doesn’t seem to happen at a personal level. Following the aftermath of 9/11, when there was a virtual halt to travel in many parts of the world, it was the meetings and conventions area that led the recovery, with delegates and exhibitors taking the initiative to hit the road long before there was any comparable rebound in personal travel. The added necessity of attending events that played a key role in people’s business and professional lives seemed to be what it took to get them on the road again, and in the process, supporting hotels and other visitor infrastructure when they needed it the most.
Finally, meetings, conventions and exhibitions are key factors in addressing an economic crisis because they promote cooperation and understanding at a time when tensions are high due to the pressures of uncertainty. Economic crises tend to promote conflict as different regions and interests struggle to come to terms with a variety of different impacts. The kind of ongoing dialogue that is supported by meetings and conventions is the best possible way to address this sort of situation, and to promote global cooperation (and in the process, understanding) on many different fronts at once.
Most governments, associations and corporations understand at least part of this, and are prepared to encourage and support meetings activities when the economy is under attack. We need to broaden the understanding of the role that these kinds of events can play in leading the way out of a crisis, and current circumstances offer an opportunity to do just that.
In short, Canada’s convention centres will be confronted by many of the same issues faced by other business sectors — and like these sectors they will be seeking to adapt, innovate and create new business opportunities out of the challenges that lie ahead. However, they also represent a big part of the solution to the current crisis in terms of the role they can and do play in supporting overall economic development. In strengthening their own operations and business, they will be strengthening the economy as well, and the ability to demonstrate this effectively may be one of the greatest opportunities we have today.
Rod Cameron, is Executive Director at Convention Centres of Canada