For the past few years of economic uncertainty, business in many sectors was more about survival than growth. However, with something resembling a reasonably stable recovery beginning to emerge, thoughts can once again turn to where the best growth prospects are likely to be found. This is most certainly the case with both convention centres and their clients, because while the economy was going in circles there were profound changes taking place with the industry itself.
What this means is that in our industry, as with so many others, recovery will not be a matter of simply going back to the successes of the past but having to address what in many respects will be an entirely new model – one that will challenge event organizers every bit as much as the suppliers like centres that will have to accommodate their needs. Amongst those challenges are those that will only be successfully addressed with a collective approach in which both groups recognize and support each other in responding. There are many areas where this is the case but here are three worth thinking about:
First, the biggest issue in today’s industry is relevance – the ability to clearly demonstrate why the kinds of events that characterize what we do are preferred options for the businesses, professionals and academics that take part. Organizations that stage these events are increasingly facing many different and highly effective vehicles for interaction and information delivery, and few of these are necessarily tied exclusively to membership. This means there is a constant need to come up with good arguments as to why membership and event participation is a necessity for today’s potential delegates. For associations, this is a matter of life and death – and for suppliers, it means needing to get more actively involved in both understanding and supporting the objectives of their clients in order to ensure that they and their events remain a preferred choice for potential participants.
The second area demanding action is adaptation. Today’s delegates are ever more demanding in terms of their expectations, including the ability to input to and even shape event content and format, and that requires not just flexible thinking but also the ability to adapt both physical facilities and services in response to what may be very short-term demands. This ability to respond quickly and effectively to rapid changes is important but so is being able to anticipate what these might be and have contingencies in place for when and if they’re needed. Making this work is again a joint responsibility for both the planners representing the organizations staging events and the suppliers that provide the support, including a level of communications and transparency that is new for many.
A third, and closely related concern is what might best be called image – and nowhere is this more important today that in terms of the way we are seen by governments, many of which are still struggling to manage financial challenges incurred through a period of lower revenues and heightened concerns around spending. In the long term, this may well be one of the biggest challenges we face – and again, it is very much a shared one.
Whether we like it or not, governments are essential elements in our industry for three very good reasons. First, they are big investors; governments own and operate most convention centres in Canada (as in the rest of the world) for the very simple reason that industry economics generally don’t support the kind of return required to attract private investment. We need them to play that role, and to do so they need to see a good return, particularly in a time when there are so many other demands on their resources.
Secondly, they are a huge factor in event participation, not only directly by virtue of the attendance of conferences and conventions by government officials, but because in a sense their attitudes either legitimize or challenge attendance by others, as we saw very clearly when meetings in countries like the U.S. were being demonized by governmental statements only a few years ago. In many parts of the world, this role has been seriously challenged of late with travel and meetings participation being used as a primary government cost-cutting measure, and we are not exempt from this prospect in Canada.
And finally, they are policy-makers, and as a result, responsible for the creation of laws and regulations that may have a huge effect on the industry even though they were intended to address very different areas – think taxation and transportation policies, for example. This kind of “accidental impact” can only be mitigated if governments are sufficiently aware of and sensitive to industry prospects that they are able to connect the dots between cause and effect in terms of their own policies.
This is truly a case where organizers and suppliers have both a shared risk and a shared responsibility. Organizers need both good facilities and strong participation to achieve their organizational objectives, and governments are important players in both these areas. At the same time, organizers are uniquely able to deliver a big part of the required answer as to why these events are valuable for ongoing economic and professional development. No one knows better than organizers what these values are, and no one is better positioned to deliver that message effectively to decision makers.
Everyone in the industry has an interest in seeing meetings and conventions assuming as big a role in the economy of the future as it held in the past. But that’s only going to happen if there is a cooperative effort to ensure its ongoing relevance and demonstrable value to those who must invest in that future. Let’s hope this can be a priority for the industry as a whole as we move forward.