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Association meetings: ignore the doom-mongers

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Sometimes the best theories are just that: theories.

No matter how much you pummel and shape them, they refuse to comply with reality. 

Sometimes this creates a kind of cognitive dissonance in those who proposed the theory in the first place. They continue to believe their hypothesis even though all the evidence points elsewhere.

And so there are still people who cling to the idea that associations are a relic of the past, pointless anachronisms breathing their last gasps before a digital Tsunami washes them all away.

Social media, open-source publishing, the rise of the ‘individual’, the pick-and-mix nature of modern consumerism: all have been cited as sensible reasons why associations are doomed. 

It is a theory based on a false assumption - that associations are incapable of reforming themselves; flat-footed beasts who can’t see what’s coming. I’ve been hearing this for the last ten years. 

And yet, according to most available indices, ICCA’s City and Country Rankings included, the number of international association meetings continues to go up and up. Some of this, of course, can be attributed to ICCA’s swelling membership base and better reporting from its members. 

But that doesn’t explain why long-established members who have had rigorous reporting procedures in place for years also show a steady rise in the number of meetings they host.

In a fascinating article for AMI earlier this year, the association consultant Geneviève Leclerc identified a string of emerging industries – from medical cannabis to bitcoin, autonomous vehicles to wearable technologies – and found start-up associations representing all of them.
So much for millennial fatigue.

If it were true, too, that associations are facing extinction, nobody seems to have told the world’s emerging city economies, who are investing millions in convention centres and have installed the international meetings sector as a central plank in their future economic strategies.

Look at all those ‘vision’ documents coming out of the Middle East – places like Dubai, Qatar, Abu Dhabi, and, yes, even Saudi Arabia – and it is clear they see their future in the so-called ‘knowledge economy’ and the nurturing of international organisations as a fundamental part of that.

Besides, there is evidence that associations are changing. Some are remodelling their membership structures or even ditching the traditional membership model altogether in favour of a ‘community-based’ approach, with different points of entry, where essentially all-comers are welcome. 

In a drive to satisfy the different demands of their increasingly international membership, others are holding more regional or pan-continental conferences. More hybrid events are being held – a blending of the physical and virtual worlds – and some of the more adventurous associations are experimenting with simultaneous ‘multi-hub’ events, connecting cities via satellite link-up.

What does appear undeniable, however, is that huge international association meetings are on the wane. The trend in ICCA’s data over the last 20 years has been for more, but smaller, meetings.  

But that, to me, speaks to associations’ ability to adapt to the world around them and augurs well.

On that, there’s an interesting stat that deserves more attention…

Small is beautiful

It is this: almost two-thirds (65 per cent) of international association meetings attract 250 or fewer delegates. In other words they are small. A large room full.  A lecture theatre, perhaps.

In fact, only seven per cent of the 12,563 meetings in ICCA’s database welcomed more than 1,000 delegates and a tiny fraction – a mere 1.3 per cent – attracted 3,000 people or more.

For those at the sharp end of winning association business – the suppliers to the meetings industry – this probably comes as no surprise, but to casual observers of the sector it probably does.

That’s because we hear so little about these meetings.

If you were to soak up the industry hype about international association meetings you might be forgiven for thinking they typically involve 4,000 scientists in a convention centre.

The image projected to the world is of vast plenary halls packed to the rafters, multi-tracked meetings on several floors, with satellite symposia. And cities raking in millions.

What is this obsession with big? Does size really matter? For cities and convention centres the answer is obvious: yes! Big meetings can raise the profile of a city in key areas – and help under-pressure venues balance the books. Why host twenty meetings for 250 people when you can roll out the red carpet for 5,000 delegates in one glitzy, headline-grabbing hit?

And yet we shouldn’t ignore the fact that, across the board, small meetings, often taking place in hotels and universities and attracting very little fanfare, are the industry’s bread and butter.

The science can be just as cutting-edge, the learning just as lofty, and the knowledge transfer every bit as crucial to a city’s economic development. Small meetings might not mean big bucks in terms of delegate spend – but, then again, they don’t mean big damage in terms of carbon footprint, either.

So, enough of the big-hitters for a change, let’s hear it for the silent majority.

This article is written by James Lancaster, Editor of AMI Magazine, and was originally featured in ICCA's latest industry report on the 55-year history of international association meetings, "A Modern History of International Association Meetings - UPDATE: 1963-2017". Download the full report from www.iccaworld.org/55years for more insights into the legacy of association meetings and the sector's historical development.

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