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The “beyond tourism” impact of international meetings: why this changes everything

ICCA CEO Martin Sirk's "column" speech at the launch of the Netherlands Board of Tourism and Conventions new "Economic impact business meetings" study. 

"Meetings are a segment of the tourism economy, correct?  High-yield, great for seasonality, they drive repeat leisure business as well.  Well worth chasing.  Hooray!
Well, yes meetings are part of tourism, but more importantly, at the same time no they are not!  Let me explain what I mean.
I started work in the meetings business in 1989 after seven years in leisure tourism.  All my generation were accidental meeting professionals, and most of us came from tourism.  Naturally, we marketed our destinations and facilities using tourism techniques, as well as highlighting that we could accommodate enough delegates in our hotels, had some big venues, and an airport nearby to fly delegates in.  “Look at our unique culture, enjoy our wonderful restaurants, we’ve got plenty of hotel rooms”: this was the language we used, in bids, brochures, and eventually websites, once these were invented(!).
At the ICCA Congress in 2004 in Montevideo, Uruguay, I heard a presentation that changed everything for me.  A speaker from Singapore.  The first meetings marketing strategy and first convention bureau structure entirely designed to advance the economic development priority sectors of the nation, and since Singapore has no natural resources, to take full advantage of the one powerful asset that they did have, their intellectual capital.  Other destinations soon realised how much this made sense (not least because Singapore was winning bid after bid after bid), and followed along.
By 2010 ICCA could hold a debate at IMEX entitled “The Sex Appeal of Big Brains”, where we argued that a tipping point had arrived, that any serious destination needed to place economic development, inward investment, and intellectual capital at the heart of their strategy, and that companies needed to decide whether they had the intellectual power to become true partners with meeting owners, or whether they would be reduced to acting as commoditised suppliers, competing primarily on price.  “Big Brains” was going mainstream.

Today, I don’t know of any leading meetings destination that leads with their tourism appeal – tourism and culture are still present, of course, but as a “wrapping paper” around their business and intellectual offerings and arguments.  Almost every serious destination has developed an Ambassador scheme of some kind, and is engaged with their local universities and research institutes.  Some bureaux have even become integrated structurally with inward investment agencies and broader city development organisations.  Meetings are now seen as a vital tool to enhance city and national economic competitiveness, not as an end in themselves.
But why has this been happening, and is it just a fashionable marketing trend?
The easiest way to understand this question is to consider four delegates during a conference enjoying an afternoon Borrel, as we are about to do.  In tourism terms we focus on the price of the beer and bitterballen consumed, maybe EURO 60.  What we’re missing is the topic they are discussing, what plans they are developing, and what actually happens as a result of that Borrel-time gathering.  Maybe they are working on ideas to educate an additional 60 postgraduate students at the following year’s event.  Perhaps they’re setting up a new research project that’s worth EURO 60,000 over the next two years.  Or, they might be deciding on an inward investment project worth EURO 60 million, which won’t appear in anyone’s balance sheet for five years.
This is what drives the new strategic thinking: an understanding that the total tourism impact of international meeting delegates is just the tip of the iceberg.  It’s incredibly challenging to observe and to measure what’s happening below the waterline, but we know from the few studies that are now being carried out and from a larger portfolio of anecdotal, storytelling reports, that this value is truly enormous, and vastly larger than the tourism impact of the event: it encompasses knowledge creation and transfers, business conducted (especially with local businesses in that city or country), trade barriers dismantled, healthcare improvements driven forward, societal problems addressed.
So this is clearly a major change, but why does this “beyond tourism” impact change “everything”, as I claimed in the title of this column?

Firstly, it means we genuinely have to pay careful attention to what goes on within our meetings, and not just look at the surface - that requires a dramatic mental shift.

Secondly, it means we need to develop entirely new skill-sets amongst our staff in order to remain competitive – every director here needs to start employing youngsters who are significantly smarter than they are.

And thirdly, now that almost every serious player around the world – city and country alike – is embracing this concept, competition is certain to get even tougher, and this in turn means that if you want to stay ahead of the pack, you will now have to invent and develop entirely new differentiators and business models to be successful in future!  But that’s a topic for another column or talk!"
Martin Sirk