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Promoting the Wider Benefits of Business Events

By Tony Rogers

 

Tony Rogers is a consultant specialising in conferences, business tourism / business visits and events, and destination marketing and management. He established his own consultancy, Tony Rogers Conference & Event Services Ltd, in September 2009 (www.tony-rogers.com). Until September 2009 he worked as Project Director for Eventia, the events industry trade association, and prior to this he spent 19½ years as Chief Executive of the British Association of Conference Destinations (BACD).
Tony is an honorary member of the Association of British Professional Conference Organisers (ABPCO), an association he managed for eight years (2000-2008); a Visiting Fellow at Leeds Metropolitan University’s UK Centre for Events Management and an Advisory Board Member of the International Centre for Research in Events, Tourism and Hospitality at the University; a past member of the European Advisory Council for Destination Marketing Association International (DMAI); and author of several books on the international conference industry including ‘Marketing Destinations and Venues for Conferences, Conventions and Business Events’ (written jointly with Rob Davidson of the University of Greenwich) and ‘Conferences and Conventions: A Global Industry’, both translated into Chinese (the latter has also been translated into Portuguese).
He has also been a course validator for Sheffield Hallam University, University College Birmingham and the University of Westminster. Tony is actively involved with the Business Visits & Events Partnership (BVEP), the umbrella body for the business events sector in the UK. His work for BVEP includes compilation of the ‘Britain for Events’ report (published October 2010); and a research study on ‘Global Best Practice in Subvention and Bid Support’ (in conjunction with Sally Greenhill of The Right Solution) published October 2011. He is currently compiling a new ‘Britain for Events’ report due for publication early 2014. Tony is a regular speaker at conferences and events in the UK, and at a number of UK universities and colleges. He has also presented at conferences in Belgium, Germany, Greece, Korea, Malaysia, Malta, Monaco, The Netherlands, South Africa, and Spain.

 

Much has already been written about the benefits of conferences and meetings and their positive economic, social and, to a lesser extent, environmental impacts. It is clear that the MICE sector is a huge force for good in our world, but much work remains to be done to convey the scope and scale of its benefits to a wider audience.

There is still a lack of understanding and recognition of the value that conferences and meetings generate in terms of professional development, knowledge transfer, investment generation, technical progress and all the other areas that define why these events happen in the first place. In reality, meetings, conventions and exhibitions are, in the words of a paper entitled ‘Understanding the Value of the Meetings Industry’ published by the Joint Meetings Industry Council (JMIC) in 2008:

primary engines of both economic and professional development, key vehicles for not just sharing information – something that, in many cases, can be done just as effectively on the Internet – but building the kind of understanding, relationships and confidence that can only be achieved on a face-to-face basis.

The JMIC paper describes ‘three critical areas of interface which the meetings industry has with the broader economy, whether that be at a global level or in the context of an individual community’. The first of these is the economic role, described elsewhere in GMI. The second is the business development role:

which reaches far beyond the immediate effects of event-related spending. For a start, meetings, conventions and exhibitions attract business audiences that wouldn’t necessarily otherwise visit a particular destination, and who are more likely to be investors and decision-makers than other types of visitors. In this way, events serve to expose the host city and its investment opportunities to a whole new audience – a process that can rival even the most highly evolved economic and investment development programmes mounted by the business community. At the same time, they provide a vehicle for local business and professional groups to host colleagues and create a showcase for local products and services, all key elements in the economic development process.

But, the paper suggests:

above all, there are the benefits associated with the community enhancement role – because these are the ones that most directly impact the largest number of people in a community. For a start, meetings and conventions create access to a wide range of professional development opportunities for local residents by making these more accessible to those in the community. Major, or even regional, gatherings bring what is often world class knowledge and expertise within the grasp of local businesses and professionals, improving overall knowledge in ways that would not otherwise be possible. When such gains are made in areas such as the medical or research fields, the benefits to the rest of the community can be very profound in terms of how they improve the overall quality of life.

But even without this effect there are ways that the community benefits in a very tangible way from the meetings, conventions and exhibitions taking place there. For a start, it justifies and in large part finances the development of facilities that can then be used for the community’s own events and celebrations. But, best of all, the arrival of non-resident delegates means a lot of new tax revenues from outside of the usual local tax base which can and will be applied to supporting ongoing community services.

The paper concludes, however, by describing an even more important role, one which goes to the heart of what meetings are all about, which is:

The importance they have in bringing together diverse interests and cultures to address common challenges. Meetings, conventions and exhibitions not only support professional, research, technology and academic development – the pivotal activities that underpin global progress – but they also help build networks and bridge cultural differences that threaten world order and advancement. The simple fact is, meetings are vehicles for finding solutions to global issues – and that is something we will have no shortage of in the years ahead!

Rod Cameron of the Association Internationale des Palais de Congrès (AIPC), writing in ‘Conference+Meetings World’ magazine (June 2010), urged that, in order to promote a better understanding of the meetings and business events industry, a number of issues need to be addressed:

  • Firstly, we need to emphasise the role that meetings play in economic, professional and educational development and downplay the leisure aspect. There has never been a greater opportunity for the industry, as the world continues to look at the course the recovery will take, and to search for any activities that can promise support in this regard. But to achieve this, we need to be taken more seriously
  • Secondly, we need to enhance both the content and perceived value of meetings in order to give planners and delegates the arguments they need to justify their investment of time and resources
  • In particular, we need to put more emphasis on the ability to demonstrate measurable outcomes that will resonate with increasing corporate concerns about return on investment (ROI).

He concludes: The fact is, nobody holds a meeting in order to fill hotel rooms, that’s simply a by-product, and yet most of our current industry measures relate to what delegates spend, not what they actually accomplish. This trivialises meetings in the eyes of those who see them as engines for business and professional progress.

These points are reinforced by Leigh Harry, then President of the Joint Meetings Industry Council, Chief Executive of Melbourne Exhibition & Convention Centre and President of the International Congress & Convention Association (ICCA), who wrote (IMEX-Frankfurt newsletter – July 2010):

The most recent ‘image crisis’ was a direct result of our industry being seen by many as more closely related to leisure than economic and professional development. We are challenged by the fact that our greatest value is difficult to measure, that is, what meetings actually accomplish such as professional and technical advancement, new investment, innovation and technology transfer. These are the real reasons meetings and conventions take place.

He argues that the meetings and events industry should be thought of as a key component in the global knowledge economy, rather than as a branch of tourism.

 

COMMUNICATING THE BENEFITS OF ‘MICE’

The challenge, therefore, is how to communicate all of these benefits through positive messages to a myriad of audiences: political (local, national and international), business, academic, community, and others? It is encouraging to note a number of initiatives taking place around the world. One such is the creation of ‘National Meetings Weeks’ being run on an annual basis in several countries. First begun in the UK at the beginning of the new millennium, these ‘Weeks’ have enjoyed some success in raising the profile and understanding of the sector. In the UK, ‘National Meetings Week’ has evolved into a six-month campaign entitled ‘Britain for Events’, and this campaign has been instrumental in the creation of an All-Party Parliamentary Group for Events, the first time that a group of national politicians has come together to lobby for and support the Events sector. The campaign was also successful in gaining endorsement from the British Prime Minister, David Cameron. The ‘Britain for Events’ campaign is overseen by the Business Visits and Events Partnership, an umbrella body that brings together over 20 representative bodies and trade associations from the sector (www.businessvisitsandeventspartnership.com).

The trade show, IMEX-Frankfurt, includes as part of the proceedings an annual Politicians Forum, designed to bring together both local and national politicians from a number of countries to debate key issues in support of the business events sector (www.imex-frankfurt.com).

In Australia, the Business Events Council (BECA)(www.businesseventscouncil.org.au) was created in 1994 to bring the business events industry and community together and to speak with one voice. Its purpose was, and is, to foster the development of the industry as a united entity and to raise the profile of business events to government and to the business community. Perhaps inevitably this is still a ‘work in progress’, acknowledged by the Executive Manager of BECA, Inge Garofani, who was quoted (Conworld.net – 3 March 2012) as saying:

Business and association meetings and events are an undervalued contributor to the economy and community in Australia. They provide not only the tangible benefits of room nights and delegate spend but a far greater contribution to the nation. They have a ripple effect like a stone in a pond where the initial impact is small and defined but the real impact is in the ripples flowing outwards. These ripples are where we provide the greatest benefit to Australia. We bring international experts to Australia to share knowledge, educate our community and this leads to great legacies and benefits, both financial and non-financial.

 

A meeting convened by the Joint Meetings Industry Council (JMIC) in London in May 2011 agreed on five steps to broaden understanding of the benefits to accrue from meetings and conventions. These are:

  1. To carry out inventory/comparative analysis of existing valuation models and develop a means for achieving greater consistency among these
  2. To encourage the development of local applications for economic impact models in order to generate better data for use in individual communities
  3. To create a protocol for assembling value-added ‘output’ values with emphasis on the use of case studies and examples to illustrate major areas of benefit
  4. To identify key audiences along with their priority information requirements and develop a communications ‘ tool kit’ to assist in this process
  5. To encourage event owners to assume a more active role in measuring and communicating value.

 

ALIGNMENT OF EVENT BIDDING BY CITIES WITH THEIR LOCAL ECONOMIES

One of the important ways in which cities (and countries) are seeking to change perceptions of the business events sector is to focus their bidding activity on attracting events for which there is a real synergy with the local economy. For example, London & Partners (London’s destination marketing organisation) has now set its sights on growing four specific industries: technology, life sciences, the creative industries, and financial/banking/business services. Through inward investment, it hopes to make London a world leader in these sectors – and an integral part of its strategy includes attracting high profile international events. Tracy Halliwell, Director of Business Tourism for London & Partners, is quoted in the September 2013 issue of ‘Meetings & Incentive Travel’ magazine, as saying:

 

‘We have taken the four sectors London is already strong in. If we can attract more events in that space we’ll get more support from the city to bring them in. Meetings and events can support foreign direct investment and growth in these sectors, have a take-up effect on study and create and support new jobs. We know our enquiries brought £100 million to £120 million in economic benefit in the Olympic year and we have a target of 8 to 10 per cent growth this year.’

 

In February 2013 Birmingham announced that it was considering taking political conferences off its agenda post-2014 in favour of hosting events more aligned with the city’s economic growth, and designed to maximise investment opportunities with a range of events. Sir Albert Bore, Leader of Birmingham City Council, said at the time:

 

‘Looking beyond 2014, we are aiming to attract events in sectors the city is also targeting for investment. These events will bring industry leaders and decision makers to Birmingham, creating opportunities for us to showcase the city’s offer as a business destination. This will ensure that events held here act as a catalyst for the city’s economic growth.’

 

In Manchester, Steven Small, Head of Business Tourism at Visit Manchester, writes (September 2013, ‘Conference News’):

 

‘In the North West we understand the value of business events, not only as a direct contributor to the local economy, but as a way of highlighting the region’s strength in key academic and industry sectors. These events attract leading academics, industrialists, business people and entrepreneurs and are a great way to showcase the region and help attract investment and trade.’

 

At the IMEX Frankfurt exhibition in May 2013, the Canada Tourism Commission described how it had re-branded its former Meetings, Conventions and Incentive Travel Division into ‘Business Events Canada’ in an effort to position the role of business events as catalysts for growth within Corporate Canada. It explained that Business Events Canada would be reducing its focus on ‘tourism’ because the Canadian government had recognised that the tourism dividend resulting from business events or MICE, while welcome, was not the essential benefit that the country is seeking. More important remains the need to educate Corporate Canada itself that, by attracting business events to its best aligned cities, it is providing gateways to international markets, skills migration, economic and social development, and ultimately the enrichment of the economic infrastructure of both cities and country alike.

 

CONCLUSION

These are exciting times for the global MICE or business events sector. We have an opportunity to create a much wider understanding of the scope, impacts and benefits of the sector among business, political, academic and community audiences. The trends and developments outlined in this article suggest that we are moving in the right direction, even though much work remains to be done to ensure that we are successful in reaching our destination.

 

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