The world is changing. That’s indisputable. But for meeting planners, a host of political, economic and safety issues can have especially far-reaching effects.
“It’s definitely not business as usual,” said Teresa Matamoros, business development manager for North America at Gaining Edge, a Melbourne, Australia-based company that works with convention and meetings industry clients. “More than ever, our industry has to deal with economic, political and safety issues that might not have been factoring [before] at the top of the decision-making process.”
As a result, the role of the meeting planner has “significantly changed,” according to Paul Van Deventer, president and CEO of MPI and co-chair of Meetings Mean Business, an organization that promotes the benefits of face-to-face meetings.
“In the not-too-distant past, they were really logistical players,” Van Deventer said. “Someone would come to them and say, ‘I’m going to bring x number of people together, find me a destination and service, food and beverage.’ That role began to evolve significantly in the last five to 10 years…and that strategic role and evolution is timely because of the political dynamics that are occurring on a global basis right now.”
The current political climate in several nations has changed the realities for meeting planners.
“We have not been in a similar situation ever in the past,” Matamoros said, citing “an unconventional [political] leadership that has created skeptics in Europe and also in North America about the direction that the U.S. will take, and how will this affect them.”
Among the other destinations affected by current events is Turkey, according to Van Deventer.
“Look what’s happened in Turkey in the last three years,” he said. “Their event industry has pretty much collapsed because of concerns about the political environment, whether it’s individual terrorist attacks that occurred or just the overall approach of the administration.”
Rosy Burnie, managing director of M.I.C.E. in the Bag, a U.K.-based company that provides facilitation services for buyers and suppliers, agreed that Turkey is one of the strongest examples of major shifts.
“Istanbul was a rising star in the events industry from European organizers, “ she said. “However, after recent events, most have canceled or stopped booking events there.”
Brexit is another development that has the meetings industry on alert.
“It has been difficult to quantify [the effect], as most companies have continued to do business as usual,” Burnie said. “However, with the fall of the value of the sterling pound, it means that the U.K. has been a cheaper place to host incoming events.”
The proposed travel ban in the U.S. is already affecting the meetings industry, according to some experts.
A survey conducted by Meetings Mean Business just a week after the initial executive order was issued revealed potential challenges, according to Van Deventer.
“We got almost 2,000 responses within two days from our membership,” Van Deventer said. “Fifty-four percent said that it would have immediate and lasting harm on the impression of the U.S. as a destination.”
Van Deventer added that the travel restriction issue isn’t limited to the proposed U.S. travel ban.
“There’s been a movement on a global basis that’s been going on for years, and it’s gained a lot of momentum in recent years, [promoting] isolationism or nationalism or populism or whatever ‘ism’ you want to use. There is no doubt that it will have an impact on the live events industry as legislation goes forward.”
David Kliman, president of the Kliman Group, a communication consulting firm in Santa Rosa, Calif., said travel bans and other changes are creating a real sense of uncertainty.
“Some meeting planners might feel like they’re walking on Jell-O,” he said. “There’s so much misinformation, so little context and experience around this. Planners are used to being in charge, having information and being able to make informed decisions, and they don’t have that now.”
Eric Blanc, director of sales, marketing and convention services at the Tampa Convention Center, agreed.
“The biggest challenge we are hearing from our meeting planners is the uncertainty surrounding the U.S. travel restrictions that are currently being contested in the courts,” he said. “Many groups that are technology- or education-specific have large groups of members who travel from the areas affected by the proposed travel ban.”
Still, others say it’s still too early to determine the long-term effect.
“We are keeping a close eye on the travel ban, but frankly we don’t know how it will play out yet, and it’s difficult to speculate,” said Andrew Flack, vice president of marketing and ecommerce for the Americas at Hilton. “Thus far, we have not seen a direct impact on our business.”