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Hot Topic ARTICLE / April 15, 2015

North American Meetings Industry Day Dawns

by Ruth A. Hill

Happy North American Meetings Industry Day. Welcome to a celebration that has been a while in the making.

If you want to trace its origins, just “follow the money,” as the saying goes. And if you want to tie the movement’s relevance to current events, just use Canada’s province of Alberta as Exhibit A.

An economic downturn is challenging Alberta for the second time in less than a decade. In February alone, 14,000 people were laid off work, and there is fear more jobs will be eliminated soon because of pressures on the energy sector, Alberta's economic lifeblood.

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The scenario is much like the recession crisis that occurred in 2009, according to Calgary meeting planner and MPI chapter leader Cynthia Lamont, CMP, CMM. Lamont, who is operations manager/event specialist for the Canadian Society for Unconventional Resources, says she believes the Canadian meetings industry is now better prepared to mitigate recessionary impact on face-to-face meetings.

"Because of the advocacy networking and education we've been doing in recent years," Lamont says, "I am better able to help my clients and society members justify to their bosses why they should spend $750 on a workshop or some other in-person event. One thing we did recently was put to together a letter over our society president's signature that detailed the takeaway attendees would receive."

In Canada, National Meetings Industry Day is the annual centerpiece of the industry's nationwide advocacy initiatives. With that event and others throughout the calendar, the industry demonstrates its value to stakeholders and legislators. The industry has put itself on par with Canada's vital forestry, agricultural, and entertainment industries, Lamont says. A good indicator, she adds, are the written acknowledgements from the prime minister's Ottawa office about the industry's value.

U.S. and Mexico Catch Up

This month, the U.S. and Mexican meetings industries are modeling Canada's long-standing meetings advocacy centerpiece event with the first annual North American Meetings Industry Day (NAMID). It's been organized and promoted in the U.S. under Meetings Mean Business (MMB), a cross-industry advocacy initiative with steering by the US Travel Association, the Convention Industry Council and its member organizations. Local events, like Chicagoland's Four Star Award heroes event at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, will spotlight advocacy education and honor industry advocates and leaders.  

Meetings Mean Business (MMB) first emerged during the 2009 economic crisis when meetings cancellations and cutbacks were rampant. Until the past year or so, MMB has been more of a reactive effort, addressing media-led crises like "Muffingate" and disparaging remarks out of the White House about Las Vegas events.

Nan Marchand Beauvois, the US Travel vice president who oversees the MMB coalition, says there hasn't been a sustained effort to put eyes and ears to meetings advocacy at all levels until recently. Increasing pressures on meetings such as government budget cuts and media-driven boycotts surrounding political debates about social issues have elevated the need for more robust advocacy efforts.

"Boycotts like the one we've seen around legislation in Arkansas and Indiana are effective," Marchand Beauvois says, "but often come with unintended consequences to local communities who count on in-person meetings, events, conferences and conventions to sustain themselves. “Part of our job is to raise the issue and remind those involved that local businesses are not the target of travel suspensions and meetings cancelations, but are often the ones to pay the price."

More high-level spokespeople are also needed for industry advocacy, she adds.

"What we really need now are more high-profile advocates like Bill McDermott, CEO of SAP," she contends.

McDermott, who is head of the world's largest business software company, spoke at IMEX America last fall in Las Vegas. He explained how he set out to achieve 10 times more company growth partly by rethinking the company's entire events strategy.

"During my time at Xerox, I'd learned that you have to bring people together; you can't motivate for growth by using email!" McDermott told his Las Vegas audience.

Advocacy Going Forward

MMB organizers say they are now about building meetings industry advocacy on a sustained, ongoing basis, but there are significant challenges in doing so. Addressing budget pressures on government sector meetings and proving the value of face meetings beyond the economic are two advocacy issues in the fore.

In a recent Washington Post article, spending cuts that grew out of a 2010 uproar about government overspending at a Las Vegas conference were blamed for extreme cost-cutting pressures on the conduct of government business.

Jamal Brown, a spokesman for the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, told the Post that while wasteful spending is unacceptable, new guidelines for travel to conferences were forthcoming.

"It is critical that we continue rooting out waste while recognizing the need for our nation's civil servants, who are in many cases the world's leading scientists, to have opportunities to engage their counterparts outside of the federal government, share best practices and enhance their overall ability to deliver upon their missions and breakthrough advancements in medicine and science," Brown said.

Rob Bergeron, CAE, CGMP, executive director and CEO of the Society of Government Meeting Professionals (SGMP), says his group faces a constant demand to improve the quality and cost-effectiveness of in-person government meetings.

"The optics of meetings have now come under such intense scrutiny that critical factors--professional certifications, peer-to-peer reviews and economic impact for local economies, to name just a few, seem to be lost in the evaluation process," Bergeron says. "When properly executed, government meetings benefit citizens and make government more effective."

Value Beyond Economics

While multiple reports have demonstrated the formidable economic value of in-person meetings and events, there's also a need to prove less tangle values like employee work productivity and training to stakeholders.

One resource for ideas and advocacy narrative is on the MMB website.

Another idea from Canada is a video that showcases the impact of face meetings and events on a local community. Taxi drivers, coffee shop owners, maintenance workers, souvenir shop managers, hotel bellmen and local retail store owners were among those interviewed for a film that's been shown online and at industry events.

Stuart Taylor, MPI chapter business manager for MPI's Canadian chapters, says proving value beyond the economic remains an important but difficult struggle for the industry everywhere.

"We need to talk about the value of face meetings more than one day a year," Taylor maintains, "and it remains a struggle to educate local communities to the broader business value of face meetings and how they contribute to the overall business success. Doing more to measure the impact of meetings after they happen is our challenge."

Tech tools can help with the challenge, says Mariela McIlwraith, CMP, CMM, president of Toronto-based Meeting Change.

"We have economic impact numbers for face meetings, but that is just part of the equation," McIlwraith says. "What happens when we come together is exciting and we need to be able to capture that part of the story."

So while Canadians have led the way for face meetings advocacy at all levels, others are stepping up to address a challenge that is more significant than ever in the wake of budget cuts and boycotts which victimize local communities, individuals and the larger economy at all levels.

Happy North American Meetings Industry Day!

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