What the real impact of international meetings is

ICCA's Martin Sirk shares his thoughts on why international meetings are so much more, and how the industry has to discuss more about the goals and business needs of events that buyers are planning

International meetings are a misunderstood phenomenon.

Most people think about bed-nights and tourism-type expenditure when they think about our business. But meetings are so much more than a high-value, season-spreading segment of tourism: that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Hidden below the surface are the impacts that really make meetings special: knowledge creation and transfer; dissemination of skills and best practice; great new friendships and serendipitous encounters; new solutions to societal or environmental issues; and of course, opportunities for inward investment, partnerships and business deals.

We’re great at measuring the cost of a US$30 breakfast get-together during a congress, but terrible at recognising the US$30 million deal that those delegates are finalising. But obviously the latter is entirely the point of the meeting, and the former is just a small by-product!

So how do we square this view with the way in which destinations showcase themselves at meetings industry trade shows like the recent IMEX in Frankfurt? Here the stands screamed out cultural and tourist-appeal messaging through their imagery and graphics. Are we all selling an outdated concept of why decision-makers choose meeting destinations?

I’m reminded of a bidding seminar I led in Japan over a decade ago, where, after two days of explaining why and how to focus on the decision-makers’ and delegates’ business and intellectual objectives, a young attendee asked: “So are you asking us to forget about the Kimono and sushi?”

She recalled the practice of presenting business gifts in Asia as a simile for bidding for an international meeting, so I suggested: “Think of your solutions to their objectives as the contents of the box; your cultural appeal is the wrapping paper. Both are important, one rational, the other emotional.”

Hopefully the stands at IMEX were filled with discussions about the goals and business needs of the events the buyers are planning, not just reiterations of the tourism appeal on display around them.

“Empty Box marketing” is our industry’s most tempting mistake.

Martin Sirk is the CEO of ICCA. He has extensive experience working in national and city destination marketing organisations, congress centres, and with a leading global hotel brand, and is an acknowledged expert in the design and organisation of international congresses and the trends that are shaping the future of the meetings industry.

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