January 2011Conference+Meetings World19As we enter the New Year, President of the Joint Meetings Industry Council, Leigh Harry, says industryunity around strong messages of meetings' value is essential for a healthy future.Where do we all gofrom here? The recent global recession had theeffect of forcing every industry torevisit its assumptions about thefuture, and to decide if thoseassumptions remain relevant goingforward. The meetings industry was noexception, and what we found is thatwhile there was also a lot of comfort tobe had from how our industry respondedto what was one of the biggest financialshake-ups any of us are likely to see,there are still a lot of challenges to beaddressed in the years ahead.One of the biggest positives was theoverall resilience we saw in some of ourmost important business sectors. Forexample, while corporate business was inmany areas hit hard and fast, associationslargely continued to meet and maintainattendance at levels that seemedincredible given the extent of financialimpacts in the economy. This strength,and the fact that meetings were obviously'While corporate business was in many areas hit hard and fast, associations largely continued to meet and maintain attendance at levels thatseemed incredible,' says Harrymaintaining their relevance to theseimportant groups in the face of hugechallenges, demonstrated the underlyingimportance people attached to face-to-face interactions, and supported thenotion that this value wasn't about to bedismissed any time soon.On the other hand, we saw other groups,including most notably governments invarious parts of the world, activelyquestioning the value of meetings. Inextreme cases they were even targetingthem as examples of wasteful spending ina time of economic concern. Manycorporations were quick to take their cuefrom this, and looked upon meetings asexpendable activities in a time when costcontainment was a number one priority. All of this is made more important by thefact that, whether or not we like to seeourselves in this way, ours is an industrythat has always been at the mercy ofoutside influences, in particularEXPERT OPINION????Leigh Harry says:'We will always haveour specific interestsand differences, (but)there is a level atwhich we can agreeon principles aboutwhat defines us as anindustry, and oncommon beliefsconcerning our valueproposition'
20Conference+Meetings WorldJanuary 2011EXPERT OPINIONgovernment policy. Governments are biggenerators of meetings activities. They arealso a huge influence on how the privatesector sees meetings and conventions,through levers like tax policy and the signalsthese send to corporations. Theirimmigration and transportation policies canhave major impacts on our competitiveness.And they are also by far the largest singleinvestor in meetings facilities - theconvention centres without which a countryor city is hard pressed to engage in theindustry on any kind of a scale.So how governments see us particularly inthe context of economic development policymatters a lot. What also matters is thefinancial position in which they findthemselves today, and how they will go aboutsetting priorities for any new investment. Andthat presents us with a real problem.Why? Because as an industry that needsongoing investment and support simply tosurvive, we are living in a world of heavilyindebted governments to whom any kind ofinvestment is going to have to be seen as amatter of absolute necessity. That meansthat in order to get that investment, wehave to be a top priority among a wholehost of other competing infrastructuredemands, which in turn requires a highlevel of appreciation for what we contributeto the overall economy. In most parts of theworld, that level of appreciation isn't thereor is limited to simply the economicimpacts arising from delegate spending.The whole idea of a larger contribution bythe meetings industry to broader economicdevelopment simply doesn't exist amongmost governments, as was amplydemonstrated by their reactions in themidst of the financial crisis. The industry has traditionally had a verylow profile, to the extent that many in bothgovernment and the business communitywould question whether or not we are infact a distinct industry sector at all. Wherewe are acknowledged, it is typically within avery narrow definition, typically as a vehicleto generate incremental visitors.At the heart of the issue is the need toexpand the image of the industry from onethat exists simply to attract visitors, to onethat is seen as a fundamental driver ofeconomic development, and by extension,sustained economic recovery because ofthe pivotal roles they play in drivinginnovation, knowledge transfer, professionaldevelopment and even new investment. But understanding what those challengesare is only part of what's necessary. Theother part is taking action to address themin a consistent, coordinated and effectiveway - and that's something we haven'thistorically been very good at as anindustry. How can we do a better job?Firstly, we need to be able to set asideour individual priorities and perspectiveslong enough to demonstrate that we canin fact behave like an industry and react ina coordinated and integrated way whenthis is called for. The key to doing this is toaccept that while we will always have ourspecific interests and differences ofopinion, there is a level at which we canagree on some basic principles about whatdefines us as an industry and whatcommon beliefs we have on whatconstitutes our value proposition.Secondly, we need to recognise andaccept the importance of maintainingconsistency in what we say; how wecharacterise ourselves and what measureswe produce to support our claims for thevalue we generate. This is essential to thekind of credibility we need going forward.Nothing undermines that credibility fasterthan contradictions, and this is always arisk when we have (and will continue tohave) so many different organisationstaking positions in areas of commonconcern. Thirdly, we need to make sure we areshaping our arguments in ways that respondto who's on the receiving end - to make ourpoints in ways that resonate with peopleoutside the industry rather than ourselves.Too often we've carried on a spiriteddiscussion among ourselves when it is thatoutside world we need to be addressingand, typically, they speak a very differentlanguage. They have a very different set ofpriorities than we do, such as jobs,community benefits and economicadvancement in the broadest possibleterms.And, finally, we have to accept that it isat the local level where the arguments weput forward have to have their greatestrelevance - which means we need tomake sure we have the figures required toput things into a local rather than globalor national context. As impressive as the'big' numbers are, they have little meaningat the community level which is where thebattle for public attention will be won orlost. It also means we need to make it aseasy as possible for industry groups tointeract at that local level, rather thanleaving the job to our national orinternational organisations.These are the directions the JointMeetings Industry Council is pursuing, andit is our hope and expectation that we willbe supported in this, not only by ourindustry associations, but everyone with astake in the future of the industry. In orderto succeed at what is a huge and urgenttask, we need to be able to set aside thedistinctions we have drawn betweendifferent sectors and focus instead on whatwe have in common, and how we can tellour story most effectively. It is nothing less than the future of theindustry that is at stake, and we will alleither succeed or fail based on howeffectively we can work together todemonstrate our value.Leigh Harry is JMIC President.JMIC members include: AIPC(the International Association of Congress Centres); COCAL(the Latin American Confederation of PCO and Related Companies); DMAI(Destination Marketing Association International); ECM(European Cities Marketing); EFAPCO(the European Federation of Associations of Professional Congress Organisers);EVVC(the European Association of Event Centres); IAPCO(the International Association of Professional Congress Organisers); ICCA(the International Congress and Convention Association); MPI(Meeting Professionals International);PCMA(the Professional Convention Association Management Association);SITE(the Society of Incentive & Travel Executives) andUFI(the Global Association of the Exhibition Industry).Leigh Harry