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The Future of Events Banks on Commitment

By Julius Solaris

Last week, I was at PCMA Convening Leaders, a gathering of 5300 event professionals. I spoke to a lot of industry leaders, attended sessions and experienced the event. My conclusion: only eventprofs willing to commit will succeed in 2020.

 

In late November, we launched what remains one of the most successful event trends reports ever released. The theme this year is Game On!, meaning that, without a full-blown, all-in type of commitment, events will fail this year.

If you want to be sustainable, paper straws alone won’t make it.

If you want to design an experience, special effects and a loud band won’t cut it.

After talking to dozens of industry leaders that control events for millions of people, the consensus is that commitment will be the key to success in 2020.

Read on to see how we got there.

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2020: The Year of Commitment

Attending industry events always gives you a snapshot of what we are doing as opposed to what we are saying. That’s why I was at PCMA 2020.

Commitment to Change San Francisco

Only a few months ago, the perimeter around the convention center was scary. I am used to rough neighborhoods, but I felt genuinely unsafe around there – and I wasn’t the only one.

This time, I found myself in a very safe San Francisco. I am not sure what they did, but the city looked great and totally safe.

That combined with an incredibly easy commute to the airport and to key entertainment areas such as Pier 39, where the welcome party was held, amazed me. It showed a clear commitment to change a negative narrative.

Commitment to Sustainability

The meatless lunch sponsored by IMEX was definitely a positive highlight. What a fantastic wave of disapproval the event received for embarking on such a venture. Well, this is exactly what an event like this should do to push the boundaries: taking attendees out of their comfort zone to really make them think.

You could hear many, many attendees saying they were not happy (maybe they did not realize the media was right behind them listening). What a beautiful outcome. I am not being sarcastic. I will remember this lunch forever – more than any beef fest.

Could you improve on it? Perhaps. But it got me thinking – and more importantly, it actually took a significant step in considerably reducing the event’s CO2 emissions. Not in theory, in practice.

Commitment to Non-Alcohol: Still Not there

The unbelievably cool opening party left me feeling a little bit out of tune.

What a fantastic night taking you through a journey of San Francisco’s neighbourhoods. But I don’t drink at events, and I was surrounded by wine country booths dispensing amazing wine. I could only drink cola or sparkling water, and I can assure you it wasn’t as fun.

Inclusive networking seems to be still very far off at industry events. Is it just me?

I put myself in the planner’s shoes. What would you do? People want to party – how do you solve the issue?

Commitment to Risk

We need bold moves, whether it’s virtual audiences (800 followed the event online) or vegan lunches. We need to explore how decisions from suppliers and events show their commitment to the cause.  Business as usual is not going to cut it. Business as usual is not sustainable.

I talked to PCMA President and CEO Sherrif Karamat about the event and the future of PCMA. Other than the usual press talk - the incredible success of the event, the new partnerships with Abu Dhabi and CEMA - I loved what he shared on risk.

 

The risk is of becoming obsolete. People know that they want sustainability and are forcing the change. So event organizers who choose not to do that, frankly, are choosing to make themselves obsolete.

Sherrif Karamat
President and CEO, PCMA

 

I spent two days interviewing people, and the result is three main areas of commitment that struck me as the most significant for those planning events in 2020: experience, security and community.

 

A Commitment to Cocreated Experience Design

Experience is not something that you try to emulate. It’s part of your design. It’s part of your culture. One of the most valuable things a destination or a venue can offer is their support in incorporating their uniqueness and culture into that experience, and that extends to professional services and expertise.

We had the opportunity to talk to Tina Baitan-Jones, the Marketing Strategy Manager at Disney Meetings & Events at Walt Disney World, and she gave me prime access to what the undisputed leaders of theme park experiences and storytelling have to say on the topic.

 

Disney's events are really all about focusing on the experiential and really being immersed in the environment as part of the event design. We have found that most people retain content better when they enjoy the learning process and are immersed in it with all their senses engaged.

Tina Baitan-Jones
Marketing Strategy Manager, Disney Meetings & Events

 

It’s always nice to have an expert validate our research.

With a huge park, themed environments, and all Disney’s set design resources at a planner’s disposal, you might not expect that service is at the core of what sets Disney apart.

 

All of our cast members from entertainers to front-desk staff go through what we call “traditions,” a specific training on our history, how we work and what our culture is. This is how we get people excited to be a part of creating memories. I think that ownership and collaboration really resonates well with planners.

Tina Baitan-Jones
Marketing Strategy Manager, Disney Meetings & Events

 

Disney’s training offers another value proposition for business events, as they extend their business knowledge to visiting organizations through the Disney Institute in a number of formats. “Whether it's a keynote or a team building activity or some type of experience with art, we've been able to take that knowledge and share it with our clients.”

Adding value through the cocreation of content is a compelling trend. Venue and destination partners can create a context in which planners can really leverage a destination’s unique resources to create the best event experience.

A master of context is the German Convention Bureau. They are working on context like no other, whether it’s by defining what the meeting room of the future is, connecting events to topically relevant locations and experts, or making sustainability a legal necessity rather than an option. We sat down with the Bureau’s Managing Director, Matthias Schultze, to learn more.

 

The word is ‘authenticity.’ We started the Discover German Expertise initiative to leverage existing fields of expertise in economy and science in the different regions or cities of Germany. We not only offer venues, hotels and transportation, but we also offer access to relevant industry clusters, be they renewable energies, automotive industry, medical technology, etc.

Matthias Schultze
Managing Director, German Convention Bureau

 

The German Convention Bureau acts as a hub to connect planners with the appropriate local expertise for whatever the current conference is about. By collating all the resources and providing consultative services, they “help the customer or the meeting planner to find the right environment.”

The experience commitment was particularly reinforced by all the activations at the show. Giving out cotton candy lost the game to those activations that actually provided value, what I like to call functional sponsorship.

Two examples stood out:

The Steelcase Work Lounge. Based on research from previous PCMA events, Steelcase created a functional work lounge where I pretty much spent the whole day doing interviews, as press rooms were far, hard to find and not equipped.

By the end of the event, it didn’t matter who Steelcase was. I became best event friends with their sales manager. I could have given them my car keys if they asked.

Plugs, coffee, private meeting rooms. Shut up and take my money. Every event should have one of these.

Locketgo. I also loved the Tourism Montreal activation with Locketgo, a bookable storage locker that also contains a phone charger. So cool, and a tremendous lead generation opportunity as you need to sign up online.

We sat down with Emmanuelle Legault, Tourism Montreal’s Vice President of Marketing and Strategy, to find out more. I was happy to discover that this was a startup incubated by a joint initiative launched by L'Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) and the city of Montreal called MT Lab, which supports and encourages startups to create more tourism-oriented products. In their Innovation Quarter, they gave birth to C2 among other cool things.

 

Our goal with this is really to try and foster innovation through, yes, technology, but also non-technological products to ensure more alignment with our tourism.

Emmanuelle Legault
Tourism Montreal’s Vice President of Marketing and Strategy

 

That said, the next startup they’re working with intends to use Google-powered artificial intelligence to offer travelers voice-powered guidance and itineraries as they walk around the city.

 

Security Commitment

On my way back to Las Vegas, as I was boarding my flight, Iran launched a missile strike at two US bases in Iraq. I felt very unsafe. It is reassuring though to know that some key leaders from the industry are taking security very seriously.

Just a few hours earlier, I asked Mubarak Hamad Al Shamisi, the Director of Abu Dhabi Convention Bureau, how he feels about the instability in the Middle East and its effect on the event industry in the region.

 

Abu Dhabi was announced, for the second year in a row, the second safest city in the world. We just hosted the World Energy Congress in our lobby, which is a world-wide, policy-changing congress attended by heads of state and ministers from around the world. This shows that Abu Dhabi is ready to host international events. It's safe.

Mubarak Hamad Al Shamisi
Director, Abu Dhabi Convention Bureau

 

As much as some destinations are taking the game seriously, the lack of standards and compliance is scary. This perspective was reinforced by the wise words of Tony Lorenz, ex-CEO of PRA Business Events and board member of PCMA and the Meetings Mean Business Coalition, who has recently founded Headsail, LLC.

 

I think it's a larger threat than any economic setback. The events we run are aggregations of the best, brightest minds in a given industry, a given company, a given vertical. What better target than an event to make a statement?

Tony Lorenz
Founder, HeadSail, LLC & Board Member, PCMA and the Meetings Mean Business Coalition

 

Despite some who take the threat seriously and set the industry best practices, Lorenz believes the general approach reflects a pretty low bar for security preparedness and responsiveness in the event of tragedy. “There's work for the industry to do in that regard. This is one that really keeps me up at night as an industry professional.”

For Lorenz, the issue is consistency. “Some do a wonderful job, some do zero job and some do a middling job.” The first thing planners across the board can address is communication. “It's remarkable how many events out there would have to go through a number of gyrations to notify everybody if disaster strikes.”

I found it remarkable that he was able to frame technology adoption and, by implication, the event’s wifi as a security element. Not a lot of people in the industry are willing to own this.

 

Community Commitment

I spent time talking to many destinations, and a common theme echoed throughout the conversations: as much as a destination can offer an event, events give a lot to the destinations as well. It’s a cyclical, mutually beneficial process.

A major point of disappointment for me at previous events was how destination marketing always has to revolve around stereotypes. Italians like pizza. Bavarians like beer. With more investments in services that add real experiential value, are things changing?

They are, but slowly, according to ICCA President James Rees.

 

Ultimately, the way you build your destination business and long term growth is through a reputation for being trustworthy and delivering on promises. If you go to Congress in Paris, there's probably going to be the Eiffel Tower on the logo – even though there's probably newer, funkier things. People love that. These iconic images are powerful and emotional. We're still human beings. You've got to tap into emotion as well as the business.

James Rees
President, ICCA

 

But Rees is also conscious of a shift in what planners care about. Maybe those emotional triggers are effective for visitors and business travelers, but for those of us who steep ourselves in events all day, every day, that novelty wears off. The fact is that you could show me the incredible food scene of a specific place, but I couldn’t care less. I’m more drawn by some of the initiatives the most forward thinking destinations are embarking on.

Making your city’s resources available for event experience cocreation is an excellent way for a destination to engender trust and foster a long working relationship. Another is to encourage a relationship between the event and the communities within a destination.

Junior Tauvaa, Senior Vice President of Sales and Services at Visit Anaheim, discussed how Anaheim puts community at the center of their initiatives – a strong and bold leadership direction for a touristic destination.

 

We’re committed to working better with our community and city officials to make it easier for conventions to do CSR projects. Many of the groups that come in want to do something to give back to the community, whether out of self-interest (in terms of reducing their corporate carbon footprint) or the need to activate their community and connect them to something. There's a human touch.

Junior Tauvaa
Senior Vice President of Sales and Services, Visit Anaheim

 

As event professionals, our marketing focus is traditionally exclusive to the attendees. How do we attract more attendees? How do we swell our numbers and make sure everyone gets a good ROI?

Tauvaa reminded me that, to truly foster opportunities to cocreate the experience, the destination’s population has to be on board as well. The trouble is that “in most destinations, whether you're in San Francisco or even New York or Barcelona for that matter, there is an anti-tourism sentiment from the locals.”

 

The conversation has always been around the economic impact events bring to those communities. The challenge is that local communities don't understand what economic impact is. What does that mean to me as a taxpayer? Does that mean I'm paying less taxes this year?

Junior Tauvaa
Senior Vice President of Sales and Services, Visit Anaheim

 

Visit Anaheim’s approach is to change the conversation, focusing instead on less abstract, more tangible benefits to their communities.

 

We have sports conventions that are coming in and donating sports equipment to the local high schools. We have a music show that comes in and donates music instruments to all the local elementary schools and high schools. These resonate with our local community. This is how we are changing the conversation so we can get community support to continue to bring major events into our destination.

Junior Tauvaa
Senior Vice President of Sales and Services, Visit Anaheim

 

Improving the lives within a given community is going to have a favorable effect on events within that community, and Tourism Montreal gets it better than most.

Legault blew my mind talking about Tourism Montreal’s approach to local communities, discussing a correlation between investment in the local community that then attracts visitors. For Legault, a destination’s role in offering a positive experience to business travellers starts with investing in the city infrastructure itself to ameliorate the lives of its residents.

 

All the innovations that are increasing the quality of life impact the meeting planning business. One of the projects they're working on right now increases accessibility throughout the city through better transportation, which helps with the local community but eventually also becomes a tool for attendees at a meeting. Whatever they're working on, we can eventually see how we [in events] leverage it also for ourselves.

Emmanuelle Legault
Vice President of Marketing and Strategy, Tourism Montreal

 

The more local governments spend for the benefit of locals, the better the experience for attendees.

And Montreal isn’t the only city where attendees can enjoy the city’s transportation initiatives. Desiree Everett, VP of Convention Sales at Travel Portland, shed some light on their incredible public network that makes the city so accessible, and how they use it to add value for attendees.

 

Our great light rail system makes our public transportation state of the art, and a lot of cities come to see what our public transportation is like. For big city-wide conferences, we provide the light rail passes so people can experience the city while they are in our town.

Desiree Everett
VP of Convention Sales, Travel Portland

 

Another great example was the commitment to support local agriculture in West Palm Beach. Kelly Cavers, Senior Vice President Group Sales at Discover The Palm Beaches shared how their partners in local agriculture support community engagement and bring the unique qualities and industries of the area to bear on their event appeal.

 

We are the largest producer of sugarcane, and agricultural business is a huge industry for us. There are different ways it can be incorporated. There is a fairly new up-and-coming company called Tellus that takes the fibrous waste from sugarcane processing and upcycles it into flatware. It's not just agricultural, it's the technology that they're utilizing.

Kelly Cavers
Senior Vice President Group Sales, Discover The Palm Beaches

 

West Palm Beach's agricultural business community is another asset to organizations and government institutions that want to leverage its experience and innovation for their own local projects.

 

IN CONCLUSION

One of the largest gatherings of event professionals just ended, reinforcing a vision of commitment for 2020. Commitment in designing better experiences, making events more secure and including community in the equation.

A ton of inspiration from many leaders convening in the same place and confirming the challenges but most of all the opportunities of face to face in 2020

about the author

Julius Solaris
Julius Solaris is the editor of EventManagerBlog.com, he is an international speaker, author and consultant.
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