Imagine an industry that shows a cumulative net loss after decades of operation. Its main business model is a poster child for showing MBA students the strategies they should avoid at all costs.
Imagine that this industry generates a large share of the greenhouse gases that cause climate change.
Factor in that industry’s acute vulnerability to rising energy costs.
Then shift your gaze 20 degrees, to a profession whose success depends in large part on the aforementioned unprofitable, climate-challenged industry.
If the industry is commercial air travel and the profession is meetings, how can we believe that meetings as we know them are sustainable—not even environmentally, but economically?
A couple of weeks ago, The Edge carried commentary on the sudden demise of Ottawa-based Zoom Airlines, a discount carrier that got crunched between rock-bottom fares and skyrocketing fuel costs.
Shortly after the Zoom announcement, in an interview with CBC Radio, Ian Lee of Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business pointed out that air travel as a whole has historically lost more money than it has earned. Over the phone this week, he described the air industry as a fascinating mix of the very best and the very worst—from paragons of practicality like Southwest Airlines, which has never posted a loss, to legacy carriers that are already in serious trouble.
Those difficulties will deepen as oil makes its way back to $125 or $150 per barrel, Lee said. Carriers will be forced to consolidate, and a market with fewer choices will translate into higher fares. Thus will end the era of discount fares and convenient flights, taking us back to a time when the market for air travel was smaller and more exclusive.
Lee said he’s already hearing from companies that are cutting any travel they can define as discretionary…and some of that impact will be felt by meetings. Even in organizations that value face-to-face interaction, he said corporate travel offices will be “slicing and dicing the budget” to separate essential meetings from the ones that can be dropped.
Part of the challenge will be to distinguish truly interactive meetings and networking sessions from “one-way information dumps” that can be conducted via videoconference. If the methodology isn’t already in place to make the cut, it will be soon, Lee said. “You can be sure there are some smart cookies in some big companies who are working on this very issue as we speak.”
It adds up to a scary scenario for anyone with a deep commitment to organizing meetings in the same old way. But what if the airline crisis forces us into a meetings model that puts a premium on knowledge and learning?
What if meeting professionals position themselves as the go-to resource for finding the best format to achieve a specific objective—whether the result is a live gathering, a virtual meeting, or a mix of both?
What if we make it a habit, rather than a notable exception, to co-locate meetings, or alternate national or international congresses with regional conferences that end up reaching a wider, more diverse audience?
And what if it turns out that the content we generate at all these meetings—not the temperature of the meeting room, or the theme of the closing gala—is the golden thread that holds the whole program together?
If we get this right, we might look back some day and realize that losing convenient air travel was the first step in building an industry that really knows how to fly right.