An interesting thing is happening on the way to the economic recovery.
We certainly aren’t there yet—in the economy as a whole, or in meetings and events. The sheer, accumulating weight of cancellations is setting off alarm bells across the industry, and the U.S. Center for Exhibition Industry Research has just reported the first decline in trade show volume since 2002.
But amidst the carnage and the worry, we’re beginning to see some of the smart, strategic thinking that will position meetings to survive the economic crash and come away stronger when conditions improve.
A couple of weeks ago, Meeting Professionals International (MPI) published a briefing paper by meeting design expert Mary Boone, president of Boone Associates in Essex, CT. She argued that the firestorm of reaction to the so-called “AIG Effect’” has created a rare, teachable moment for meeting professionals intent on demonstrating a broader strategic purpose for their work.
“Education about the value of meetings has taken center stage for the entire industry,” she wrote, and “it is important not to overlook the possibilities this crisis affords. By bringing this debate to the Board and senior executive level, [the crisis] has created an unprecedented opportunity for truly strategic discussions between the people who plan meetings and the senior executives of public and private organizations that sponsor them.”
The problem, as Boone points out, is our own “considerable confusion around the path to strategic value.” The industry’s alphabet soup of acronyms points to the wide range of skills, abilities, and inclinations that coexist within a very big tent—from the logistical and tactical cornerstones on which the profession was built, to the more recent focus on strategic meeting management, return on investment (ROI), and meeting design. Her paper is one of the first attempts to pull all the pieces together into a coherent package that makes sense to clients and decision-makers, and to the industry itself.
Boone argues for
- A portfolio management approach that not only tracks meeting costs but also maps the connection between meetings and an organization’s mission, strategy, and objectives
- Better measurement of the effectiveness and impact of meetings, in contrast to an exclusive focus on cost reduction
- An approach to meeting design that dictates closer attention to both the form and the content of every program (and, I hasten to add, to the best ways of documenting that content)
- More effective meetings measurement, based on the return on investment model developed by the Birmingham, AL-based ROI Institute in partnership with MPI
- A more advanced approach to meeting logistics that embraces procurement and strategic sourcing, but recognizes the need to adapt preferred vendor agreements to the specific needs arising from the meeting design process
“Experienced meeting designers will tell you that seemingly simple issues such as the shape and size of a table, the quality of a sound system, the architecture of a facility, the temperature of a room, or the ease of moving furniture can have surprisingly profound impacts on what can be accomplished at a meeting or event,” Boone wrote. For planners who draw their continuing inspiration from the same, standard checklist, the challenge of advanced logistics is to meet a different set of design needs for each meeting.
For many people in our industry, this is new and scary stuff. But the rewards could be as huge as the survival and success of the industry itself.
“Well-informed meeting planners have an opportunity to position themselves strategically with executives by ensuring excellence in meeting design,” Boone stated. But the equal and opposite is also true: If we don’t embrace this change, we shouldn’t be too surprised to be looking for a new line of work by the time the economy recovers.
All of which puts a slightly different twist on the mantra we heard from the podium and the floor during MPI’s MeetDifferent conference in Atlanta last February. Everyone agreed that meeting professionals should set out to thrive, not merely survive, and the objective is nothing if not laudable. (I’ll take two, please.) But it won’t be attainable, and certainly won’t be sustainable, until we confront the vulnerabilities that have been laid bare by the continuing attack on meetings.
The industry’s “war room” response to political pressure has been useful and necessary, but we still have our own homework to do: As long as we define our own work in tactical rather than strategic terms, as long as we measure our economic impact by the goods we consume rather than results we deliver, we can expect no better from our critics.
By placing meetings at the centre of organizational strategy, Mary Boone has stepped into the eye of the storm and come out with a solution in hand. In a very large, complex industry, change won’t come overnight. But if the job figures in MPI’s Canadian economic impact study are any indication, the U.S. industry alone has about 2.35 million reasons to get started now.