Since January 2014, more than 50 major tourism and hospitality companies have advocated for the business value of meetings and conventions under the umbrella of the Meetings Mean Business (MMB) coalition.

The group was formed by the U.S. Travel Association to provide corporate, association and third-party meeting planners, as well as the industry at large, the research and tools necessary to educate them about the economic impact of business events. During the recession, many companies and organizations slashed their budgets for meetings requiring travel, and travel suppliers were unprepared to advocate for themselves using empirical research.

In the last 20 months, the coalition members have also developed a few new strategies to expand the reach of their advocacy, including the first-ever Global Meetings Industry Day on April 14, 2016. Orchestrated in partnership with the Convention Industry Council (CIC), the event is designed to provide a world stage for the industry to showcase things like the number of jobs that the meetings industry supports. MMB organized the first North American Meetings Industry Day in April this year, encompassing 88 grassroots events across the continent, which attracted the attention of international convention bureaus who asked to participate.

The coalition is also building on the positive exposure it achieved last year with SAP CEO Bill McDermott publically trumpeting the business value of meetings and events within his company. McDermott is presently reaching out to other heavyweight CEOs to join the cause, and MMB expects to announce a list of new top executives to carry the Meetings Mean Business torch forward in 2016.

We checked in with MMB co-chair Michael Dominguez, senior VP & chief sales officer for MGM Resorts International, for a top-line overview of how the coalition is working to meet its mandate. We also asked him a few questions about some of the most pressing challenges and biggest disruptors in the meetings sector today.

Skift: Are all of the original members of Meetings Mean Business from January 2014 still a part of the coalition?

Michael Dominguez: Yes, all the original partners are still members. We’re now over 50 members of the coalition. I think it’s important to note that the coalition has been self-funded, so everybody that’s sitting at the table has stepped up. We’ve now looked at, outside of the main key players that you would expect, which would be the DMOs (destination marketing organizations), all your major associations and your major hotel groups.

We’re now looking at the verticals in our industry. We are excited that the Lanyon meetings software company has been the first technology company to step up, as of last month, because we’re now fronting the technology companies. We’re saying, “Look, you’re so dependent on the meetings industry as well, you need to have a voice.” So we’re looking at those verticals that we know aren’t represented in Meetings Mean Business, and need to be a part of it, because the breadth of our industry is so wide. That has to be our next target, as far as bringing people to the table.

Skift: We’ve talked before about how the airlines are the big gaping hole in terms of not supporting Meetings Mean Business. Are you still approaching the airlines?

Dominguez: We are. The airlines have definitely been the group we’ve been reaching out to, and we’ve had some great success in initial conversations. It’s incumbent upon us that when we’re asking them for money, we have real deliverables and ROI. That has been our latest mission, to make sure that we’re clearly defining what the objectives are and clearly defining why you need to be involved and what that return is going to be. We haven’t had push-back from the airlines. We’ve just had discussions with them, saying, “We need to get you involved.” Many of the airlines have kind of moved away from their organizational structures that concentrated on the meeting side of the business. What we’ve seen is those pieces coming back, so it’s really opened up the dialogue once again.

Skift: Why did the airlines cut their group sales departments, and why do you think they’re rebuilding those?

Dominguez: If you go back 10 years, every major airline had a major group function. They had group departments, group salespeople that were all hired and created to be able to focus on the meetings market. Some of that went away in restructuring over those last 10 years. What we’ve seen is over the last three or four, they’re coming back in a major way. I think it’s the ebb and flow of how we structure organizations. Candidly, it’s probably not a surprise when some of that meetings business went away in 2009. Some of the structures changed, just as a priority where everybody was trying to be efficient. We’re seeing that come back, and because that is an emphasis for the airlines, it’s a great opportunity for us. They’re very engaged in discussions right now in saying, “How do we get involved?”

Skift: In 2015, Meeting Mean Business was able to raise its $1 million funding goal. How are things looking for 2016?

Dominguez: We’re definitely going to crack the million dollars, and we now have that as pretty much an annual target. That is everybody at the table contributing, saying, “We want to be a part of this.” We do think it can continue to grow as we continue to attract more partners. If we got into the $2 million range, we would be outstanding as far as what we’re operating on over a yearly basis.

Skift: What do you consider the biggest success of Meetings Mean Business to date?

Dominguez: The hardest thing was to get everyone sitting at the same table and putting their own agendas aside. When I look at us putting real work together, it’s only been over the last year, year and a half. One example of that, MPI (Meeting Professionals International) Canada has had a national meetings industry day for the last 20 years. So the Meetings Mean Business coalition asked CIC last year to create the North American Meetings Industry Day. That was one day in Canada, Mexico and the U.S. with local communities putting together programming that emphasized the power of meetings. The success of that, which was tremendous for a first year, led into next year’s Global Meetings Industry Day in April.

We’ve had hotels and tourism organizations from around the world ask to be a part of it. That all started around the table at the Meetings Mean Business coalition. To have that kind of success in a very short period of time, I just think is tremendous.

Skift: Bill McDermott at SAP got a lot of press last fall during IMEX America (meetings industry conference) for his outspoken support of the industry. How is Meetings Mean Business working with the private sector to develop a larger network of advocates?

Dominguez: That is probably our biggest opportunity right now. We had a great success last year in getting Bill McDermott to step up and speak out on behalf of the industry, and an industry he believes in. He has become probably our largest outside advocate. Right now we are in a campaign to get other ambassadors in the major corporate space that literally have no affiliation or no affinities to the meetings industry, except that their company delivers them because it’s necessary for their overall objectives.

We’ve got a key list. We’re engaging our partners in the DMO world to say, “Look, they’re sitting in your backyard. How do we get them engaged, get testimonials, and be able to really start to get this out to market?” Bill McDermott has been wonderful as far as raising his hand, saying he will continue to reach out and be that voice to reach out to other CEOs to get them activated as well.

Skift: It’s almost been a full year since IMEX, but Meetings Mean Business hasn’t brought any other CEOs to the table. What are some of the challenges to get these people to step up?

Dominguez: There really wasn’t a challenge. It all moves pretty fast, so it was IMEX of last year where we first launched Bill, and we’ve actually utilized Bill a couple of times during that time frame. It was probably six months into that where we realized now the opportunity is to activate him and start targeting those other CEOs. We’re not targeting them and just trying to make sure we get them scheduled. There is always major corporate compliance issues, so we first need to make sure that everybody’s comfortable that we’re going to get them on camera to advocate for the industry.

It’s just the process, but we’re finding more and more of those CEOs and C-level executives that are willing to step up and say, “We believe in the meetings industry and it’s part of our strategy.” It’s there, but I guess this goes back to the point of why MMB is necessary. People sometimes don’t think about the importance of meetings until you make them think about it.

Skift: Can we anticipate that there will be some big names coming out to advocate for meetings in 2016, because of input from the coalition?

Dominguez: My goal is to make sure that we have at least a dozen top C-level advocates that we can actually reach out to, and that we will have ready as ambassadors by the end of next year. Part of the thought process is we don’t want this to be random with people just reaching out to these people. We’re trying to make sure it’s strategic. We know who’s making the phone call, who’s reaching out, because we know at that level their time is precious, and we need to make sure the right people are asking.

Skift: You’ve been busy over the last year speaking about overall trends in the meetings industry, so we wanted to get you on the record about some of the most interesting trends we see. There’s research coming out about how some associations are losing millennial members because they refuse to invest in technology or offer multi-tiered, on-demand pricing. Do you see that happening, and do you have any thoughts about how associations can better engage next-generation attendees?

Dominguez: Yes, I do already see that happening. I can tell you with great confidence that MPI has done some wonderful research, and they’re looking at even changing their membership model and offerings. I want to stress, it’s less based on just generational preferences than it is on behaviors that we see in today’s on-demand world that we live in. There are people that are going to be fully engaged, and there are people that want to be on-demand. There are going to be people that only want research and access. You have to start creating environments that will be able to cater to all of those different pieces.

I think a challenge for the association world, we’ve always lived in a membership model and a membership thought process. Today, your most successful associations are going to be the ones that continue to expand their reach, their audience, their profile and their influence, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to have more members.

However, they will be engaging a larger audience. I attribute that to very much to social media. I’m not saying that’s the only reason for it, but when you look at social media, it’s about engagement, it’s about being a part of the conversation. And we’re finding really progressive associations are starting to look at it. I think it’d be hard for us not to find associations that are at least looking at this in their board rooms and in their strategic discussions. We’re just all trying to figure out which is the best model to follow, for each particular organization.

Skift: You’ve made it clear many times that you’re not entirely comfortable segmenting out millennials as a unique subset of the meetings industry. Why is that?

Dominguez: I give a lot of industry presentations where I mention that, and I don’t think there has been one time where somebody didn’t come back and say, “Thank you,” whether it was in person, or later by email or social media. The comment I continue to make is that we need to quit talking about the millennials as one generation, because you have to break them into two groups today. Your older millennials that are that 28-34 year-old, we’re finding that generation is more similar with other generations than people think, except they’re more digitally attuned and more mobile because of the technology they grew up with.

We saw it in the research that Skift released. We’ve seen it in the research that PCMA (Professional Convention Management Association) released. Their priorities are the same as everyone else. Millennials want professional development as much as anyone else. They’re looking for mentorship, they’re looking for networking, they’re looking for face-to-face meetings, just like every other generation.

How they engage is a little bit different. They want to be a more active part of meetings and events, and I keep stressing to organizations that we no longer have attendees, we have participants. To me, that’s the shift, but I think the thing we continue to forget is the 28-34 year olds, they’re now in their careers. We were looking at a bunch of millennials when they were 24, 25 and saying, “They’re not loyal, they’re going to jump from job to job.” Well, we’re finding, and I see it at MGM Resorts, that millennials are passionate and they want long-term growth. The challenge I have is we’ve traditionally looked at them as one group in their early 20s. You know, we were all pretty much figuring out our own way in our early 20s.

Skift: So the industry needs to look at millennials as a much broader user base.

Dominguez: I think it’s a mistake not to separate the millennials into two different groups. When I’ve made that statement, there has not been one time that I have not had a millennial in that audience that has come back to me to say, “Thank you for finally separating us, because it’s so irritating to get lumped in with a younger generation that’s still living with mom and dad.” It’s a different audience.

The one thing that stands out for me mostly is that all millennials want better networking and more mentorship opportunities. That networking is all about connecting. We’ve been in the industry for a long time, but we’re throwing these younger people into a room with 3,000 people, and we tell them, “Go. There’s your networking opportunity.” I think we can start to leverage technology better to do that, and there’s some of it out of there.

Overall, I really believe that demographics are dead. Psychographics are what we should be studying. We’re not doing that enough. The behaviors of certain millennials literally cross boundaries. They cross boundaries with Xers and Boomers as well. It’s the behavior that I’m more focused on, versus what age category is impacting that behavior.

Skift: We often use Airbnb and Uber when traveling to conventions. How do you see the sharing economy impacting the meetings industry?

Dominguez: I think it needs to be put into perspective. From a meetings perspective, I had this question from a planner asking, “I’m having people booking Airbnb and it’s impacting my room block and I’m not getting credit. How do you recommend the hotels handle that. I said, “Why aren’t you taking a block out with them?” There was this look like, “I’ve never thought about that.” If you know you have a part of your audience that wants to stay in that type of experience, then take out a block because Airbnb will work with you. Airbnb will work with your organization, and you can actually promote that and track it.

I think, as an industry, we need to stop, “Well, they’re doing this thing that’s different,” versus, “How am I going to work with them? How do I engage them in what I’m offering?” South by Southwest in Austin is a good example. They sold out all their hotel blocks, so they reached out to Airbnb, saying, “I need help because I still have people that want to be at my event.”

Skift: What about any other sharing companies? Are you seeing more meeting professionals working with Uber or Lyft, for example?

Dominguez: Absolutely. I look at the transportation companies, especially like Uber and Lyft, as an opportunity to be able to customize the experience, to be able to tie loyalty programs to that type of accessibility. I think there’s a great opportunity here. The more they mature, as far as their business model, the more we start to see those opportunities come into existence. I’m excited that both Uber and Lyft just started last week in Las Vegas. It was a huge legislative process, but they finally got the green light to come in.

What I have seen is everywhere they’re launching, the traditional transportation companies are having to up their game. I’m a big believer in a free market, and I do believe that competition breeds better competition and breeds better experience and better pricing. I’m fully in favor of it. In fact, we’re already having those discussions. MGM is actively talking with Uber and Lyft to see how we can work together and enhance the customer experience. The opportunities are going to be endless as far as how we work with those type of organizations, and more than anything, they have a large and loyal following. As marketers and as people that are always trying to sell, I’m looking for people that have large audiences that we can communicate to.

Photo Credit: Meeting planners are starting to integrate Airbnb into their room block inventories due to growing demand from attendees. Airbnb