The most significant transformational shifts in the meetings and events industry are not being addressed as well as they should because the industry is so heavily segmented.
In fact, the meetings and events sector is sometimes referred to as “an alphabet soup of acronyms” due to the many different associations representing each vertical, including: meetings (MPI), conventions (PCMA and CIC), incentive travel (SITE), exhibitions and trade shows (IAEE), associations (ASAE), and many more in the non-corporate arena.
In an effort to bring together top U.S. and Canadian meeting and event planners from across every sector, the International Live Events Association (ILEA) held its first-ever ILEA Global Events Summit in Edinburgh earlier this year. A total of 28 international event professionals participated.
“We are trying to look at events as a whole because oftentimes we look at them in their separate niches, which is necessary, but we wanted a true reflection of the current state of the entire industry,” said Sara Hunt, senior director of events for the San Francisco Giants baseball team, and a member for ILEA’s board of governors.
“Events are now a major part of brand strategy and business development,” she continued. “And the more conversation we have that include all of those different segments of the events and experiential marketing industry, the more our value increases and the more we further the professionalism of our industry.”
Defining the value of business events to organizations — and the role of meeting and event planners to ensure a positive return on event spend — was one of the primary topics of discussion during the summit.
Hunt said that the event planning industry is somewhat young so it needs to have higher barriers of entry to acknowledge and promote experienced professionals. Because anyone can call themselves an event planner, there is a lack of standards to help clients gauge quality and experience.
“One of the main takeaways from the summit was the realization that we’ve reached a threshold where we need to better articulate our value to end users, and why they need professionals to deliver their events,” Hunt said. “When you go seek out an accountant or a lawyer, they’re coming in with credentials and they’ve proven their experience. I think that’s critical for us, too.”
Kevin White, chief strategist at the Boston-based XPL experiential design agency, attended the ILEA summit. He also emphasized the importance of collaborating across silos, and not just in terms of the different meetings and events organizations. There’s all of the service organizations for catering, tech, design, and entertainment, etc., that need to be in the mix in order to fully tap into the collective knowledge of the live events community.
“We need to get together more like this because we’re not different, it’s our markets that are different,” said White. “We really need to redefine who we are, except the problem is that the old guard often wants to protect its interests. So we said let’s not just wait around for consensus, let’s just start it, and if you build it, they will come.”
He added that the systemic shifts today in meetings and events “are tilting the industry on its side,” such as the influence of technology on event design, and the sharing economy’s impact on hotel room block guarantees.
“These things are coming and they’re coming fast,” White said, “so we need to get ahead of them now.”
However, while the overall mission behind the ILEA Global Summit is innovative, and it’s something that the industry definitely needs, the Event Horizons research paper doesn’t capture the nuances behind the challenges well. As it reads now, it isn’t of much value for the rest of the industry.
Addressing ‘The Face In The Phone’
Another major discussion during the summit focused on mobile phone use at events. On one hand, phones offer a way for attendees to engage with each other and the event content via today’s sophisticated event apps and social media.
However, there’s a huge concern among planners that so many attendees today are more focused on their social media streams, email, and the latest BuzzFeed listicle than they are on the event itself.
“I think everyone knows that technology is important to embrace, but a lot of people still have problems with apps, and how people are using them,” said David Merrell, CEO and creative director of AOO Events in Los Angeles, who participated in the summit. “There are those who feel technology is a threat to event engagement when we’re texting more than we’re talking.”
How exactly event planners can address that challenge is going to require a lot of experimentation. Merrell suggested, “As an industry, we need to focus on ways to integrate technology when it truly enhances the client experience.”
Hunt concurred, saying, “We need to make sure technology is adding value, and there’s a reason, ROI, and strategy about why it’s being used, versus tech for tech sake.”
White is particularly cautious about the impact of mobile technology at live events. He told Skift that so many people “want to look like jetsetters” so they’re constantly posting about themselves when they travel. It was even an issue at ILEA, he said, where experienced event pros, who should know better, were interrupting sessions to talk about their Facebook posts.
“So do we mourn the death of the participatory experience at live events because of our addiction to clicks and visual stimulation?” he asked. “I think some people feel that an event is just a series of photo opportunities, where it seems some of them want to market their lives to their online networks instead of engaging with the event.”
New Focus On Security
The rise of attacks during the last year on citizens in cities including Paris, Nice, Brussels, Istanbul, Orlando, Dallas, and others has elevated the need for planners to educate themselves about security at live events.
“There’s always been a discussion about security but we didn’t really think we had to be a part of it,” said Merrell. “If you look at Orlando and Nice, this is something that is definitely impacting the event industry.”
He explained that as much as 70 percent of event planners working in the field are not affiliated with professional organizations, so it’s a challenge getting the word out to all of those people who organize events. That’s why, he said, “Everyone needs to be part of a bigger conversation.”
Richard Knight, director of marketing for the Americas at Visit Scotland, added, “There now has to be a stronger view on people’s personal welfare and safety at events, considering the time we live in. Everyone also realizes that this is a global situation that needs to be addressed, and not a European situation.”
Hunt agreed that the event industry has to tackle this at a global level.
“There’s the realization now that we need to be aware and prepared no matter where we go,” she said. “Event professionals are looking at the infrastructure they’re surrounded with, what resources are at their disposal, and what communication protocols are in place if they need to deal with a security-related emergency. What happened in Nice could happen in San Francisco tomorrow.”
Sharing Economy in Scotland
According to Knight, he said that the conversation around the sharing economy during the summit provided one of the biggest takeaways for the host country.
There’s a growing focus on sharing assets and resources throughout the events industry, including things like industrial lighting, video equipment, Wi-Fi technology, and complex sets. Those can now be shared on digital platforms just like products and services in the room- and ride-sharing sectors.
“The idea of the sharing economy, and the way Uber and Airbnb are doing things that impact our industry, is ground-breaking,” Knight said. “We very much know there’s a huge amount of capital assets sitting around at any given time, so if you apply the Airbnb model here, how can we share those assets so companies can work with like-minded suppliers and make an additional profit?”
Knight emphasized that Visit Scotland needs to follow through on insight gleaned from the ILEA summit, so the next discussion is about how you put all of that together. That’s going to require the input of many different event and service industry segments, which is what inspired ILEA to put this program together, and why Visit Scotland sponsored it.
“We wanted access to a whole new raft of potential partners for Visit Scotland, who are not necessarily in meetings and conferences, but more in the consumer-facing, live events arena,” Knight explained. “This is an untapped audience.”
Hunt said that she felt the event was successful, “but it’s only the start of the conversation, not the actual solutions,” she cautioned. “There’s a long way to go.”