The global economic recession starting in 2008 struck fear and loathing into the heart of the hospitality and tourism industry when companies started curtailing travel for meetings and conventions.

On top of that, state governments and Capitol Hill started shutting down travel for meetings in the face of public outcry against what constituents perceived as wasteful spending.

Woefully underprepared during the aftermath of the market fall-out, hotels and convention bureaus lacked any data and collective messaging to support the direct impact of meetings on economic spending, jobs, and taxes. So the travel and meetings industries at large rallied in 2009 to develop the Meetings Mean Business Coalition (MMB), which advocates for the value of face-to-face business events.

Paul Van Deventer, CEO of Meeting Professionals International (MPI), was recently named the new co-chair for MMB, along with returning co-chair Richard Harper, executive VP of HelmsBriscoe, a global conference planning company.

Over the last seven years, MMB coalition members have developed the MMB website and online advocacy toolkit filled with industry data and intelligence that supports the effectiveness of business events to drive business growth. The list of MMB members includes large hotel companies, tourism bureaus, event producers, and all of the major meetings industry organizations.

In 2016, the coalition hosted the inaugural Global Meetings Industry Day in April 2016, building on the success of similar independent meetings advocacy events held in cities across North America during previous years. Van Deventer was in large part responsible for expanding the initiative worldwide, which began at the grassroots level with MPI members committed to raising awareness around the value of meetings at the local level.

The coalition also focused this year on developing a video series with C-suite business executives explaining how and why offsite meetings are important to their companies’ success. That was further supported by the organization’s first paid marketing campaign. The “Worth Meeting About” promotion launched during this year’s presidential conventions to drive home the message that every big initiative in any organization begins with people gathering for a meeting.

The purpose of the videos, marketing, the MMB blog, and the MMB online toolkit is a sort of insurance. When the next market disruption occurs, the meetings industry will have an extensive advocacy platform available to show business and government leaders that meetings are economically attractive. The organization emphasizes that meetings deliver a 9-to1 return on top-line investment, so when there is another market challenge, companies and organizations should actually increase their volume of business events.

The challenge is that so many government officials and corporate executives still don’t believe or understand the numbers, compounded by the fact that new government and company leaders need to be continually educated on an ongoing basis when they enter new positions of power and influence.

Another challenge, as the public outcry several years ago showed, is there can be waste and excesses in some organizations’ meetings if organizers disregard best practices.

We spoke with Van Deventer at length about his value proposition as the new co-chair of MMB, the need to expand the organization’s advocacy efforts on a global level, and the present disruptions in the meetings industry based on the rise of new technologies and younger generations.

Skift: Where was Meetings Mean Business most successful in 2016?

Paul Van Deventer: If you look at the strategies that were being laid out over the last three or four years by the co-chairs, as well as the members of the coalition, some of the key points and strategic initiatives were around broadening our voice. So it was really about engaging more business leaders who work in our industry to advocate for the value of face-to-face meetings, and getting our message out into a more global arena with a more global perspective. It was also about really refining the messaging for politicians so they can understand the value of face-to-face and the risk in reducing face-to-face meetings.

The pay-out has really come in 2016. The work we’ve done on our business leader video series really got a lot of momentum around it this year with a broad group of industry leaders, from manufacturers like Levi-Strauss to drug sellers like AdvoCare, and service companies like American Public TV. We got the top executives in these organizations to go on record and be documented on video about the value that face-to-face meetings delivers to their business. We plan to expand that in 2017, and I think that’s one key area that you’ve seen come to life in our strategy.

The idea of getting more global and getting our message to a more worldwide stage really began to expand in 2016, and we saw it grow just on a grassroots basis without a great deal of structure and strategic effort in a lot of other countries. We saw that in our Global Meetings Industry Day this year, with the number and variety of events that were held on a worldwide stage. The globalization of the MMB message and the advocacy platform was really beneficial for us.

Skift: How about on the government front?

Van Deventer: The messaging around the politicians and the political front is focused on the impact of face-to-face on jobs, and the jobs that are at risk when face-to-face meetings are cancelled. Over the last few years, we’ve begun to get more sophisticated with our message about what face-to-face meetings actually deliver economically and what they deliver for innovation.

We brought that to life by leveraging what was going on in the political environment in the U.S. with the conventions and the campaigns, and having a very refined advertising campaign out called “Worth Meeting About.” We were able to get into that political environment and talk about: “If you work together face-to-face at your convention, if you work together face-to-face at your caucus, you’re getting done what you’re trying to get done.” We’re just pointing out to them the obvious. Face-to-face meetings are core behind everything happening in the political arena, whether that is electing a politician, or whether that is driving forward legislation. They can’t do it without getting together face-to-face.

That was exciting for us. We hadn’t really put money behind an actual ad campaign before, but with some great work from APCO in pulling that together, and great sponsorship from a number of our coalition members, we were able to do that.

Skift: How do you plan to bring more global destinations into the Meetings Mean Business fold, especially emerging destinations?

Van Deventer: One of my key objectives is to continue to expand the global messaging we’ve begun. What starts with the baseline of MMB comes under the umbrella of U.S. Travel, but we are cognizant of the fact that we don’t want to be seen as a U.S. organization trying to drive a message worldwide. We’ve got to be very sensitive to leveraging what Meetings Means Business is focused on, which is not a U.S.-only initiative. It’s a worldwide initiative, and there is worldwide impact to face-to-face meetings. We have to be very clear about that.

I think coming from the role I have in working in a global association and working with other association CEOs, I believe I can leverage that position a little bit to our benefit. The goal is getting the contacts I have to understand the value of this advocacy work, and to get engaged with it, and to leverage it across their associations and with their local partners, and to get engaged with their politicians locally.

We’re not doing something unique. There are other programs like this in different markets around the world. There are programs that have been going on in Germany, Australia, and different parts of Asia. What we want to be able to do is identify those, unite them, get a more consistent messaging with local talking points, and then allow people to continue to localize them as they see fit within their own markets.

Skift: What other aspects of leading a large worldwide meetings industry association like MPI will impact your ability and capabilities as co-chair of MMB?

Van Deventer: For me, one of my core areas of focus for the next two years is to take the messaging we’ve been developing and engage the actual planners of the events into that messaging, to get them behind the advocacy. Working with other association CEOs to get them onboard, especially globally, with the work we’re trying to do, we want to engage the specific planner membership of other associations that focus on this industry, like PCMA or IAEE.

This industry is enabled by the planners. Today we’ve done a really good job of engaging the supplier side in developing the messaging and pushing the messages. We need to do the same on the planner side. There has been some engagement, but I think there’s a lot more upside opportunity, and using the platform that I have, as well as my colleagues running the other industry associations, I think we have a lot of leverage we can bring to bear in the market. We need to really communicate well to planners to get them to drive the grassroots advocacy around face-to-face meetings.

Skift: Do you think you can get some or all of the meetings industry organizations to collaborate more and share resources?

Van Deventer: I do. One of the benefits I have is I don’t have a lot of the history that some of the other folks do. When I came in four years ago, it surprised me that we did not have as close of working relationships across the associations, as well as across the suppliers’ side, that I assumed we would because we’re all advocating for the same thing. If we enable and strengthen the message around the value of face-to-face meetings, and that leads to an increase in the investments in face-to-face meetings and the number of face-to-face meetings, it benefits everyone within the industry. I view it as multiple voices together are much stronger than a number of individual voices out in the market.

That happened with Meetings Industry Day. That began as a grassroots, member-driven program by a number of MPI members up in Canada. I looked at it and said, “This is a great program. It’s had a really powerful impact in Canada, but its impact can be so much greater if we could engage other organizations, other associations, and take it to broader markets.” Two years ago, I presented that idea to the MMB coalition and said, “Why don’t we take the MPI name off of this and make it an agnostic program for anyone to promote the value of face-to-face meetings, and leverage the work that was done in Canada and try to make it a broader program?” That’s how we ended up with Global Meetings Industry Day.

To me that’s a good example of putting ego aside and taking the brand ownership away from the association to say, “What are we really trying to do here? We’re trying to make our industry overall better.” If we all get behind that effort in a concerted, standard way, with really firm, well thought-out talking points, the industry will benefit. The industry will grow, and by nature, if that grows, our own organizations will benefit.

Skift: What are some other potential benefits of collaboration among the meetings industry organizations?

Van Deventer: The more we get together, the stronger our voice becomes and the more impactful the messaging will be. As you get together you can, through scale, generate funding that enables you to improve your tools, like doing research, like improving our advertising and our messaging, supporting initiatives like the Global Meetings Industry Day, and providing better tool-kits for people to host those meetings. I think the more we come together, the more assets we’re going to have to leverage and increase the sophistication of our message, and then it just becomes a virtuous circle. The louder the message becomes, the clearer the message becomes, the more people are going to want to get involved. Then we can continue to increase the funding, increase the tools and resources, and make the messaging stronger and stronger.

Skift: What have been the challenges around developing the business industry leader videos on the MMB platform? And what has been the impact?

Van Deventer: I think the challenge is that it’s easy to get on record an executive who benefits from a growth in the industry. To get a hotelier or a destination marketing group on record to say, “Meetings are valuable” doesn’t have much value in the market because people look at that very skeptically. The challenge becomes identifying executives who have leveraged face-to-face meetings to grow their business, are very clear about the value of the investment they make in those face-to-face meetings, and why they make those investments. Then they need to be willing to put that on record.

There’s a lot of logistics, starting from zero, to build up this library, which now has seven or eight recorded testimonials, and we plan to keep going this year. There are a lot of CEOs who understand the value of face-to-face meetings, but not all of them are always willing to put it on record for whatever reason. Maybe their shareholders would challenge if they’re spending money that way. Maybe they don’t want their competitors to know.

The benefits, to me, are there’s a short term and then there’s the longer term. We’re doing a lot for the long term, or the unknown opportunity. Next time there’s a crisis, next time we have a major economic downturn, or the next time we have a politician who thinks it’s a good idea to reduce investments in meetings, we want to have these testimonials in the can ready to go. We can now pull them out and use them to counteract the first impulse of a business leader or a politician to cut meetings. We don’t know the full impact they’re going to have because we haven’t had a crisis in recent times, but we want to be prepared for it. A lot of this is an insurance policy. It’s a preparation for what may and what we assume will happen down the road.

Even without that crisis having occurred, just having our advocacy efforts when you’re on the Hill, when you’re working with politicians, when we’re getting our message out more globally, to refer people to these testimonial videos has been really valuable. As I’m trying to spread the message among my planner population, and as my colleagues are doing the same with their associations, it’s really a powerful tool for us to use in front of the planners and other organizations we’re trying to recruit into our platform to expand the message.

Skift: There’s this emerging idea, which is researched and documented more in Europe and Australia, that meetings and events have a legacy impact that isn’t really being measured and communicated very much. Everyone’s focusing on the easily measurable value of meetings in terms of the tourism spend, the hospitality spend, jobs, taxes. But there’s also the much longer-term impact of meetings relating to new business and academic relationships, new knowledge-sharing and innovation platforms, improved local community engagement, valuable destination branding to attract new foreign investment and talent relocation, etc. Is this something that’s on your radar?

Van Deventer: Yeah, absolutely. I think, for us, first we had to get our coalition together so we’re all talking the same language. We want to make sure we’re always on the same page. We built that first set of messaging around the jobs and the employment. Second, we got more refined around the ROI of meetings, emphasizing that business travel and events generate a significant top-line return for every dollar invested, which is over $9 back on the top line for every dollar put into it. Almost $3 back at the bottom line. We started to refine those messages and move towards the fact that there is a direct jobs and direct economic value.

Now we’re beginning to talk to the value of innovation and the advancement of industries, and I think our work now has to get to how we actually quantify that. You’re right. Australia has been ahead of this in their own way advocating for meetings and live events, and they’ve done a really good job of that. Germany is another market that’s done a good job of it. We need to begin to think through that next phase, and quantify the next phase of the ROI of meetings beyond the initial jobs and dollar return, into what they’re doing to impact the overall industry, and how they’re driving change and innovation. That’s a big effort for us coming forward.

Skift: We at Skift have been a big advocate that technology drives live attendance at face-to-face events and builds audience reach globally. Really, the future of meetings is the future of marrying online and offline without encroaching on live attendance. How do you feel the industry is evolving in how it views the growing convergence of technology and business events?

Van Deventer: Yes, I agree with that 100 percent. MPI did some research five years ago, which I think was a common effort at the time in our industry of looking at when virtual meetings would be taking the place of face-to-face meetings. There was a thought at that time, four, five, six years ago, that technology could replace face-to-face meetings. We’ve found a complete counter to that. We found that, as you mentioned, the use of and leveraging of technology actually becomes additive to the meetings. It increases your reach and your audience. It increases the time value of the meetings. You can do a lot more pre-meeting and post-meeting to extend the impact of the live event.

We’re finding that leveraging technology in efficient ways expands the immediate audience by enabling you to bring in people who may not have been able to attend all parts of the meeting live. But it piques their interest enough where they may want to come next year to that live meeting and get engaged. It can build audience for the future and that becomes important.

We also found in some of our studies around Millenials, where again, the initial perspective was Millenials have their face in their smartphones to communicate, so they won’t find value in face-to-face meetings. What we have found is, again, counter to that, is they do leverage technology to reach each other, to engage in new communities, but those communities then reach a point where they want to meet face-to-face. They’re driving the opportunity to create more face-to-face meetings and to create those meetings in ways that are much more customized to the audience. I firmly believe technology is not going to replace face-to-face. It enables it, it makes the experience much better, it allows the audience to be more engaged, and it allows you to expand and develop your audience for the future.

Skift: You touched on Millenials. Today, associations are having a lot of challenges attracting new Gen Y audiences and retaining their younger membership. Is that aligned with Meetings Mean Business messaging?

Van Deventer: Yes, very much. As I look at the value that associations have had for the last 40 or 50 years, it’s been about providing the education and the networking for a very specific community. That information, that education, that content wasn’t available elsewhere. Technology has changed the marketplace and the landscape dramatically because it’s made information and content ubiquitous. It’s out there, it’s free. Anyone who wants to work hard enough can find what they’re looking for.

So what value can we bring in generating and creating communities where people want to associate with each other, and learn from each other? And then how do we find and curate the content for those communities to save them the effort and provide them the information in a more focused manner?

To me, the traditional model of a member who pays the same price for a one-size-fits-all membership that you use all you want for the year is under great stress right now. Within the next five or 10 years, I think that model will have to change. It will need to evolve dramatically to where you’re setting up your association and a variety of communities where people pick and choose how they want to engage within any number of those communities. So the monetization for the association comes out of more of an a-la-carte type menu for selling access into those particular special interest groups or sub-communities, whether that’s the people paying for the education and the networking, or it’s other individuals paying to access people in the community.

Skift: What keeps you up at night about the future of meetings and events?

Van Deventer: For me, what keeps me up is: What is the next great crisis that’s going to impact our industry? Is it going to be a financial crisis? Is it a political crisis, where we have a politician who really wants to take aim at reducing investment and doesn’t see a return on the investment in face-to-face meetings? Is it a terrorist crisis or a health scare that is going to impact meetings on a regional, a local, or a global basis? What we’re doing with MMB is getting ourselves prepared to react to any of those types of crises. When we had our downturn in 2008, we weren’t prepared as an organization or as industry to respond. We’re now in a much better place. We still have work to do, but if we had a crisis tomorrow, we have a group that is aligned, we have a group that has resources, and we have a crisis game plan in place.

Photo Credit: Members of the Las Vegas hotel and travel industry participated in Global Meetings Industry Day 2016. U.S. Travel