Editor’s Note: This story is part of an upcoming Skift Research Report — “Defining Conventions as Urban Innovation and Economic Accelerators” — produced in collaboration with Meetings Mean Business. The report is scheduled to publish April 20, 2017.

There are dozens of international associations directly affiliated with the global meetings and conventions industry, but there’s never been a high level of collaboration among them, especially across continents.

The Joint Meetings Industry Council (JMIC) was established in 1978 as a communications platform connecting international meetings industry associations to share industry trends and best practices, although the organization has never been particularly active in North America.

For the last few years, the JMIC has been advocating for the need to define the broader value of the meetings industry, specifically in terms of delivering business outcomes and driving economic outputs for the host communities of conventions and all of the participating companies, organizations, delegates, and sponsors. Those broader values can include new business relationships, new education and professional development opportunities, new collaborative research development, and new destination brand lift for the host city, just to name a few. All of those have a quantifiable economic value.

Typically, rather, the value of conventions and the measure of their success from the meeting planner’s perspective have been defined by the event’s delegate attendance figures, number of exhibitors, total sponsorship dollars, etc. From the destination’s perspective, the traditional metrics of success generally relate to the short-term economic impact derived from attendee spending on hotels, restaurants, convention center space, etc.

In January this year, the JMIC launched The Iceberg project to collect case studies of high-impact meetings and conventions from around the globe that delivered verifiable results for organizers and legitimate benefits for participants. The goal is to finally articulate the meetings industry’s holistic value proposition by showing how meetings and conventions drive long-term business strategy and economic development for all stakeholders.

“The focus of our value proposition as an industry has been shifting from one based on delegate and organizer spending to the value of what these events actually achieve for organizers, participants and host communities,” explains JMIC President Joachim Koenig in The Iceberg’s opening introduction. “As simple as it sounds, this in fact has huge implications, because it places us at the very center of both the global economy and the underlying scientific, professional, academic, business, and social advancements that drive it.”

The JMIC is collaborating with the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) to inform the direction of The Iceberg project. The UTS was chosen because it produced the “Beyond Tourism Benefits” research series for Business Events Sydney starting back in 2010, which is considered the benchmark for insight delving into the legacy economic impacts of meetings.

Skift spoke with Rod Cameron, executive director of the Joint Meetings Industry Council, to learn about the factors motivating The Iceberg launch.

Skift: Do you see a growing awareness among convention bureaus, economic development agencies, and city governments that conventions have a long-term impact on the economic growth of cities?

Rod Cameron: It’s growing, but it’s not universal and there are two problems. The first problem is that we are not particularly effective at getting that information out, not the least of which is because we don’t have enough hard measures to meet the test that government bureaucrats typically want to apply to policy positions, and so we need to do that better.

The second thing is that it’s a constant exercise because the turnover within the governmental and political worlds, particularly at the local and regional levels where most of the investment actually has to be made, is ongoing. That means that you just get one old set of council members, ministers, economic development agencies oriented, and then there’s an election or there’s a cabinet shuffle or there’s some other turnover. So you find yourself dealing with a whole bunch of new people and then you have to start the education process all over again.

So I think we need to, number one, make sure that we advance in the area of getting better and more credible value measurements around economic policy benefit, as opposed to simply spending benefits. And secondly, recognize that this is a job that will never end, and that we’ve just got to keep up the education process, and always reach out to newer and broader audiences.

Skift: What is your take on the challenges of evaluating and measuring the long-term economic and business development impacts of conferences?

Cameron: There are really three levels to it. The first is simply identifying what the benefits are, and UTS has done a tremendous amount of really good work there. Just articulating what exactly it is that a specific business event is intended to do is the first step. Is it to raise awareness of particular issues or practices? Is it to circulate new technologies and get input? Is it to advance academic research in some particular area? So identifying what it is you’re trying to achieve is still something that is yet evolving, and the event organizers are a lot better at this obviously because it’s their event, than we are as suppliers to the industry.

The second thing is: “Right, now you have identified what it is you’re trying to accomplish with this event, so to what extent did you accomplish it?” That’s where the surveys and the measurements and so forth come into play for the individual event.

But there’s a third level as well. It’s the future of where we’re going, but it’s the big one, and that is to monetize those benefits. I know that a lot of the international medical associations — cardiology, AIDS, diabetes — have been looking really intensely at this. Because they can say, by virtue of advancing these practices, by virtue of building awareness which enables preventative work to be done and so forth, “Here’s how much money we can save your medical care system in your region”

Skift: So the goal, then, is to better evaluate the long-term benefits that destinations can leverage when they host events, especially in high-priority sectors.

Cameron: Right. Now all of a sudden, we’re where everybody wanted to be all along, which is to actually attach a financial value to what it is that meetings and exchanges are accomplishing. This last one’s tough but it’s going to happen. For example, as we all know, medical care is going to end up being one of the biggest single components of every government budget everywhere in the world. The more the demographic moves to an older configuration, and the more possibilities that are opened up by different treatment options, the cost is just going to go straight up.

So to be able to demonstrate that meetings and conferences and training sessions can actually help a government manage that cost escalation, that’s going to be a tremendous argument for them.

Skift: Do you have an example of where a medical conference has informed a government’s healthcare strategy?

Cameron: So, for example, at the AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa last year, we were speaking to the individuals who were involved directly in hosting that event and representing the government. They said that when they looked at the event, the most powerful argument for it, to the government, was the fact that AIDS is, of course, an enormous issue continent-wide in Africa. The governments recognize that the cost associated with treatment, loss productivity, on and on and on, is huge.

So to have an international conference that focuses everybody’s attention to a much greater extent on AIDs, and which brings all the global expertise on AIDS into the country and into specific cities, it focuses government attention and it leads to new funding and the creation of new facilities and so forth, as a direct result of that conference. There was also additional research created that goes toward helping address the problems associated with AIDS in South Africa, and as a result of that, helping government manage the enormous amount of investment that they’re having to put in, or productivity that they’re forgoing because of that disease.

Skift: Moving forward though, is it your contention that the meetings industry in any given city needs to collaborate with their academic institutions at the local level, like Business Events Sydney did with UTS, to create research relevant to a specific community?

Cameron: Absolutely, I think that the more universities that get involved whose specialty it is to do this kind of thing, the better for the entire benefit of everyone involved in the meetings industry. Particularly, university level economists is a group we’ve never really hooked into in my personal opinion. We really need to move in that direction because they’re used to making the kinds of leaps necessary here, and that’s what this is going to be all about. You have to make those assumptions, and defend your assumptions, and then come up with those connectors that can allow you to bridge what is going on in meetings today, and what the result is, and what the value of that result is.

And yes, the politics are different in different communities. The priorities are different. Their concerns with the community are different. When people within convention destinations are figuring out how to communicate their value proposition with governments, they should sit down with their government’s latest economic policy paper and figure out what kinds of events are going on within the industry that are directly supportive of what their governments identify as being their economic priorities.

Skift: How can convention bureaus better communicate to their local governments the value of the work they do to attract conventions that help drive economic growth in their regions?

Cameron: The difficulty here is that every single event has a different set of objectives, so therefore every single event is going to have different kinds of legacies and leave-behinds in the community to measure. We need to make sure that we advance in the area of getting more credible value measurements around the economic policy benefits, as opposed to simply spending benefits, certainly. But to try to generalize it to the point of saying, “This is the quantified impact that a convention leaves behind in a city,” is, I don’t think, ever going to be possible.

The interesting thing is that intuitively, most governments get it. They understand the policy benefits and the political benefits associated with hosting a major event in some area that they see as being their economic future or their community development future. So when you have the conversation with them about these broader benefits that conventions bring, inevitably they pick up on it, and they’re usually okay with the story approach because, at the political level certainly, that’s where they live.

Photo Credit: The 21st International AIDS Conference, Durban, South Africa, 2016. UNAIDS