Beyond tourism: The true value of events and conventions

How do we move from looking to raise the number of bed nights to looking at the impact 'beyond tourism?' Karen Bolinger, Strategic Advisor at BestCities Global Alliance, outlines how destination marketing organisations are working to track the social outcomes their events are delivering.

You have had several leadership positions in organisations focused on the international conventions sector over the past 20 years, and your involvement with the BestCities organisation has provided you with an insight into how other cities approach the events sector, what have been the greatest changes since your first role at Sydney CVB?

Back in 2000 when I first started at Sydney Convention & Visitors Bureau (now BESydney), the way we bid for events was fundamental and based on access, infrastructure and some level of support. Back then cities were only just starting to understand the value business events had on a destination and how it required government support. But even then, it was still based on tourism data such as number of visitors, average length of stay and expenditure. There was no recognition for the ‘beyond tourism’ impact that business events have on a city, as it’s hard to quantify in the same way arrival statistics and hotel occupancy are.

Today, many Destination Marketing Organisations (DMOs) have started to realise the value of business events to a city and are wanting to track the actual social outcomes that events are delivering. They are doing this by aligning their city and government’s priorities with conferences that occur in that sector and setting objectives around securing them and how it will benefit their local community.

Some governments are including business events as part of their sector strategies when developing public policy to drive economic growth, talent attraction and retention, and create jobs to name a few impacts.


Great to hear that cities are makings stronger connections between the conventions sector, tourism, and economic development.  What are the practical implications in terms of  organisational structure and approaches to pitching for international events that you have seen? 

The way we bid for business events has changed significantly and requires a much more sophisticated whole of city approach. Governments are investing in infrastructure and subvention programs to attract business events while international associations are looking to leave lasting legacies in their destination of choice to influence and create social transformation, so naturally the structure and interaction within cities needs to change to accommodate this.

DMOs are now better connected to their chambers of commerce and economic development departments, seeking a deep understanding of industry sectors where government are creating strategies and policy to build their intellectual capital which is very much a part of a city’s brand. What this means for DMOs is having a structure and staff on your team that have a strong understanding of government systems and networks to identify the local bid participants and hosts, while having citywide engagement at the highest levels prior to, during and after the bid. This is no longer a business development activity – it’s a complete engagement piece.

A business events strategy aligned to economic development allows cities and nations to build their profile and reputation by attracting the world’s best talent, trade, investment and job creation as well as developing a living city for its community. That’s a win all round.

In our discussions with the City Nation Place community, there’s a consistent challenge that is cited across all areas of place branding: how to set KPIs and measure the impact of  your strategy. Conventions have a very clear immediate impact in terms of revenues and room nights, but how can cities and convention bureaux understand  and measure the longer tail metrics? Can you share your thoughts around  this?

The measurement of “beyond tourism” impacts is one of the most complex and frustrating measures to deliver I believe – it’s why it’s not so cut and dry. It is a long tail outcome and can be spread over several areas which aren’t immediately visible. Social transformation takes place over a period of time and has many influences beyond the government of today, hence why cities find it difficult to measure. The days of “heads in beds” will be left behind eventually and it will be those forward-thinking cities that look beyond and see the impact on society where the real value will occur.

 BestCities have embarked on research that aims to quantify the actual legacy that events leave in a destination by building a model that any destination can use. We will look to align this with the SDGs to give them relevance given the impact is often well beyond the five-year plus period in a destination. It in early stages yet but it’s a piece of work we’re passionate about.

Do you have any specific case studies in mind when you talk about this impact on policy, and/or on sectoral economic development?

An example, coming from BestCities’ 2019 Incredible Impacts programme, where we award grants to associations who are setting extraordinary examples in the industry, is the European Lung Foundation/European Respiratory Society’s International Congress – hosted last year in partner destination Madrid.

The Congress brought together lung professionals from around the world along with patients and the media, meeting under one roof to hear first-hand from experts and exchange knowledge. Uniquely, for each of the Congress host cities, the association hosts lung testing events that are open to the public – where anyone can take part in a 45-minute lung function test that checks for things like cancer or other respiratory conditions. This means that not only those in the healthcare world, but the public, patients and non-delegates also benefited from the conference’s presence in the city.

From a community well-being and social progress point of view, this left an impact that would even save lives, so it’s an excellent case study to get other associations and destinations considering what their legacy footprint would be. 

So if you had one key  message for cities [or indeed nations!] which are focused on developing a future-thinking place brand strategy on how conventions can fit in to the plan, what would it be?

It’s the best value you’ll invest in – trade and investment, knowledge exchange, collaboration and brand reputation can be built on your intellectual capital – which is your biggest and most unique asset that no one can replicate.

Best Cities is an organisation set up to encourage sharing of best practice in how cities develop  and manage their conventions business – which is interesting given the competitive nature of pitches for international events. How and where do you see this collaboration and knowledge sharing working best?

BestCities, which enters its 20th anniversary this year, works to harness the power of collaboration and community to create positive impact through business events. What this means is that we work with our 11 partner destinations to help them secure international association events, and with associations to help them achieve their meeting outcomes and make an impact. We look beyond the congress to support an association’s overall organisational aspirations and leave a legacy.

We see collaboration and knowledge sharing work best when we bring our clients and destinations together at our annual Global Forum to connect, network and think analytically about our industry. Our most recent Global Forum took place in Copenhagen in December, where 18 international association executives and representatives from the 11 partner destinations came together to look at the theme of Exploring the Congress of the Future. (video recap:

The Forum is led by industry leaders, and 2019 saw Copenhagen launch a first-of-its-kind legacy lab, which introduced a dialogue on evaluating global best practices in the meetings industry around concepts like outreach, legacy and impact. There were also education sessions and workshops analysing into the future of meetings, featuring the Danish Design Centre and futurists from Public Futures.

The 2020 Global Forum will be taking place in Madrid in November and is set to look at the theme of Developing Legacy Together.

Another compelling challenge that everyone working in place branding and in tourism development in particular is now facing is the need to focus on sustainability.   Encouraging the world to travel to your city or nation can seem in direct opposition to the need to act on climate change.  How are you seeing cities adapt their approach to conventions in a way that furthers their intent to contribute to the UN Sustainable Development Goals? 

Sustainability is a huge talking point in the industry right now, and we’re seeing more destinations and associations working in tandem to best offset their carbon footprint with their global congresses. This is a positive change, and a crucial one – it’s no longer an added consideration to have a sustainability objective but an absolute expectation with business events – and people take notice. 

The very nature of our industry already presents challenges for sustainability with many delegates flying around the world to attend business events, but that’s also led to destinations finding more strategic and creative ways to adapt. For example, in 2017, the Society for Ecological Restoration hosted their World Conference on Ecological Restoration in Brazil, which saw delegates invited to spend one day of their time at the conference at a restoration site near the meeting venue, planting trees and collecting seeds. The association also made a donation to support local restorative activities in an effort to directly offset the impact made by the event taking place there. Their most recent conference took place in BestCities partner city Cape Town in 2019.

All destinations and associations should build a sustainability objective into their event-planning as it becomes more and more of an industry standard.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us, Karen.

Related reading:

Has the pandemic killed soft power?

The politics of space, culture, and placemaking on post-COVID place branding

The roadmap for sustainable recovery

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