Restarting business events to deliver longer-term positive returns

The past year has seen business events shifting to virtual as international – and domestic – travel ground to a halt, but what does the future look like for the MICE sector?

Last November at the CNP Asia Pacific conference, Lyn Lewis-Smith, CEO at BeSydney, predicted that “We are in this hybrid world for life now – I don’t see us going back. Consumer behaviour is changing, and technology is going to fast-track this… We need to look at our value proposition going forwards, because this is a very different environment that we’re going to be operating in.”

Restarting business events is critical to recovery for many places; they bring visitor spend to the city, facilitate trade deals, and attract media attention. However, we can’t simply hit re-start on the sector and expect it to resume in exactly the same manner. As Lyn stated, consumer behaviour and expectations have evolved and business events need to adapt to match these new requirements.

What challenges are we facing?

Whilst virtual events can’t fully recreate the experience of a physical event, they can certainly be more cost-effective for attendees  and more climate-crisis friendly.  

Virtual event technology has come on in leaps and bounds over the past year (the delegate experience we were able to offer at CNP Americas 2021 compared to 2020 is a world apart), but it’s still very hard to recreate the casual conversations that make attending an event so worthwhile. So how can event organisers and destinations work together to ensure that physical attendance at events is not only safe, but also offers real value and justifies both the budget and the carbon footprint?

Competition will increase

With people travelling to fewer conferences, the competition to attract the major business events will increase. Being able to clearly differentiate your proposition and your unique selling points will be key to winning bids.

Companies are increasingly looking to their Corporate Social Responsibility strategies

The last year has re-emphasised the importance of addressing the social and environmental challenges we’re facing, and both businesses and individuals are more aware of the impact their actions have on others. Part of the solution will be in addressing the carbon footprint that events carry, but also in understanding how you can deliver broader impact to the communities your conference organisers interact with.

The metrics we use to track success need updating. 

Destinations attracting events need to re-think their strategies and understand how business events fit within the broader economic development picture to create an end-to-end experience that delivers for all. And that means that KPIs need to be evolved beyond heads-in-beds to understand the long-term impact that business events have on a place.

 “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,” suggested Karen Bolinger, Strategic Advisor at BestCities Global Alliance and APAC Managing Director for PCMA. “This is no longer a business development activity – it’s a complete engagement piece.”

How can you identify your real unique selling points?

If you’re seriously competing to attract events, the expectation is that you already have a convention centre and an array of nice hotels. It’s a given – and it certainly doesn’t make your proposition stand out from the crowd. Being able to support conference and event organisers while they transition to a hybrid model will be a definite plus in the short-term, but looking to the future, what is that really makes your place stand out?

There are a few key areas that can help you identify your points of differentiation…

  • The cultural opportunities available outside your convention centre
  • The sectors and talent that you’re investing in
  • The connections and conversations you can facilitate between interested parties

PCMA’s President & CEO, Sherrif Karamat, neatly summarised this for us:  “You must ask yourself what else you can bring to the  table. And if your government is investing in a key sector, then you can  elevate that. Highlight the expertise you uniquely have access to and put it  onto the global stage; it will allow you to truly differentiate your place.”

Say you were trying to attract a large medical convention. Yes, it’s important to know that you have the spaces that can accommodate the event, but imagine if you could also highlight that you had a world-class university specialising in medical research. Suddenly you’re able to make connections between the convention organisers and the talent that is already in your backyard. You could suggest keynotes that you could help secure, provide opportunities for your students to showcase their own research, and demonstrate an incomparable expertise that associations will be interested in aligning themselves with. “Your business development team needs to be knowledgeable of the sectors that your client event organisers are working in – they’re not just selling the convention centre, they’re selling the connections they can bring to the event in terms of potential speakers and sponsors,” explained Julie Coker, President & CEO at San Diego Tourism Authority.

Be more purposeful about the events that you attract 

Once you understand you unique selling points, take the time to really understand which conventions will help you to further your own goals. Where’s the overlap in the ambitions of the associations you’re attracting and those of your own DMO & EDO?

“There are advantages to marrying the objectives of these global associations with your comparative advantage, because they want to go to where the best content and the best people in the world are,” shared Lyn Lewis-Smith. “Work collaboratively with your economic development unit to work out what events you’re going after, what’s the impact that you’re looking to leave – is it putting your soft power or your infrastructure assets on the world stage?”

Karen echoed this, stating that “A business event 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.”


Help conference directors to deliver longer-term impact

At the moment, many of the metrics around success in MICE attraction are geared towards short-term gains, but leveraged correctly, events can have a hugely positive legacy that last well-beyond the close of the conference.

“I think that legacy is the new bottom line. We can’t continue to talk about room nights when the added benefits of congresses are potentially enormous on so many metrics,” shared Kit  Lykketoft, Director of Conventions at Wonderful Copenhagen, as she outlined the ways Copenhagen are working with congresses to align vision and mission of all the key players at CNP Global 2020. “It’s not only a shift towards a new way of working in the industry, but it also contributes to academic, to business, to societal recovery by using Congresses as a lever to inward investment, collaboration, fostering new research studies… All of these are paramount to the recovery of the world.”

So how are places leveraging working to create legacy for their events?

Melbourne: International AIDS Conference

Beginning with an earlier example, Melbourne hosted the 2014 XX International AIDS conference. The City took an Australia wide approach, by bringing together AIDS patients, researchers, activists, and the government together under a single vision. And it created real change within the Australian approach to AIDS – right down to the fact that they had to overhaul government policy to allow people with AIDS into the country before they were able to bid for the event. It allowed them to foster a much broader conversation that aligned approaches to AIDS care across Australia and also engaged the community with a series of scheduled marches throughout the conference programme.  

“It’s not about heads in beds – this is about life-saving and life-changing events that deliver back to destinations,” enthused Karen Bolinger.

Copenhagen: International Water Association

In 2022, Copenhagen will be hosting the IWA’s World Water Congress & Exhibition, and the team at Copenhagen’s Legacy Lab have been working closely with the event organisers to establish  a clear legacy programme. The IWA’s own goals of being a catalyst for innovation, knowledge, and support for those pursuing ambitions around the water-related SDGs align nicely with Denmark’s own Water Vision 2025 which aims to increase people’s opportunities to access water, protect populations against floods and storm surges, and develop a carbon neutral water sector by 2030.

As well as being able to tap into the hub of expertise and innovation that already exists within Denmark, the IWA has worked with Copenhagen to develop an outreach programme that will spread the learnings beyond the conference attendees. From a week-long course aimed at Bachelor and Master students to developing recommendations on how to secure a zero-footprint in all types of production and distribution, the event will continue to contribute to water-related sustainable development goals for years to come.

Glasgow: COP 26

Glasgow’s successful bid to host COP 26 is a testament to a long-track record of hosting international events, but also to their commitment to their own sustainable credentials. It’s also providing the city with a platform to promote and accelerate their own carbon-neutral ambitions. However, one of the key ambitions for Glasgow’s Council Leader, Susan Aitken, is that Glaswegians understand that this event is happening with Glasgow – because  of Glasgow – and not an inconvenience that is being inflicted upon them.

Glaswegians are also being encouraged to put forward their own schemes such as pop-up bike lanes or an urban forest on previously derelict land. “We decided early on we would connect with communities and ensure there was a two-way engagement between the event and the city,” explained Susan Aitken. “That is the Glasgow way.”

Rebuilding business events for a more prosperous future

Like many sectors, the MICE industry is in a state of flux – but this means its up to us to determine right now what the future of business events will look like. Will we slip back into old habits, or will we take this opportunity to rebuild in ways that deliver more positive, longer-term impacts for both destinations and event organisers?

“It’s not easy,” BeSydney’s Lyn Lewis-Smith asserted, “but if not now, when? We’re part of the recovery strategy. Marry up [your ambitions] now, and re-imagine what the future looks like in a collaborative approach to growing the industry in your own backyard.”

We will be joined by PCMA’s Sherrif Karamat and San Diego  Tourism Authority’s Julie Coker at City Nation Place Americas this June 16-17  to explore how events can be more purposeful with their MICE attraction  strategies. Find out more about the conversations planned at City Nation Place Americas here.

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