Tourism is the exhaust fume of the business and professional events industry

By James Latham

Tourism is the exhaust fume of the business and professional events industry

By James Latham

James Latham of the Joint Meetings Industry Council's advocacy platform, The Iceberg, argues that business tourism is the exhaust fume of an industry which should be acknowledged as a transformational engine of the knowledge and creative society.

Defining the business events industry

Let's get something clear.

My mission is to get from A to B.

My solution is buy a car.

I do not view myself as the automotive sector.

I just buy it from afar.

Organisers of business and professional events from every sector use face to face events as vehicles to advance their mission - missions which are often stated within their Articles of Association or Incorporation.

To deliver these events and achieve the outcomes for which they are being held, organizers also turn afar from their own industry - to a supply chain called The Business Events Industry.

This is who we are.

The tip of the industry iceberg: tourism just happens

It's obvious really. Visiting trade fairs and exhibitions, association congresses and conventions, corporate and motivational events all deliver a local legacy in business tourism. These welcome injections of visitor spend – in hotels, taxis, F&B, entertainment, or the visitor economy, have nothing to do with the purpose of the meeting. They just happen because of them.

These impacts have been expertly and consistently measured by various Economic Impact and Economic Significance Studies and have paved the way for government investments in destination marketing and convention and exhibition infrastructure.

But remember this. Not one of the millions of meetings and conventions happened because of some insane desire to invest in the supply chain.

How come everyone keeps measuring the tourism?

Because it is above the waterline. Like an iceberg it is 9/10ths under water, and yet the economic impact studies which have dominated the industry value proposition are propagated by what is measurable, what is visible. The tip.

1,000 bed nights x 3 days x $ spend/day = impact

And these impact studies have validated the industry proposition to government, which is why investments in marketing and infrastructure invariably fall under the Department of Tourism.

Don't ignore the tourism

Tourism is indeed a sector which often follows hot on the heels of, yet rarely precedes, priority sectors such as trade & industry, healthcare, education, innovation, and social services. But it is a relatively easy sector to accelerate, especially in leisure tourism, because all or most of the infrastructure is already in situ.

It's also a relatively inexpensive playground to join once you get the marketing and the supply chain engaged. And how that supply chain loves a convention center in town because it invariably comes at the expense of the public purse, filling the hotels with high-paying guests off a single P.O. from MCI or Maritz Global Events Inc.

Happy days, especially for the hotel operators and the hospitality workers while the convention bureau or tourism body gets to reach the visitor target.

And this has value, make no mistake. But the hospitality sector is not knowledge based, and to that end, has its limitations when the primary objective of governments is to compete in this new economy.

Outcomes and legacies – where greater value lies

The beyond tourism benefits, which have been cast into darkness by the singularity of value measurement established by the industry to date, need to be documented, because if the industry can do so, it can reveal itself as the key to unlocking a community's prosperity and ongoing sustainability – namely the knowledge economy.

And competing in the knowledge economy is now a government priority as Rod Cameron, Executive Director of JMIC explains:

It is these business and professional event legacies which can support transformational sectors of innovation, trade, commerce, science, technology, and medicine – the STEM and other knowledge based sectors which underpin the global and local transition from manufacturing and service based economies, to knowledge and creative societies.

Expanding the narrative upstream

These legacies need to be documented, because when government constructs policy and allocates funding, it needs both academic and anecdotal evidence of the benefits and contributions that can be realized by securing business and professional events in sectors it wants to grow.

Governments should also be encouraged to adopt an integrated approach – to learn how other cities and countries are working their departments and agencies within growth sectors to secure investment and talent - goals which are often embedded within a national or local Economic & Social Development Framework.

Conference and Travel Publications (CAT) in the UK has been publishing Intellectual Capitals for two years now so that its international association meeting planner community can better identify the world's knowledge hubs as destinations in which to meet, invest, work and live. And Meetings International in Sweden is creating a series of Business Intelligence Reports so that its outbound event organizer communities have insight into destinations providing on access to knowledge, expertise, and talent.

Industry responds

The Joint Meetings Industry Council (JMIC) is a global collective, a United Nations, of the business and professional events industry. It has 14 international industry association members from every sub-sector of the industry. In July 2015 at its annual meeting in Paris, JMIC took the lead in assuming responsibility for curating a series of academic case studies which document the legacies of business and professional events and which governments and policymakers can turn to when constructing policy on behalf of their communities.

This series, The JMIC Value of Meetings Case Study Program, is now six months into a 2-year construction with each JMIC member committed to identifying at least one key case study from within their sub-sector of the industry – from congresses, trade fairs and exhibitions, corporate and government meetings, and from motivational events.

These case studies will be published by JMIC's crowd-funded industry platform, The Iceberg, and output relayed via a network of  investors including the industry's leading associations, publishers, events, and best practitioners via an online newsletter, Business Events World. These stories enable stakeholders, including destination marketing organisations (DMO's), to share examples of outcomes and legacies with government policymakers, with local economic development organisations, ministries, chambers of commerce, universities and research institutions or indeed any other organisation or individual tasked with a role in developing a knowledge base, attracting investment, and building the talent pool in key clusters identified in the local, state, or national framework.

As well as JMIC's academic case studies, stewarded by the University of Technology in Sydney (UTS), The Iceberg is gathering a plethora of commentary and storytelling from publishers and advocacy organisations including the US Travel Association-led 'Meetings Mean Business' (MMB) Coalition in the United States.

Some leading DMO's are also working independently with organisers of events to garner the legacy contributions that can be realised by their cities when they host them but also demonstrating how delegates benefit when they too choose to visit. The German Convention Bureau (GCB) has, for example, commissioned a 6-part series of case studies illustrating the benefits that organisers can realise by aligning their events to Germany's knowledge hubs in clusters of science, technology, logistics, and medicine. These stories, to be published in partnership with local publisher TW Germany, will echo its 'Germany Expertise' campaign which was one of the early examples of a destination leveraging access to its knowledge, membership and sponsorship potential for organisers of events.

These additional stories will amplify the country's expertise – this time through the prisms of event owners and their delegates and help to illustrate the link between the mission of an association and the vision of the destination.

The Dutch have followed suit with their own campaign – again leveraging expertise and 'ambassadors' from within the respective clusters.

But it is at local level, at city level, where the transition to 'clustering' has been most apparent.

London & Partners (the convention bureau, inward investment, and education agencies all in one) is targeting events from the creative industries, life sciences, and technology clusters.

Working alongside the inward investment and education marketing 'partners', the convention bureau has even created London Technology Week which attracts over 40 events from the sector and enables entrepreneurs and investors to coalesce in the city over a week-long series of cross-pollinated events. This model adds value to delegates, investors, entrepreneurs, and suppliers alike but the legacy for London lies in the contribution that these events deliver to the growth in employment in the Tech sector as London builds its brand and talent pool to stimulate over 25,000 new jobs in the cluster since hosting the Olympics in 2012.

Geneva's convention bureau has restructured its operations to ensure that its own workforce are fluent in the language and connections in key clusters whilst working with the Chamber of Commerce and the Economic Development Office to attract events in clusters such as biotech, healthcare, and financial technologies. Bureau chief, Anja Loetscher, calls the collaboration of these government agencies the 'Maison de la Economie' and claims it is working wonders for the city when bidding for events:


Organisers of events in financial services such as SWIFT's annual Sibos event are responsive to the linkage. They now actively seek out destinations which can enable local fintech firms to meet and trade with the banking and financial community that is seeking solutions to challenges such as financial cybercrime. This alignment to local knowledge serves the mission of SWIFT and its members but it also provides a platform for Geneva to drive its FinTech sector. A win win as Sven Bossu explains:


This is great news for smaller cities. They can now be global cities in their key clusters. Halfax, Nova Scotia is the world's bio magnetic research engineering hub, San Diego has transformed through its biotech and Austin, Texas is a creative tech hub.

Follow the leaders

Perhaps the leading force behind this increasingly upstream approach has been the Sydney, New South Wales DMO, Business Events Sydney. Its chief executive, Lyn Lewis-Smith, published an ongoing longitudinal study of the medium to long term economic and social benefits, and legacies, that business events contribute to the state. This initial and ongoing study Beyond Tourism Benefits: A Social Legacy has been supported by the recent publication of CONFERENCES: CATALYSTS FOR THRIVING ECONOMIES and both illustrate how business and professional events contribute to social and economic development within the key clusters identified for growth by the state government. It is no coincidence, then, that Sydney unveiled the region's latest world class convention centre, the ICC Sydney, in December 2016. That's what happens when the lights go on in the Prime Minister's office or the Head of Policy for Economic and Social Development.

When the industry's potential to support job creation in knowledge based sectors is written into policy, so investments follow.

In Dubai, the former oil-rich emirate's DMO is focussing upon attracting events exclusively in those clusters which match the broader growth strategy of the UAE, as its chief executive, Steen Jakobsen explains:


In Singapore, perhaps Asia's most advanced destination for events, its DMO chief Lionel Yeo echoes his organisation's alignment to the country's growth strategy set within the Prime Minister's office:


All aboard!

Industry publishers are rising with the tide. Successful Meetings and M&C, Northstar Meetings Group's flagship brands are regularly contributing to the upstream dialogue, start-up online travel portal is working with the MMB Coalition to deliver insight into how business events support urban growth with its recent release of 'Defining Conventions as Urban Innovation and Economic Accelerators'.

Conference and Travel Publications (CAT) in the UK has been publishing Intellectual Capitals for two years now so that its international association meeting planner community can better identify the world's knowledge hubs as destinations to meet, invest, work and live. And Meetings International in Sweden is creating a series of Business Intelligence Reports so that its outbound event organiser communities have insight into destinations majoring on access to knowledge, expertise, and talent.

Building connections in the clusters

Many leading event cities, such as Glasgow in Scotland, have developed industry Ambassador Programmes. In Glasgow's case over 2,500 academic and industry leaders are working with Glasgow City Marketing to stimulate bids for specific industry events (as well as seeking talent and investment) as it builds the city brand, its knowledge base and talent pool in particular clusters, most notably in the life sciences.

Glasgow's universities now rely, in part, on their funding based on the number, and conversion of, bids for events they bring to the city, based on the understanding that events are gateways to the city's economic and social transition. It's an example of the whole of city approach increasingly integrated by the local government.

Rising to the challenge of automation

When President Trump called for a Mexican wall among other protectionist policies, he cited the 'stealing of American jobs by immigrants'.

In fact, 80% of jobs lost in the US last year were due to automation.

This is the true challenge facing policymakers today – where are the jobs going to come from to replace those displaced by robotics and other forms of automation? Which are the sectors driving innovation and job creation? At least then they can determine which sectors they are best equipped (in skills and knowledge base) in which to invest.

And perhaps here lies the real reason why business and professional events are in vogue and set to become engines of growth – vehicles through which government can reach their destination goal, namely to forge its knowledge economy.

One enlightened politician in the United States who introduced a recent PCMA Convening Leaders Conference in Boston was then Governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick. His address at one of the industry's foremost educational events was perhaps the greatest quote I have witnessed as to why business and professional events play such a pivotal role in addressing this global challenge – the impact of technology and automation – and why events are a platform for realizing transition to the knowledge economy:


His explanation of the role of government, especially as it pertains to investments in meeting infrastructure and destination marketing, should go down in industry folklore because the Boston administration has recognised and capitalised on its key asset – knowledge.

Knowledge is the currency of growth

STEM sector associations are increasingly important sources of knowledge transfer and business opportunity. They dispense ongoing adult education, they foster interaction and innovation, and they create opportunities for making new stuff, new services, and new jobs.

This explains why so many destinations see association meetings and events – their congresses, conferences, conventions – as priority targets and while trade fairs and exhibitions are renown for their huge contributions to trade, commerce, and exports development, it is the convening of knowledge based communities which are viewed as the Holy Grail by many DMO's and why investments in data mining for association congresses by ICCA (the International Congress & Convention Association), and campaign agencies targeting events in the clusters, such as Sarah Fleming Associates (SFA), have thrived.

These tools and agencies are providing deep dive into the clusters and communities and illustrate why broadcast marketing is shrinking in favor of data driven channels – ones which result in one on one engagement and the potential for hosting these knowledge-rich business and professional events.

The end of the beginning?

The industry has rallied. The formation of The Iceberg collaboration and the commitment of the industry's associations to deliver the case studies is proof enough.

But this is just the beginning and by no means the end of the storytelling.

The industry must equip itself with a robust and broad set of case studies and stories which confirm the legacies of business events and support the growth strategy of government – including but beyond tourism.

Destinations must build their city brands as intellectual capitals – as with Germany Expertise, they must illustrate to organizers that events held in their knowledge hubs deliver on the mission of the organization and the mission of the event.

Next steps

As Professor Greg Clark of The Business of Cities stated when keynoting at the IMEX Politicians Forum in Frankfurt in May, the industry must develop the means by which to engage beyond the confines of itself – especially to government. This will mean building connections with supra-governmental organisations, especially the OECD. It will mean the same with influential media such as The Economist, establishing a voice beyond the industry's comfort zone.

Whichever channels the JMIC members pursue on behalf of the industry and their communities, it is the industry at large which must leverage the communications being assembled and share the output with local policymakers, government agencies, institutions, and ambassadors responsible for driving growth.

Arming these communities with the tools they need to justify such investments within their own communities - who ultimately foot the bill - will signal the true beginning of the campaign to position business and professional events as the engine of growth, and tourism its fumes.

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