How will this global crisis affect groups meeting in Mexico over the coming years? That central question was addressed during WITMEX — Women in Tourism Mexico, a new digital conference that premiered last week. The event was produced by Northstar Meetings Group in partnership with AFEET Quintana Roo, an organization of professional women in Mexico's tourism industry, based in that state on the country's Caribbean coast. Nearly 70 people, both women and men, attended the event, and all were focused on fostering collaboration and communication to facilitate the return of events in Mexico.
"The good thing about the meetings industry within Mexico is that you will find a very resilient, receptive community there," said Eduardo Chaillo, CEO of the consultancy Global Meetings and Tourism Specialists, in a conversational session designed to address planner questions and concerns. "As you know, we have been exposed to natural disasters, perception issues around security, earthquakes, hurricanes, the H1N1 virus. All those crises have contributed to a very resilient community."
Chaillo, who spent 12 years in executive positions on the Mexico Tourism Board, has plenty of experience addressing exactly those issues. Now, with the pandemic happening on a global level, those past experiences give Mexico a unique, seasoned perspective — one that can help planners assuage the concerns of their attendees, as well.
"The CVBs in Mexico have a lot of experience talking to the clients, sharing transparently what's really happening and putting a crisis-management plan together," said Chaillo. "I think we are prepared. And this isn't just a supply crisis, this is a supply-and-demand crisis. So we can be very empathetic."
And if empathy is the most important ingredient when it comes to doing business in the meetings industry these days, flexibility would have to be a close second.
"In Mexico — and really all the Latin American countries — we are flexible by nature," Chaillo pointed out. "That's our personality. It's easy for us to sit at the table and say, 'OK, let's move it to next year.' It's a personal trait we have in Latin America — we're flexible, we're empathetic, we're creative. We have those soft skills, which is very important right now."
As for what suppliers would like to see from planners when business begins to recover, Chaillo requested openness and honesty. "The more we know, the more we can help them," Chaillo said. "This is a two-way street. Everybody has to be conscious of what the other needs."
Preserving the Experience
One of the key challenges planners are facing is how they can preserve the luxury incentive experiences they already have on the books for their clients.
"Our first congress we'll be doing is in October," said María Luisa Londoño, the Colombia-based international marketing manager for Gema Tours, during an international-planner panel discussion. "It's a fashion congress and we'll be able to do that through a virtual platform — which thank God we have right now, and every day we're learning more about how to do that. But an incentive experience you just can't produce through a platform. I don't know how incentivized I would be to see through a computer what I really want to experience physically."
Panelists from across North America agreed they were facing similar challenges. "We've been thinking about that and talking about it a lot," said Holly Bailey, a Franklin, Tenn.-based planner and operations manager from SMI Travel. "For years, we educated the client on how monetary cash prizes are not the same as an experience. So to turn around and suggest otherwise now isn't going to work."
While Bailey's site inspections are currently on hold, all of her booked business for the next year is international, with at least three programs in Mexico. As she put it, the ability to travel will be intrinsic to the success of those incentive programs and keeping the participants motivated. "For the clients' top producers, their top agents, it is travel," said Bailey. "It is that luxury program that they cannot do on their own, with the wow factor that they've never seen before. We haven't found a substitute."
Canada-based Daniela Caputo, owner and president of Montreal Event Planner, has likewise been brainstorming ideas — even a temporary "band-aid" solution for the time being. "The only thing we keep coming back to is to pay top employees a bonus and cross our fingers and hope we can do the trip when everything goes back to normal, whatever that is," Caputo said. Meanwhile, she added, "cute and fun" virtual events like wine tastings can be engaging for the time being, but she's hoping her clients can travel again before the novelty of those events wears off.
To help both planners and suppliers navigate what could become increasingly challenging conversations around booking — particularly as events in Mexico and everywhere else are postponed and then rebooked again — Lelia Gowland delivered a keynote presentation at WIMTEX on general negotiation strategies that are particularly effective for women. Gowland, sponsored by Goodman Speakers, is a speaker, writer and coach on workplace dynamics for women.
By using research to one's advantage, practicing negotiations out loud with another person, and using active listening and asking questions, we can reach our desired outcomes, Gowland advised in her high-energy, interactive session. "When we work at and really reflect how we want to negotiate, we can advocate for ourselves in a way that feels authentic and affirming," she explained.