It's Time for Radical Innovation in the Meetings Industry, Says IACC's Mark Cooper

Mark Cooper

"Radically Different: Change Everything" was the theme for the International Association of Conference Centres' annual Americas Connect meeting, held last week in Toronto. Among attempts to break with traditional formats, presenters were limited to one word per PowerPoint slide, and sessions were intended to inspire a new outlook on where we are as an industry — and where we should be headed.

IACC isn't the only industry association harping on the necessity of change and reinvention, but it's a hard promise to keep. During Americas Connect, we sat down with Mark Cooper, president of IACC, to discuss the event, and the challenges ahead for the conference and meetings industries.

Why did you choose "radical innovation" as the theme for this year's conference? 

We recognize that we've got to continually improve and develop what we're doing. That's a given in our industry, and it has been for the last five years. But from our research, from testing the market and from working with meeting planners, we realized that we have to be thinking more of reinventing our industry. We've got to challenge ourselves to think about what will be the replacement to the current approach. We are pushing the boundaries to help people learn in very different environments.

Are these priorities for the conference center industry?

Yes. It's a critical subject. We have the opportunity to be the pioneers in terms of providing sustainable meeting environments. There are some incredible movements in the right direction in regard to reducing waste and being more sustainable within our sector. But even if we align that with radical innovation, we're still probably not doing enough so that in 12 years' time, the Earth's temperature is not going to rise by that critical 1.5 percent. We have to do more. I hope I'm putting our delegates in a position where they know they need to act — and that it's not a "nice-to-have." We have to do this, and we have to act right now.

Meeting planners worry that efforts to reduce waste will cost money. Is that a misconception?

I wish it was a misconception, but at least in some cases that is a reality. Some venues haven't seen themselves as a partner in reducing waste or making meetings more sustainable. I would say to meeting planners who have had bad experiences in the past, where being more socially responsible has led to increased costs, to question the venues that you're using. And if you ask that question right up front — what sustainability processes do they have in place? — hopefully you'll discover before you've signed the contract whether they're going to be on your side or you're going to be pushing against the tide.

Do sustainability practices affecting planners' site-selection decisions?

Yeah, they do affect decisions in a lot of cases. If it's the way the center operates, and you're not asking them to do something that they don't typically do, planners are more likely to book. I've seen groups say that they're choosing a venue with sustainable practices. That's the default.

Do you see sustainability questions coming into RFPs?

I'm not in a position where I'm reviewing RFPs, but I'd love to see planners asking questions about whether a sustainability plan was in place. That would show venues that this is something they should be a lot more focused on. If venues realize that they're not being chosen because they don't comply, then they will be faster to act.
I'm not sure whether a wider education has taken place yet in our meeting planner community. But if it's not part of an RFP, I would encourage planners to add that. Just by updating a template to include sustainability, you're in a position to have a huge impact.

What other questions should planners be asking venues now?

Planners need to ask about Internet infrastructure. That means knowing what your meeting needs, and the venue knowing what they can provide. It's hugely important now, as we know. So much relies on the Internet infrastructure, and if it's not sufficient, it's not just an inconvenience. When that fails, it stops a conference, and it stops the momentum of the meeting. It's still sometimes a little bit of an afterthought, but it's critical to sourcing the right venue.

I think planners might be asking, "Do you have good WiFi in the meeting space?" without knowing how to ask the deeper questions…

You're right, and the answer too often is, "Well, we don't get any complaints from our customers." If you're asking that question that way, and you're getting that kind of answer, that's a perfect example of how you are opening yourself up for failure, both for the venue to be seen in a negative light and the meeting planner trying to overcome a critical problem that upsets delegates, speakers and the meeting's leaders and owners.

You have to get beyond asking those very broad questions to actually specify what you need. Luckily, technology is advancing to a point where it is becoming easier to measure Internet usage at conferences, so planners can walk away from that event with a report on how much Internet bandwidth they used, and essentially hand that over to the next venue. And maybe it becomes a part of your RFP. You can say, this is how much bandwidth we need.

I think this morning's keynote by Pablos Holman was a great way to start the conference. He got people to think much more broadly about business, our way of life and serious global concerns.
It's early for me to be able to tell if we completely hit the nail on the head in regard to the message that we wanted to convey this morning, but it seems to have resonated with a lot of people. If people are interested and they want to create more innovative meeting environments for the future, we will have done our job by raising those questions today.

We'd like to leave Canada saying, "I came to a very creative city, and we were able to learn and come away with the confidence to be brave in terms of making big decisions in the future." I hope that when we look back in five years' time, we can say that the seed started to germinate in Toronto.

If every one of our delegates here today goes away with two ideas that are radical, then we've done some real good for the industry. If they take away four or five ideas, I will be ecstatic.