On Global Meetings Industry Day, Leaders Urge Resilience and Reassessment

Leaders of MPI, IMEX and other meetings organizations advised meeting professionals to focus on the long game.

As the meetings industry weathers the COVID-19 crisis, members should keep their focus on long-term recovery and work together to help the industry come back better than ever.

That was among the themes emphasized during some of the numerous virtual education sessions taking place on April 14, Global Meetings Industry Day. Due to the current global crackdown on in-person gatherings, the annual celebration of face-to-face gatherings and activism on behalf of the business-events industry was moved online. Planners and industry members were invited to take part in a wide range of virtual educational events

Among these were a pair of roundtable discussions, one hosted by the Events Industry Council and one hosted by Meeting Professionals International, featuring leaders of major industry organizations. Together they provided a snapshot of where the industry is focused during this time of major uncertainty. In both panels, leaders acknowledged the unprecedented crisis the industry is currently weathering, but also urged taking a long view — learning from the last major crisis and focusing on how to help the wider community and industry.

Adam Sacks, president of Tourism Economics, an Oxford Economics Company
Adam Sacks, president of Tourism Economics, an Oxford Economics Company

During EIC's panel discussion, Adam Sacks, president of Tourism Economics, an Oxford Economics Company, underlined just how dire the economic predictions currently stood: Global GDP fell by 1 percent during the great recession, but it is expected to drop 7 percent in the first half of 2020.

"Things are pretty bad right now and we need to be comfortable with that reality for some number of months," said Sacks. "But prepare for what's likely to be a short rebound," he added, pointing to the fact that much of the job losses so far have been "at the lower end of income earners, so less impactful on group travel than budget travel," combined with the unprecedented relief spending by government around the world, which is "going to be a powerful thrust to the global economy once things do begin to open up."

A number of speakers emphasized another advantage the meetings industry has in weathering the current crisis: the organizations and programs put in place since the last crisis, such as the Meetings Mean Business Coalition (which actually created GMID) and the research and resources developed around the value of meetings. Sebastien Tondeur, CEO of MCI Group, described how the fast response and mobilization in the face of the unfolding COVID-19 crisis was a significant improvement over the often-reactive industry response in the wake of the 2008 recession.

"The industry's lobbying and organizations representing us are way better organized, getting in contact with governments and efforts to get recognition for our industry," said Tondeur. "That's a battle we've won in the past 10 to 15 years."

That point was illustrated during MPI's leadership roundtable, during which a number of panelists stressed the importance of coming together as an industry and pressuring the U.S. government for relief in specific areas. Susan Robertson, president and CEO of American Society of Association Executives, described how her association is "advocating aggressively" to make sure that 501(c)(6) organizations are included in the Small Business Administration's PPP loans in the next phase of relief and that the "federal government act as a backstop for event insurance." 

Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association
Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association

Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, echoed these demands, and added that "we are going to have to increase the amount of funds." But in addition to advocating for industry relief, Dow pointed out that our industry organizations' other goal now should be to emphasize the role that meetings can play in fueling the global economy's recovery.

"Every month that we don't recover, according to Oxford Economics, costs $22 billion to the GDP and 300,000 jobs. So, if we can shorten recovery from a year and a half down to six months, the numbers are phenomenal," said Dow. "As one side of us is working on the present stimulus package, in another breath we should be saying, 'help us recover: We took the biggest hit and we can lead this economy back if you help us do so.'"

Time of Reassessment

The leaders stressed that now is a time for reassessment and to take a big-picture review of not just one's organization but the wider industry and community. Both Robertson and Paul Van Deventer, CEO of MPI and chair of the EIC board of directors, described how their organizations had been in the midst of revamping their strategic plans when the COVID-19 crisis struck. 

"I'll tell you, it's a blessing to us because we are automatically now planning with an eye to the future — what are we going to be when we get out of this and what are we going to be for the coming years?" said Robertson.

During the EIC panel, Van Deventer also emphasized the spike in interest from members in MPI's online educational offerings. 

"People have a lot of time on their hands right now — they want to know how to respond to the crisis, but they also proactively are looking at, 'how do I reimagine myself in perhaps a new career or new environment?'" said Van Deventer. "That's the role many associations are playing — guiding people and giving them the resources to remake themselves."

Carina Bauer, CEO of IMEX Group
Carina Bauer, CEO of IMEX Group

IMEX Group CEO Carina Bauer urged industry members to look at their business objectives and what they offer to the world, considering how they may need to be revamped for a changed world. But she stressed that at the same time, the shutdown of virtually all gatherings presents a chance to remind the world of the timeless value of face-to-face events. 

"The live events industry makes inherently good business sense. That hasn't changed," she said. "The ability for people to meet has changed, but the need for people to come together hasn't, or the recognition of the value of meetings to motivate a team or innovate better."

As organizations and the industry as a whole look to the future and plan for a post-COVID-19 world, the leaders stressed that it is especially important for the meetings industry to set its own rules and standards for when meetings come back.

During the MPI roundtable, Dow described how he and other industry and business leaders have started discussing specific guidelines for events in a post-COVID world, that take into account details such as "defining how many people can sit in a round and how far apart chairs have to be and how many people could be at registration." He emphasized that the industry must make these decisions — before someone makes it for the industry. "We did this with MMB and I think we've got to do the same thing now, to take control of our destiny and not put it in others' hands. Be smart about it, but do it together."