Predicting what's in store for the meetings industry can be a challenge in any year, let alone one as marked by major disruptions as 2018. Few could have anticipated that the major hotel chains would cut third-party commissions in such rapid succession, or for so many destinations to be devastated by natural disasters, or for political and economic shifts to throw so many long-held assumptions out the window.
To help get a sense of where the meetings world might be heading in 2019, Successful Meetings reached out to those who understand it best — some of the men and women we selected this year as the 25 Most Influential People in the Meetings Industry.
Political upheaval, trade battles and security concerns have all made headlines during the past year. While meeting professionals might once have felt these topics were just of tangential concern to their work, this year it became clear that ignoring world events is simply not an option for the planning process.
"Global trade policies, regulations and referendums from GDPR to Brexit are not typically what the business-events industry has had to consider in the past," notes Sherrif Karamat, CAE, president and CEO of PCMA. "But as the industry continues to expand internationally, these are things that business events' organizers need to remain vigilant about."
Karamat expects to see this awareness heightened in the year ahead, with planners more fully recognizing the role they play in these global issues. This includes making efforts to connect with adjacent industries as well as economic-development entities so that "governments and communities where our industry holds business events can better recognize the value and power we have on society as a whole," says Karamat. This also means ensuring that the message of meetings' global economic and social impact continues to be transmitted to those outside the industry as well.
Karamat expects to see a shift away from the belief of many business-event planners that they primarily function as logistical organizers of a particular gathering, instead adopting a broader view of themselves as "multi-modal professionals who can engage broader aspects of business growth." He expects most planners to readily adapt to this expanded role — or risk the profession becoming marginalized.
"We need to pay close attention to what's happening with U.S. and global economic trends and indicators," says Kevin Iwamoto, senior vice president at GoldSpring Consulting. He goes on to cite "trade tariff wars, the escalating cost of oil, the lack of room and venue availability, industry consolidations reducing competition, increased taxes, fees and service charges, and anything else than will impact the price of goods and services, which means we will be paying more for everything, including food, insurance, entertainment and more."
Iwamoto says all of the above could translate to higher event budgets by necessity, but also to the potential downsizing or cancellation of events, and other sacrifices that might have to be made due to higher supply-chain costs.
The Lag in GDPR Compliance
Marty MacKay, DMCP, president of global alliance for Hosts Global, says that implementation of the Global Data Protection Regulation was one of the biggest surprises of 2018 and offered a lesson to planners for the year ahead in how regulations can have a global impact, affecting those who might not expect it.
I think #metoo and #meetingstoo really shook up the industry in an unexpected way. Organizations launched into action as they realized they couldn’t turn a blind eye to sensitive topics just because they were difficult to confront.
Carrie Abernathy, Association for Women in Events
"I think the surprise next year will be when a few of the GDPR rulings actually start to come down, and we as an industry will need to refocus on it," MacKay says. "Planners and companies do not seem to be concerned over the amount of data that is shared throughout the course of planning a meeting. Based on my conversations, many clients and companies are not prepared or have only taken limited steps to be compliant."
Safety and Security
Iwamoto sees GDPR and other data-security concerns as part of a larger and growing demand on planners to consider risk mitigation as a major priority — something he expects to play an even larger role in 2019. "Event security and emergency planning is finally getting the attention it deserves," he says. "Recent tragic events only underscore the importance of making sure event organizers are fully prepared for anything."
MacKay, who has been instrumental in creating Hosts Global and ADMEI's emergency-preparedness certification programs, says that safety and security "still lead many conversations we have with clients," but that clients often rely on the DMC to have a plan ready to go and with answers in place on how to respond to the unexpected.
"We tend to not think through risks enough, this in the era of 24-hour news. This is a mistake," says Carl Winston, director, L. Robert Payne School of Hospitality & Tourism Management at San Diego State University. He points to last year's massacre at Mandalay Bay as an example of the kind of situation that planners must now consider in the realm of possibility, where a celebration can turn to horror from one second to the next.
"There will always be challenges, but overall our industry should be optimistic," says Yma Sherry, vice president, North America, American Express Meetings & Events. She points to her organization's 2019 Global Meetings Forecast, which finds an environment where meetings are thriving and the industry has settled into a new normal of steady growth. "That said, managing budgets may be a concern in the years to come, as they typically are," Sherry notes. "Costs and expenses, such as hotel rates and airfare, are increasing overall, and demand is continuing to outpace supply."
Sherry expects that there will be greater pressure on planners to find ways to do more with a shrinking budget, having to balance a growing desire for more meaningful attendee experiences with the imperative to use the same or potentially fewer resources.
"Planners will need to be on top of the latest technology and its deployment," says Sherry. "They will need to determine whether technologies are appropriate to offset potential decreases in physical attendance. An example of this would be utilizing virtual technology that broadcasts general sessions to people who are unable to attend meetings live."
As consolidation grows in our industry, so does the involvement of procurement, according to MacKay. "And while that should not be a bad thing, it reduces our highly creative service industry to pure numbers," she says. "Add to this that the booking window for DMC services continues to shrink."
MacKay points to upward pressure on wages, increasing costs and corporate mandates to do more with less as likely to impact the economy and the health of the meetings industry more broadly. "Creativity will be key in 2019 for ways to create consumer experiences for attendees while dealing with shrinking budgets," she says.
On a brighter note, the growing economic clout of meetings earned a boost via this year's IMEX America of the Events Industry Council findings that business events generated more than $1 trillion in direct spending annually, with more than 1.4 billion participants in more than 180 countries.
"These findings, along with what the Meetings Mean Business Coalition is doing — creating a unified voice for our industry — allows us to be stronger together and continuously prove our value," says Ben Goedegebuure, global general manager of Europe, Middle East, Africa for Maritz Global Events. "Even as our industry isn't directly under the microscope now, we refuse to be complacent and wait for the next challenge to damage our industry's perception, focusing instead on building our value and thriving together.
"The consolidation and M&A activity is going to continue," Goedegebuure adds. "Budgets will continue to be a challenge and under pressure. Costs will outpace expenses, and we'll need to maximize our spend."
Speaking of consolidation, a meeting professional couldn't discuss working with properties in 2018 without considering perhaps the biggest development in the planner/hotel-chain relationship in recent memory: the widespread third-party commission cuts kicked off by Marriott earlier this year. Winston says planners should be prepared to see more cuts in the year ahead, while Tracy Smith, CMP, CMM, executive director of the Senior Planners Industry Network, feels the change has caused independent planners to get more creative.
"Certainly, the commission decrease was a wake-up call for many who own their own companies," says Smith. "At SPIN, we are working to provide education that will provide members with strategies for thriving during economic hiccups. In addition, we are working on new methods of connecting buyers and sellers in more relationship-oriented ways that coincide with modern consumer behaviors."
Smith says that in the year ahead, she and SPIN will continue to monitor hotel industry trends as well as technology that may influence meetings and events.
Global trade policies, regulations and referendums from GDPR to Brexit are not typically what the business-events industry has had to consider in the past. But as the industry continues to expand internationally, these are things that business events’ organizers need to remain vigilant about.
Sherrif Karamat, PCMA
"While several industry influencers like me were warning clients and others that the legacy commission-funded business models were in jeopardy, people chose to stay in denial," says Iwamoto. "Many were surprised when other chains eventually followed suit and reduced commissions, which made many in our industry scramble to find more budget dollars, renegotiate third-party agreements, and develop new strategies."
Iwamoto adds that while the chains now claim they will not reduce global commission levels, planners should not be naïve when it comes to revenue generation and retention on the part of hotels. "When they save billions of dollars annually by reducing commissions, it's just a matter of time before they push the envelope and go back to the well," says Iwamoto.
Beyond major costs like commissions, Tracy Smith says that when it comes to contracts, meeting professionals should increasingly be on the lookout for hotels incorporating separate fees with the expectation that planners might not notice or think they can't negotiate them. In addition, "many hotels see RFPs and contracts as mere transactions rather than taking into consideration the attendee experience," she cautions. "But it's not just 'heads in beds.' " Smith adds that those hotel companies that show more transparency and willingness to work with planners will come out the winner in attracting meetings business.
A Changing Exhibition Model
"Experiential" has been one of the buzzwords of 2018 and shows no sign of going away in 2019 — including when it comes to exhibitions and trade shows.
"I think that people do not realize how much the exhibition model is truly shifting," says Carrie Abernathy, CMP, CEM, CSEP, past president and co-founder of the Association for Women in Events. "Companies are moving away from 10 x 10 booths and wanting true connection and engagement experience with attendees. If we don't shift our mindset to providing attendees and corporate sponsors with experiential ROI, then we are out of touch with trends and the future."
This might extend to sponsorship engagement, as well. Abernathy sees major changes already taking place in the ways that attendees consume educational materials, "whether it be bite-sized labs or fully digital experiences." She expects to see a corresponding shift in what stakeholders want and their assessment of an event's ROI.
"Creating guest/attendee experiences should remain at the core of your planning strategy," notes MacKay, "whether to appeal to the various demographics of your groups or to ensure that your conference is widely attended."
Reckoning With #MeToo
The cultural shift of the #metoo movement is likely to continue reshaping the conversation around what is acceptable behavior in any professional situation — including meetings and events. Abernathy believes that the movement has already impacted the meetings industry, with organizations and associations more openly discussing issues of sexual harassment and its prevalence. "I think #metoo and #meetingstoo really shook up the industry in an unexpected way," she says. "Organizations launched into action as they realized they couldn't turn a blind eye to sensitive topics just because they were difficult to confront."
According to Yma Sherry, planners will become increasingly aware that the failure to prevent sexual-harassment incidents and to address them properly when they occur could lead to lawsuits and damaging publicity for individuals and organizations. "If planners aren't thinking about implementing codes of conduct for events they're managing, they should be," she says. "Recent high-profile sexual harassment incidents have highlighted the need to address improper and potentially abusive behavior in every industry."
This is not just limited to sexual harassment, but can include any behavior that a meeting host or attendee might find objectionable, such as bullying, inappropriate social media use and alcohol consumption.
The importance of a written code of conduct, aligned with the meeting host's values and effectively communicated to attendees, is that it "creates behavioral expectations for attendees and, from a legal perspective, avoids increasing liability exposure due to changing legal requirements and unanticipated harms."
Ben Goedegebuure expects that such codes will become more widespread. "It's long overdue," he says. "Is is something that must be brought to the forefront, and we must respond appropriately."
The Impact of AI
As the Internet of things brings responsive technology into an expanding array of attendee experiences, from booking travel to controlling a room's temperature, the influencers expect that the role of artificial intelligence is only likely to grow in the year ahead.
"AI is becoming more and more present in our world; and it will affect meetings and events directly," says Tracy Smith. "Planners will need to learn about this technology and be willing to embrace it."
Karamat agrees, saying that AI and the impact it has on the workforce and the customization of events is a trend he expects to be "watching closely for signals of where the business events industry is heading."
"There are so many opportunities for planners to offer tailored experiences, and sophisticated technologies like AI, facial recognition and virtual reality can help to do that, while also making the meeting experience more immersive and exciting," says Sherry. "The meetings industry has struggled to meet attendee expectations for personalized experiences in the past, but we're seeing a tech-driven acceleration that will transform the industry for the foreseeable future."