With the release of the Convention Industry Council’s economic significance study, U.S. meeting professionals can confidently claim to be part of an industry that contributes more to the national economy than auto manufacturing.

We now know that 1.8 million meetings across the U.S. welcomed 205 million participants in 2009, directly supported 1.7 million jobs, and delivered nearly twice as much in tax revenue as the U.S House of Representatives majority thinks it can cut in this year’s budget.

And after seeing meetings written off as costly frills in 2009, the industry can report that incentives account for only 3.6 percent of U.S. meeting activity. So whether or not you buy into the business value of incentive travel, the industry’s luxury arm can no longer be seen as the only face of meetings.

I served as project manager for Meeting Professionals International’s 2008 economic impact study in Canada, so I had more than a passing interest in the U.S. research. A comparison of the two reports points to some differences between the Canadian and U.S. industries.

  • Although the U.S. population is about 10 times the size of Canada’s, U.S. organizations only reported running about three times as many meetings in 2009 as groups in Canada did in 2008, and the average meeting in the U.S. was only slightly larger.
  • The U.S. industry spent nearly four times as much per participant, and four times as much per meeting. The difference reflected the larger proportion of very small meetings in the Canadian study, and also suggested greater emphasis on high-end destinations, venues, and programming in the U.S.
  • Three times as many meetings in the U.S. produced 11 times as much direct and indirect employment, and nearly eight times the direct and indirect tax income to all levels of government. The next time U.S. legislators think about limits on meeting activity, that sudden clatter will be the sound of $110 billion in revenue falling out the window.

The U.N. World Tourism Organization defines a meeting as at least 10 people, meeting in a booked venue for at least four hours, for a purpose related primarily to business. The official definition excludes several specific types of events, as well as meetings of any size that a company hosts in its own facilities.

Though the UNWTO methodology is scarcely five years old, the industry’s rapid evolution may already be leaving it behind. Its fixed focus on booked venues leaves out a whole category of meeting spending: Virtual participants don’t gather in a booked venue, so while the technology that brings them together would count as meeting spending, a hybrid meeting would fall outside the definition if fewer than 10 participants gathered on site.

The other gap is more basic. Economic impact measures the dollars spent on a meeting, not the value that investment delivers. So while documenting our place in the economy is an incredibly important first step, it’s still just the end of the beginning of the industry’s research agenda.

Mitchell Beer, CMM, is president of The Conference Publishers Inc., Ottawa, Ontario, one of the world’s leading specialists in capturing and repurposing conference content. Beer blogs at http://theconferencepublishers.com/blog and tweets as @mitchellbeer. Please use the comment section to respond to this column! Or send facts, arguments, or column ideas to mitchell@theconferencepublishers.com.