Happy to be hosting the Maritz Meetings, Events & Incentives Forum after its hiatus in 2009, Christine Duffy, president and CEO, Maritz Travel, welcomed corporate clients and Maritz representatives to the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin in Orlando September 23. Over the following two days, those attendees participated in breakout sessions and listened to Maritz executives and other experts deliver presentations on topics ranging from to to meeting design based on new findings in neuroscience.
Duffy began her talk with what she called 2010’s pleasant surprise: Despite the ongoing recession and the “negative rhetoric” about meetings, hotel occupancy is up, luxury demand is up, and international incentive demand is up. “Top performers expect their companies to recognize them and celebrate their accomplishments,” she said. “We must engage and retain our best people, and there is no better way to do that than to bring them together.”
Duffy recalled that she and other industry leaders “spent a lot of time over the past 18 months in Washington educating lawmakers about why what we do matters to every Congressional district in the country. [The meeting and incentive industry] spent many years operating under the radar. It was a hard lesson we learned, but it was our responsibility to spend time educating the public and politicians about the value this industry creates for business and the economy.” Duffy is co-chair of the U.S. Travel Association’s Meeting, Incentive, and Trade Show Council, which is doing research, communications, and government relations work to keep delivering the message that Meetings Mean Business.
The Challenges Ahead
Despite positive signs, barriers remain to a full recovery, which Duffy explained will be achieved when major indicators such as average daily rate and return to 2007 levels. Among the challenges:
- People are still nervous about the economy, fearing a “double dip” recession. They are waiting to make commitments. (But they shouldn’t, said a panel of hoteliers during the event, who said hotel discounting is at an end.)
- The air travel experience is a challenge. “I never thought I would see this as a barrier, but the effects of all the changes made by the airlines and new security requirements have definitely impacted the travel experience,” she said.
- ”The rhetoric has stopped, but there is still a perception issue around and events. There is a heightened awareness. Everything we do must be justified.”
- You never know what’s around the corner. “At the beginning of 2010, we thought we were out of the woods. Then we had volcanic ash over Europe, the Nashville floods, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and the boycott of Arizona. And we realized we are never out of the woods. We need to be better prepared to respond to both natural disasters and manmade crises.”
Duffy reviewed societal shifts that she believes will have a long-term impact on meetings and incentives. Among them are the changing nature of work, including more home-based employees, more team- and project-based work, an increase in freelancers, and a span of five generations in the workforce; the “new frugality,” where excess is looked at unfavorably even after the recession; the dynamic of being connected 24/7, where “everything is urgent”; the pervasiveness of social media means that we’re operating in a “fishbowl,” where everything we do is immediately transparent; and a move toward “conscious capitalism,” where people want meaning and an emotional connection from their meeting and incentive travel experiences.
She also looked within corporations, where the model for success requires “thinking more broadly about who the stakeholder is.” No longer is it simply the person who owns the budget. “Procurement needs a value proposition,” she said. “Our clients want us to help them defend their programs. They must do a better job of clearly articulating their business objectives and designing programs that drive to that result. The biggest opportunity for us to do that is by creating more participant-driven meeting and event designs, including the use of more sophisticated research techniques and newly available meetings technology.”
To that end, Maritz debuted a virtual environment that went live weeks before the Meetings, Events & Incentives Forum took place. The virtual space allowed for pre-meeting interaction among attendees and between attendees and speakers, and included comprehensive descriptions of breakout sessions, delivered via video presentation by the speakers leading the sessions. The videos allowed attendees to get a much better understanding of the sessions than they could get from a brief written description, and offered the possibility of diving deeper into the session content before making a decision on attendance—or even requesting that additional information be covered in the session. Following the Forum in Orlando, all breakout sessions could be viewed at the site.
One of the world’s largest meeting, event, and incentive travel companies, Maritz Travel in 2009 managed, sourced, and contracted more than 4,300 programs, which included more than 390,000 participants and represented more than 807,000 room nights.