Convention centers are at ground zero for many of the changes that are sweeping the meetings industry. So it’s encouraging that the International Association of Congress Centres (AIPC) is emphasizing the impact and results that make face-to-face meetings worthwhile.

“Everything evolves, and there’s no reason our industry should be any different,” said AIPC’s director of programming and international development, Rod Cameron. In a year-end interview, Cameron touched on a familiar cluster of challenges for convention centers:

  • Online technologies have improved vastly since the last time centers saw them as a potential threat, so “virtual meetings are now a fact of life and will be of increasing importance.”
  • Hybrid meetings can reinforce the importance of what happens on site, “but they also get people questioning how much they have to do face to face.”
  • Once participants start down that road, it’s tempting to hold off on their next airline reservation. “The travel experience is just not that pleasant compared to 10 years ago, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we started to find people looking for excuses not to travel.”

The ultimate battle for convention centers is to prove that the benefits of face-to-face meetings outweigh the economic and environmental costs. Cameron recalled one human genomics conference where the implications for science and health “were practically immeasurable. The conference was on one of the most important scientific breakthroughs of our lifetime, maybe of the century, and the only significance we can demonstrate is the room nights. No wonder people don’t appreciate the value of meetings.”

That gap may seem inevitable for an industry so closely tied to leisure and tourism, but “we need to shift the discussion away from what a great time you’re going to have and focus on what you’re actually going to accomplish,” Cameron said.

“It’s about getting things done and not weakening the argument by saying, ‘Come to our place because we’ve got great golf courses.’ We trivialize what we are and what we do if all we can show is a bit of spending and some hotel occupancy.”

The same argument applies to the fossil fuels participants burn to arrive on site. “You’ve got to weigh the impact associated with travel against the benefits and the output,” he said.

The flip side of Cameron’s argument is that every meeting this industry plans and supplies has to generate enough value to justify its cost. We shouldn’t try to explain away a meeting with a loose agenda and fuzzy objectives, even if its budget is modest. But we should all be prepared to defend the meetings that matter, even if they involve massive spending and require generous allotments to offset the carbon they generate.

This is not what our industry’s leading lights usually have in mind when they talk about strategic meeting management or ROI measurement. But that’s all the more reason to be grateful that convention centers are confronting the issues that really keep their customers up at night.

Mitchell Beer, CMM, is president of The Conference Publishers Inc., Ottawa, one of the world’s leading specialists in capturing and repurposing conference content. Beer blogs at http://theconferencepublishers.com/blog. Send comments, facts, arguments, or column ideas to mitchell@theconferencepublishers.com.