Given the global economic climate, leaders at the International Culinary Tourism Association wondered if perhaps a new summit they were planning for 2010 should be a virtual event instead of a live one. So, they went straight to the source. In March, ICTA sent out a survey to 14,000 members and asked them which format they would prefer— along with a slew of other questions related to meeting preferences— for this fledgling thought leadership summit.

No Landslide Here
Of the 443 members who responded, 56 percent said they would prefer a live meeting, while 44 percent said they’d rather attend a virtual event. “I thought it was going to be a landslide in favor of a live meeting and I was surprised that just under half thought online was preferable,” says Erik Wolf, president, ICTA. Portland, Ore. If it’s 44 percent now, he wonders how high it might be five years from now.

While ICTA’s board will make the final decision, Wolf expects that they will go ahead with the live meeting for the inaugural thought leadership conference in 2010.

But Wolf knows that the meeting must have a high value proposition to get people to come. That’s why they decided to make this event one that goes beyond basic education to include a look at big-picture trends and the future of the culinary tourism industry from the perspective of industry leaders. That’s also why they did the survey—to create the type of meeting that attendees want.

Like, for example, how long should it be? The majority, 63 percent, said three days, which also surprised Wolf. Much of what he had read about meeting trends indicated that shorter was better, that attendees wanted to get in and out in a day or two. Yet, just 33 percent said two days and the remaining 4 percent said one day. Why? With a three-day meeting, the third day would be set aside for local culinary tours. Since members are in the culinary tourism business, it makes sense that they would want to spend the extra day doing site tours, surmises Wolf. “They want to experience the area’s culinary color.”

Bright Lights, Inexpensive City When asked about the meeting site, 74 percent said they would prefer a large city with easy flight connections and cultural amenities, as opposed to a rustic setting that might require flight connections or a drive from the airport. On the other hand, 90 percent said the cost of attending a live conference factors into their decision about whether to attend.

So, while members prefer a large city to a rustic setting, they are very concerned about costs. What that tells Wolf is that if it’s an expensive city, they may not come. He will likely opt for a second-tier city that has good access by air.

Would they be swayed to attend by the thought of visiting a new destination? It was split fairly evenly, with 51 percent saying yes, 49 percent saying no. ICTA also asked what’s more important—education or networking? O r both Eighty-one percent said both.

Wolf and his team will now take these ideas and begin developing the conference. They have already identified some potential destinations and are deciding between the spring and the fall of 2010. The most likely dates are late April/early May or September or October, depending on availability in the destination they select, among other factors. The inaugural conference will probably be in North America, but other international destinations are possible in the future since one-third of members are from outside the United States , says Wolf.

ICTA will add a consumer component to make the case for attending more compelling. On one evening or afternoon during the week of the event, they plan to carve out a reception or marketplace that can be attended by local residents. It creates buzz for the conference, gets members (and their products and services) out in front of local people, and is a revenue opportunity for the association.

“That’s something that you can’t do virtually,” he says.