Technology, shifting social values, the new consumer, and demographic shifts are the four trends that will shape the meetings industry in the future, according to Peter Yesawich, chief executive officer, Yesawich, Pepperdine, Brown, and Russell, who moderated a panel discussion on the subject at the Professional Convention Management Association’s annual meeting in Toronto in January.

The first trend, technology, has not only transformed the way people book travel (56 percent have booked travel online), but it is also changing the way people network, communicate, and share information on venues and services, commented panelist Roger Dow, president and CEO at the Travel Industry Association of America. “One-third of travelers are looking to others’ opinions,” stated Dow, quite often basing decisions on other consumers’ thoughts, as opposed to marketing or advertising. “It’s word of mouth on steroids.”

Meeting planners also need to consider the shifting social values of Americans, stated Yesawich. People want to spend more of their free time with family and friends than they did before 9/11, which presents a challenge for planners. “Destination plays a bigger role,” said Dow. “Attendees want to know what there is to do [at the destination] while they are there and how much family time [there is blocked at the meeting].” So, the industry has to make sure that the event and the venue is exciting enough. To accommodate that interest in family travel, more hotels are building amenities like water theme parks, stated panelist Stevan Porter, president, The Americas, InterContinental Hotels Groups.

The panel also said the industry has to be mindful of the new, more vigilant, consumer. Yesawich threw out some statistics to support that claim, stating that 92 percent of consumers don’t think it’s necessary to pay full price; 61 percent don’t think marketing/advertising campaigns treat them with respect; and 41 percent won’t buy a product or service that conflicts with their personal beliefs. “Consumers are more educated,” remarked panelist Michele McKenzie, president and CEO, Canadian Tourism Commission. “That changes our role as marketers,” she said. Hoteliers have always been used to controlling their marketing message, she added, but now, with all the blogs and message boards on the Internet, “consumers control our message, so we must adapt.”

Finally, the panel discussed the shifting demographics and how it will affect site selection and other buying decisions related to meetings and travel. They talked about demographics on several fronts, starting with a discussion about the emergence of the Millennial generation (those born between 1980 and 2000), which is as large as the Baby Boomers but spends time and money differently (less brand loyalty, more experiential activities). They also discussed how minority groups (Asian-American, African-American, Hispanic) will soon be the majority, representing more than 50 percent of the population by 2050. In addition, they talked about how more college graduates are women (58 percent) than men for the first time in history and how single adults now outnumber those who are married. Finally, a shift that the meetings and hospitality industry has to be particularly aware of is the burgeoning outbound travel markets in China and India and the profound impact they could have on U.S. meeting attendance.

With all the demographic changes afoot, McKenzie said, “We all have to be students of marketing again.” She added that industry professionals shouldn’t think so much in terms of demographics but instead about what motivates people to travel and attend meetings and how motivations can differ for different groups.