For more than 30 years, Virginia Lofft has broken new ground in the meeting industry, first as a journalist and then as a publisher. Her area of particular expertise became the international meetings market, and over the years, she created many bridges to bring together U.S. planners and international suppliers — including the Beyond Borders magazine supplement, which was launched in 1994, and the Beyond Borders Conference, which followed in 1997. As she retired this year from a very active career, we spoke with her about her accomplishments and insights. In November, she was honored by the International Congress and Convention Association.
What was the U.S. international meetings market like 30 years ago when you started as a journalist?
There was a small, key group of people in the United States who were taking their events outside the country. Incentive travel to Rome and London was big. Few people were traveling to Asia and elsewhere, but people were looking for additional travel ideas. Interestingly, the Philippines was one of the first Asian/Pacific destinations to build a major convention center. The woman who headed the bureau, Beth de la Fuente, knew there was a lucrative market in the U.S., particularly business coming from the West Coast. Then Hong Kong and Singapore became active in the U.S. market, followed by other Asian countries.
Where and when was your first trip abroad?
It was December 1970, a trip to Vienna for Successful Meetings magazine as the senior editor. My assignment was to write what was the industry's second site file. When we landed for a plane change in Belgium, I got out of the plane and kind of expected the ground to look different — I'm in Europe!
When did you get involved with ICCA [International Congress and Convention Association, is based in Amsterdam]?
I attended the mid-1980s meeting of ICCA in Bangkok, and that was really a breakthrough. I realized how hungry CVBs and tourist boards from around the world were for information about the U.S. market and how to sell to it. In particular, Asian/Pacific countries were building these huge, luxury facilities and they needed to fill them, so they started to look at the U.S. market. No other magazine was touching this part of the world. It was exciting. I created a booklet for the nondomestic market that described the differences among a convention, an incentive travel program, and a corporate meeting — how these groups differed, and how they bought.
Looking back over those early years, what major change have you seen in the international realm?
More homogenization. I don't mean loss of cultural identity, but … we are mixing cultures. Meeting planners who deal with only chains can meet in Asia or Europe and feel as if they've never left home. Rooms are the same — meeting space, too. And unless you request localized food, menus are the same. That's unfortunate, because one compelling reason for taking a meeting to a nondomestic location is to give it local flavor.
Meeting associations in the United States are reporting strong international attendance at domestic events this year, despite the downturn in the economy. Our industry organizations are growing on an international scale.
Do you feel that planners taking meetings outside the United States today are more accommodating of differences than planners were in the past?
Absolutely. When you're doing business abroad it is not business as usual. … What got me thinking hard about international meetings, and probably led to the launch of the Beyond Borders magazine and conference, was a phone call years ago from Doris Sklar [now deceased], who was the conference manager for General Electric. She said, “Virginia, we're taking a meeting outside the U.S. for the first time, and I don't know where to start.” I thought, she has been planning meetings for 20 years and has all the resources of GE — how many people are out there with the same problem?
What advice do you have for first-timers these days?
The first thing to do is to go to the CVB or tourist board, even if you are a corporation and always work with a national hotel chain. When you take your meeting to another part of the world, you want to deal with the convention bureau, because these are the people who have the contacts with the DMCs and ground operators, and other services that you'll need. They can give you a good feel for possibilities, themes, and the local idiosyncrasies, which are very, very important to know. And they can recommend other planners who have been there and who can give you tips on what you should do or avoid.
I'd also highly recommend a series of books written by Roger Axtel. Roger's Do's and Taboos series saves you a lot of problems dealing with cross-cultural communications.
Be prepared for facility differences. In Europe, hotels don't generally have as much meeting space as the international properties in Asia, which are purpose-built for conferences and comparable to what we have here in terms of function space — better in some cases. Test everything. If you're going to do a tour, take the tour in the same kind of vehicle that your attendees will use, and make the same stops. Sample and experience every facet for yourself.
What changes do you see ahead in the international meetings market?
A big change might be a unified international meeting industry with its own channel of banking, communications, etc. When 100 world meeting industry leaders met in Malaysia in June 2000 for the Millennium Summit for the International Meetings Industry, these changes were suggested. These leaders felt that the business worldwide wants to become a recognized industry with a single “peak body” coordinating its affairs, with an “E-Services Center” to provide secure banking for conventions and meetings globally. In other words, [we need] worldwide recognition of the business we're in and an infrastructure to make it tick. Another change planners will probably see is increased competition for facilities abroad.
Why increased competition?
In some business circles — medical and pharmaceutical come immediately to mind — the nondomestic meeting is becoming as commonplace as the domestic. And when these are industrywide, small meetings spring up around the major event. For example, a pharmaceutical company may attend the major event, then hold a meeting of its own around a specific medical protocol with the key players in that field who are already on-site.
I think there will be a withdrawal from virtual reality. People will hunger for the real thing. It's like Alvin Toffler said in his first book — the need for face-to-face encounters will increase as cottage industry grows. That cottage industry has become a reality through telecommuting, which I understand some areas actively promote to cut down on traffic and pollution.
Not just meetings from the U.S. will be on the move. Multinationals will increase the number of events they take to areas remote from their national location. This adds up to increased demand for accommodations, meeting space, and airline lift. What it will do for rates is anybody's guess.