If you had a product that a significant proportion of your captive audience really, truly hated, how optimistic would you be about your long-term business prospects?
And, if your small profit margin depended on the absence of a competing service that outpaced yours on speed, practicality, and amenities, would you consider yourself a bit vulnerable?
Air travel is the industry many meeting planners love to hate, and Carleton University MBA Advisor Ian Lee has used it as a case study of one of the world’s most improbable business models. In a 2008 shareholders’ letter, investment guru Warren Buffett penned this quote about the Wright Brothers’ invention: “If a farsighted capitalist had been present at Kitty Hawk, he would have done his successors a huge favor by shooting Orville down.”
And now, the industry where a CEO said travelers were stupid for complaining about shoddy treatment is starting to pay the price. When customers have a chance to bail, they do. Last month, the New York Times reported that Amtrak was eating the airlines’ lunch in the Boston–Washington, D.C., corridor.
“A decade ago, Delta and USAirways shuttles were the preferred mode of travel between the cities,” the Times reported. “But high fares, slow airport security, and frequent flight delays—along with Amtrak’s high-speed Acela trains, online ticketing, and workstation amenities—have eaten away at the airlines’ share of passengers.” Between New York and D.C., 75 percent of travelers opt for the train.
And with high-speed rail perpetually on the near horizon, North America may yet begin to benefit from technologies and compressed transportation times that are already familiar in other parts of the world.
It would be silly to suggest that rail can replace intercontinental air travel. What I don’t know is how the airline industry could survive if it lost much of the volume and revenue it draws from domestic flights. The airlines could consolidate (some more), cut back (again), but hang on (at least until fuel prices went through the roof). But would they still have the volume and flexibility that enable meetings to bring together 10,000, 30,000, or 100,000 participants from around the world in a single destination?
This is where hybrid meetings, with their ability to combine live and virtual participants and connect audiences in multiple venues, become a form of contingency planning. If air travel gets less accessible—because of competition from rail, spiralling oil prices, another terrorist attack, or too many dissatisfied customers—your meetings will be on a firmer footing if you can shorten participants’ travel distances. Along the way, you might find new opportunities for on-site interaction and unearth new audience groups who never wanted to travel long distances for an on-site event.
Hybrid meetings are starting to go mainstream, with a body of knowledge and experienced practitioners emerging quickly. (MPI’s new Hybrid Meeting Toolkit, for example, is free to members, and a webinar—free to all—on the results of the association’s research into hybrid meetings will take place September 18 and later be archived on the MPI Web site.) If planners will soon be able to make more active choices between the mediocre familiarity of air travel and the dynamic inclusivenessof a hybrid event, which way will you jump?
(I didn’t know it would go this way, but I produced the first draft of this column in handwriting, sitting in a cramped, middle seat, while waiting for a flight to get to the front of the runway. As I wrote this sentence, it still hadn’t taken off.)
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 The Conference Publishers Blog and tweets as @mitchellbeer.