Partly to improve meeting and venue design and success and partly to avoid being caught flat-footed in the midst of future crises like the global downturn of the past 12 to 18 months, two major meetings organizations and a consulting firm have announced a research project called Convention 2020, which will consider the future of live events, venues, and meeting destinations.

The International Congress and Convention Association, IMEX Group, and Fast Future Research are the three founding sponsors of the study. Discussions are under way with a number of other potential sponsors.

Conducted by Fast Future Research, a global research and consulting firm, the study will look at trends and drivers that could shape meetings over the next decade. The aim is to develop a range of models for how live meetings might evolve over that time period. The study will center on understanding the “meeting experience” and the changing needs of attendees. These insights will help drive new thinking on event design, facilitate innovation in business models, and highlight the strategic implications for venues, destinations, and industry suppliers.

According to Martin Sirk, CEO of ICCA, and Ray Bloom, chairman of the IMEX Group, Fast Future was chosen to conduct the study because of its strong track record in high-quality futures work, the innovative and comprehensive nature of its proposal, and the fact that Fast Future contributed its own funds toward the project.

“The research is designed to answer very practical questions such as: What will attendees want from live events? How will they maximize their learning? How can they ensure a worthwhile return on their investment of time and energy?” Sirk explains. “For event owners, venues, and suppliers, it will help them consider how events could be funded and the implications for the design, services, technology platforms, and business models required for successful meetings and venues.”

The study is also designed to ensure that the industry responds strategically to future shocks. “The economic downturn has highlighted the importance of thinking ahead and preparing for an uncertain future,” notes Bloom of IMEX. “We all believe in the importance of live meetings, but belief is not a strategy. We need to challenge our assumptions, develop real insight into what the future may hold, and rethink our event designs and business models to help all members of the meetings industry prepare for the decade ahead and ensure they stay competitive.”

The study concepts were tested on attendees at November’s ICCA Congress in Florence, Italy. “The response was phenomenal,” according to Rohit Talwar, CEO of Fast Future Research. “The interest in becoming a sponsor was overwhelming.”

“We are at a turning point,” says Sirk of ICCA. “We face major challenges and opportunities arising from changing political attitudes toward the meetings sector, technological advances, economic power shifts, environmental pressures, a deepening understanding of how we learn, and evolving social attitudes. The research is designed to kick-start new thinking across the meetings industry and engage people at every level in coming up with strategies, ideas, and solutions that will work in their local markets.”

The study will have three main deliverables: a report on a global survey on the future of meetings, to be published in January 2010; a report on the Future Meeting Experience, to be presented at IMEX in Frankfurt in May 2010; and a final report on Tomorrow’s Convention Center, to be released at the ICCA Congress in Hyderabad, India, in October 2010.

A number of Web-based mechanisms are being used to boost participation in the study, while workshops and seminars will be held around the world to provide input. “We will make full use of both traditional futures methods such as trend-scanning, scenario-planning, and expert interviews, along with new tools such as social media dialogue and ‘crowdsourcing’ to generate ideas and stimulate new thinking,” Talwar says.

Expert opinion also is a key part of the study. Bloom explains, “We felt it was critical that we combine ‘outside-in’ thinking with real engagement from professionals and leading thinkers across the sector. We are delighted that those on the cutting edge of areas such as event design, learning, business models, technology, event strategy, and sustainability all have given their full support and commitment to participate.”

The intention is to create an evolving online body of knowledge, case studies, and ideas that will grow even after the study wraps up in October 2010. For information on sponsorships, send an e-mail to convention2020@fastfuture.com. You also can take the survey here.