On a recent podcast, “The Future of Tourism”, American Meetings, Inc. CEO Andy McNeill shares his expertise and forward view of tourism as it relates to the MICE Industry (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences, and Exhibitions), a corporate events industry that heavily relies on travel and venues to thrive. Over the past 18 months, both industries have faced huge obstacles that threatened their existence.
The following article is a Q&A derived from the podcast.
The corporate events industry has been slammed by travel and gathering restrictions, but the need for meetings hasn’t gone away. In 2020, nearly $1.4 trillion dollars in international business travel spend disappeared resulting from travel restrictions. And, with today’s continued uncertainty, it’s been predicted that it will take five years or more to recover. Bill Gates believes that it will never fully bounce back and estimates only 50% of business travel will return.
With this in mind, we look at the future of tourism and the corporate events industry.
Q: What did 2020 look like for AMI (American Meetings, Inc.)?
A: It started really well. We were on an economic high with everyone making money and growing. I was at a conference in New York City when I first heard the word “COVID.” Our target market is Fortune 500 companies, which tend to be risk-averse, so we knew we had to make a quick change. We were lucky that we had been supporting virtual platforms with a few of our clients. While it took a few months, we were able to transition to all virtual events, all the while not knowing when live events would come back. This was when hybrid meetings were born.
Q: When did it hit you that everything going forward was going to change in the event industry?
A: I was on a strategy call with one of our bigger clients when we received a call from their travel officer, who informed us that these critical employees were restricted from traveling. We knew at that moment we had to adjust and get ready for a new way of doing business. It was critical that these people meet, and we knew we had to support that any way we could.
Q: What was the hardest part of making this shift?
A: Our biggest challenge was trying to figure out which software to support quickly. There were so many options and in the past, we would offer solutions to the IT department of the company hosting the virtual event and let them pick. This time we had to choose a few that matched the greatest needs of our clients while also providing the compliance, security, and bells and whistles they required. We had to pick a few and stick with them. We made the investment, and it paid off. We started 20 years ago as a live meeting organization, and now we are supporting meetings through technology. We always knew technology would be part of the mix, but it’s bigger now and here to stay.
Q: What do you see as the biggest benefit of hybrid events?
A: Our society is changing, and sustainability is more important than ever. Reducing the carbon footprint of travel has been on people’s minds, and this is going to continue. Large corporations often take on sustainability efforts, but they don’t know how to really make events feasible in the hybrid format. Now, they have seen that they can save money by reducing travel and accommodation costs and still have a successful event.
We all know live events are important because we are social beings and some components still really need to be done face-to-face. But, people are still unsure about meeting in large crowds, and venues are uncertain about ever-changing restrictions and regulations. This has created a strong case for hybrid events.
Q: What do events of the future look like?
A: Interaction tools. Avatars. AI. We are always looking for ways to enhance the experience for all guests, whether live or virtual, and these tools help create a one-world model that brings everyone together.
Technology exists that allows the speaker, who isn’t anywhere near the participants, to be seen and interacted with including receiving eye contact as though it is face-to-face. The price still needs to come down on some of this technology to make it more accessible, but there are existing solutions that bring in 3D holograms or similar into a space to make it seem like we are all in the same space, even though we are half-a-world apart. It’s time for organizations to develop content with AI in mind and build it into their programs.
Q: What else are you seeing in the industry that is a benefit?
A: Data. We’ve been spending time educating our clients about the data and reporting that is available. This information now comes in real-time, so being able to digest it quickly and make changes to support the attendee experience is an amazing skill and benefit. In the live environment, we could take polls and look at the information later, but now, we can see exactly who is engaging with content and when we are losing the audience and immediately adjust.
Q: With all this virtual and AI, what are destinations to do?
A: The destination is an initial factor in what the attendee experience will look like. Before we talk about break-out rooms, we decide what venue will be the best host. Generating a memorable experience is what matters, regardless of the type of meeting. A board meeting on a golf course, an incentive trip with the family, a sales conference on the beach—they all allow the attendee to have time away from their usual day-to-day and smell the smells, see the sights, and taste the foods where they are visiting.
Today we are looking for ways to expand the experience for both virtual and live guests. Destinations that embrace this and take it to the next level will be successful. Travel still matters and if a virtual attendee has a great experience, they may feel more comfortable taking a trip to the venue in the future. People still love to visit new places, so do what you can to improve your brand in their minds, whether virtual or live.
Q: What have you learned?
A: I’ve learned that no two meetings are alike and there is a lot of training going on. There is a learning curve for new virtual technology, even for those who think they are tech-savvy. Give it time.
Overall, it’s been a rough year, but stick to it, it’s going to get better.
Listen to the expert guest interview of Andy McNeill, CEO of American Meetings, Inc. on the “Future of Tourism Podcast”. Listen now.