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November 3, 2008
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ICCA’s 47th World Congress




Unlike Captain James Cook and his two ships, Discovery and Resolution, which landed in Victoria, British Columbia in 1778 in search of the western exit of the great Northwest Passage, I landed in search of a different sort of discovery, a different form of resolution.

My journey from London was kept amused by Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth. Set in 12th century England, the book tells the tale of a country under the weak management of King Stephen and illustrates how such a leadership – or lack of it – results in anarchic social and economic hardship for the rank and file caught in the web of self-interests, a weak administration and shrinking local economy.

Follett’s thousand-page tale of a near anarchic society encourages the reader to continue his or her reappraisal of priorities – what is worth fighting for, asset re-evaluation, individual materialism over spiritual enlightenment and so on. 

It convinced me that so it should be for ICCA’s gathering of great minds this coming week in the context of global economic shrinkage.

On location
Our hosts in British Columbia have enjoyed a robust economy since hyper-interest rates subsided in the early nineties. However, its biggest export market is the US.

Demand for key exports including lumber and automotive manufacturing is now heading south, and while the Canadian economy is in far better shape compared to its US counterparts, the 10-year employment boom riding US demand is over, no matter what short term cushion an Obama victory or further reduction in oil prices in the next few months might bring to US consumer demand. 

LTV (loan-to-value) ratios in Canada`s residential sector are heading north and while forecasters don’t expect a sub-prime crisis anything like that being endured by the US, Canada is heading for a property-led recession like every other industrial economy.

Former housing-rich consumers are turning into apostles of frugality. By this time next year, analysts predict, over 12.5% (up from 4.5% today) of British Columbians will be in negative equity if the anticipated decline of 20% in property values between now and then becomes reality.

Consumer spending – or rather a lack of it – will accelerate to levels not seen since 1990 when interest rates peaked at over 15% and despite consumers already hoarding cash at a rate of $50 billion every six months, confidence rather than cash is going to be the only real chord to recovery.

The business case

It could, of course, be any western industrialised tale that I tell and whatever attempts the national or international (such as the Eurpean Union) governments and bodies (such as the IMF) take to stimulate a consumer-led recovery, it will be heavily countered by national debt, for which tax on an unprecedented scale will be levied for the foreseeable future. 

Business tourism, nevertheless, should be a lighthouse to national and federal economies searching out net sector contributions to offset the liabilities that taxpayers face – a catalytic converter to the money-go-round, a stimulant to growth. This is the discovery, the resolution, that should result from ICCA`s global event and its fellow JMIC (Joint Meetings Industry Council) member dialogue. Discovery of leadership, and resolution by the industry’s leadership to translate the business case that meetings-driven business tourism can convert into a political dividend and business benefits for the medium’s end-users.

On Tuesday, MEETINGS:review will release a report on the inbound return on investment that Birmingham, England, is realising from the vision and investment made by the City in the 1970s. It will reveal how 14,000 jobs directly attributable to Birmingha’s events economy, that 30 years ago did not even exist, have been established and how declining manufacturing exports from within the region have been supplemented by inbound business tourism with local and national dividend to the taxpayer. 

Taking the lead
This is not just because the City’s leadership had the foresight to build a 200,000 square metre shed in a well-located field and an international convention centre midway between a train station and an airport. It’s because live communication works and the City spotted it. (It certainly wasn’t because the national UK government then, or now, had the same comprehension of the value of inbound business tourism that its counterparts in Germany, for example, always had.)

What Birmingham, what Melbourne, what Hong Kong, what Germany and what many other enlightened administrations (including their respective ICCA members) have illustrated in the past, needs translating into further political and commercial currency. That means quantifiable and reliable data. It also means voice.

Meetings such as ICCA’s global forum here in Canada, and JMIC’s subsequent forum at EIBTM in Barcelona next month should deliver such a lead – to politicians and to business stakeholders alike – leadership that consolidates the collaborative knowledge of its members, delivers a compelling case for public and private investment in its hardware and communications infastructure, and leadership that delivers commercial enlightenment regarding the measurable business benefits of live communications itself.

The web of self-interests, a weak administration, and shrinking local economy need not apply to the meetings industry.


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