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January 10, 2014

ICCA: What Conference Planners Need to Know for 2014 (VIDEO)

This past year saw lots of changes and developments within the convention industry, and perhaps no one is in a better position to look at growing trends than Martin Sirk, CEO of ICCA. From insights on new ways of marketing to the latest technology trends, Sirk shared his insights on how the business is changing, and what planners need to know for the new year and beyond.


“I think that 2013 was the year when the concept of marketing your destination based on intellectual advantages and business arguments finally became mainstream rather than cutting-edge,” Sirk said. “The formerly dominant approach of selling based on tourism and cultural assets has now moved down into a supporting role.” As an example, Sirk noted that two of the four finalists in ICCA’s 2013 Best Marketing Award competition, Melbourne and Copenhagen, used this mindset to promote their destination. “Having been talking about this issue for most of the last decade, my audiences now have so much understanding and are already applying the principles that I’ve had to start writing some genuinely new material for my speeches.” 

RELATED: Danish Meetings Concept Competes for ICCA Marketing Award

Hybrid Meetings

2013 was also a year when it was generally recognised that “hybrid” isn’t an esoteric option. “It’s an unavoidable reality for any event, even if the organiser isn’t planning for it,” Sirk said. “Unless delegates are forced to hand in their tablets and smartphones before entering the meeting, whatever happens onsite is going to break out of the physical surroundings at an ever-increasing speed. What we need now is a more sophisticated psychological understanding about the differences between participating online and in person, since all too often organisers simply record and broadcast material in the same format, so that a stimulating live experience turns into an indigestible bore.” 

The Importance of China

While a wide range of industries are keeping an eye on the ever-growing economic power of the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China), the last in the list seems to be especially significant for events. “We attracted record-breaking attendance at our Congress in Shanghai last November,” Sirk noted, “and it was clear that one of the primary driving forces was that delegates wanted to really understand what was happening there, as a competitor destination, as a source of meetings and delegates, and as a macro-economic engine of worldwide growth.” 

One of ICCA’s member universities conducted research among the Association’s global membership and found that more than half have China strategies, are regularly organizing China-originating events and (in many cases) are introducing policies specifically targeting this market. “We knew that there was a lot of interest in China, but we were really surprised by the levels of engagement and strategic investment, which are only likely to accelerate,” Sirk said.

The Congrex Collapse

Throughout the fall, the conference community watched as one of the biggest and oldest global PCO companies, Congrex, fell apart. The collapse, Sirk said, will have long-ranging repercussions for the industry: “Whilst there were undoubtedly local and unique issues involved,” he said, “it has introduced all kinds of doubts into the marketplace for association meetings regarding financial models, risk management, and the relative merits of in-house event management versus outsourced services.” 

RELATED: Congrex Switzerland Completes Management Buy-Out

On a personal level, he added, the downfall was a reminder that there are no “safe harbors” in the current economic climate. “Any organisation, company or destination is going to have to keep reevaluating its business model and value proposition to survive and thrive.”

The New Normal for Conferences

While keeping abreast of trends is important, of course, long-term changes are the most important to follow. Over the years, Sirk has seen some developments that seem to have staying power.

For example, Wi-Fi at conferences is “a mission-critical requirement,” Sirk says, but is the first to admit that many planners are not sufficiently educated about what is available and what is needed. “At our Congress in Shanghai last year, we took specialized advice—we upgraded the bandwidth in our main venue (on top of the upgrades they’d already put in place), and even arranged a switching system within the venue to divert capacity to the areas that were busiest on an hour-by-hour basis,” Sirk said. 

Despite this, the team still occasionally faced some slow periods due to constraints to the capacity of the entire city sector grid. “When some of the massive companies neighbouring our congress centre hit their uploading and downloading peaks, our pipeline got squeezed. For really big citywide events, understanding the macro-Wi-Fi issues beyond the venue is going to become vital, and cities now even have the chance to compete on the basis of their overall capacity.”

Another long-growing trend is increased awareness of dietary restrictions, which Sirk says ICCA has followed for years. “What used to be an issue for the occasional individual is now becoming a mass-market phenomenon, as more and more people demand customised solutions to their dietary needs,” he added. “Buffets in particular are becoming a complex signage operation as well as a catering exercise!”

Constant Change

New developments and sudden shocks to the system are inevitable in an industry as varied as complex as the events and conferences world. “Some countries will face extreme political and economic turmoil, since we’re clearly still in a period of global turbulence and uncertainty,” Sirk said before suggesting possible upheavals for 2014: “Anyone care to predict exchange rates for the euro or gold over the next few months? Are those bubbles or sustainable growth in US or China? What if a major Eurozone economy lurches into default? What if the Syrian conflict expands?” 

Sirk predicts that big companies will be challenged by new upstarts with lower overheads and new business models (“Has anyone read the recent press stories about how young people are abandoning Facebook?”); new destinations will be see increased interest, and some old established players will suffer as a result of over-greedy room-rates. “It’s also certain the pressure on government budgets at national and local level will continue to rise in most regions of the world, and it shouldn’t be underestimated how critical this is to our industry,” Sirk said. “Public servants don’t just attend their own meetings; they are big players in association and corporate meeting alike, not least because these are events where policy issues are debated and formulated, and government money has traditionally underwritten many events which incorporate public interest objectives.” 

This “new normal,” he continued, means that the industry is not in for an easy ride. “Having said that, there are more and more signs of economic recovery in certain big markets, multinationals are sitting on unprecedentedly large piles of cash, Asia Pacific is booming, Africa is on the rise economically, and these could mean a swift up-tick in the number and budgets of corporate meetings, a sector that can quickly turn around in reaction to market conditions.”
So what role will ICCA take in this new normal? The Association, Sirk said, has been lucky in that the international association congress market has seen the most stability and consistent growth over the last decade. “Our job is to find every way possible to help our members become more competitive and to win more association bids,” he said. “To that end, we’re constantly adding new research tools and business opportunities as well as expanding the available data (we now track over 17,000 regularly occurring event series which rotate between at least three countries), and aim to include all of our new services within the existing membership fee.” 

ICCA’s latest project is to combine searches of its own data with massive public databases of academic and healthcare material, to enable members to conduct more in-depth analysis into the events they are hoping to attract and bid for. “The biggest ongoing challenge is to expand the number of our services that each member makes use of, since many members don’t think beyond our database,” he added. “Only half of our members are actively using our PR Kit, for example, and that’s a resource that I believe could annually save them the full cost of ICCA membership on its own!”

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About the Author: Jena Tesse Fox

Jena Tesse Fox





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