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April 17, 2008

Didier Scaillet: Education, Education, Education

Who does not know the famous quote from Conrad Hilton on the three conditions necessary to have a successful hotel? “Location, location and location.”

I would argue that, in this day and age, there is another key to success: “education, education and education”, which is increasingly relevant in the hospitality and hotel sector, and is rapidly becoming a key to success in the meetings and events industry too.

Infrastructure development
The Middle East is witnessing a staggering development of its meetings infrastructure: convention and exhibition centres are flourishing in all the Gulf countries’ capitals and new hotel developments, with tens of thousands of rooms added over the last few years and a lot more to come, are hard to keep up with.

This development creates a massive need for additional workforce within the region. Hundreds of thousands of jobs (300,000 according to some recent research) will be created in the coming ten years in the hospitality sector alone, with an estimated 20% of these jobs being within the meetings and events sector. Where will these 60,000 meeting professionals come from?

The problem is that the phenomenon is far from being limited to the Gulf region… new venues, hotels and meeting facilities are being built all around the globe.

Las Vegas casino and hotel operators are developing massive new properties, Singapore looks forward to the opening of the Integrated Resorts, the vast majority of India’s major cities have dedicated convention centres under construction, China is building over 80 convention and exhibition centres while Macau keeps on expanding its casino hotel operations. The list goes on…

Talent shortage
This is certainly great news for our industry, which goes from strength to strength, and can certainly be considered as a sign of increased recognition of the meetings and events industry as a key economic contributor.

But it also increasingly causes a major challenge: talent shortage. There will be simply not enough trained professionals to lead and operate all these properties in a near future.

Already today, we are seeing new venues and hotels opening up at reduced occupancy, not because of a lack of demand (we have a seller’s market in most destinations) but because they cannot recruit enough talent to operate at full capacity.

This is likely to have few major consequences:
• Increased costs of operations on a global basis. If the demand is higher than the supply, price goes up. And it certainly applies to the labour market as well.
• Diminishing demand for meetings. Increased cost of operations will further increase spend in an environment where the increase of travel fares as well as higher prices for food and beverage are already making meetings and events more expensive than before.
• Compromised service standards. The lack of available qualified talents might also force brands to compromise on their service and operations standards, impacting the quality of the experience by delegates.
• Lowering the return on investment. Both organisers of meetings and property owners or operators might see the return on their meetings and events investment diminish.

Meetings and events are very powerful communication tools, now well-established in the marketing mix of organisations. But they are also expensive. We need to make sure that we have an educated, largely available workforce available to deliver experiences.

Trained professionals
For decades, the workforce entering the meetings and events industry did it by accident, discovering our industry and its opportunities at random.

The past few years has seen the emergence of dedicated curricula at an academic level: undergraduate, graduate and masters programmes in meetings and events are now widely offered in the North America, Europe and Asia. As a result, we are seeing the first generation of trained meetings and events professionals entering the workforce.

Unfortunately, this is still not the case in the Middle East where the investments have been focused on the hardware and not yet on the ‘humanware’. The problem is that, while beautiful buildings certainly contribute to meetings and events delivery, they do not create experiences: knowledgeable professionals with high service standards do.

The Middle East has enormous advantages to fulfil its vision of becoming one of the major hubs for the meetings and events industry during the 21st century: striving airlines, sophisticated airports, modern and adapted meeting venues.

But its competitiveness in the global market will also very largely depend on its capacity to develop an educated workforce and a supply chain of operators who can deliver meetings and events experience. Leading meetings and events destinations like Paris, Vienna, Las Vegas, Barcelona, Singapore, to name a few, are attracting and retaining meetings not only because of their infrastructure but also thanks to the level of knowledge and expertise that their professionals have acquired.

Part of this workforce can certainly be acquired by attracting talent from abroad but there is certainly a need, and, I believe, an opportunity, to develop educational and training programmes locally. And this will take time: it is quicker and largely easier today to build a hotel than to develop and retain talents to run it. So, it should happen soon with a great sense of urgency.

Association education
Associations have always played a key role as knowledge and education centres within their respective industries or sectors.

Organisations like the International Congress & Convention Association (ICCA), the Society of Incentive Travel Executives (SITE) and, of course, Meeting Professionals International (MPI) have all developed programmes for students or young professionals entering the workforce as well as education offerings for more senior professionals.

And the good news is that they are all already present in the Middle East to support the emergence of its meetings industry. For example, MPI has just held its inaugural Gulf Meetings and Events Conference with 150 participants, a yearly event that is dedicated to providing knowledge exchange and global networking opportunities for Middle East meetings and events professionals. The organisation is also discussing with various governmental agencies and academic institutions in the region to create training programmes.

The Middle East has tremendous opportunities ahead of itself in the meetings industry: an ideal location between East and West, rapidly developing airline hubs and an increased capacity to host meetings. It now needs to build a knowledgeable, well-trained workforce to compete effectively on a global scale.

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