Distancing Meetings from Leisure

Travel Should be a Priority for Everyone

Joint Meetings Industry Council Executive Director Rod Cameron argues that our failure to emphasize the distinction between leisure and meetings-related travel hurts us all in the long run.

Something that has haunted the meetings industry for many years has now become a matter of real urgency, courtesy of the global recession and its fallout. That “something” is our collective failure to more clearly distinguish between travel for personal and leisure oriented reasons and that which is undertaken for business purposes. The reason this is so important is that those who make decisions about the organization and financing of meetings, conventions, exhibitions and conferences, as well as those who decide who should attend them, are now highly sensitive to the appearance of such events as simply vehicles for personal enjoyment at public or corporate expense. In fact, just the word “tourism” in association with such events suggests that their real purpose is something other than their actual role as a primary tool for economic and professional development.

This is no small issue. In fact, there are now very specific professional codes and even legislation aimed at exactly this point, with the result that any suggestion of event attendees from certain sectors like the medical area attending meetings to pursue personal enjoyment rather than to engage in business or professional development can be sufficient reason to question attendance and / or remove financial support for them entirely. At the same time, many governments have implemented restrictions or outright bans on meetings-related travel as a first line of cost-saving measures, illustrating clearly that concerns in this regard are anything but theoretical. We in the industry haven’t done much to encourage such a distinction and, even worse, actually blurred the lines by continuing to promote meetings destinations and even attendance on the basis of leisure qualities like beaches, golf courses and nightlife - a practice that perpetuates the notion that business travel is in fact a thinly disguised excuse for a holiday paid for by someone else. When that “someone” is a shareholder or taxpayer it becomes almost impossible to rationalize participation, which accounts for the kinds of challenges we’ve seen recently like ongoing calls for reductions in meetings participation by governments and corporations in various parts of the world

Rather than the money left behind by their members in somebody else’s destination. Third, the primary sources of funding for destination promotion are in many areas controlled for historic reasons by those with more of a tourism than business events orientation – and it has been a tough sell to make the case that ours is a business rather than a tourism sell, if only because the relative size of the tourism lobby in many countries or communities is usually much more heavily weighted toward the leisure side. To the extent that we have what are essentially third parties marketing on our behalf – and potentially putting the emphasis in the wrong place – we will continue to suffer the consequences.

But if the name of the game is extracting the optimal benefit out of the investments made in the meetings sector – as it surely must be if anyone is really paying attention – we need to get beyond turf discussions and into a recognition of the fundamentally different ways in which the markets associated with these two very different sectors must be addressed. In short, by failing to make a clear distinction between leisure and meetings-related travel, we are trivializing our real role in global economic and professional development, threatening our individual competitiveness in the market and offending some of our most important clients, and that just doesn’t make sense for any destination that wants to achieve the diverse benefits associated with success in the meetings sector.

The sooner we put some distance between these two areas the better all Around, but that will only happen when we as an industry take some action toward re-aligning ourselves with the sectors that really count in today’s economy and achieving a better understanding with our tourism partners that clarifying the difference between our respective audiences and their travel motivations will benefit everyone in the end. Given what’s at stake, that objective should be getting a lot more attention