Don't Give Business Events a Bad Name.
By Yeoh Siew Hoon ~ thetransitcafe.com
Monday, 16th March 2009
Corporate events are getting a bad rap in the current financial climate and whether justified or not, the industry has to be mindful of new thinking and change old habits. In other words, think ROO and ROI.

There is a sea change happening in the corporate meetings and incentives industry that we in the industry should be mindful of. If not, the waves could become real choppy and drown us in their wake.

With the economic meltdown and companies being bailed out with public funds globally, there has been greater scrutiny of spending by corporations on business events and horror of horrors, the term "junket" has been circulating round Washington.

The badmouthing of the industry has gotten so bad that it's prompted 10 hotel CEOs to band together to ask the US Congress to tone down their bashing.

In a letter to Congress, Carlson Hotels CEO, Jay Witzel and his nine other compatriots, wrote, "We understand the economic pressures that have caused many companies to reduce business travel as part of broader cost-cutting measures. However, we are concerned that legitimate meetings, business events and recognition travel are now being portrayed as perks and symbols of excess."

The Minneapolis/ST Paul Business Journal reported that earlier this month, Wells Fargo & Co. cancelled a stay in Las Vegas under criticism from Washington and elsewhere, though it later called criticism of its employee-recognition events "nonsense."

This has caused many companies, even those who are not receiving assistance, to cancel business out of fear of being publicly criticised, said the paper.

In the letter to the US Congress, the 10 hotel chiefs cited Department of Labour statistics showing that 200,000 travel-related jobs were lost in 2008, and the Department of Commerce predicts that another 247,000 travel-related jobs could disappear in 2009.

"That number may grow if the rhetoric is not toned down," the hotel executives wrote. "… This is a time when we should be looking to create and support jobs, not destroy them. A robust travel industry is a powerful economic stimulus."

In addition to Carlson Hotels Worldwide, the other companies signing the letter included Hilton Hotels Corp., Global Hyatt Corp., Marriott International Inc., Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide Inc., InterContinental Hotels Group, Fairmont Hotels and Resorts, Loews Hotels and Wyndham Worldwide.

It is an issue that's being watched with real concern by the global business events industry and it dominated the agenda at AIME, the Asia Pacific Incentives & Meetings Expo.

With public scrutiny at an all-time high, corporations in Asia Pacific, even those which are doing well, will have to be sensitive to the climate and watch how they hold their events and suppliers have to respond.

There are stories of companies that still have budgets but have told event organisers to make it appear that they don't – 4Hoteliers Image Librarythat is, keep the event low profile, no visible signage and less of the lavishness of yesterday.

Leigh Harry, managing director of the Melbourne Convention & Exhibition Centre (pictured up right), said that's a trend that's been coming anyway. "People are becoming less lavish, Most events now have opening cocktails and gala dinners as options. Things are changing, and this crisis, I suppose, will accelerate it.

"People now want more value in their meetings. There is increased focus on content in meetings."

AIME, I felt, had a nice balance of content and social networking. The seminars taking place alongside the exhibition were relevant and well-run. The opening party at Victoria Market was certainly less lavish – held outdoors, it had the feel of a street party and a market fair. Appropriate for the times. The pre-opening cocktails at Grand Hyatt was more lavish – champagne, caviar and chocolates in abundance while everyone stood around and shouted at each other over the music. Maybe not so appropriate.

Two keywords floating around at AIME were ROI (Return on Investment) and ROO (Return on Objectives) and that the industry, every supplier in the value chain, would have to work harder at proving the business returns on an event to companies.

No more touchy-feely phrases like "it will motivate your employees" or "they will never forget this experience" but more hard core numbers about what a business event can do for the bottomline of a company.

That will be tough to do – there are intangibles associated with the whole idea of people from different countries coming together for a common purpose that cannot be measured in cold numbers – but those we can measure, we must at least try to.

The meetings and incentives business in Asia, less so in Australia, grew up with roots in travel. Its destiny is tied with travel. In good times, it's a good thing. In bad times, it's bad.

Travel is seen as an item that can be cut in difficult times. Meetings and incentives are actually communications platforms in which corporations rally troops, discuss strategies, plan tactics and motivate teams for better performance.

It's an essential lubricant of business.

The clearer the differentiation between the two, the better it will be for all.

4Hoteliers Image LibraryYeoh Siew Hoon, one of Asia's most respected travel editors and commentators, writes a regular column on news, trends and issues in the hospitality industry for 4Hoteliers.com.

Siew Hoon, who has covered the tourism industry in Asia/Pacific for the past 20 years, runs SHY Ventures Pte Ltd. Her other writings can be found at

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