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by Padraic Gilligan | April 21, 2014

Padraic GilliganThe United Nations World Tourism Organization has been in existence for just over 10 years. Headquartered in Madrid, Spain, the UNWTO publishes a comprehensive annual report on tourism as well as occasional reports on specific segments, sectors and geographies of the broader tourism industry. Its March 2014 report on the meetings industry (http://platma.org/publications) is a collaborative effort drawing input from seven industry associations as well as some private meeting firms.

Key theme: The value of meetings
Key themes and variations thereof recur across the articles contributed by the various bodies and entities, none more so, perhaps, than value determination and measurement: How do we measure the true value of our industry? In the report, Martin Sirk, CEO of the International Congress and Convention Association, references previous work undertaken jointly by ICCA, MPI, Reed Travel Exhibitions and the UNWTO, which established an agreed methodology for measuring the direct impact and value of meetings that complied with Tourism Satellite Accounting standards. Subsequent national studies in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Australia, Denmark and the United Kingdom all reported that approximately half the direct expenditure generated by organizers and delegates appear under nontourism-related headings (everything from audiovisual hire to entertainment, and from meeting apps to exhibition-stand contractors) and so is not included in standard tourism statistics or visitor surveys. The full extent of the economic impact of the meeting activity, therefore, is not captured by the agreed protocols.

The biggest gap
Jesús María Gómez, president of MPI's Spain chapter, agrees but claims that such measurement isn't easy to gauge and is no reason to abandon efforts or discount the value meetings, conventions and exhibitions generate. He goes further: "The biggest gap of all is reserved for the most important factor -- the value that meetings tourism generates in terms of professional development, knowledge transfer, investment generation, jobs creation and retention, talent acquisition, technical progress and all other areas that define why these events happen in the first place. Here, there has typically been an abandonment of any real effort to even try and, as a result, the most valuable benefit of all is simply ignored."

Gomez is correct in this regard, but his point applies to leisure tourism, too, and to the broader concept of travel. UNWTO's measurement criteria for the impact of travel and tourism in general is quite one-dimensional, focusing almost exclusively on economic metrics and overlooking the formative and transformative effects that visiting other countries and cultures can have on human beings. So what's the true value to humanity of an activity that, ultimately, has the power to break down barriers between peoples and foster peace and harmony?

Intangible benefits
Rod Cameron, executive director of the Joint Meetings Industry Council, picks up on this point and stresses the wider but ultimately intangible benefits to destinations of the meetings industry. He says that as attractive as the financial returns are from the meetings business, these are often far outweighed by broader community and economic-development benefits. "Meetings and conventions essentially take place for the purposes of business, professional and scientific development, as well as sharing knowledge and expertise, so it's not surprising that both the events themselves and the people who attend them have a lot to offer to the host community," says Cameron.

A number of destinations already are measuring the wider impact of meetings and events. For example, in Australia, Business Events Sydney's report, Beyond Tourism Benefits: Measuring the Social Legacy of Business Events, examines the extensive social, innovation and knowledge benefits of the meeting industry. Mady Keup, lecturer and consultant for the MICE industry, says the research reveals it is important to measure the effect of business events in tourism terms, but also to consider other outcomes from business events, e.g., educational, intellectual, trade and investment. "These benefits in turn nurture local expertise, which then will bring about further meeting business to the destination -- a virtuous circle," says Keup.

True value
Clearly, MICE professionals must welcome this report. As the International Congress and Convention Association's Martin Sirk says, it's of supreme significance that a global entity such as the World Tourism Organization is lending its name, reputation and resources to a report on what might appear to be a very small, niche activity within the broader tourism sector. It's up to us now, at the local level in destinations all over the world, to ensure that our own tourism policy makers know about the report, read it, and take on board that the true value of meetings and events goes way beyond the numbers.

Pádraic Gilligan (padraicino.com) is managing director of Soolnua, a boutique meeting and incentive consultancy firm.