The European MICE industry has evolved in spectacular fashion over the past few years, while technological advancements – as with so many sectors – have caused environments to change at times almost beyond recognition. With such changes occurring, new market leaders have emerged, bringing with them the age of the dedicated meetings venue.
Mark Cooper, CEO of the International Association of Conference Centres (IACC), spoke to Business Destinations about the many ways in which the meetings industry has changed in recent years, along with his predictions for the future of the sector.
What trends have you witnessed in the last few years that have really defined the meetings industry?
By far one of the biggest trends is the move to a stronger meetings environment, for meeting planners and delegates alike. By that, I mean a transition to new and innovative meetings environments and meeting venue design. Many in this space are looking less so to traditional meeting and training environments, and what we’ve seen is a strong growth in smaller, non-residential properties and city centre locations.
For us, day centres have been the fastest area of growth in our membership over the last two years, mostly in cities like New York, Tokyo, Paris, London and Chicago. It has really been about that movement to smaller, more art-based and modern environments, [which still offer] all of the facilities you would expect: continuous refreshment break services and good quality, healthy lunch options – they’re all still there. That’s probably one of the most significant areas for us.
IACC members are part of a group that strives to innovate, look at the latest trends, and develop the facilities for the next generation of delegates
How has the IACC contributed to these global changes?
The IACC was formed when we identified that there was a market for dedicated meetings facilities and venues. This then [progressed] from a very small, US-centric trend to one that applies just as easily worldwide, and I think the concept has grown incredibly since 1981 – evidenced by the fact we’re in 21 countries around the world, including [those in] Asia, the Australia-Pacific, Europe and the Americas. If anything, what has changed is that the concept has evolved, continuously and helpfully, and provided alternative environments to the traditional hotel meetings facility. It continues to be a big, fast-growing market.
Which nations, or continents, have moved forward over the last few years?
In recent years it has been [mostly] northern Europe: Scandinavian countries – Denmark and Sweden in particular – have shown a high degree of invention and a willingness to advance the concept. A lot of our members from other parts of the world that have attended our conferences and meetings have really been looking at what has been happening in Scandinavia, in terms of developing the meeting venue concept. In the course of doing so, they’ve taken a lot of these ideas back to other parts of the world, so we’re seeing a lot of meeting venues with a strong northern European influence at the moment. I would say, where 20 years ago everybody looked to the Americas for innovation, the world now looks to northern Europe.
Are there any regions in particular that have struggled?
In terms of the business, everybody has come out of the economic downturn at different times, so we did see pockets of northern Europe in particular come out the fastest. This region had very good years in 2013 and 2014. The Americas, meanwhile, have come out since and continue to exhibit strong signs of recovery, but we still have challenges: it’s still very difficult trading in countries like the UK, Australia and Denmark; countries where they haven’t quite exited the recession as fast as others have done.
In terms of innovation, I wouldn’t say there are any countries struggling, mainly because we have such a diverse membership. But, like I say, some of the European countries are leading the way in terms of technology, advancements in meeting room design, etc. So, no – I wouldn’t say there are any [regions] necessarily struggling in that area.
How has technology changed things for you?
Technology has changed the way that delegates interact… in the meetings environment. Technology for us has affected the whole pipeline, from the way meeting planners communicate and source their news; how efficiently they can communicate online; and right the way through to how delegates interact within the meeting environment, through apps and other tools for audience participation. The obvious one for us is bandwidth: having very good, very complete bandwidth throughout all of our meeting environments is absolutely key, and it’s something our members need because they’re using technology in many different ways.
What do your members get from being part of IACC?
By becoming an IACC certified conference centre, they’re becoming a member of an exclusive club of venues that really are proven specialists in the field, so they’re focused on the meeting’s product as opposed to other items like corporate travel, functions, weddings, etc. By bringing these members together and having this community, they’re really part of a group that strives to innovate in this area, look at the latest trends and develop the facilities for the next generation of delegates. Really they’re in a position where they can learn from each other and network with like-minded experts or professionals in the small-to-medium-sized meetings market.
It’s about learning and education, it’s about trends and research, and it’s about raising the profile of what are often independent conference centres and not part of a big brand. By joining the IACC, it grants them membership to a brand that is globally recognisable.
Do you believe that the quality of events has improved?
I think the quality of events as well as the thought and planning that goes into events is definitely improving, both in terms of the content and the environments. That might be down to people holding a smaller number of events, but of a far higher quality. It also might be that the time people come together for meetings now is often the only time they meet their colleagues, because everybody these days is working remotely. So what they need to achieve at meetings, in terms of bringing people together and forming relationships, is far more important, because they’re not returning back to the same office environment.
What are your predictions and ambitions for the future of the industry?
I think the small-to-medium-sized meetings industry will continue to evolve, and continue to change quite radically in the next five years. Again, as people become more used to working remotely and travelling a lot, the environments they look for for meetings… will look very different. I think [with] technology – although it’s having a major effect in terms of change right now – we’re just starting to see how it’s changing the way people work and react. I think technology will become a lot more sophisticated in the next five years, and I think that will affect how people meet.