Six years in, and the U.S. economic recovery — a story of slow and steady gains — continues to play out in the meetings industry. Meeting professionals who responded to Convene’s annual Meetings Market Survey, which this year celebrates a quarter-century of benchmarking the meetings industry’s progress, indicate that their live events keep inching back in strength. Attendee and exhibitor numbers (the leading economic indicators that meeting professionals use to assess the state of their events) have increased year over year, and they expect that growth will continue throughout 2016.
But of course, it’s not all blue skies and clear sailing for planners. Along with the robust economy comes increased demand for hotel rooms and meeting space, which means higher prices and a weakened negotiating position. As one respondent wrote: “Yes, I saw significant improvement in the meetings industry last year — in higher guest-room rates and less availability.” And despite the fact that their events are on more solid ground, many planners say their budgets remain fairly flat and that they lack sufficient resources to take their events to the next level.
Those conclusions are drawn not only from the numbers that respondents report, but from pages and pages of their comments. It doesn’t take a lot of reading between the lines to pluck one thread from their fabric: the notion of balance. That element seems uncomfortably off-kilter in their relationship with suppliers, in what their leaders and organizations expect in terms of event execution measured against resource allocation, and even in their work vs. life responsibilities.
New technologies and the lightning-fast pace of change only add to that loss of equilibrium. “Everything changes so fast,” said one survey-taker. “By the time you’ve gotten your head wrapped around one concept, another one comes through and the one you’ve just begun to understand is out the window. We can’t comprehend the amount of change happening and keep up with it to suit the needs of our audiences.”
It would seem that even in a favorable economy, as another respondent wrote, “We will all need to find our way.”
Completing Convene’s annual Meetings Market Survey is no small feat. For 25 years, we’ve asked meeting professionals to quantify their events’ impact during the past 12 months, reflect on their roles, and assess the state of the industry. Even more difficult, we’ve asked them to pull out their crystal balls and tell us what they expect in the coming year.
Their predictions, of course, hinge on overall economic forecasts — and in election years like 2016, that could be trickier for U.S.-based planners. Leading forecasters from economic consultancies, financial firms, and universities, however, are almost all upbeat, predicting low unemployment rates, interest rates, inflation, and gasoline prices as the economic backdrop leading up to the election. “All in all, I’d guess it should be as close to a feel-good time as any we’ve seen in the past several years,” Michael Feroli, chief United States economist at JPMorgan Chase, told The New York Times late last year.
But with more North America–based organizations looking to grow globally — attracting international attendees and/or hosting their meetings abroad — it’s not just the U.S. economy but the global economy that they must take into account.
Given all of these factors, planners’ 2015 meeting results are all-around positive, and they say they are on track for an even better year ahead. Here’s a quick overview:
› Size of 2015 convention/meeting budget vs. 2014 convention/meeting budget — +2.9 percent
› 2015 attendance vs. 2014 attendance — +5.3 percent
› 2016 attendance vs. 2015 attendance (projected) — +3.3 percent
› Number of 2015 exhibitors vs. 2014 exhibitors — +2.7 percent
› Number of 2016 exhibitors vs. 2015 exhibitors (projected) — +2.3 percent
› Overall 2015 meeting budget compared to 2014 meeting budget —
› 30 percent expect to plan more meetings in 2016; only 5 percent expect to plan fewer meetings.
Other results indicate continuing trends or suggest changes in the industry, such as:
› Cutbacks — Despite the consistently improving economy, most meeting organizers are still being asked to cut back on meeting expenses. The majority (60 percent) have been asked to focus on reducing F&B expenses.
› Growing exhibit space — Respondents to this year’s survey report that their largest exhibition had almost 14,500 more square feet in 2015 compared to the 2014 survey results, reversing the trend in recent years of declining exhibition space.
› Booking window opens a crack — The average booking window for large meetings is 2.3 years, the same as the 2014 survey; for small meetings, it’s 10 months, compared to nine months in the 2014 survey.
› Event-supply rentals lead outsourced services — Respondents to this year’s survey are most likely to outsource supply rentals (65 percent), app deployment (57 percent), and housing. Last year, apps surpassed registration services as respondents’ top outsourced aspect of meeting planning.
› In-house platforms — The trend to handle citywide housing in-house continues. More respondents indicate that they manage that process in-house (44 percent in this year’s survey compared to 40 percent in the 2014 survey and 37 percent in the 2013 survey) over using a third-party housing service (36 percent). Slightly more respondents use convention bureau housing services (20 percent in this year’s survey compared to 16 percent in both the 2014 and 2013 surveys).
As always, it’s not just numbers but words that tell the story. Here is a small sampling of the many comments respondents took the time to write, demonstrating the ways they are taking stock of their events, their jobs, and the industry.
Do you think the meetings industry as a whole improved last year?
“I expect medical meetings will continue to be negatively affected by changes in international pharma laws.”
“The cost of providing wireless Internet has skyrocketed, and it’s not something we can say no to when we provide a mobile app and ask people to use Twitter and Instagram. Next year, I expect to find an affordable solution to the wireless costs whether it be an outside vendor, providing hot spots, or simply negotiating lower rates in future contracts.”
“Yes, the economy has improved: More are traveling and going to meetings. On the planner side, though, it’s now a seller’s market, which does not feel like an improvement for me!”
“I believe everyone is reaping the benefits of having increased attendance. However, I feel that our hotel suppliers are not considering their ‘partnership’ as they did when the economy was not favorable. I think both trends will continue.”
What is your No. 1 on-the-job challenge?
“Building the exhibition area while the industry is consolidating.”
“Getting people who are involved in meeting concepts but who are not in the meeting department to understand that we have to change … or else.”
“Having too many technology platforms to work in.”
“Keeping track of meeting details in one place. I have spreadsheets galore and am trying to utilize technology to best track changes, make improvements, and document specifications in order to communicate with vendors and internal staff. Also, the rise of Airbnb and other shared-economy housing platforms is putting pressure on meeting-room-block commitments. Housing pirates are starting to target exhibitors earlier and earlier, making the threat of attrition more and more prominent.”
“Maximizing the agenda while not overloading the attendees.”
“Very high expectations and not much value placed on the experience and overall project-management expertise of the meeting professional.”
What is on your wish list for 2016?
“Greater consideration for our event to be a strategic investment, not just the engine that supports the rest of the organization.”
“I wish our organization would approach our meetings with more creativity. That they would see that we need to provide an experience.”
“To create an innovation/new product showcase area outside the exhibit hall that highlights what’s new and exciting in the industry.”
“To have a happy, productive, cohesive team that is passionate about creating our incredibly special conference and is able to maintain a good life balance.”
What is the No. 1 challenge facing the meetings industry?
“Airline travel is a drag! And travel to the U.S. for meetings is difficult.”
“Although the industry is rebounding, the meetings industry as a whole still needs to advocate the value of meetings to the greater economy as well as to our organizations. It still seems to be one of the first areas that organizations target when they start looking to cut costs.”
“Being better prepared in the crisis-management arena. Planners need to have a better understanding of this and do greater preparation.”
“Addressing climate change is also an issue — our industry does not help in terms of air travel.”
“Data! I need help on what data I should be capturing, the best way to store/access it, and what the data means in terms of future decisions or actions I should be taking.”
“I think right now the challenge we are facing is the virtual meeting versus the destination meeting. There is so much value in having your attendees put their behinds in a chair and be present with their peers and engage in a discussion about a pertinent topic without the distractions they face back home, but the fast-food version of the meeting is so appealing when you can attend virtually without having to book a hotel room, get on a plane, or leave your office chair. I see the value in both, but trying to plan for both and appeal to both types of attendees is something the industry is having to forecast. This is no easy task.”
“The competition for budget dollars with exhibitors/sponsors/attendees. With so many mediums competing for the same dollars, conveying the value of face-to-face is more important than ever.”
“Most are stuck in the past when they should be looking 10 years down the road.”
Respondents who work for associations were most likely to be employed at a professional association (33 percent), medical/health-care association (20 percent), or trade association (34 percent). Eleven percent worked for SMERF organizations, mostly similar to last year’s respondent composition.
Association professionals responding to the survey are employed at associations that vary greatly in size, from under 1,000 to 50,000-
plus members; approximately two-fifths
(44 percent) work for associations with fewer than 5,000 members.
Average: 14,963 members
Respondents who work for corporations or government agencies are far more likely to work at those that employ fewer than 1,000 individuals (68 percent).
Respondents employed in the corporate world are most likely to work for a professional-services firm (25 percent), closely followed by a technology company (24 percent).
One-third of respondents (33 percent) plan more than 20 meetings per year, and more than two-thirds (67 percent) plan at least six meetings per year. Close to two-thirds of respondents
(65 percent) expect their total number of meetings in 2016 to remain the same, while 30 percent expect to plan more meetings in 2016. Five percent expect to plan fewer meetings this year.
Average for association professionals: 11; independent planners: 11; corporate planners: 15; government planners: 12. Overall average among all respondents: 12.
A majority of respondents (80 percent) hold at least one event with an exhibit every year, slightly up from our 2014 survey results.
Close to one-third of respondents (30 percent) report that their organization’s total convention/meeting budget in 2015 exceeded $2.5 million, and nearly one-half (46 percent) indicate that it was $1 million or more.
Average: $1.3 million, up from $1.2 million in our 2014 survey
Budget (With Exhibition)
Respondents indicate that the average total budget for their largest 2015 event with an exhibition was $1.4 million, down from $1.7 million in our 2014 survey and $1.9 million in our 2013 survey.
Budget (Without Exhibition)
Respondents indicate that the average total budget for their largest 2015 event without an exhibition was $600,000, a steady decline from $700,000 in the 2014 survey and $800,000 in the 2013 survey.
The largest group of respondents (47 percent) report that their convention/meeting budget stayed the same in 2015 compared to 2014, while 42 percent report an increase and 11 percent a decrease.
Average change: +2.9 percent compared to +3.1 percent in our 2014 survey
Nine percent expect their convention/meeting budget to decrease in 2016, while 59 percent (compared to 63 percent in last year’s survey) expect no change. Thirty-two percent (compared to 27 percent last year) expect to work with a bigger budget this year.
Average change: +1.7 percent compared to +0.9 percent in the 2014 survey
Close to one-fifth (19 percent) of respondents indicate that their organization’s net profit from conventions and meetings in 2015 was $1 million or more, while another 16 percent indicate that their organization broke even or had a net loss (compared to 25 percent in the 2014 survey).
Average: $0.6 million
More than one-third of respondents (36 percent) indicate that their organization’s total annual 2015 budget was $10 million or more, and nearly one-half (48 percent) report that it was $5 million or more.
Average: $7 million compared to $6.9 million in the 2014 survey
Respondents outsource a variety of meeting-related services — especially event-supply rentals (66 percent), app development and deployment (57 percent), housing (54 percent), and registration (46 percent). Event-supply rentals jumped nearly 20 percent from last year.
On average, 29 percent of respondents’ organizational revenue is derived from dues and 11 percent from sales. Thirty-seven percent comes from conventions, exhibits, and meetings — an 8-percent increase from our 2014 survey.
Corporate planners indicate that, on average, the largest percentage of their revenue (36 percent) comes from their conventions, exhibits, and meetings, followed by sales (30 percent), then publications, advertising, and sponsorships (29 percent).
The average revenue for respondents’ largest meeting with an exhibition in 2015 was $1.4 million; without an exhibition component, the average revenue was $500,000.
Offering Citywide Housing
The trend seems to continue to move toward handling citywide housing in-house. More respondents this year indicate that they manage that process in-house (44 percent compared to 40 percent in the 2014 survey and 37 percent in the 2013 survey) over using a third-party housing service (36 percent). Twenty percent used a convention bureau housing service in 2015 compared to 16 percent in the 2014 survey.
Close to one-half of respondents (45 percent compared to 46 percent in last year’s survey) report that the economic value of their largest meeting to the host destination in 2014 was less than $1 million, while 26 percent — compared to 19 percent in the 2014 survey — report the value at $5 million or more.
In terms of the total economic value to host destinations of all the meetings they held in 2015, 25 percent say it was at least $10 million, while 71 percent estimate that all their meetings brought an economic benefit of $1 million or more to their host destinations. Association planners report that their meetings in total benefit host destinations the most — an average of $8.2 million — followed by corporate planners at $7.3 million, independent planners and association management companies at $6.5 million, and government planners at $4.6 million.
Average economic value of largest meeting: $3.4 million compared to $3 million in our 2014 survey
More than two-fifths of respondents (41 percent) indicate that the attendance at their largest convention/meeting/exposition in 2015 was fewer than 1,000, while 58 percent held a meeting attended by 1,000 and more attendees.
Average: 4,601 compared to 4,225 in our 2014 survey
Square Footage of Largest Exposition
Total exhibition space rose nearly 14 percent compared to the average exposition footprint in last year’s survey. Respondents report that, on average, their largest exposition had approximately 118,100 square feet compared to 103,600 square feet in the 2014 survey.
More than half of respondents (53 percent) report that attendance at their largest 2015 meeting increased compared to 2014. In last year’s survey, 45 percent report greater attendance than the prior year. Nine percent (compared to 15 percent in the 2014 survey) report a decrease in attendance at their 2015 event compared to 2014.
Average change: +5.3 compared to +4.7 percent in our 2014 survey
Nearly half of respondents (49 percent) expect 2016 attendance to increase, compared to only 38 percent who expected it to increase in last year’s survey.
Average change: +3.3 percent compared to +3 percent in the 2014 survey
Total Room Pickup
Close to two-fifths of respondents (39 percent) indicated that the total room pickup (all hotels) for their largest meeting was 2,500 or more. The average room pickup was 3,053 vs. 2,914 rooms reported in our 2014 survey.
Three-fifths of respondents (60 percent compared to 58 percent in the 2014 survey) report that their organization picked up at least 90 percent of the room block for their largest meeting.
Average: 82 percent, same as last year’s survey
Location of Exhibitions
Respondents are more likely to hold exhibitions in convention centers (61 percent compared to 57 percent in the 2014 survey) than in hotels (48 percent compared to 50 percent in our 2014 survey).
One-half of respondents (50 percent compared to 48 percent in the 2014 survey) indicate that they had at least 100 exhibitors at their largest show in 2015.
Average: 172 compared to 160 in the 2014 survey
Less than one-half of respondents (46 percent compared to 55 percent in the 2014 survey) report that the number of exhibitors at their largest show remained the same in 2015, while 42 percent say it increased (compared to 32 percent reporting an increase in the 2014 survey). Thirteen percent say it decreased.
Average change: +2.7 percent compared to +2.3 percent in our 2014 survey
More than one-half of respondents (57 percent compared to 64 percent in the 2014 survey) expect the number of 2016 exhibitors to remain the same. The remaining respondents are much more likely to expect an increase (35 percent compared to 29 percent in last year’s survey) than a decrease (8 percent).
Average change: +2.3 percent compared to +1.1 percent in our 2014 survey
Respondents report that, on average, 46 percent (compared to 50 percent in the 2014 survey) of the revenue from their largest 2015 event came from registration. Twenty-three percent came from exhibit sales, and 19 percent came from sponsorships and grants, the same as in our 2014 survey.
Respondents report that, on average, food-and-beverage remains their single-largest expense, accounting for 32 percent of their costs at their largest 2015 event. Respondents indicate that they’ve been asked to cut a range of expenses for their 2016 meetings: 60 percent were asked to cut food-and-beverage, followed by audiovisual (34 percent), rooms/housing (24 percent), shuttle service (22 percent), speakers/programming (14 percent), and meeting rooms (9 percent).
In 2015, respondents held an average of approximately 34 meetings (compared to 29 meetings cited in the 2014 survey) with under 50 attendees, five meetings with between 50 and 99 attendees, five meetings with between 100 and 199 attendees, and six meetings with between 200 and 250 attendees.
In 2015, respondents held an average of approximately 15 committee meetings, 12 training sessions, eight seminars, five board meetings, and 13 other types of meetings.
Respondents held an average of 11 meetings at downtown hotels, seven each at conference centers and suburban hotels, three at airport hotels, two at resorts, and four at other types of facilities.
Sixty-two percent of respondents (compared to 58 percent in the 2014 survey) report that they are booking their small meetings more than sixth months out. Eight percent are booking 0–3 months out; 30 percent are booking 4–6 months out; 38 percent are booking 7–12 months out; 22 percent are booking 1–2 years out; and 2 percent are booking more than two years out. The overall average is 10 months, compared to 9 months in the 2014 survey.
Twenty-eight percent (compared to 26 percent in the 2014 survey) report that they held more small meetings in 2015 than 2014, while 60 percent report that their small-meeting count held steady — compared to 71 percent in the 2014 survey.
Average change: +2 percent compared to +3.7 percent in our 2014 survey
Twenty-six percent (compared to 24 percent in the 2014 survey) expect to hold more small meetings this year. Eight percent (compared to 5 percent in the 2014 survey) expect to hold fewer small meetings in 2016 than 2015, and 66 percent (compared to 71 percent in the 2014 survey) expect to hold the same number of small meetings this year as last year.
Average change: +2.9 percent compared to +2.7 percent in our 2014 survey
Tools of the Trade
Site Selection When it comes to ranking tools for choosing meeting sites, site visits are rated highest by 50 percent of respondents. A slightly higher percentage of planners say that online searches are their preferred site-selection approach over one-on-one sales interactions (28 percent and 25 percent, respectively).
Booking Window Close to one-third (31 percent compared to 36 percent in the 2014 survey and 46 percent in the 2013 survey) of respondents report that they are booking their large meetings more than 3 years in advance; 27 percent, 2–3 years ahead; 32 percent, only 1–2 years out; and 10 percent, under 1 year. The average booking window is 2.3 years, the same as in our 2014 survey.
Technology Not surprisingly, the technology that respondents continue to seek most for their meetings is high-speed wireless Internet access. In terms of social media, using a scale of “1” for “most important” to “4” for “least important,” 83 percent of respondents rate Facebook either “1” or “2” when it comes to marketing their meetings and engaging attendees, down from 87 percent in the 2014 survey. Seventy-eight percent (compared to 85 percent in the 2014 survey) say Twitter is their No. 1 or No. 2 choice, while LinkedIn was chosen first or second by 48 percent (compared to 44 percent in the 2014 survey). Pinterest and Instagram were ranked first and second by only 2 percent and 6 percent of respondents, respectively.
Virtual Meetings One in five respondents (21 percent) report that their largest event included a virtual or hybrid component. Fourteen percent (compared to 21 percent in the 2014 survey and 23 percent in the 2013 survey) report that their use of virtual meeting and events increased in the past year, while 79 percent (compared to 72 percent in the 2014 survey) say it remained the same, and 7 percent (up from 6 percent in the 2014 survey) report that it decreased. On average, respondents’ use of virtual meetings and events went up only 0.2 percent.
Golf A majority of respondents (76 percent) indicate that none of their meetings included a golf event. Of those respondents who indicate that they do host meetings with a golf component, 93 percent host three or fewer such events per year.
Spa Access More than one-third of respondents (34 percent compared to 30 percent in the 2014 survey) say it is important for their attendees to have access to a spa facility during their meeting.
Changes as a Result of the Economy More than half of respondents (63 percent) say they have not made any changes to their meetings over the last year because of the economy. Sixteen percent (down from 23 percent in the 2014 survey) say they cut back on some aspects of their events because of the lingering effects of the downturn in their particular industry. Twenty-one percent (up from 20 percent in the 2014 survey and 17 percent in the 2013 survey) say they have been able to make a greater investment in their meetings because they have seen an improvement in their industry.
International Meetings and Attendees
Twenty-one percent of respondents (compared to 26 percent in the 2014 survey and 32 percent in the 2013 survey) report that more than 10 percent of the registered attendees at their largest event in 2015 were international. On average, 6.3 percent of the registered attendees at respondents’ largest event were international, down from 7.3 in the 2014 survey and 8 percent in the 2013 survey.
Twenty-three percent (compared to 18 percent in the 2014 survey and 14 percent in the 2013 survey) report that the number of international attendees at their largest 2015 meeting increased, while 68 percent report no change.
Average change: +0.2 percent vs. +1.5 percent in our 2014 survey
One-fifth of respondents (20 percent) report that one or more of their attendees faced a challenge obtaining a visa in 2015, while 57 percent (vs. 38 percent in the 2014 survey) say it was more difficult to obtain visas than in the prior year.
Sixteen percent of respondents (same as the 2014 survey) expect the number of international attendees at their largest 2016 meeting to increase, while 76 percent expect no change.
Average change: +0.2 percent compared to +1.1 percent in our 2014 survey
Future International Meetings
Fifty percent of respondents (up from 47 percent in the 2014 survey and 42 percent in the 2013 survey) report that they will be holding meetings outside the United States in the future. Of those who hold meetings in international destinations, 54 percent (compared to 44 percent in the 2014 survey) report that their attendees participate in pre- and/or post-trips abroad.
Characteristics of the Sample
Each year, meeting planners who are members of PCMA and an additional group of Convene meeting-planner subscribers receive an extensive survey, which requests proprietary information and budget projections for their organizations. After answering an initial question on their professional role, respondents follow one of three survey routes — one for association meeting professionals and executives, another for independent meeting professionals, or a third for corporate meeting professionals. While each response path has several unique questions, many questions address the same area but are worded differently to reflect the respondent’s particular role in the meetings industry.
The data that follows was compiled from more than 440 usable responses that were submitted. More than one-half (63 percent) of respondents are PCMA members. More than half (56 percent) work for an association or nonprofit organization; 20 percent work for a corporation; 12 percent are independent or self-employed; 3 percent work for association management firms; 6 percent describe their organization as educational in nature; and 2 percent are employed by the government. Respondents work for organizations that are more international (47 percent) than national (35 percent) in scope. Three-quarters of respondents (77 percent) report that less than 10 percent of their members/constituents are based outside of the United States.; Seventeen percent of association/independent meeting professionals report that their association (or largest client) has office(s) or staff located outside of the United States, compared to more than one-half (53 percent) of corporate meeting professionals whose companies have an international presence.
The departments respondents report to depend, of course, on their category and employer. With more than half of respondents working for associations, nearly one-third (31 percent) report to the meetings and events department. Thirteen percent report to the marketing department, and 28 percent of all respondents report to departments other than meetings, marketing, finance, travel, or procurement.
Seventy-five percent of respondents say that meeting planning is their primary job responsibility. Respondents are most likely to hold the position of manager (40 percent) or director (29 percent). Seven percent are vice presidents, and 5 percent are CEOs. Not surprisingly, given those titles, this year’s survey-takers are once again an experienced group, with an average of 13.6 years of work experience in the meetings field. Sixty-nine percent of respondents have at least 10 — and close to one-third (32 percent) have 20-plus — years of meeting-management experience.
Given their tenure, these additional respondent demographics naturally follow: The average age is 45, and more than half (59 percent) are college graduates (with 17 percent having earned post-grad degrees). Likewise, as industry insiders would surmise, the vast majority of respondents (90 percent) are female.
Convene’s Meetings Market Survey was prepared for PCMA by Lewis Copulsky, principal, Lewis&Clark. All material © 2016 by PCMA. Survey analysis by Convene Editor in Chief Michelle Russell.