Top Takeaways From 3 Key Industry Events

This industry never takes a break and neither do we. Here's a look at three major industry meetings.

Convene was on site to cover the Destination Management Association International’s (DMAI) Annual Convention, in Orlando; Meeting Professionals International’s (MPI) World Education Congress (WEC), in Las Vegas; and the Exhibit & Event Marketers Association’s (E2MA) Red Diamond Congress, in Chicago. Here’s our rundown of each:

DMAI 2013: ‘BETTER TOGETHER’ The Peabody Orlando, July 15–17

Convene sponsored futurist and social innovator Rachel Botsman’s opening general session keynote at the 99th DMAI Annual Convention.
 PCMA sponsored general-session speaker Rachel Botsman at DMAI 2013

In the center of the table were markers, pipe cleaners, old magazines, poster board, scissors, and tape. Using these supplies, eight CVB representatives had to create an advertisement for a fantasy destination — with a pre-assigned name — as part of the new-member orientation at DMAI’s 99th Annual Convention. My group was tasked with marketing a destination with the unfortunate moniker “Nose Clip Earplug Province.”

Understandably, some members of the group were initially discouraged. “You can’t smell or hear anything at our destination?” one person asked. But this was quickly countered with: “Or, it could be that we have a lot of water, and everyone’s a synchronized swimmer.” From there, ideas flowed (much like the many waterways of Nose Clip Earplug Province), and soon our poster board was covered in blue pipe-cleaner waves and images of swimmers, suns, and happy beachgoers. Despite a seemingly impossible destination to promote, our team ended up winning the challenge. This collaboration was the first of many real-life examples I witnessed exemplifying the conference’s theme: “Better Together: Integrating Our Strengths.”

That message was carried throughout the convention. From inspiring opening keynoter Rachel Botsman — futurist, social innovator, and author of What’s Mine Is Yours: How Collaborative Consumption Is Changing the Way We Live — to more than 40 hands-on education sessions, the notion of fellow industry professionals partnering together was not only encouraged, it was shown to be mandatory if the DMO community is to remain relevant.

Collaboration is crucial for surviving in today’s business world, Botsman told a packed ballroom on Monday afternoon, in a presentation sponsored by Convene. She described how technology is making the world a smaller place by bridging geographical divides, and how it’s imperative to work with — not against — the masses, in order to get ahead. In the current collaborative climate, there are some key elements necessary to succeed, according to Botsman: crowd power, social design, real-time access, and peer trust. She emphasized the importance of providing — through mobile, social, and local technology — a simpler, more personalized, human experience for audiences.

During Tuesday’s general session, “Destination Marketing for the Next 100 Years,” straight talk from a panel of North American CVB leaders reflected many of Botsman’s ideas. The DMO executives outlined ideologies that are vital to adopt or avoid in a rapidly changing environment. “It’s important to focus on the things that lift us,” said Stephanie Brown, executive director of the Asheville (N.C.) Convention & Visitors Bureau, adding that it’s a good idea to weed out people who are dragging down your team, time, or resources.

The room rumbled with applause when Tom Norwalk, president and CEO of Visit Seattle, said that it was time to “stop complaining and whining about funding.” He added: “All of us are charged with finding a way to get the job done. Stop chasing services that may not matter.” In a world bombarded by new technologies and business opportunities daily, it’s important to remember the core goals of a project or event, and not dwell on the bells and whistles. “Stop trying to be everything to everyone,” VISIT FLORIDA President and CEO Will Seccombe said.

Later during the session, something Brown said stuck with me: “We’re connecting visitors to businesses, but now we need to start connecting them to experiences.” She stressed the idea of CVBs becoming less like the “white pages” and more like “storytellers.”

“The challenge is to integrate all of these things,” she said of the ideas discussed at the session, “to unlock these stories.”

While I was wandering the trade-show floor after the general session that same day, I was introduced to Oscar Morales, marketing manager for the Guadalajara CVB. As we discussed the panel session, he said to me: “Planners think, ‘What do I need a DMO for? It’s just brochures and things.’ But it’s much more than that.”

For example, DMOs can be advocates for stronger infrastructure in their cities, which was explored during the education session “Setting the Agenda: Destination Development in Transportation.” DMOs also work with planners and hoteliers to mitigate risk when it comes to unused room blocks, as discussed during the session “How Many Rooms Does This Convention Really Use?”

And DMOs must, as Brown pointed out, act as storytellers. This strategy was driven home during the final-day session “Telling the Story Through Personalized Content,” which covered how DMOs can employ everything from social-media tools to multimedia journalism to market their destinations. After three days at DMAI, it was clear that the sphere of their influence goes way beyond brochures.

– Sarah Beauchamp

MPI 2013: ‘WE CHANGE THE WORLD’ Mandalay Bay Convention Center, Las Vegas, July 20–23

“When we meet, we change the world,” MPI general-session emcee Marvelless Mark — nicknamed “Corporate America’s Business Rock Star” — announced to 2,000-plus attendees at this year’s World Education Congress. And changing the world in big and small ways was the theme at the annual gathering of MPI members from around the globe.

Inspiring change was certainly the focus of opening general-session speaker Candy Chang, whose quiet yet powerful presence brought the ballroom to a hush as she told the audience: “It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day and forget what really matters to you.” Chang is a TED senior fellow as well as an urban-space artist and designer. Her project “Before I Die” started in 2011 on an abandoned house in her New Orleans neighborhood. She painted one side with chalkboard paint and stenciled the repeating phrase “Before I die I want to …,” with a blank line for people to write in their own words. The board soon filled with her neighbors’ aspirations in life — from “Swim without holding my nose” to “Own a house” to “See equality.”

After an overwhelming response, Chang created a kit for people who want to put up their own neighborhood walls. To date, more than 250 walls have gone up in 50-plus countries. WEC attendees got a chance to fill in their own version of a “Before I Die” wall set up in the Knowledge Hub — where participants could join small “campfire sessions” and find resources to strengthen their careers — and ended up scrawling more than 200 phrases, such as “Be happy with myself” and “Mentor thousands.”

Jeffer London leads a session on MEGA Conversations at MPI’s World Education Congress. Photo courtesy of Orange Photography.

Education sessions at WEC were likewise designed to inspire change in the way participants approach their work. A large portion of the program was billed as interactive to encourage attendees to be more than just passive listeners. Participants split into small groups during management consultant Jeffer London’s session, “Mega Conversation Experience: Understanding How Dialogue-Based Events Boost Engagement,” helping each other through a series of exercises to get to an “essential question” – the heart of each group member’s own meeting and attendees’ needs. Meeting U technology expert James Spellos led a conversation among a packed room of conference-goers on the apps they use every day that make their professional lives easier – generating a list of more than 65.

WEC also provided attendees with two different CSR opportunities. On Saturday, participants worked with a local chapter of Clean the World, assembling hygiene kits for members of the local Las Vegas community. And on the last day of WEC, all attendees were invited to take part in Helping Hands: Connecting Heads, Hands, and Hearts, for which they were divided into teams to assemble prosthetic hands for amputees or victims of landmines in one of 65 countries. In all, more than 250 hands were built and placed in bags decorated by the teams – each person working one-handed, both to ensure teamwork and to give participants the experience of having only one hand to work with.

Alexis M. Herman, former director of the United States Women’s Bureau and the country’s first African-American labor secretary, gave the closing general-session address. Herman fit the WEC framework for inspiring change: She worked to amend Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prohibit sex discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, and resolved a Teamsters strike against UPS in 1997. Speaking about her work and the power of meeting face-to-face, Herman said: “You have to constantly educate people and communicate to them your point of view. The world changes, and so communication is critical if you wish to embed an idea.”

– Katie Kervin

RDC 2013: ‘WE’LL BE A BETTER INDUSTRY OVERALL’ McCormick Place, Chicago, July 30-Aug. 1

If David Audrain, president and CEO of Clarion Events North America, had his way, one industry term and practice would be scrubbed from the exhibit world. “If we could eliminate ‘drayage’ from our conversations and encourage colleagues to do the same,” Audrain told an audience of 200 corporate show organizers, contractors, marketers, and exhibitors during a session at E2MAs second annual Red Diamond Congress (RDC), “we’ll be a better industry overall.”

E2MA was formed last year when the Trade Show Exhibitors Association merged with the Exhibitor Appointed Contractors Association (EACA), and this year’s RDC offered an expanded program from 2012’s inaugural event. More than 50 educational sessions, panel discussions, case studies, and keynotes helped participants understand how to harness emerging possibilities in today’s technology-driven world. From using social media to capitalize on attendee evangelism to leveraging big data to attract new sponsorships, the three-day program showcased how some shows are leading the charge toward a more successful exhibit hall.

At Audrain’s featured presentation on Tuesday, participants dove headfirst into the sensitive topic of how the cost of transporting goods to booths has created serious problems for trade-show pricing. Using a case study, Audrain offered a glimpse at a progressive bulk-buying model – replacing the traditional nickel-and-dime approach – one price tag that truly represents all of the expenses associated with exhibiting. At first glance, he said, the costs may look higher, but putting an end to cost-shifting strategies ultimately will pay off for the entire industry. It’s an approach that could eventually inspire the industry to move from selling space to selling a true partnership.

“In an ideal world, you might look at a trade show like a mall,” Audrain said. “Malls charge rent for space plus a percentage of the [store’s] revenue. Instead of paying a venue a fixed rate, the venue might get a percentage of the show revenue.”

While this may not be the answer for every trade show, E2MA Executive Director Jim Wurm said that the organization is aiming to help its members understand that there are new models that can help exhibitors manage their budgets more effectively. “David recognizes that the escalating costs of material handling have a negative impact on any show,” Wurm said. “The exhibitor is forced to bring something smaller and lighter to the show, and smaller and lighter are the kind of terms that drag down the show with fewer products for attendees to see. Some aren’t willing to say this, but everybody knows it’s true: The weight-based model of bringing exhibit freight on to the show floor does not have a sustainable future.”

Regardless of what exhibitors will pay to participate in tomorrow’s trade shows, RDC participants returned home with new strategies for ensuring that their spend delivers better ROI. “We’re focused on how to generate more ideas that can help build business,” Wurm said. “As trade shows continue to evolve, these discussions are designed to help everyone involved in exhibits win.”

– David McMillan

Sarah Beauchamp

Sarah Beauchamp was formerly assistant editor of Convene.