The U.S. Travel Association recently released a study by Oxford Economics USA demonstrating the actual economic impact of meetings and business travel. The numbers showed that for every dollar invested in business travel, companies increased their revenue by an average of $12.50 and profit rose by $3.80. Coming up with such concrete data was one of the main goals of the coalition that was formed in January to fight media perceptions of meetings and business travel. Among the group's members are the American Hotel and Lodging Association, ASAE & The Center for Association Leadership, Destination Marketing Association International, the International Association of Exhibitions and Events, Meeting Professionals International, the National Business Travel Association, the Professional Convention Management Association, Site and the U.S. Travel Association. The ongoing work of the coalition can be found at Meetings Mean Business (meetingsmeanbusiness.com).
M&C asked Geoff Freeman, senior vice president of the USTA, what's next for the coalition and the industry.
Now that the Oxford study is out, how is the data being used?
We're using every channel we have to communicate the results, through our membership, working with our members to reach their clients, and working with associations like Meeting Professionals International and the Professional Convention Management Association to reach their members.
This is the first data the industry has had on the bottom-line value of meetings, events and incentives. There are a lot of ears that have not heard this information before. But it's important to stress that the study is not a panacea. It should have been done long ago and should continue to be done.
The real lesson of this year is that travel is seen as something that is all right in good times but unnecessary in bad times. That is the one perception we must change. We must accept and embrace that we have a long-term challenge. We must change the way our product is perceived.
Does the USTA have plans to repeat the study next year?
We need to be far more creative. What this comes down to is looking at how meetings, events and incentives are perceived by our main audience: policy makers, business leaders and individual travelers. What is it that would make them value this? I would suggest that much more research needs to be done in areas such as what influence incentives, especially non-cash vs. cash rewards, have on the bottom line. As for trade shows, we need to show how an employee comes back from a convention as a much better asset to the company.
We have all experienced times when we didn't want to go somewhere. There are many times we will avoid a trip because of the hassle factor. How do you help to convince the individual that the travel will advance them in their organization? With policy makers, we have a lot of work to do to paint the picture that they are not only dependent on these meetings, events and incentives in their own communities, but that they can use them to achieve their own goals.
How well do people seem to be getting the message that meetings are important not just to the businesses that hold them, but also to the destinations where they are held?
That message has been delivered effectively because the industry came alive in a way that many of us never saw before. Many people felt their livelihood was under attack and that the criticism was unjust. That made them politically active. CEOs became more active than they ever have been before, taking off the gloves. That continues: Because of what's happened this year, tonight (Oct. 21) we have three prominent industry CEOs in the industry having dinner with Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner, and seven or eight more will meet with him tomorrow.
We need to be able to mobilize the grassroots that forced the policy makers to listen to this industry. That's been one of our weaknesses over the years.
We need to continue to show that it's OK to engage in these meetings and incentives. The meetings tomorrow with Secretary Geithner would not take place without our effort; earning the ear of these policy makers is not easy. It's something that you earn.
What's the next message the industry needs to convey?
Looking ahead, the first thing you have to do is dissect the problem. Washington didn't create the problem, it responded to [stories about meetings excesses] that were in the media. So why is the media lighting this? Why are the stories so sensational?
The media is not writing things that their customers are uninterested in buying. What you see pretty quickly is that these stories tap into something with the general public. The media was tapping into a conflict in the American public about the perception of these activities. That's the core of the problem.
Now we can focus in on ensuring this doesn't happen again -- figure out where business travel is on the spectrum of what's right, what's necessary and what is a core function of a business vs. activities that are unnecessary in troubled times.
The powers that be, the court of public opinion, have determined that meetings, incentives and events are frivolous, they're unnecessary. We must move the perception of our product on that spectrum up from frivolous to necessary. Everything we do has to be done with an eye to developing the credibility of our product. That is 100 percent of our focus.
How is Meetings Mean Business planning to stay on message to be ready in five or 10 years when the next hit to the industry comes along?
I would argue that it doesn't take five to 10 years; this time it happened in five months. First meetings took a hit, then there was swine flu.
If you look at it, our underlying problem continues to rear its ugly head, but in a different way. It's meetings, it's swine flu, it's a dilapidated air-travel system that people in Washington have very little interest in fixing.
Meetings might not come under attack for another six or so years, but it's more likely that the overall travel industry will get another attack in five minutes. You can see this happening with climate change: Unless we come out in the front of this issue, you will see things like you see in Europe, where there are massive new taxes in place to discourage business travel. You will see people pushing alternatives to face-to-face meetings. The pace of these threats to the industry is only quickening, and the need for us to firmly establish the critical value of meetings, incentives and events is moving just as fast.
This is a race to see who can establish the value more quickly, if we can establish the worth of meetings before others establish the worth of not having them.
This isn't entirely unique to meetings, incentives and events; this is a problem the travel industry has in all areas, both business and leisure. Our product is based on an intuition -- that it's a good thing to travel. But intuition is a pretty weak place to rest your business. As an industry, we need to shift from intuition to hard evidence.
Twenty CEOs from the travel industry met with Secretary Geithner, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and members of congress last week.
The meetings centered on international inbound travel to the United States; the value of meetings, events and incentives; and how the travel industry can partner with the government concerning the H1N1 flu, to be a resource before and during the crisis. They spoke with Secretary Napolitano in particular about entry issues, as she wants to help remove barriers to entry into the U.S. while balancing the nation's security.
"All of the meetings were very positive," said a USTA spokesperson. "Everyone was appreciative of the CEOs' time." In particular, she says, Secretary Geithner understood the importance and value of meetings and was supportive of the travel industry's position. He also agreed with the executives that meetings, events and incentives should not be lumped in with executive compensation in the public discourse.
The 20 CEOs were Bill Glenn, president, Global Merchant Services, American Express; Hubert Joly, president and CEO, Carlson; Howard Frank, vice chairman and COO, Carnival Corp.; Steve Joyce, president and CEO, Choice Hotels International; Dara Khosrowshahi, president and CEO, Expedia; Colin Reed, Chairman and CEO, Gaylord Entertainment; Mark Frissora, chairman and CEO, Hertz Global Holdings; Chris Nassetta, president and CEO, Hilton Worldwide; Jim Abrahamson, president, The Americas, IHG InterContinental Hotels Group; Jonathan Tisch, chairman and CEO, Loews Hotels; Steve Maritz, chairman and CEO, Maritz Holdings; Jim Murren, chairman and CEO, MGM MIRAGE; Greg Stubblefield, president, National Car Rental and Alamo Rent A Car; Barney Harford, president and CEO, Orbitz Worldwide; Jeffery Boyd, president and CEO, Priceline.com; Simon Cooper, president, Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co.; Ken Siegel, chairman, Starwood International Licensing Co.; Hugh Jones, president and CEO, Travelocity; Jeff Clarke, president and CEO, Travelport; and John Sprouls, CEO, Universal Orlando.