by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | August 01, 2017

Total direct meeting spend in the U.S. climbed from $263 billion in 2009 to $290 billion in 2012, a 6.5 percent increase, according to the most recent survey conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers for the Convention Industry Council. If that same percentage increase held in the subsequent four years, meeting spend in 2016 likely topped $300 billion. But what has been the return on that significant investment? ROI is a much more elusive statistic.

According to event professionals polled in the 2016 Global Meetings & Event Forecast from American Express Meetings & Events, only 14 percent include ROI metrics in their meeting policies. At the same time, respondents across all regions predicted increases in their overall program budgets, and in larger increments than they predicted five years earlier.

At the root of the problem, says Issa Jouaneh, senior vice president and general manager, American Express Meetings & Events, "there still does not appear to be one consistent way meetings are measured." A number of industry entities are determined to change that.

Asking hard questions
Four years ago, frustrated with the industry's ho-hum attempts to determine even a baseline ROI, Kent Cisewski, a former executive with the Walt Disney Co. and with long spins at two large meeting and incentive firms, decided to strike out on his own. He founded the Fusion Performance Group, an Orlando-based third-party whose tagline reads, "What's Your ROI?"

Meetings-industry veteran Kent Cisewski
started the Fusion Performance Group
to help quantify return on investment
for meetings and events.

"When you consider that meeting spend, and that includes incentives, is the second to fifth largest spend in corporations, you would think people would know what their return on investment is for a meeting and be able to tell you," says Cisewski. "But the industry isn't there yet, and that's a concern."

In an attempt to resolve that longstanding problem, Cisewski set about to make benchmarking ROI the centerpiece of his client sell. The company created a proprietary metrics program that analyzes and drills down into a client's data to see if their meetings spend is driving revenue, and then identifies and recommends additional opportunities for increasing their profit margin, such as tiered incentives that all employees can aspire to achieve.

"At the senior level, we have found that management wants to know their data. They are not afraid of it," says Tanya Perry, vice president of sales for Fusion. "But the reality is, to do a thorough ROI analysis, there is a cost to collecting the data in terms of stakeholders and man hours. And, quite frankly, it is scary for big corporations with regard to privacy and confidentiality. But that is where consultancy is critical. You have to align with the client, because you are both in it together."

For Kent Campbell, a C-suite life-insurance distribution consultant with one of the country's top five insurance providers -- and a Fusion client -- the laissez faire approach to ROI can be easily explained. "The short answer is, management doesn't really care if there is ROI, because heavy-investment meetings have always been about entitlement and expectation," he says.

Campbell, along with a select few senior executives from the insurance, financial and medical industries, attended Fusion's inaugural Thought Leadership Summit in Costa Rica last October, where tackling ROI was the main topic. "The average chief financial officer is not going to say, 'Let's implement a change in the way we approach our meetings or events,' especially if they are consistently hitting their revenue numbers," notes Campbell, who acknowledges that his own company's approach to achieving meeting ROI was off-kilter. "We weren't generating any new profit margins, and we weren't pushing the revenue needle. We were just rewarding the same group of high achievers year after year."

Fusion helped light a fire under the rest of the company's performers. "You have to move what I call the 'middle 60 percent' of employees," says Kent Cisewski. "In all my years in the business, I have yet to hear anyone else tell me they're focusing on that group. But that's where you will get the biggest lift, because it will create a new leverage point. I tell clients that if you can engage this group and get them to move by just 5 percent, you can really start shaking things up.  But it could take you up to two years to see the actual impact of this, so ROI isn't necessarily an immediate-gratification thing."