by Lisa A. Grimaldi | November 01, 2013
When Kristin K. Mirabal, CMP, draws up the short list of places to host the 40 events her department plans annually worldwide, she considers all the typical parameters: hotels, meeting space, airlift and cost. But what can make or break the decision, she says, is another critical consideration: Can the city or region further the strategic goals of The Optical Society, her Washington, D.C.-based employer?

Mirabal is among a growing group of meeting professionals who see a distinct advantage to choosing locales that have some connection to their business -- either in industries, institutions (such as hospitals) or knowledge centers (e.g., universities) -- that can enhance the meeting and give attendees a better experience.

 While there is no official name for this approach to site selection -- strategic destination analysis, strategic business intelligence and mission-based site analysis are some of the terms used by sources for this article -- it is a trend that is picking up steam. Mirabal conducted a brief campfire session on the concept during the IMEX Frankfurt trade show in Germany this past May; it received so much interest that she was asked to organize a panel on the subject for the Professional Convention Management Association's Convening Leaders meeting, set for January 2014 in Boston.

Following, M&C looks at how planners and, increasingly, destinations, are using strategic destination analysis to guide site selection and help companies and associations better achieve their event goals.

Strategic planning in action
Mirabal and the planning team at The Optical Society began using strategic business analysis, as she calls it, eight years ago, at the same time the 18,000-member association, which includes physicists, engineers and academics in the biomedical, communications, optical fiber and optical laser fields, became more strategic overall in conducting its operations. For meetings, that can mean gathering in a city or country where use of optics is growing, where cutting-edge research is under way or where technological breakthroughs are transforming the industry.

For example, Mirabal's team selected Mumbai for a workshop taking place this month, because India is a huge user of optics in manufacturing. The meeting, which will be co-located with a larger trade show, also affords members the opportunity to visit factories and see technology in use (India is the capital of diamond cutting and a leader in the use of laser-cutting tools), as well as share knowledge with local counterparts.

Strategic business analysis also led the group to Munich, Germany, a city that has one of most innovative global auto industries (an optics-rich business). The association meets in the Bavarian capital semiannually to take advantage of ready access to car-manufacturing plants (BMW, Mercedes and Porsche are all headquartered in the region), as well as to tap auto executives as speakers.

Of course, the investigative process sometimes reveals that an intriguing destination is not a good fit for the business mission, as Mirabal recently found during a visit to a country with a small but growing optics-manufacturing base. "I met with their ministry of science and technology to see if the native industry was mature enough to bring events there," she says. "We found that while the country had a good infrastructure for events, it was not yet a hotbed of activity in the field." The association has put off holding events there for the time being.

While The Optical Society was an early adopter of strategic destination analysis, other groups and associations have recently moved to this model. For example, Greg Talley, president and CEO of the Talley Management Group, a Mt. Royal, N.J.-based association management and event planning firm, notes that "now we are talking about creating an enhanced value of an event, beyond beds and heads."

One of Talley's clients, a literacy group, currently is deciding between three cities to host its 2015 annual convention. "We told our sources -- suppliers and destination management organizations -- in those cities that the mission of the organization is to improve literacy, and two of the destinations got it; they made the extra effort to get their local government and mayors involved," he says. One mayor wanted to tie the convention to a local yearlong effort around reading, and both cities worked to introduce the group to their connections in the community that could support the event. At press time, a final decision had not yet been made.

The strategic trend is not limited to U.S.-based organizations. As Philippe Fournier, president of planning firm MCI France and president of the Brussels, Belgium-based Joint Meetings Industry Council, notes, "European associations and corporations are now choosing their destination according to such principles."

Fournier adds, "Of course, easy access, enough hotel rooms and correct meeting space are vital, but most destinations have that. Groups now ask, 'Will the destination help increase my business, develop our brand, enhance our core values and give meaning to the participants attending my event?'?"