ICCC Speech Serves as Wakeup Call to Building Managers

27 Oct

Panelist Rod Cameron (center) from Criterion Communications spoke on the closing panel of ICCC. He’s seen here with panel sponsors Steve Peters and Tammy Koolbeck from VenuWorks.

REPORTING FROM SAN DIEGO — Has the convention center industry spent too much time marketing itself as a destination business, and not enough time promoting economic development?

Rod Cameron, president of Criterion Communications, said it was this messaging that brought on the precipitous cancellations of meetings during the economic crisis that peaked in fall of 2008 and can still be felt today.

Cameron’s comments were delivered during the final session of IAAM’s International Convention Center Conference in San Diego, and Cameron told many of the center managers in attendance that unless they began to promote themselves as economic engines, they would continue to suffer under the bully pulpit of politicians and meetings industry opponents.

“As venues and an industry, it doesn’t help to be referred to as a waste of time and a waste of resources,” he said.

Following the financial crisis, many saw meetings as an excuse for “going off and having a good time and later justifying it that you were trying to do something useful,” he said.

Suspicion first popped up with pharmaceutical conferences, which began to scale back meeting and recreational spending amongst concerns that money set aside for research and scientific pursuit was being used for golf and grand parties. It didn’t help when firm AIG was revealed to have planned lavish retreats for executives after accepting billions of dollars from the Troubled Assets Relief Program, a fund that uses federal taxpayer dollars.

“If we’re perfectly honest, we have to admit that as an industry, we contributed to the whole mess as a collective,” Cameron said. “We did that by over-indulging in the use of leisure messages and leisure imagery in terms of how we market convention destinations.”

Making it worse, Cameron argued that the meetings industry has been overly obsessive with sustainability initiatives, pushing environmental efforts to the exclusion of economic efforts.

“In the midst of all of this, surveys we’ve done found that 75-80 percent of centers had developed major sustainability programs, but not more than 30 percent could identify those as prominent marketing features. It had simply became an expectation that they would be needed to function,” he said.

In many cases, clients weren’t aware of the sustainability effort, he said, and “certainly most weren’t willing to fight for it. Hardly anyone would actually pay more money for it.”

Couple that with advances in digital technology that have made it easier to conduct remote meetings, and the meeting industry increasingly finds itself on the defensive.

“We’re going to need a better and broader value statement about what meetings are all about and what convention centers deliver to the community. When our financial story starts to soften, we need something to pump it up with,” he said.

First and foremost, economic development should be measured locally, since local and regional governments are often the driving financial forces for most convention centers. Cameron said the industry should also revisit its performance measures.

“Why is the top measurement hotel room nights? People don’t attend meetings so that they can stay in hotel rooms? They have meetings to share knowledge,” he said.

Cameron said that buildings that can make the argument that their centers actually accomplish all of their economic policy objectives in the local community have a much better chance of getting the attention of stakeholders.

“We are systematically underestimated because we systematically underestimate and undervalue ourselves,” he said, later adding, “We’ve got a key role to play in recovery, and that’s an important story to tell. If we can make our respective governments understand this, they’re going to take us a lot more seriously because that is their number one concern.” — Dave Brooks

Interviewed for this story: Rod Cameron, (604) 836-2123

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