November 03, 2017

Once a year, some of the top thought leaders on the topic of international meetings and events convene in New York City to attend Successful Meetings' SMU International. This year, before the show started we gathered executives from 11 tourist boards, hotel companies, and DMCs, as well as meeting planners to participate in a roundtable to discuss challenges facing suppliers and meeting planners when it comes to promoting and branding destinations for international meetings.

We were joined by Jaime Schwarz, the creative director of gyro, a global branding and advertising agency, who listened to the group's challenges and offered advice on how to deal with them.

Here are some highlights from the discussion:

Successful Meetings: Let's start by talking about branding and destinations in general terms. What would be the most important value propositions that planners look for during the site selection process, when they're exploring where they're going to go? What are they hoping to see for a brand message?
Chris Lynn: Experience is above all. It's the No. 1 thing.

Cindy Hoddeson: I think experience is key, but the bottom line, everybody has a budget. Not necessarily cheap or inexpensive, but value is very important when it comes to making a decision.

Cheryl Faust, HelmsBriscoe

Cheryl Faust: I think the image and the activities that are offered in the destination help. If it is an association, it'll help encourage attendees to pay the expense to attend, which is the biggest challenge that associations have.

Miguel Assis: Or if we can combine the value and experience. Nowadays, the term we are hearing more from clients is the "return on event," instead of the return on investment. And for that, we need, as a destination, to be able to fulfill whatever the client's goals are for that event. You might be an amazing destination for a specific event, but not so much for the other one.

So what is the destination that better brings that return? That, I think, is more and more what we have to look at, as our industry is becoming more professional. I think that our industry was very unprofessional some years ago because it was seen as just pleasure and fun.

And now people want to know, "what do I get from it?" What do I get from going to London? What do I get from going to Portugal, or Aruba, or Hong Kong? We are positioning each destination for different events and trying to evaluate, "What is the return that people can get from it?"

James LaValle: Well, it depends on what type of return. Every client is looking for a different type of return. So you have to be quick on your feet and be able to customize your value proposition. If it is a program that needs good return on financial investment, you have to identify certain opportunities for them to leverage your destination. For example, an association comes to Asia to grow their Asian membership most of the time.

So what advantages do you offer to that type of client? For corporate groups that are coming in because Hong Kong is a world financial capital, what are our advantages? What type of expert speakers are available? What type of expert education can we bring to an accounting group that's bringing a bunch of its salespeople in?

It has to be done very much on a customized, client-by-client basis.

Q: On that client-by-client basis, what are the things that the clients are asking for now, that maybe they weren't asking for five years ago? Some of you mentioned that one of the big buzzwords now is "experiential." Is that coming from the attendees? Are they demanding richer experiences than they had been in the past?
LaValle: International destinations were always expected to provide an enriched experience, compared to domestic destinations, so there's a bit of a disconnect there. We're trying to find softer ways to bring those elements to programs because it just ends up being too hard for people. What the planners want and what the executives want on corporate programs can be very different because an executive often doesn't understand some of the budget implications.

So as a destination, if you can bring budgeting expertise and what's in the destination to the planner, while bringing the experience and the educational opportunity to the executive, you're meeting both sides of the equation.

Caroline Pidroni: And I think if you look at the experience, it's also the uniqueness. It's no longer good enough to just say, for example, Switzerland is beautiful. Why is it beautiful? What can you do that you can only do in that one particular destination?

So you open the door for them to have their meeting in an exclusive venue like the Delegates Room at the United Nations. Then that sells New York to the planner because they can say to their stakeholders: "We can actually bring our meeting into the Delegates Room at the United Nations."

Natasha Syed of Rocco Forte Hotels

Natasha Syed: We're hearing the phrase more, "money can't buy experiences." So it's not just having any experience, it's something that the attendees would not be able to do if they went to that destination on their own. That's what gets attendees engaged.

Hoddeson: Natasha just used a key word, engaged. I think engagement and interactivity is more important, whether it be for an incentive program or for a meeting. I think many years ago, on incentives, people enjoyed the destination by looking out the window of a bus. Now, it's, "Am I riding a bicycle? Can I go to the market and touch the fruit and engage with the locals?"

If it's a meeting, I think people have the attention of a flea. We're looking at more creative meeting room design, different kinds of boardrooms, different kinds of furniture, I think that that's very important. People don't want to be lectured to anymore. They want to be part of the dialogue. Suppliers have to be ready to help planners find the kinds of innovative technology that can be a tool in terms of enhancing the meeting experience.

Gabriel Haigazian: And to echo what's been said, no more of the same ol', same ol'. Our incentive planners are looking for unique. They're looking for sexy. They are definitely looking for outside-the-box in terms of activities, smaller, more hands-on experiences.

We're finding that we don't really do group activities all day anymore. We're doing smaller, more interactive events, whether it be a cooking class or driving a Ferrari. Luxury is still hugely important. Oftentimes, we will suggest destinations first by the caliber of accommodations at a certain location.

Q: Are you finding that companies or associations are starting to choose a destination that reflects their organization's values and principles?
Hoddeson: We do find that. Companies have sought out Monaco because of the Prince's emphasis on sustainability and having been a leader in the U.N. in terms of sustainable commitment.

We have also found that certain events have chosen our destination because they were launching, let's say, a deluxe product and they wanted the backdrop to match that. For example, when Regent Cruises launched their new ship, they opted to hold the launch in Monaco.

So, yes, we do see that.

Caroline Pidroni, Switzerland

Pidroni: I definitely agree. It's nice to go on a factory visit to see how a particular product is created. And it also boosts attendance because if the venue has a strong presence in the industry of the meeting attendees, then there will be more interest from potential attendees outside of the destination and more locals will come as well.

Michel Couturier: Particularly in the association market. They select a destination, not because of its beauty, but because of what they can accomplish there for maybe membership growth or to address social issues. So that is very, very important for the association.