by Agatha Gilmore | January 26, 2014
As we collectively embark on this exciting New Year, with fresh resolutions and fresh hope, we find ourselves looking ahead and eagerly anticipating what the future holds. While there’s no crystal ball for meetings in 2014, there are certainly some emerging trends that will continue to shape the industry. Here’s a look at four of these developments, and advice for planners on how they can not only meet, but beat expectations in the year ahead.
1. Meetings Are Experiences

If there’s one thing that all the experts agree on, it’s that meetings today aren’t just face-to-face gatherings for the sole purpose of exchanging business information. Rather, they’re enriching, one-of-a-kind experiences that attendees will treasure forever.

“It’s less about, ‘I’m going to a conference,’ and more about, ‘I’m going to have an experience,’” says Carol McGury, senior vice president of event and education services for SmithBucklin in Chicago.

“There’s a lot of ‘been there, done that,’” adds Chris Lee, president and CEO of Access Destination Services, a Chicago-based destination management company. “What could [attendees] not do on their own?”

Planners are increasingly creating these distinctive experiences in a variety of ways, oftentimes simply by choosing unique or unexpected venues that offer “bragging rights,” according to Emma de Vadder, regional director of North America for VisitEngland. In fact, in a report titled “Trends and Developments: VisitEngland Reveals What Will Shape Our Meetings and Incentives Industry in 2014,” the tourism board discloses that unusual venues in England have seen increased use for corporate events, including religious buildings such as St. Mary’s Church in Nottingham or medieval-era Sheffield Cathedral, and historic houses such as Carlton Towers in Yorkshire or Leeds Castle in Kent.

Another way planners are creating distinctive experiences for attendees is by incorporating outdoor elements into the meeting, whether it’s “team-building outside, venues that offer access, or just building into programs time outside, being in nature,” de Vadder says. The VisitEngland report asserts that in 2013, corporate groups could be found “brainstorming alongside a troop of baboons at the Monkey Playhouse in Yorkshire Wildlife Park, [in] tipis on Brighton Beach, and [outside in] Bear Grylls’ new survival academy.”

Lee says another way to create memorable experiences is by engaging all five senses in what he calls “multi-sensory events.” For example, for past programs, Access Destination Services has temporarily implemented scented wallpaper, linens, and tablecloths that reflect the theme of the meeting or booth — such as “tropical” or “rustic, Old World leather,” according to Lee — as well as a matching temperature adjustment (i.e., warmer for the tropical scent, cooler for the cozy leather).

Meals are also part of the attendee experience, and in the year ahead, food and beverage offerings will be increasingly tailored either to reflect the event theme or to serve as special events in and of themselves. Andrea E. Sullivan, founder and president of learning and performance organizations BrainStrength Systems and LeaderStrength Systems, Inc., says there’s “much more thought” being put into meals today “to create an experience or create a memory. Meals are special events and provide particular experiences. I think we’re seeing the quality now is really overriding quantity.”

Even the sponsorship of an event will tie in to the overall attendee experience in 2014, notes Brian Langerman, executive director of InSight, the largest independent user community of McKesson healthcare technology, and director of SmithBucklin’s Technology Industry Practice.

“In the past it was: How many banners could you hang up, how many signs could you put up to slap a company logo on?” Langerman says. “Now the exhibitors and partners are getting much more savvy, and we work with them on an integrated strategy. It’s about linking the user experience to them year-round.”

Ultimately, says Meg Proskey, Maritz Travel’s division vice president of air, registration, and technology, planners want to “deliver an experience that is not only there [at the event], but also makes attendees want to attend it again in the future.”

2. Attendees Want a Sense of Place

Another shift is the growing popularity of incorporating local elements into the meeting or event — giving attendees a taste of the locale they’re in. Gone are the days of business professionals being holed up in a large convention hall in a nameless, faceless city. Attendees today want and expect to experience the culture of their meeting destination.

One easy way to bring the locale to them is by offering attendees samples of the regional cuisine — and they’re hungry to try it, according to a recent survey by VisitEngland, which found that 76 percent of respondents want to dine at restaurants serving local dishes.

“People are asking for local produce, for farm to table,” Lee says.

Sullivan points out that regional cuisines are often not hard to incorporate into events because most chefs and catering companies today are looking to buy local ingredients anyway. And when it comes to beverages, there are new local craft breweries and wineries popping up all over the world that attendees will no doubt want to try. “In San Diego, where I live, there are literally dozens of craft beers coming out,” Lee says. “So at an event, we’re offering to attendees 10 to 25 craft beers on tap that people can’t get back home.”

According to IMEX, another popular way for attendees to experience a destination is to engage in local volunteerism, which can be included as part of the meetings program and also plays in to the growing interest in and importance of sustainability. “Where once the international nature of the meetings industry meant thousands of opportunities to ‘do good and give back’ in far flung corners of the world, the trend now is to reach out to help those right on your doorstep,” notes a statement by IMEX.

3. It’s a Seller’s Market

According to Martiz, “while clients still expect hotels and venues to hold space for a long time without a firm commitment, ... the reality is they are facing a lack of availability and price pressures.”

McGury explains the shift by pointing to the trend of higher hotel occupancy. “Hotels will be in a stronger position to negotiate,” she says. “Planners will have to start thinking differently in terms of location, price. [And] because there’s higher occupancy, there’s a need to move faster in terms of contracting. It trickles down to whoever the decision makers are. People need to be more nimble and move faster to get these contracts in place.”

Proskey adds that if clients do commit to booking further in advance, hotels are more likely to negotiate with them regarding deposits and cancelation penalties.

4. Mobile Technology is Here to Stay

Having an event website, app, and social media presence used to be nice-to-haves. Today, they’re table stakes.

“Now it’s: How are you engaging the attendee before, during, and after the event?” McGury says.

Mobile technology allows event organizers not only to push information out to attendees, but also to listen to attendees to help them craft their programs on the front end, as well as make adjustments during the event to provide more value.

“It’s one of those things you can really engage your attendees on,” Proskey says, adding that the digital strategy should be conceived well in advance of the roll out. “It’s not just something you can throw in at the last minute. It really does have to have a clear, concise plan leading up to the event,” she says.

Some event organizers may take this data to the next level, adding special geo-locating features to their apps to really tailor the experience to the individual, according to Maritz Travel. Attendees can use the technology as a sort of virtual guide through the event. It highlights booths and information that the attendee might find interesting, based on previous behavior, while locating other nearby attendees for networking opportunities, and way-finding throughout the venue, according to Martiz Travel.

Further, social media has officially arrived as an events component. According to IMEX, in 2014, “social media starts to receive its own budget, and begins to play a meaningful and measurable part in marketing and communications strategies across the meetings and events industry.”

Further, access to reliable, universal Wi-Fi will be increasingly expected going forward. “Wi-Fi is no longer an option, but a business necessity,” says Nick Balletta, CEO of TalkPoint, a New York City-based webcasting company. “More cities will be offering free public Wi-Fi to compete with those already doing so.”