Roger Dow Weighs in on the Past, Present, and Future of Meetings

In his 10th year as president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, Dow looks at where we've been, where we are, and where we're going

Roger Dow podium

In his more than 25 years in the travel and hospitality industry, Roger Dow has seen it all. From the high of reaching over 70 million international visitors to the low of the "Muffin Gate" scandal, he's successfully navigated the waters of a shifting marketplace. And now, on the eve of his 10-year anniversary as head of the U.S. Travel Association, we thought it fitting to check in with the industry veteran to pick his brain on the past, present, and future of business travel and meetings. Dow identified three key areas in particular -- international travel, business travel, and technology -- that have transformed over the years, and offered his thoughts on where things are headed. Here's what he had to say.


1. INTERNATIONAL TRAVEL
PAST:  "If you go back 25 years, the U.S. was the darling of the international travel community," Dow says. "We had a 10 percent market share when it came to global travelers. When you looked at our infrastructure, the U.S. had the No. 1 airline system in the world. Other countries were starting to step out and develop -- the Middle East airports were starting to get built -- but still, our whole system that built America was seen, with no question, as No. 1. We were really the big boy or girl on the block when it came to international travel."
Nor did U.S. meeting facilities face substantial competition. "We also had the world-class convention centers. When you looked around at places like San Diego, Orlando, Miami, New Orleans, Chicago, New York, Washington -- we had these great centers. And except for some places in Germany, there weren't big convention centers [around the world]."

PRESENT: "In the mid-1990s, the rest of the world started chasing this international visitor," Dow says. "[The global community] started promoting like crazy: 'Come to my country!' They started building airports, they started thinking about convention centers. So in the first decade of 2000, we were down to about 6 percent international market share. We'd lost 37 percent of our share. Global travel was growing, but we were asleep as a country. The rest of the world was discovering and going aggressively after international travel."

First, the infrastructure was failing. "Our airport system went from 'No. 1 in the world,' to 'we don't have one airport today that's rated . . . in the top 25,'" Dow says. "Our airports are seen as Third World. [And] now airlines are consolidating; if you want to go to a meeting tomorrow, 10 or 15 years ago, you just called the airlines and you got your seat. Today, if you want to go somewhere tomorrow, they say, 'You can take this flight or none at all.' The capacity is so tight. If I look at Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Memphis, Palm Springs -- those cities have lost a lot of domestic lift. We've lost a huge competitive advantage. Everybody else is leapfrogging ahead.

"When it comes to convention centers, the world said, 'Hey, there's big business in these trade shows.' All of a sudden you saw the Dubais, the Shanghais, the Beijings, the Singapores all starting to build world-class convention centers and really going after the international market. I [heard] from many conventioneers that their international attendance for the past 10 years was down some 25 to 30 percent combined with competition, difficult infrastructure, and the challenge of getting into the U.S. or getting your visa to come to these trade shows. So the game has changed significantly because the rest of the world has started building more facilities, more airports, and aggressively gone after that business that we virtually owned 25 years ago."

FUTURE: "Congress has to get serious and stop kicking the can down the road. We need to find all sorts of funding mechanisms to really begin growing back our infrastructure, our road system, our airports," Dow says. "What do JFK, Dulles, Miami, Atlanta, L.A., Chicago look like today? Then think of adding 30 million more passengers on top of that. What will happen is people won't be able to get in, and they'll go elsewhere. We're right now at a crisis mode if we look forward. We've got to have the combination of rail, roads, buses, and air all working together. If you had a seamless transportation system, you would take a tremendous amount of people away from the airports, so that they could serve longer-haul flights. The challenge is finding the funding. What we keep saying is, the longer we wait, the more expensive it gets. [That's because] we really have to look at not just the cost on the meetings industry, but the cost to our economy when people aren't coming to trade shows and buying international products. It's a big deal right now. We're pushing very hard."2. BUSINESS TRAVEL
PAST: "Twenty-five years ago, business travel occupied a much larger percentage of travelers," Dow says.

PRESENT: "What you have coming at the travel industry is tremendous pressure on business travel from consolidation of companies, from budgets being cut [downsizing the number of people being sent to meetings], mergers, pressures on government. We've seen a few characters misbehave at meetings and they're all over the news, and the government quickly knee-jerks and pulls back. So we've seen a pullback in percentage of travel being [for] business."

FUTURE: "We have to defend business and meeting travel," Dow says. "We have to justify what the importance of business meetings are. Meetings are adult education. We've got to get companies to realize the intrinsic value in a meeting. We've got to get people to understand that that meeting is a vital part of business if we're going to grow it a bit. We're in 'maintain and defend' mode with some small percentage growth."


3. TECHNOLOGY
PAST: "[Technology] has caused a lot of price transparency," Dow says. "Twenty-five years ago, someone would say, 'I don't understand why I'm paying $10 more in this large block in this hotel, when one of my colleagues called the reservation center and got a room $5 cheaper.' Right now, everyone attending the convention knows that. People in a nanosecond [can visit] Kayak.com or Hotels.com to instantly know the price of a room anywhere. It's up to the hotels to be much more intelligent on their value proposition in explaining what people are getting for the dollar. It's made things quite competitive: You're into a value game now."

PRESENT: Dow sees technology as a valuable tool for rapidly responding to attendee needs. "What technology does from the meetings standpoint is, I think, grow the audience," he says. "You can expand your general session [online] and get other people engaged; you can pump out results. I mean, we run board meetings where we'll poll the board at 5:00 p.m. during a two-day meeting and change our agenda the next morning at 8:00 a.m. based on what people told us they wanted more of or what they didn't understand. Technology, if used right, can greatly enhance this business."

FUTURE: Because meeting-goers now have access to so much information at their fingertips, technology has also required planners to constantly assess and update their events, Dow adds. "My biggest concern is too many organizations are just dusting off the program they had before and calling it next year's program," he says. "What has to happen is you've got to look at the demographics of who is coming to your events. Is your content, your pacing, your amount of A/V, and how you deliver materials a fit for everybody? Are you evolving as your attendees evolve? You've got to do that. I would say, 'If someone bought your trade show, what would they do? How would they do it differently?' And you ought to do that to yourself before someone does that to you with a competing show."

Questions or comments? Email [email protected]

This article appears in the October 2014 issue of Successful Meetings.2. BUSINESS TRAVEL
PAST: "Twenty-five years ago, business travel occupied a much larger percentage of travelers," Dow says.

PRESENT: "What you have coming at the travel industry is tremendous pressure on business travel from consolidation of companies, from budgets being cut [downsizing the number of people being sent to meetings], mergers, pressures on government. We've seen a few characters misbehave at meetings and they're all over the news, and the government quickly knee-jerks and pulls back. So we've seen a pullback in percentage of travel being [for] business."

FUTURE: "We have to defend business and meeting travel," Dow says. "We have to justify what the importance of business meetings are. Meetings are adult education. We've got to get companies to realize the intrinsic value in a meeting. We've got to get people to understand that that meeting is a vital part of business if we're going to grow it a bit. We're in 'maintain and defend' mode with some small percentage growth."


3. TECHNOLOGY
PAST: "[Technology] has caused a lot of price transparency," Dow says. "Twenty-five years ago, someone would say, 'I don't understand why I'm paying $10 more in this large block in this hotel, when one of my colleagues called the reservation center and got a room $5 cheaper.' Right now, everyone attending the convention knows that. People in a nanosecond [can visit] Kayak.com or Hotels.com to instantly know the price of a room anywhere. It's up to the hotels to be much more intelligent on their value proposition in explaining what people are getting for the dollar. It's made things quite competitive: You're into a value game now."

PRESENT: Dow sees technology as a valuable tool for rapidly responding to attendee needs. "What technology does from the meetings standpoint is, I think, grow the audience," he says. "You can expand your general session [online] and get other people engaged; you can pump out results. I mean, we run board meetings where we'll poll the board at 5:00 p.m. during a two-day meeting and change our agenda the next morning at 8:00 a.m. based on what people told us they wanted more of or what they didn't understand. Technology, if used right, can greatly enhance this business."

FUTURE: Because meeting-goers now have access to so much information at their fingertips, technology has also required planners to constantly assess and update their events, Dow adds. "My biggest concern is too many organizations are just dusting off the program they had before and calling it next year's program," he says. "What has to happen is you've got to look at the demographics of who is coming to your events. Is your content, your pacing, your amount of A/V, and how you deliver materials a fit for everybody? Are you evolving as your attendees evolve? You've got to do that. I would say, 'If someone bought your trade show, what would they do? How would they do it differently?' And you ought to do that to yourself before someone does that to you with a competing show."

Questions or comments? Email [email protected]

This article appears in the October 2014 issue of Successful Meetings.