Association Meeting Needs: What is Changing?

With regard to legacy programmes and lasting impacts, the study points out that the best results come from organisations that already have a legacy built into their RFP from the outset.

2nd Nov, 2023

To scrutinise the complex reality that many associations are facing right now, the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA) shared the findings of its 2023 survey exploring association meetings needs and trends at the end of March.

The survey polled a total of 177 responses received globally, providing a complete picture of associations’ current and future thinking in relation to their international meetings. Conducted in collaboration with the European Society of Association Executives (ESAE), the African Society of Association Executives (AfSAE) and the Asia Pacific Federation of Association Organisations (APFAO), the results uncovered a number of key issues, including strategic priorities for associations, partnerships with event providers, and social impacts through sustainability, DEI and legacy.

The growing need for associations to diversify their revenue stream was one of the key topics raised by the survey with changes in business model and the expansion of their membership fees. There was also a clear trend for associations to return their events to a face-to-face format, with meeting supplier requirements shifting considerably from virtual event production to core PCO services. When asked about the most important aspects of selecting a destination, associations continue to prefer the flexibility of venues and contract terms as the highest scoring requirement; on the other spectrum of the survey, assistance with content creation and recruiting local experts are the lowest scoring items.

Most respondents have instilled great efforts towards more sustainable events, reflected in the incorporation of their RFPs. However, lack of funding, resources, in-depth understanding, and buy-in from boards has often been mentioned as a limiting factor. In addition, sustainability measurement/assessment, destination criteria, carbon offsetting, general waste management, CSR projects or education remain efforts on a smaller scale. The study also highlights that when it comes to legacy programmes and lasting impacts, the best results come from organisations that already have a legacy embedded in their RFP from the beginning, working in collaboration with the local host and communities.

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To better understand all these aspects, we asked ICCA CEO Senthil Gopinath a few questions:

1) What were the key findings of this survey with regard to funding alternatives beyond one-off events? Do you think that associations are still too much reliant on their meetings and events to meet financial targets?

Yes, and it is completely understandable as meetings and events remain a prime consideration. But many associations have tried to monetise the content they create, and explore other options and should be applauded for their efforts. Some of the findings of the report mention project funding, grants, royalties, rental space, product marketing and social enterprise. Associations are a tremendous resource, places of great education and innovation and it is only right they look at the collateral they have built up over many years doing what they do and try and capitalise on it. On the other side, it is apparent that the digital solutions which helped us through the pandemic showed how admirably resilient our industry is, but this turn out of necessity, also reinforced how much we missed being together in person. The trend we show here seems to be a real desire to come together, using digital advancement to increase the experiential appeal and reach of face-to-face events.

2) Do you think that associations today are more concerned with crisis management and protecting their resources than in a new “era of experience” in partnership with destinations?

We think there is now a real desire to do things differently. Again, the pandemic – and the ongoing unpredictable global situation – has disrupted all our thinking over the last few years. And why shouldn’t associations look at doing things differently? We all had moments of questioning what we do personally and professionally. We all dealt with social upheaval and there are now consequences to this shared experience. Especially at work. Budgets are possibly more of a consideration, as are revenue pressures, and we all have to accept (wherever we work) that we have to work harder for our money. And market forces decree that when spend is more select, competition for the pot creates more variety of choice. It’s the age-old adage but the customer gets to choose. There will always be a need for associations to call on local experts but at the moment, when the whole package is considered, associations are more focused on working in a far flexible environment so they can deliver the best possible event for their delegates. The pressure on them is growing, so it is understandable that they are looking for room to flex. The meetings professionals who recognise – and adapt − to this, are the ones who gain the competitive advantage.

3) Do you consider that although sustainability is in the eyes of so many people today, its practical transfer to events remains shallow with still limited application?

ICCA unashamedly talks about the importance of sustainability to all our members all the time, as we do with legacy, DEI and innovation. We do this because these issues impact everyone beyond our industry. Associations bring so much to a destination with their meetings, and they understand the role they play in what they do at that given time of arrival in a city or region. What we are finding is ‘what happens next?’ is shaping more of their thinking and planning. Sustainability is an established factor of all events and all of us have a great awareness of our responsibilities. It is true, some – and we include countries and regions here – are further down the road to sustainability than others. But this isn’t going away and we are confident future surveys will reveal growing evidence of bringing a more progressive narrative around sustainability into association events. The experts, if they believe they are not being included (and we include ICCA here as industry advocates) need to find more effective ways to be heard. ICCA is actively doing this by being a founding partner of the Net Zero Carbon Events initiative and by promoting our strong advocacy stance.

4) What has ICCA developed in terms of education and concrete support for legacy initiatives in the association community? What kind of assistance have you made available to your members?

ICCA is built on the principles of sharing knowledge and building trust. We are fully behind the power of legacy thinking. We share the industry and societal stories we hear both digitally, and in-person, when we gather and meet with association members, and with meetings professionals. We spread the word across the world and we give the bold initiatives, the legacy stories, a huge international platform at our annual Congress. And then, through our articles and case studies, our global events calendar, the partnerships we enjoy, we share and share and share again. And of course, we have ICCASkills: global certification for the meetings industry. We teach what is possible by sharing what has been done so we inspire those eager young professionals who want to make a difference what it takes to be the best.

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