CONFERENCES AND CONVENTIONS : Keep it Personal – Why virtual meetings don’t make it

The conference and conventions market pumps about $1 billion year into the New Zealand economy, according to Conventions & Incentives New Zealand (CINZ) chief executive Alan Trotter. And while the sector took hit in 2009, he believes things are looking better this year.
Trotter was, however, upset by major global hardware supplier to his industry, which reportedly told conferences and incentives forum in Melbourne recently that it had canned its annual global sales meeting, in favour of virtual get-together. The company had, it said, saved millions of dollars in travel and accommodation costs, carbon emissions and, presumably, employee work downtime.
“I don’t buy it,” Trotter responded. “What worried me even more than the presentation was the reaction of some of our international industry leaders.” Presumably many of them empathised with the sentiments.
Trotter’s argument, simply put, is that humans still need, and prefer, to cohabit at conferences. They are where the best business deals are done, the best relationships are forged, and the best ideas are exchanged.
“I was disappointed in those industry representatives who accepted the case that virtual meeting had obliterated the need for normal face-to-face sales conference,” he added. “Some of them did not see the threat in the message and were quite blasé in the way they responded to it.”
Trotter’s reaction is understandable, given that he is an industry advocate. It’s also why he gets somewhat riled when the Government cracks down on public sector conferences and meetings, effectively undermining the economics of business that is vital to the New Zealand economy and employs thousands.
“The Government seems to forget that there are many people in the New Zealand workforce who have little or no choice in what they do,” he says, advancing the case for lower-paid workers essential to both the tourism and the conference industries. “These employees underpin the New Zealand tourism and convention industry and are vital to it. They are the unsung heroes of our industry,” he adds.
But most of all, Trotter does not buy the argument that the old-fashioned way of doing business over drink at the bar is on the way out. “If you are multinational company, spread over several time zones, there is an enormous organisational opportunity involved in bringing your workforce together in conference setting,” he argues. “We are human beings and we crave companionship and social discussion.”
Trotter also believes that the pressures of today’s time-focused and performance-driven enterprises mean messages can’t be driven home on screen. “To get the core ethic and message across people have to understand and experience the culture of the organisation. You just can’t communicate that electronically.”
There is, he says, no question that technology can enhance the impact of meeting. “But nothing will ever replace the intimacy and effectiveness of the face-to-face encounter. Virtual conferences might deliver cost savings, but they put at risk the additional income and new business opportunities that come from casual and informal personal encounters.”
Trotter also believes that organisations incentivise employees by sending them to conferences and conventions. And providing incentives helps build employee goodwill and cost effectively rewards individuals for jobs well done. Attending conference can become an important part of an employee’s total package. It also delivers added benefits by extending personal contact networks, providing opportunities to do more business while simultaneously boosting morale.
Under threat or not, the current reality is that money, is still being pumped into New Zealand’s conferences, conventions and incentives industry infrastructure. Hotels and convention centres seem keener than ever to attract business conventions and meetings because they are lucrative and fill rooms during the tourist off-season.
Auckland’s Langham Hotel has reportedly spent around $20 million expanding and refurbishing its ballroom and convention facilities and similar expansion programmes are happening in Christchurch and in Hamilton. “The development around the country shows that the market is profitable and there is optimism that it will find demand,” says Trotter.
“But, if you want to tap into this business you have to spend on your facilities,” he adds. “The clientele are more discerning about the quality of the convention space and the facilities provided. ”
Despite its relative global remoteness, New Zealand is increasingly conference destination of choice, particularly by Australians. “The airfare costs are reasonable, and as our dollar goes south and their’s appreciates we look even more attractive,” he adds. And, the United States market is also looking up. CINZ, Air New Zealand and Tourism New Zealand are heading there in May on three-city joint promotion to boost New Zealand as an incentive travel destination.
Trotter is keen to see more investment in major convention centres for New Zealand. Conventions do two things, he says. They deliver higher yield from an international conventions stay than any other equivalent – delegates spend around $450 day. And they fill the tourism seasonality gap – the busiest months for conventions are June to September.
Trotter concedes that New Zealand has an infrastructural challenge, but he expects that to be resolved at least in Auckland in “the near future”. He is confident that the sector will continue to attract more than 42,000 international delegates year.
And, no matter what the advocates of virtual conferencing say, he is sticking to his conviction that people need to get together to maximise organisational performance.

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