The timing of a headline and article in the Wall Street Journal could not have been more apropos, appearing just days before the business meeting and event industry unites for its annual Global Meetings Industry Day.

“There’s No Substitute for Meeting in Person. Here’s Why,” the headline read, followed by, “Research shows that face-to-face interactions may feel like a lot more work than using technology. But in reality, they’re more energizing.”

Talk about perfect timing because when the meeting and event industry comes together globally March 30 for #GMID2023, it does so under the theme #MeetingsMatter, a mantra that has long been espoused at the heart of a sector that in 2022 generated nearly $100 billion in travel spending in the U.S.—accounting for 38% of all business travel spending—and directly supporting 600,000 jobs.

GMID, which last year garnered more than 40 million impressions worldwide and reached more than 8.5 million users across the globe, is a day the meeting professional industry devotes to advocacy around the value that business meetings, trade shows, incentive travel, exhibitions, conferences and conventions bring to people, businesses and communities.

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“The theme ‘Meetings Matter’ is not only important at this time but has always been important,” said Michael Dominguez, President and CEO of Associated Luxury Hotels International, a global sales and marketing extension to more than 250 hotels and resorts, cruise lines and destination managements companies around the world. “To begin to focus on outcomes of meetings and events versus the activity is necessary to the broader audience. At their core, meetings move society forward.

“If there was any silver lining to the last few years is that we truly don’t appreciate something until it is taken away,” he added. “It is not a coincidence that so many companies are struggling with productivity and cultural adhesion as meetings and events have been at the core of company culture for many years. The fact that many companies have not met or could not meet again has an outcome and this one particularly negative.”

Dominguez’ perspective is validated by the WSJ report, written by Dr. Jeffery A. Hall, a professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas. Hall writes that “despite its ease, technology is no substitute for meeting in person.”

The meeting and event industry knows this all too well as the COVID-19 pandemic brought a halt to most meetings, derailing an industry that in 2018 generated $1.03 trillion of direct spending into the global economy, according to research from Oxford Economics.

The industry has moved on since the end of the pandemic. Business and convention travel is back with convention center bookings for 2023 pacing 13% over 2022. Group business travel spending is forecast to increase 25% in 2023, generating more than $110 billion in travel spending.

There is still ground to make up from pre-pandemic metrics. There are concerns around inflation related to food and beverage and wages. Domestic business travel volume was predicted to reach 80% of 2019 levels in 2022; this equates to 93 million lost business trips. Group business travel spending remained just 67% recovered in 2022, which equates to nearly $40 billion in spending losses and while visitations are projected to recover in 2024, business travel spending, once adjusted for inflation, is not projected to recover until 2027.

“With rising costs and economic uncertainty, corporations will still be looking to control expenses until things settle down,” said Annette Gregg, CEO for the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence (SITE), which works to promote the business case for incentive travel and motivational experiences through global connections, education and advocacy. “Meetings and events can be a target for this expense reduction, especially since many experimented with viable virtual alternatives during the pandemic. So as an industry, we need a united message and proactive campaign about why in-person meetings matter, how they move relationships and businesses forward in ways virtual options can’t.

“From the incentive travel perspective, data shows that these programs drive company performance better than any non-travel incentive. Especially important now is the loss of employee connection many are feeling in a hybrid and remote workforce. Not only are employers struggling to build cohesive teams but in general, people are increasingly lonelier compared to pre-pandemic. We need to get people together to bond and collaborate.”

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Annette Gregg, CEO, Society for Incentive Travel Excellence (SITE)

Optimism Abounds

Yet, the industry is forging ahead with an increasing number of positive trends.

  • The January employment report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics saw the overall economy add 517,000 jobs with the leisure and hospitality section leading the way by adding 128,000, more than any other sector.
  • Hospitality wages have grown well above all private industry at 8% over the past three years.
  • Luxury demand has mostly recovered, with the average daily rate up 28% since 2019.
  • Hotel room revenue is at $197.48 billion compared to $170.35 billion in 2019.
  • Hotel projects are nearly 17% up year-over-year with construction spending up 31.4% year-over-year.
  • Group and transient business travel continue to improve as a percent of overall demand with inbound international travel at 71.2% relative to 2019. The reopening of Japan and China from post-pandemic restrictions will almost certainly be a positive influence.

On the incentives front, Gregg said the pandemic created pent-up demand for people to travel, and especially to explore bucket-list locations that they may not have targeted before.

“They want purpose-driven, authentic experiences that honor the destinations they are visiting,” she said. “I think we will see a revised commitment to sustainable practices and cultural responsibility with this shift.”

GMID offers the opportunity to amplify the value of face-to-face and travel.
“Let’s all tell a better story about the work we do,” Gregg said. “We don’t just work for a hotel or manage an association. We create experiences that drive businesses forward and celebrate human achievement. We’re fortunate to be able to experience different cultures and be global citizens. That gets people excited about our profession.”

Dominguez added that GMID is a opportunity to discuss with peers and any supervisors about “WHY we meet. Driving Outcomes. Building Culture and contributing to the company objectives. We should find the opportunities to discuss why we are meeting and remind everyone when the outcomes would have not been the same without a face-to-face meeting. We should be reminded that the greatest successes in our world are driven by multiple people being together: United Nations, G20, Congress, Senate, State of the Union, etc.  We believe in the power of human connection and engagement.  We believe that when we meet…we really do change the world.”