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Perception vs. Reality

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Perception vs. Reality The economic crisis is one of the greatest challenges facing businesses today. And it’s exacerbated by a crisis in leadership when it comes to articulating a clear business value proposition and executing on that vision.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the meeting industry, which has struggled to justify its business value well before the public heard about AIG junkets or Muffingate.

As industry veteran Tony Lorenz of event strategy firm bxbonline noted, "If organizations had been measuring the business value of their meetings, there never would have been an ‘AIG effect.’" At the time, no data existed to refute the criticism that meetings didn’t matter.

We knew the problem was bad. Turns out it’s much worse.

Recent MPI research finds that less than 1 percent of organizations attempt to measure the business value of their meetings. And the research points to more serious questions of responsibility and accountability when companies are allocating limited resources without knowing what they’re getting in return.

The good news for businesses that truly want to understand what they’re getting for their investment, from a financial and human capital perspective, is that the process exists. The bad news is that there seems to be a conspiracy among the vast majority of meeting stakeholders, professionals and even attendees to maintain the status quo.

What’s at Stake?
As a reaction to threats posed by spending cuts and the bad publicity, the meeting industry has released a couple of studies attempting to justify its existence.

The U.S. Travel Association, along with the Destination & Travel Foundation, issued a report in September 2009 on the benefits of business travel. Among the key findings:
  • For every dollar invested in business travel, companies realize US$12.50 in incremental revenue
  • Curbing business travel can reduce a company’s profits by 17 percent in the first year alone, taking years to recover
  • Both executives and business travelers estimate that almost 30 percent of current business would be lost without in-person meetings


Impressive stats, but the relationship between business travel and business outcomes is not that obvious. Travel is certainly a means to an end, but so is the telephone. You don’t see AT&T taking credit for sales volume or customer satisfaction. And Twitter is certainly not claiming responsibility for the Arab Spring.

Another industry initiative that received widespread support, something the industry is not necessarily known for, was the Economic Significance of Meetings to the U.S. Economy study, led by the Convention Industry Council and conducted by PwC.

The research quantifies the economic contributions made by the 1.8 million annual U.S. meetings, trade shows, conventions and incentive events. Direct economic contributions of the industry:
  • $263 billion in spending
  • $106 billion contribution to GDP
  • 1.7 million jobs
  • $14.3 billion in federal tax revenue
  • $11.3 billion in state and local tax revenue
  • $60 billion in labor income


Once again, we have impressive stats. What’s missing is the value of those 1.8 million meetings to the organizations spending all that money. What are meeting stakeholders getting for all their economic activities? Can you name another industry where so much time and money is spent on faith? There’s too little measurement for an industry our size. Something is terribly wrong.

We Know the Enemy
There are several conspirators who contribute to the lack of measurement in the meeting industry: the meeting owner, the meeting professional and the meeting delegate. Each presents unique barriers that must be overcome if we’re going to calculate the business value of our events.

"The vast majority of meeting owners are not aware that there are tools for measuring business impact," said Ira Kerns of MeetingMetrics, a leading online measurement firm.

Traditional meeting owners (such as chief marketing officers) don’t have a strong tradition of measurement, much less the quantitative skills required to determine business impact. In fact, some research claims that only 50 percent of marketing initiatives are evaluated for results. We already know which half meetings fall into.

Marketing professionals can track revenues and profit per customer, but the metrics for evaluating marketing programs, such as meetings, are not as robust or well known. Marketing professionals perceive their discipline as more art than science and have asked us to trust that the results will be there. Marketing pros that realize they should be more proactive, don’t know where to start. Others argue that a key reason marketing professionals don’t measure the business value of meetings is that they are afraid of what they might find. That wouldn’t be the first or the last time fear contributed to business indecision.

Finance professionals represent another key owner invested in determining meeting outcomes, but they typically define the issue narrowly from a cost-savings perspective. CFOs have struggled for years to incorporate more non-financial performance metrics into their models. They tell us whether a particular meeting made a profit, loss or broke even, but can’t explain a meeting’s ultimate value to the business beyond the bottom line.

Driven by this bottom line analysis, meeting budgets have been slashed in recent years, in some cases by more than 50 percent.

"The problem," notes measurement expert Skip Cox of Exhibit Surveys, "is that often these decisions to cancel meetings are made without any data regarding the impact on the business. And in many cases, cancellations are doing more harm to the overall business than good."

The Meeting Professional
Meeting professionals share the blame for the lack of measurement beyond the satisfaction surveys or "smile sheets" that too often pass for actionable data. These simplistic metrics are often where meeting measurement begins and ends. Like the "vanity" metrics marketing professionals use, they are quick and easy measures that favor efficiency over effectiveness. They make meeting professionals look good but add little to understanding the true value of meetings to the business. For example, it’s nice to report record meeting attendance, a common industry metric, but how do you determine if it consists of the right people?

Meeting professionals are typically logistics experts accustomed to moving armies of people through mazes of buildings and leaving no level of detail to chance. You wouldn’t hold any meeting of importance without one.

But they have no stronger tradition around measurement than the marketing professionals they often report to or collaborate with. They’re not sure what to measure, and they don’t know how to measure it even if they did. And in the interest of fairness, they’re not being asked about measurement by meeting owners, who are ultimately responsible for generating business results. That’s not an excuse for their lack of initiative.

There are those meeting professionals who are very good at what they do and are content to continue doing it. There will always be a demand for these individuals. But for those meeting professionals who seek a more strategic role in their organizations, measurement is that strategy. It relates directly to driving business results, process improvement and better decision-making. Measurement is an issue of professional respect and credibility and represents a real barrier to and opportunity for greater recognition.

A seat at the executive table isn’t easy to come by. It doesn’t come from banging on doors and demanding access based on intuition. It has to be earned. Learning (and living) this new vocabulary is a password that may open a stake in the c-suite. Just ask your IT department.

Given this context, meeting professionals are doing what others did before them with regard to measurement, making incremental changes. Only recently has the profession started to come to terms with the importance of effective measurement as a means to determining business value. The Certified Meeting Professional (CMP) designation, the standard of professionalism in the industry, has just introduced metrics and measurement as part of its curriculum. That’s a step in the right direction but it doesn’t begin to address how to close the lingering attitudinal barriers and skills gaps.

The Top Two Reasons
According to decades of industry research, the top two reasons people attend meetings are education and networking, and, in most studies, these two are interchangeable. In the language of learning professionals, educational programs and networking translate into formal and informal learning.

Unfortunately, most formal and informal learning experiences at meetings aren’t designed for retention or knowledge transfer. As a result, there’s a lot of time being wasted at meetings and events. And everybody knows it. It’s unconscionable that more learning professionals are not involved in the content and design strategy of meetings given how important learning is to the attendee experience.

For not speaking up (even when asked), for settling for mediocre meeting experiences, for not voting with their feet, for not demanding meetings be designed for their benefit and not the benefit of the meeting professionals, meeting delegates are also accountable for the lack of meetings measurement.

The Business of Meetings
There’s an old adage: "What gets measured gets done."

Measurement is at the heart of all business imperatives. We set goals, assess performance, report results and make adjustments. It’s time to apply this same discipline to meetings. Given the significant resources companies dedicate to meetings and events, they can no longer to afford to not measure their business value. To do so is irresponsible.

There is precedent. IBM, HP, Cisco, Microsoft and Oracle are all known for their data-based, decision-making cultures. Their leaders depend on this to keep the organizations focused on what’s important. It’s no surprise that thinking manifests itself in how these companies conduct the business of meetings.

SAP’s SAPPHIRE NOW event is just one example of how meetings add significant value to the business. As the vice president of global events, Scott Schenker, explains, "Our primary objective with SAPPHIRE NOW was transforming the brand and pipeline acceleration. As a result of the event, people are…more likely to buy and buy sooner. I can show increased opportunity movement and deal closure."

Determining the Business Value of Meetings
The process, tools, and techniques used to determine the business value of meetings are no different than those used to determine the inherent value of other business imperatives.

Like most successful business initiatives, it starts with securing stakeholder commitment. Without this, the next step—establishing relevant, clearly defined objectives—can’t take place. While this seems like an entirely logical and reasonable step, according to MPI’s research, it is rarely practiced. Without objectives, it’s impossible to design, plan and execute a meeting that meets an organization’s needs. Without relevant, clearly defined objectives, it is impossible to determine the business value of meetings.

Next, meeting professionals need to address the clear lack of knowledge and understanding around the wide variety of measures and measurement tools among the various stakeholders. They need to know enough about these to make informed decisions about a reasonable course of action, regardless of whether the measures come from internal or external resources.

Finally, without proper analysis and reporting, all efforts are wasted. There’s an old saying among measurement professionals that "no data is better than bad data;" implementing the wrong solution can be more costly than the challenge you’re trying to solve.

MPI’s research also found that in addition to these knowledge and skill gaps, there are misperceptions about the scope and scale of determining business value that must be overcome. Many meeting professionals believe that the business value of meetings is an all-or-nothing proposition and that the complexity of the task will inevitably lead to failure.

The irony is that this belief is based on faulty assumptions. Companies have successfully challenged these assumptions and demonstrated that determining the business value of meetings is something that can be phased in over time, in manageable steps that do not detract from other responsibilities or require significant resources and budget. This is the way—and some argue the only sustainable way—to institute an organizational change initiative such as this.

Benefits vs. Perceived Costs
When this alignment of business objectives and the use of appropriate measures, tools, analysis and reporting occurs, the benefits of implementation far outweigh perceived costs. According to stakeholders and meeting professionals who adhere to these best practices, meetings become more efficient and effective, accelerating growth and the pace of organizational change.

Marty Homlish, former CMO of SAP noted this when speaking about SAPPIRE NOW.

"We’ve taken [the event] and created a transformational platform for the company."

That’s the potential inherent in every meeting or event, all of which represent the same opportunity—a chance to significantly impact business. But without measurement, without determining the business value of meetings, the only word meetings will be known for is "potential."

Meeting Expectations
It’s one thing to have expectations for a meeting or event. Most don’t—and those who do don’t set these expectations very high. It’s another to have the standards and the processes in place that enable expectations to be met or even exceeded. It’s time meeting owners, professionals and delegates acknowledge what’s at stake and do their parts to insure meetings realize their full potential.

MPI’s Business Value of Meetings project set out to identify how companies determine the total impact of their meetings. It found that while there is a well-established process for such initiatives, that process isn’t being utilized by meeting stakeholders for a variety of reasons.

The project’s ongoing deliverables will explore in more detail the barriers to change and explain the steps individual stakeholders can take to develop a reasonable and sustainable measurement program that helps answer the question that remains unanswered: "What’s the business value of our meeting?" The first set of tools is already available. Visit www.mpiweb.org/bvom for five white papers that explain the steps toward developing a business value of meetings program. Over the coming months, MPI will deliver tools against these white papers to assist in your efforts to determine the value of your events. One+

About The Author - John Nawn
John Nawn is founder of design firm, www.theperfectmeeting.com, which focuses on optimizing the attendee learning experience. He also serves as Chief Experience Officer for the Thinkubator, a creativity and innovation lab in Chicago. John regularly blogs and tweets about Meeting Design, the future of meetings, and related topics, speaks at industry events, and writes a regular column on formal and informal learning at large meetings for Meeting Mentor Magazine.
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