Song Kyong-Eun, or to use her adopted Western name, Diana, is a 25-year-old tourism management graduate of Seoul’s Kyonggi University. After two internship stints with the Seoul Tourism Bureau and leading professional congress organiser MECI, Diana believes she has found her life’s calling.
This young professional wants to be a meeting planner.
She was initially attracted to the field of travel after being captivated by her older brother’s tales of work in the Grand Intercontinental Seoul Parnas, Gangnam hotel.
She says: “I really like the industry, even though I always have to do so many things at one time. Every day I’m calling up suppliers, attending meetings and checking on venues, but I’ve met so many good people and built up my confidence. I’ve made mistakes, but I’ve also learned from them.”
As in many of Asia-Pacific’s most competitive markets, there is an urgent need for many more like Diana; young people with a liking for their work – in this case, business events. Her gung-ho attitude is another plus going for her in an industry where the unpredictable is the most predictable factor.
Maureen O’Crowley, vice-president, Seoul Convention Bureau of the Seoul Tourism Organisation, agrees that a meetings professional needs to know more than the mere mechanics of running an event. They should have a well-rounded experience base. O’Crowley says: “You really should have a grasp of how different industries work. One day, you might be dealing with someone who works in pharmaceuticals; the next day it might be someone from the energy sector and perhaps another day, a neurosurgeon.” Despite over 35 years in the tourism arena, O’Crowley herself claims she is still: “always learning something new”.
Becky Lai, sales and marketing manager, Team Building Asia in Hong Kong, says that while the regional business-events and incentive market is expanding rapidly, the dearth of staff briefed in the intricacies of the planning process can’t be denied. She says: “It’s frustrating when the organiser or client is not organised themselves. It can lead to a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, and wrong messages from the management being conveyed to us. If the person we were dealing with has business-events knowledge, they can provide us with the vital information we require. We always need to know what activities the company has done before, the objective for holding the event and the results the company wants to generate among the employees.
“There’s still a lot of education needed to get people to understand the processes and procedures behind conference planning. It’s not just about filling up a whole day, but rather it’s the need to bring about some type of change in behaviour in the participants or adding value to their experience.”
Lai, a former banker “tired of seeing numbers”, finds the shift to business events as “quite interesting”, citing her dealings with people from all walks of life as the main reason.
Fortunately, educational opportunities for those keen to make event planning their career are now available in the region, in formal as well as non-formal settings. According to Bruno Simões, managing director of Smallworld Entertainment, a Macau-based DMC, leading industry bodies such as the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA) run regular workshops, offering practical and comprehensive courses that concern the bidding and lobbying process, destination management, and much more. Tourism schools in Hong Kong and Macau, with which Simões is familiar, offer some form of business-event programmes in their curriculum. He points out, though, that what they are unable to teach is leadership, saying that this will have to be acquired on the job.
Simões also thinks that the quality of industry education and presentation could improve dramatically if more meeting professionals got involved in teaching. He says: “We should invite more people from the industry to teach.”
Becky Lai explains that Team Building Asia in Hong Kong is also contributing in this area. The company is laying the groundwork with some educational institutions in Hong Kong in order to strengthen business-event-based courses and attract future talent.
The issue of successfully expanding Asia-Pacific’s business-events industry inevitably harks back to government support. In the case of the Seoul Tourism Organisation, O’Crowley says: “We are still a relatively young industry here and the need to develop trained resources is great. To do so takes vision, commitment and ultimately funding, and that has to come from government.”
Maarten Vanneste, author, speaker and chief executive officer of Belgium-based audio-visual specialist Abbit Meeting Support, believes the time has come for the meetings industry to be given its due and be recognised as a discipline. He explains that the profession should be recognised in the same the way as architecture, medicine or law.
Since 2007, Vanneste has been pushing for the concept of “Meeting Architecture”, which, as described on the website meetingsarchitect.com, revolves around “designing the meeting experience, its content, format and context, in order to facilitate the desired reinforcement or change in participant behaviour, and thus provide greater value for stakeholders”.
Vanneste says: “When we build a million-dollar building, we work with an architect and an engineer. When we spend millions organising a meeting, we work with people who come from everywhere and may not be trained or have a diploma.”
A meetings architect (MA), he explains, would work for meeting planners. In his best-selling book Meetings Architecture, published in 2008, he delves into how the MA explores the objectives of a meeting or event, designs it based on objectives, executes it, and assesses the results.
How far has this idea gone?
Vanneste admits the take-up has been slow, primarily because the meetings industry – or rather the movers of the meetings industry – have always kept a low profile. He says: “Whenever I mention to business people I meet on the plane that I am part of the meetings industry, they say, ‘what industry again?’”
Vanneste, however, is far from discouraged, especially with findings such as those borne from the first UK Economic Impact Studies, commissioned by leading industry body Meetings Professionals International (MPI), and appearing on its website, mpi.web.org.
An excerpt carries the following figures: more than 1.3 million meetings were held in the UK in 2011 in more than 10,000 venues. Attendees spent just under £40 billion (US$60.4 billion) attending UK meetings, and most meetings took place in London, the South East and the West Midlands.
Meeting organisers staged, on average, 147 events in the year. They received £11 billion (US$16.6 billion) from hosting meetings in the UK and £1.4 billion (US$2.1 billion) from hosting meetings outside the UK.
With those kind of figures, Vanneste is all the more convinced to realise the meetings architect role and he enthusiastically campaigns at trade shows, public forums and media interviews. Some educational institutions in Sweden, Sao Paulo and the US, he reports, have responded to his thinking and started adopting elements of meeting architecture into their curriculum. For example, Dr Elizabeth Wada of the Universidade Anhembi Morumbi in São Paulo translated his book into Portuguese, parts of which are now used in the school’s tourism department with a view to further expand on it.
He says: “Once demand for the meetings architect grows, more schools are expected to incorporate related courses. The meetings industry contributes a lot to a country’s GDP. Meeting professionals have been backstage too long. It’s time that we move to the front and be recognised for the value we add to the content side of meetings.”
Margie T Logarta