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IMEX America 2018: 4 Things Shaping Today's Meeting Industry

At the eighth annual meetings convention, discussions centered around philanthropy, personalization, and creativity.

By Claire Hoffman October 24, 2018, 7:02 AM EDT

One fun experiential element (and photo op) came from German company Dundu. Translating to “you and you,” Dundu offers oversize, illuminated puppets that encourage teambuilding; groups need to work together to keep them upright and moving.

Photo: Courtesy of IMEX America

The eighth incarnation of the IMEX America meeting industry convention took place October 16 to 18 at the Sands Expo in Las Vegas. Drawing an estimated 13,000 attendees, including 3,500 exhibitors from more than 150 countries, this year’s event was the biggest yet. In fact, the convention expanded into a third hall to accommodate more than 60 new booths.

One of the buzziest aspects of this year’s event was a new partnership with C2 International, the company behind the innovative C2 Montréal business conference. Known for its out-of-the-box experiences designed to promote networking and brainstorming, the collaboration aimed to shake up the stale meeting format.

“Attendees are sick and tired of sitting in front of the keynote speaker and having short coffee breaks and networking and the same model of event that’s been around for decades and decades,” said Martin Enault, C2’s former C.E.O. of Asia Pacific, in an interview with BizBash in August. “People want to see something different and something that is actually making them work and be a part of it.”

The idea of fighting conference fatigue and thinking outside the box was in full display at this year’s IMEX, from sessions held in inflatable igloos to a giant illuminated puppet to an increased focus on wellness. While the convention featured the usual jam-packed sessions on technology, food and beverage, and security, here’s what else got meeting planners and hospitality pros talking this year.

1. Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability
In such a divisive time in the country, it's perhaps no surprise that many booths and panels discussed the impact events can, and should, have on the world. This idea was most clearly displayed in the theme of “legacy,” which was 2018's overarching conference theme.

The concept kicked off on Smart Monday, an M.P.I.-fueled day of education before the official event began, when Event Manager Blog editor Julius Solaris gave a keynote that asked meeting planners to think of themselves not just as “logistics wizards,” but as legacy creators and change makers. Solaris discussed a new industry white paper that detailed 29 examples of events that have created positive change.

The idea was also on display at the Hilton booth, which embraced the hotel company’s three-year-old “meet with purpose” initiative that focuses on C.S.R., locally-sourced food, and environmentally responsible meeting practices. Visitors to the booth could grab floral pins to wear; for each pin taken, Hilton donated $1 to a local domestic violence shelter. Another highlight of the booth was an area where attendees could create floral arrangements. Designed to showcase what Hilton does with leftover event flowers, the finished arrangements were also donated to the local shelter.

IMEX America organizers also set up large bins throughout the show floor. Attendees were encouraged to drop in any unneeded supplies, which would then be donated to a local community organization. Similarly, all attendees were invited to build hygiene kits for the Clean the World organization.

The idea of sustainability was also at the forefront of the conference this year. The entire event was straw-less, and signage on the walls boasted about steps organizers have taken to make the event more eco-friendly—such as 100-percent compostable serviceware and reduced vinyl signage.

“Facts and figures and all the rational things that we think are important in the business world actually don’t stick in our minds nearly as well as stories.”

2. Attendee Wellness and Support
Big portions of the event also focused on attendee welfare. Canyon Ranch Resorts offered foot massages at its booth, and ZenSpace offered noise-canceling booths on the show floor where guests could take a break, get work done, or just decompress. As in previous years, more than 700 attendees showed up for a 5K run on Wednesday morning, and mindfulness expert Lee Papa once again led meditation sessions.

New this year was the Caesars Forum Walking Challenge by Heka Health, which allowed guests to link up their FitBits or health trackers and earn prizes based on how many steps they took throughout the show.

The personal improvement focus extended beyond just physical health. Crowne Plaza Hotels announced a new program called “Meeting Mentors,” where industry experts share their insight and expertise in event strategy, design, technology, and special media. The goal is to provide human connection, support, and education for planners who are just starting out.

There was also an increased focus on diversity and support for marginalized communities, with companies such as the Association For Women In Events and L.G.B.T. Meeting Professionals Association hosting booths on the show floor.

3. Experiential Elements and Personalization
Attendee wellness can also be achieved by thinking through what exactly people are looking for from an event. During a panel, American Express Meetings & Events released the results of its annual Global Meetings Forecast, which contains a section on personalization. While in the past the focus on meetings was on content and logistics, there’s now an increased focus on how to create a positive experience for attendees, noted Milton Rivera, the company’s vice president of global business development. “The reality is, the reason you’re having the meeting in the first place is to engage the attendee and to get them to do a certain thing when they leave,” Rivera said.

“Everyone is looking for personalization in their experiences,” he added, a concept where companies like Amazon, Netflix, and Spotify have led the way.

The idea of personalization leads directly to the increased rise of experiential and customizable components at events. While this is not a new concept, meeting planners throughout the week emphasized its importance. During a keynote by Jessica Gibbons, C2 International’s executive director of global partnerships, and Klik by PixMob’s Adekambi Laleye, the discussion delved into ways new technology and updated event formats can create attendee surprise, personalization, and connection. The ultimate goal, they said, is to always put attendees at the center of the experience.

C2 brought this idea to life in its Cloud Lab, a fog-filled igloo on the show floor. The space was designed to transport attendees into a surreal world where they could clear their minds and heighten their learning.

Storytelling consultant Paul Smith touched on the importance of thinking outside the box and making things personal for attendees during a keynote. “Facts and figures and all the rational things that we think are important in the business world actually don’t stick in our minds nearly as well as stories,” he said. “No one is immune to the effects of a good story.”

Marriott also discussed their increased focus on experiential during a press dinner. Steve Heitzner, Marriott Americas’ chief sales and marketing officer, noted that while 43 percent of the company’s revenue comes from meetings and events, Marriott still wants that number to grow. “As a company we think meetings are really important, and we’re always looking for the next big thing,” he said.

Part of that is through the recent acquisition of Starwood, a company known for activating public spaces like lobbies. The goal, said Heitzner, is to turn every hotel space into a comfortable, inspiring place where people want to gather.

4. Collaboration
Finally, this year’s IMEX really showcased the importance of collaboration in the event and meeting industry, with a number of big-name organizations teaming up. In addition to the C2 International and IMEX partnership, three prominent organizations announced a new collaboration during the show: I.A.E.E., M.P.I., and S.I.T.E. have created the “Global MICE Collaborative.” Intended to provide training, resources, and economic growth for the worldwide meeting industry, the new collaboration will focus on markets outside of the United States and Canada.

Next year, IMEX America will move to September, taking over the Sands Expo from September 10 to 12, 2019.

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