What the Meeting Industry Is Talking About Right Now: 4 Themes From IMEX America

In Las Vegas, meeting pros buzzed about the future of the industry, generational value shifts, and attendee well-being—all amid an atmosphere of optimism.

By Alesandra Dubin October 19, 2015, 7:15 AM EDT

The first IMEXrun Las Vegas drew more than 400 participants for an early morning street circuit, which included a section of the Las Vegas Strip. 

Photo: Courtesy of IMEX America

The fifth incarnation of the giant IMEX America meeting industry convention wrapped its three-day run yesterday at the Sands Expo and the Venetian and Palazzo in Las Vegas. This year's show was the biggest yet, with 80 new booths from around the globe and 3,100 companies exhibiting, representing 150 countries. In total, over 10,600 people participated in the event.

Whether formally delivered as session content or informally discussed in the form of networking and other face-to-face dialogues, exchanges about topics important to the meeting industry filled the conference center, hotel property, and related event venues. Among the themes to emerge at this year’s show were predictions for the future of meetings, generational value shifts, the importance of meeting attendees' mental and physical welfare, and an overall optimism for the future.

A positive outlook

A far cry from the panicky tenor at the first IMEX America—when America was limping along in the recession—the attitude at this year’s event felt positive across the board. In reporting the results of American Express Meetings & Events' annual global forecast survey for 2016, global marketing director Stephanie Harris said: “I have been doing this for five years and I was beyond thrilled this year to see for the first time that we had such tremendously positive responses across all of the categories that we surveyed. This has gone from an incredibly mixed bag where some things were trending down, to this year where there was positive good news everywhere we looked.”

She added, “There’s a real sense of healthy growth. It’s not about doing more with less anymore—it’s about doing more with a little bit more.”

However, while speaking about the continuing need to advocate for the meeting industry, Voices in Advocacy founder Roger Rickard urged caution in spite of—or because of—this new attitude. “The scary scene as I see it today is we’re fat and happy again,” he said. “We’re doing well. Everybody’s talking about how the numbers are up. Typically in that kind of a marketplace, everyone ignores what we would do to protect ourselves. But we never know [when another major challenge to the industry could transpire], whether that be a media firestorm, war, terrorism. Our goal is to forge [key] relationships now so that when that day comes [we are prepared to respond].”

The future of meetings
Harris said that an American Express Meetings & Events survey showed 85 percent of respondents predicted the number of meetings would stay the same or increase over the next year. Individual meeting budgets are increasing at an average of 2 percent globally—with those number significantly higher in some regions. In fact, with the market so strong, she said, “[People in] the Americas express quite a bit of concern about the amount of new hotel supply coming onto the market and whether it will come on fast enough to satisfy the increasing demand.”

Looking ahead, Social Tables founder and C.E.O. Dan Berger predicted that live events will be an increasingly important source of revenue for companies. He said he expects experiences to become more prevalent and more expensive as people become more willing “to spend more money for a holistic experience than a one-time thing.”

In terms of planner behaviors, he said that professionals are all becoming much more strategic as rote processes become further automated. And he said that the industry will embrace transparency, as information in both directions becomes ever more readily available. “[It used to be that] one side of the equation had more info than the other—the planner wouldn’t [reveal] the budget, and hotel wouldn’t tell [the planner about] construction down the hall. But now with the Internet, there’s symmetric information” that can only benefit the whole industry, he said.

Overall, he predicted, “Meeting planning will be a more ... organized, respected, and common practice.”

Attendees’ mental and physical well-being
New this year at IMEX was an increased focus on wellness and attendees’ health, both mental and physical. The first IMEXrun Las Vegas—sponsored by RioTur, Rio Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Embratur, and conceived and organized by Sports by TLC—drew more than 400 runners for an early morning street circuit, which included a section of the Las Vegas Strip.

Similarly, a dedicated meditation room designed by Fab Lab Events Laboratory off the show floor beckoned guests for regular sessions throughout the multiday IMEX program. Mindfulness trainer Lee Papa led the sessions, which were held in the soothing environment filled with Zen-inspired decor and aromatherapy.

Generational value shifts and corresponding social media evolution
The topic of millennials in the marketplace is a popular theme across the industry and was a continued source of discussion on the show floor. Now, people are talking about how to make meaningful changes that respond not just to millennials’ values and behaviors, but to a new type of thinking, inspired by millennials, that now spans generations. Specifically, these values prize authenticity and organic shared experiences.

“The hashtag is dead,” proclaimed strategic event consultant Josh Murray, before acknowledging that he was using hyperbole to underscore the point that the way we think about hashtags and social media must be different now as attendees crave a sense of belonging and a need for authenticity from their experience. The hashtag has been reborn as a genuine community builder.

Rather than hosts unilaterally pushing out meeting and event messages via contrived hashtags, he said, now hashtags are useful for the way they tap into the human need to feel part of a tribe, to belong. “The hashtag creates that on an organic level. We’re now tasked with creating the space that makes [attendees] feel like they're belonging to something,” resulting in attendees’ desire to share the message organically. “No one’s forcing you to do it, but you want to do it. That’s the most authentic form of advertising that any brand can hope for.”

An example he cited was Mercedes-Benz's stage sponsorship at Rock in Rio in Las Vegas. “Their goal was to align with the population and say, ‘Let’s all hang out.’ Because [festival] audiences are in a peak tribal moment and in a marketing sense they’re very vulnerable—everyone’s got this kumbaya thing happening so [attendees see] the brands around as friends” and partners in a shared authentic experience.

In the end, he said, “It’s about creating an experience someone will say, ‘I want to, I have to, share that with my friends and family.”

Along those lines, Murray predicted a rise in marketing attention to so-called microinfluncers—people with social media followers as small as a few hundred who are deeply engaged.

Similarly, Wet Paint Group’s Doug Chorpenning emphasized the importance of authenticity and real human connection when planning meetings. “Be attendee-focused, not logistics-focused,” he said. “Little moments [mean a lot], like coming from around the counter and greeting people and not treating them like you’re just herding them. Try to be empathetic. Relate to your attendees, and not as a number.”

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