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Meeting Industrialization and Package-Processing of Participants

Report on the Millennium Leaders Summit for the International Meetings Industry
Kuala Lumpur (14-15 June 2000)

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This is an unofficial summary of the proceedings and conclusions of the Summit. The event was organized on behalf of the Joint Industry Meetings Council (JMIC), an informal forum for exchange of views amongst 13 international bodies representing a range of interests connected with the business associated with the organization of certain international events. JMIC was founded in 1978. The author represented the Union of International Associations (UIA) at the event. The UIA is a founding member of JMIC.

The Summit was organized as the result of a decision taken by a number of JMIC members on the initiative of the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA), which became the lead agency in planning and managing the event itself. ICCA members are divided into a range of categories including: *****. The bodies in each such category may also have their own international associations, independent of ICCA, and in some cases also members of JMIC. Their participation in ICCA is primarily associated with its focus on international meetings. ICCA has endeavored to position itself as the 'International Meetings Association'.

Traditionally a very high of competitiveness has characterized the relations between meeting industry bodies. The Summit was supposedly designed to address the dysfunctional aspects of this in order to achieve more fruitful collaboration amongst interested parties in their exploitation of business opportunities in relation to international meetings.

A particular concern was to ensure appropriate recognition for the international meetings industry, whether by governments, the media or the tourism industry in general -- within which it tends to be absorbed in practice and in any market analysis. Indeed many of the industry associations have an extensive preoccupation with tourism-related revenue.

Organization of the Summit

Consistent with its objective of positioning itself strategically and ensuring its own financial viability, the organizers entered into a series of partnerships. Partners included Tourism Malaysia and Malaysian Airlines. The Summit was held in the luxury Mines Resort complex on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. The event was opened by the Prime Minister, currently a somewhat controversial figure on the international scene.

Despite the many challenges of an underfunded event for a highly competitive group of bodies, it brought together 100 participants ***, of which a significant proportion were from Malaysia and Singapore. Technically the organization was extremely smooth.

Following the formal opening, the keynote speech was given by the Chief Editor of the Economist -- one of the strategic partners in the initiative. This was designed to establish the economic significance of the meetings industry, although meetings were the topic of only one of the 35 slides in the presentation. Unfortunately the content of the excellent presentation was irrelevant to the challenges of the Summit itself and significantly avoided the issues for which it was convened.

As a prelude to the working sessions, a digital voting system was used in the plenary to enable participants to express their views regarding the desirability of a number of strategic options in relation to the meetings industry, notably issues relating to the need for greater coherence. This procedure was coordinated by a representative of IACVB who provided an verbal interpretation of the results of each vote.

Working sessions

Participants were then split by the organizers into five smaller groups on the basis of undefined criteria. The groups each met for five 90 minute sessions to address each of five pre-selected topics deemed essential to successful reframing of the meetings industry. The topics were: Globalization, Technology, Standards and Best Practice, Education and Professional Development, and Industry Recognition. These had been selected by the organizers, apparently without consultation with JMIC members.

Each topic was facilitated by a single facilitator. The five facilitators thus encountered each group in turn as they rotated through the topics over the five sessions. The format worked well although the facilitators had very different styles and the topics did not evoke the same degree of interest or participation. Facilitators took few, if any, notes and no other recording system was used. Some facilitators were disarmingly frank in describing their methods as getting participants to say what they as facilitators wanted them to say -- and it was interesting to note how points made by participants were selectively emphasized, reframed or ignored.

Concluding plenary

Facilitators then met together to compare and adjust their individual verbal reports back to the plenary session on the consensus emerging on the five themes (in the light of their treatment by each working group in succession). It was presumably during this session that a new round of questions was formulated for the subsequent digital voting process.

The plenary session heard the reports. Questions and remarks were mainly offered by the moderator of the plenary session whose task it was to identify emergent threads. She was frank in her analysis and insightful in her remark that the Summit had enabled her to understand why the United Nations did not work.

The digital voting system was then used again to allow participants to vote on a series of views and options highlighted in the reports of the facilitators. These options were structured to determine the degree of consensus amongst participants on the need and possibility of some major initiatives to achieve a higher degree of coherence.

The main focus was on the need for the creation of a new "peak institute" for the meetings industry. There was consensus on the need for rapid follow up towards its creation through a Steering Committee. It was agreed that next steps should be taken rapidly with a view to clarifying these options at a second Summit before the end of 2000.

The session was then closed by the current president of JMIC.

Next steps ?

Strangely no attempt was made to elect the required Steering Committee on which a degree of consensus had seemingly been achieved. During the plenary session it had been clear that there were strong reservations about the value of JMIC (labeled without challenge as a "toothless talking shop") - although the Summit had been organized in its name. These reservations were repeatedly reinforced by its president (a member of MPI) and the case was made for extending its membership to make it more representative. No attempt was made to do so. Although JMIC members were briefly convened before the Summit opening (to ensure consensus on collective responsibility for any financial deficit), no attempt was made to reconvene after its closure.

Given that JMIC is an informal group meeting twice a year, it is totally unclear who is now empowered to act on the views expressed in the closing plenary, especially if JMIC is considered by consensus to be inappropriate to the task. Given that the Summit was effectively organized by a subset of JMIC, and that the operational organization was largely undertaken by ICCA (with the support of IACVB and MPI), perhaps these now consider themselves as empowered to take the next steps in forming a Steering Committee of their choice?

There was some implication that reports of the facilitators, plenary moderator, and plenary sessions would be prepared (depsite the lack of any notes or record) for distribution to participants (and more widely) as a basis for further action. However it was not clear who was empowered to do this or indeed where the resources would be found to do so.

Given the careful structuring of all other processes - even arousing some suspicion of a hidden agenda - why the failure to address collectively the process of the crucial next step towards which the Summit had been organized?Was it the intention to create a power vacuum?


Promotional trap of meetings industry acronyms

The meetings industry, with the notable support of ICCA (as the "international meetings association") has sought to promote and define itself through the acronym MICE. This stands for Meetings, Incentives, Conventions and Events. It was for the MICE industry that the Summit sought recognition.

During the plenary some participants at the Summit acknowledged that this acronym was a promotional disaster -- forcing some to change the name of national MICE bodies. But the attempt to promote it signals some of the implicit dimensions of the industry's strategic challenge. Why favor an acronym with such metaphoric connotations? It conjures up an image of ineffectual busybodies preoccupied feverishly with nourishing themselves at the expense of others. In the light of some of the points below, might it be useful to see MICE as standing for "Mercenary Initiatives for Conference Exploitation"?

What is the environment on which MICE seeks to nourish itself? Is the meetings industry effectively nibbling away at a block of "cheese" that exceeds its comprehension - making gruyere holes in it that it sees as the scope of its strategic preoccupation. Maybe the MICE Summit strategy should be defined as CHEESE namely the "Comprehensive Homogenization of the Event Environment for its Systematic Exploitation".

What might then be the underlying significance of the promotion of DOME by the Summit? Is there some sense in which MICE need to hide under a dome and protect and distance themselves from the larger reality of the meeting phenomenon? Maybe the DOME initiative should be understood as 'Dominance of the Meeting Environment", or Designing out marginal events" or perhaps "Denial of meeting environment"? Should DOME be envisaged as a kind of "cheese dish" to protect the 'CHEESE' for 'MICE'?

There is also an intriguing kind of inversion in using MICE to gain industry recognition when the industry tends to treat its ultimate clients -- the participants -- as mice for which process labyrinths have to be designed.

MICE 'consensus' and Summit representativity

The Summit claimed to represent a consensus for the MICE industry. This consensus was necessarily based on those present, whether as representatives of international bodies representing service providers, or members of such bodies. A significant number of such bodies were not represented and they were largely outnumbered by their members, or representatives of bodies not members, or by unaffiliated persons.. Many bodies were represented by a number of people.

Given the criteria applied to membership by some of the more exclusive meetings industry bodies (eg permitting only one member per country), it is not clear whether those excluded from such bodies were effectively represented, however legitiamte their concerns within the meetings industry.

** see list

Interpreting "inadvertent" signals

1. ICCA vs. JMIC: As the organization in the hot seat of making the Summit work, ICCA clearly had a challenge in communicating with the various strategic partners essential for the financing of the event, and with others in Malaysia unfamiliar with the inter-group politics and turfism of the meetings industry. It was unfortunate that the banner greeting delegates at the airport had the Summit as being organized by ICCA rather than JMIC. Clearly this inadvertent error, about which ICCA claimed to have protested, was not to ICCA's disadvantage in its own efforts to position itself within the industry and in the eyes of the media on that occasion.

2. DOME: One of the issues of concern to the industry is the nature and scope of the meeting statistics provided. The principal source of such statistics since the 1940s has been the Union of International Associations (UIA), one of the founding members of JMIC. UIA has collaborated with the European Commission's Eurostat to develop a cross-national statistical methodology for meeting information. In recent years ICCA has also endeavored to provide statistics on a more limited range of meetings (but with more information on items such as hotel use, exhibition space, etc). In a competition typical of the meetings industry, ICCA appears to be positioning its statistical report to replace that of the UIA. ICCA, together with IACVB ****, has been developing a relationship with DOME (a project, not yet operational, based at George Washington University). ICCA and IACVB are members of the DOME consortium. DOME proposes to collect and analyze meeting-related information using a methodology partly developed at the University of Vienna in association with a member of ICCA. Although is not yet operational but is "ready to roll". In the light of these factors it is perhaps not surprising that:

Is DOME to be considered as a kind of Trojan horse for a strategic initiative by some coalition of meetings industry bodies? Does this initiative seek Domination Of the Meeting Environment (DOME) through the 'peak' industry body on which some consensus was achieved.

As part of the ongoing campaign by ICCA, its current statistical report now endeavours to distinguish at length its own data from that of the UIA****

3. Imposing standards: Various points were made by facilitators, both within sessions and in their reports, pointing towards the possibility of imposing standards and practices in the meetings industry. One facilitator even used the term enforcing. Seemingly there is a desire on the part of some bodies in the meetings industry to force meeting organizers to conform to practices that suit those selling services to them. There was a sense that some body would be empowered in some way to impose such standards, and to sanction those that fail to conform to them. It was clear that there was a move towards evaluating both service providers and their clients in terms of the quality of their mode of operation.

4. Strategic financial partnerships: In envisaging the operation and financing of the proposed "peak" industry body, and in the light of the airline alliances (with which all participants were familiar), strong points were made about the possibility of strategic partnerships:

The sensitive political issues relating to such partnerships were ignored in a manner typical of the widely criticized US-style approach to globalization as a reflection of the American way. The fact that the lucrative nature of the market would quickly engender competing systems (as in the case of airline reservation systems) was not discussed. Whether or not preliminary discussions with interested potential partners had already been undertaken by some of those present in an effort to "take over the meetings industry" was necessarily far from clear. But the point was made that some such parties would be happy to invest several million dollars in an appropriate initiative that offered the possibility of some form of monopoly control of the meetings market.

5. Reorganizing industry meetings: The point was made that there were too many meetings supposedly of relevance to bodies representative of the meetings industry and that this was an unnecessary burden on their resources. It was recommended that industry meetings should be held together back-to-back, presumably on the occasion of the largest such event. The unstated implication was that this would be the ICCA conference. The effect on other such events, or the bodies responsible for them, was not discussed. Nor, pursuing this logic, was there any discussion as to why such an event should not be back-to-back with some larger tourism conference (the closing Gala Dinner of the Summit was with 100 travel agents). Despite a Technology theme at the Summit, no effort was made to explore how some of these meeting processes could not be run as standing electronic conferences (listservs, rather than video)

6. Relationships between industry associations: The event was designed to look to the future, and a significant investment was made in the skills of five facilitators (from ICCA/MPI). However, no effort whatsoever was made to apply those skills to the issues and dynamics that fragment the industry in ways acknowledged by all as dysfunctional. The process focused on what was desirable but not on why the desirable had proven historically to be unobtainable and how turfism had come to dominate. Whilst it was recommended that industry meetings be coordinated back-to-back, no mention was made of how this was to be achieved given the disadvantages to some. Furthermore, pursuing this logic, why should the many industry associations not simply be merged to create the new "peak" industry body - given the degree of overlap and duplication between their programs. Alternatively, rather than merger, why not use ICCA, for example, to absorb the various industry associations and programs reflected in its membership - a process consistent with its current strategies? The views of MPI and IACVB on these matters would have been most enlightening.

7. Issue avoidance: As the two previous points illustrate, the Summit was characterized by a degree of issue avoidance, exemplified by the keynote speech and the function of the facilitators. A notable issue inadvertently avoided is the degree of corruption in the bidding process (discussed at a recent seminar of IAPCO) that would need to be addressed in any effort to rationalize the meeting industry as a whole. The results therefore took the form of wishful thinking unchallenged by realities familiar to all in the industry and acknowledged by the moderator of the closing session in endeavoring openly to avoid being cynical.

8. Digital voting methodology: Given the call for greater methodological rigor with regard to meeting data, it is important to recognize that questions familiar to survey specialists could be raised about the framing and voting on issues during the Summit plenaries. Questions can be inadvertently selected and framed to elicit a pattern of desired responses and to marginalize unwanted perspectives. Since much was made of the degree of consensus achieved at the Summit in the light of the digital vote, it is important to examine the design of the questions submitted to participants in plenary. It is well-known to opinion poll analyssts that bias can be introduced into surveys, whether inadvertently or not. There are essentially two types of survey questionnaires - open-ended and directive. 'Open-ended Questions' do not provide the respondent with possible answers whereas 'Directive Questions', used by digital voting, require little time and thought because alternative answers to the questions are given. However, a downside of this type of survey is that it can potentially result in biased responses because it leads respondents to a particular answer.

'Push polling' has become a feature of democratic politics. Push polls use deliberately biased questionnaires or samples. Some seek to produce false poll findings in support of a particular issue. Others use biased questions in an attempt to convince those being interviewed to support a particular point of view. In both cases the "poll" is a deliberate attempt to manipulate opinion.

Issues of concern in avoiding survey bias include:

It is unfortunate that a 60 percent response on an issue was interpreted to the plenary as 'consensus' so as to ignore contrary views reflected by the remaining 40 percent.. Can new global structures be built on such "consensus" and are alternative perspectives simply to be marginalized? As a demonstration of such technology, it is also important to recall the non-transparent and unverifiable nature of such voting in sensitive situations -- notably those vulnerable to the creative skills of the hacking community.

9. Information on bodies represented: For a meeting organized by meeting professionals, it was interesting to note the manner in which participants were discouraged from laying out brochures to inform others of their role and position within the meetings industry. The opportunity to present information of this kind was reserved for strategic partners who made a presentation during coffee breaks. One consequence is that many particiupants new to the meetings industry were mystified by representatives of bodies only identified by acronyms.

10. Strategic positioning: To what degree was the Summit organized as a strategic positioning operation by ICCA and some others in order to marginalize other bodies associated with the meetings industry and gain competitive advantage? Why give such prominence to a non-operational initiative such as DOME? Why ignore the role of UIA, which through its early series of International Congresses on Congress Organization had endeavored to achieve many of the declared objectives of the Summit - and in fact led to the creation of a number of the existing meeting industry bodies? Why ignore the UIA role in maintaining extensive databases on meetings and associations (see) to which many bodies in the meetings industry have long had access as UIA Associate Members? Why ensure the selective presentation of ICCA statistics to the Summit by one of its sponsors?

Questionable preoccupations 1. Delimiting the meetings industry: Many of the sessions were concerned with identifying the meetings industry as a basis for developing industry recognition. Unfortunately the Summit inadvertently failed to envisage the scope of the meetings phenomenon outside its immediate business concerns:

The conventional meetings industry needs to recognize the possibility that it may be marketing an outdated and ineffectual product whose prime purpose is increasingly indistinguishable from promotional initiatives and tourism and increasingly divorced from knowledge management in the emerging information society. The nature and scope of "meeting" has been transformed under the very eyes of the meeting industry without its being able to understand how what it sees as its market is no longer where the action is.

Whilst the total number of "meetings" is expanding exponentially, the proportion of conventional meetings in this "market" may in effect be declining because of their inherent and costly inefficiencies. The meetings market is expanding undetectably by avoiding face-to-face and "industrialized" gatherings. The MICE industry may effectively be seeking recognition as the "typewriter industry" of an information society that is increasingly defined by other technologies - a classical challenge in strategic positioning. The meetings industry has been overtaken by the transformation of the information society. Ironically the events industry might be said to have been 'overtaken by events' -- beyond its ken.

In seeking recognition for the meetings industry, the president of JMIC stressed the philosophy that "one only existed to the extent that one was perceived to exist by others". However, it may be that the meetings industry is itself a victim of its own inability to perceive the wider processes of which it is a part.

2. Failure to recognize the ultimate client: The meetings industry is almost completely preoccupied with clients that are not the ultimate end user of meeting facilities but merely intermediaries acting for those end users. As a gathering of "middle men", the Summit made no effort to reflect the views of participants at meetings. And yet it is potential meeting participants who are increasingly choosing to interact outside the scope of the conventional meetings on which the meetings industry is focused, namely in electronic contexts or in "non-industrialized" events. The meetings industry is conditioned by a "package mindset", namely how groups of participants can be processed as a package within a meeting environment. Desirable clients "deliver" larger packages and the larger the package the more desirable is the event for that industry. In this sense the meetings industry has become the "participant processing" industry. This mindset has completely undermined the capacity of the meetings industry to understand what quality meetings are about in the information society of the 21st century faced with challenges of knowledge management.

3. "Industrializing meetings": The Summit could be seen as an initiative to systematically industrialize the meeting environment - to trigger an "industrial revolution" (that may have already happened without it being aware of it). Associated efficiencies and economies of scale were a preoccupation of the discussions of the Summit themes of: globalization, technology, standards and best practices, education, and industry recognition. Within the industry, "meeting quality" has become confused with the luxuries offered in "quality tourism". It is totally divorced from enhancement of quality communication amongst participants - however much it may pay lip service to this notion as part of its marketing hype. It focuses instead on communication to participants, as part of the package processing mindset - and the enhancement of techniques for doing so at a minimum cost per participant. This is how cost/effectiveness is defined by the meetings industry as reflected in ICCA statistical criteria.

In this sense the Summit was focused on what might be termed "assembly line" events. It is worth comparing the evolution of the tourism industry with that of the conference industry. Conventional tourism has become increasingly focused on package holidays whereas quality tourism has sought to escape such experiences - whether for the wealthy or those on low budgets.Most discerning travelers attach great value to avoiding what the tourism industry seeks to offer. The meetings industry may therefore be seeking to define its future as an analogue to the package tour industry with which it so closely associates itself - and is seen to associate itself in any economic analysis of the industry. This is clearly a strategic trap. But a trap is a function of the nature of the trapped.

Post-Summit conclusions?

Some feedback, protesting issues raised by the first draft of this report circulated to participants, stressed the 'positive' nature of the gathering and the sense of achievement. The protest generally avoided addressing the issues signalled in this report.

There would appear to be an underlying challenge of comprehension of scope. The scope of the universe of 'meetings' is far broader than that which MICE includes. It is also broader than that reflected in ICCA statistics. The bodies representing the MICE industry were not all represented at the Summit that claims to represent a consensus of that industry.

In comparing its strategic opportunities to those of the airline industry, the meetings industry might usefully review the reasons for the emergence of the International Airline Passengers Association (IAPA) and the recent articulation of a passenger charter. Issues of concern have been lost baggage and those giving rise to "air rage" -- especially how passengers are handled and packaged. Maybe it is time to create an International Network of Meeting Participants and a participant charter. It is perhaps time to articulate standards for meeting services from a participant perspective and to rate providers in the light of participant feedback. There may be increasing justification for "meeting rage", notably in relation to the failure of meeting processes to handle delivery of the conceptual "baggage" for which participants congregate in a meeting -- or to facilitate their interaction. This is the challenge of knowledge management at any gathering, electronic or otherwise.

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