Why the Meetings Mean Business Event Was Such a Highlight at IMEX America

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Bill McDermott IMEX America 2014
Bill McDermott, CEO of SAP

First developed during the economic dog days of late 2008, the Meetings Mean Business Coalition (MMBC) brings together tourism and hospitality industry leaders in every sector to promote the ROI of face-to-face events. Over the last year we attended MMBC sessions at IBTM America, MPI and DMAI, where industry leaders emphasized the coalition’s primary message that meetings and events should be viewed as business investments that drive growth.

At IMEX America in Las Vegas earlier this month, the coalition had a new story to tell, and it’s a good one. The MMBC created a hybrid forum for Bill McDermott, CEO of SAP, the world’s largest business software company, with Kevin Olsen, president of the One Smooth Stone event company.

Standing inside a packed IMEX meeting room, Olsen conducted a Q&A video call via satellite with McDermott. To kick off the session, Olsen asked McDermott to explain his position on meetings and events.

“I totally believe that the great pageantry associated with a great meeting or a great event inspires people to achieve goals and aspirations and dreams they could have never dreamt in an email, or some boring internal meeting during a conference call,” said McDermott. “So I’ve always tried to create a movement. If you want to double your business, if you want to get buy-in from people, and if you want to move the economy forward, you’ve got to think big. I can think of no better way to bring people forward and coalesce them around a movement than a great meeting or an unbelievable event.”

Olsen then discussed how companies are often too quick to cut meetings to save cost, rather than viewing them over the longer term as a way to develop new business. McDermott, who’s had an impressive track record at the helm of SAP, had a rather passionate response to that.

“I believe your industry is at the forefront of driving growth in the global economy, and somebody has to wake these executives up to basically say, ‘Do you want to grow again?’ he said. “And if the answer is yes, then the pageantry of a beautifully executed meeting, or a beautifully executed event, is absolutely the essential ingredient. So which kind of leader do you want to be? Do you want to take away the water and the doughnuts and the travel? Or do you want to grow your company and create new markets and make an outstanding business for yourself? It’s up to you.”

Following the presentation, MMBC co-chair David Peckinpaugh, president of Maritz Travel said, “We could not have crafted a better message from a CEO than that. What board could refuse such a passionate pitch?”

For more information about how McDermott has created high impact meetings and events at SAP, check out his new book, Winners Dreams.

Afterwards, we spoke with Larry Luteran, senior VP of group sales/industry relations at Hilton Worldwide and co-chair of the Meetings Mean Business Coalition. He said the session with McDermott and Olsen is exactly the kind of advocacy that the MMBC can deliver on behalf of the industry, because there are so many industry players involved in the MMBC.

Following is an edited version of our talk with Mr. Luteran.

Prevue: What did you think of the message delivered by Bill McDermott?

Larry Luteran: “I was blown away by Bill McDermott at IMEX. I thought that was a great example of how the MMBC has engaged an industry leader to talk about the effectiveness of face-to-face. It really was a great testament about how meetings and events and face-to-face are really at the core of a company like SAP.

Prevue: It seems there is still a way to go to convince many companies that meetings should be viewed as investments versus expenses.

Larry Luteran: We kind of started that conversation going back to 2008 when we had the Oxford study, where one of the key data points showed that for every dollar spent on meetings and events, there’s a $9.50 return. And by the way, not spending that dollar on meetings and events is a decision too. It’s not just about expense reduction. If you decide not to spend a dollar on meetings and travel, then you’re going to potentially give up a $9.50 return.

Prevue: How has the MMBC evolved over the last year?

Larry Luteran: Some organizations like PCMA have developed an Advocacy Task Force, which is managed by Catherine Mills from the American Dental Association. Catherine has a committee charge to activate PCMA’s membership base against all things Meetings Mean Business. So I think that’s particularly impressive to help us keep expanding the message beyond the MMBC. It’s about the tentacles of MMBC, and all of the touch points within the various industry organizations that really keep it alive.

Prevue: Last time we spoke with you in the early part of the year, you said you’re seeing a shift among meeting planners evolving into meeting strategists. They’re focusing more than they have in the past on the ROI and deliverables of a meeting by aligning content with specific business objectives. Is that a growing trend?

Larry Luteran: Absolutely. I think that’s going to continue to get bigger and bigger. When meetings and events really became scrutinized after 2008, we were pretty easy to get cut because we’re a line item on a P&L statement. The role of the meeting professional was also in the spotlight, and everyone was asking them, do we really need to do these meetings? Do we really need to bring people together? And so it was important that meeting planners had answers, but to answer those questions effectively, you have to be able to speak in the executive language.

Prevue: And you need the data and intelligence to back up the ROI.

Larry Luteran: Exactly. You can’t just say we’re bringing people together because we’ve always done it that way. Or because it’s part of our culture. There has to be some kind of data and business reasons to justify why these meetings and events are happening. I think meeting professionals are stepping up and answering those questions, and when they have done that effectively, I think it’s been a big bump for the meeting profession as a whole because the C-suite takes notice of people who have their act together. I think it’s really forced the job of the meeting professional to evolve well beyond logistics.

Prevue: What about young planners?

Larry Luteran: We’re seeing a real growth of meeting professional curriculum in our universities, and at the lower level, bringing together this notion that a meeting professional does so much more than logistics. It’s about how a meeting professional is really a person who is unbelievably organized, and at the same time, can be strategic and very critical in moving an organization forward and having a say at the executive table.

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