The sun is coming out on the conference industry, just in time. Even worse than the cruise industry, the meetings industry has been hammered by COVID-19. Hundreds of mostly small businesses have simply disappeared. Many others are on life support.
Those of us who’ve been in the industry awhile know that when the economy catches a cold, the meetings industry gets pneumonia. The Global Pandemic has become the mother of all downturns. But each time it springs back to life. And that is happening now.
Turns out the conference industry is a complex ecosystem of mostly small businesses that do meeting planning, catering, production, security, and the brokering of professional speakers and entertainers, among other things.
When there's a meeting in town, say San Antonio or Orlando or Vegas, we vendors swing into action to create an amazing, unique experience for conference attendees. But when there’s a steep decline such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the industry begins to dissipate. Which is what has been happening over the past year. People find other things to do. They gravitate to other gigs.
As a public speaker, I've been part of this ecosystem for 35 years. I've come to see just how cyclical it is and how fragile. After September 11th, we slowly stumbled back to life. During the Global Financial Crisis, it got so bad that a speaker colleague called me from Denver and pondered if it was "game over" for our struggling industry. But each time it has come back, sometimes fitfully, but always, after awhile, bountifully.
I am proud of how the meetings industry has tried to adapt to virtual. It’s been a steep learning curve. Some groups have been innovative and others have simply canceled meetings and tried to wait it out. No question that virtual is destined to be part of the meetings mix going forward.
But it’s not the same. Live meetings come back because conferences produce a unique value for people. They network, build new relationships; they rub shoulders with old friends, with competitors and suppliers; they play golf and attend cocktail receptions and otherwise bond around their common industry or profession.
They leave knowing things they did not know going in. And they leave inspired to reach higher, to win more business, to upgrade their careers and businesses, knowing that there’s opportunity out there if we just have an Opportunity Mindset.
The uptick part of the boom-bust cycle is happening again right now, and it is exciting to behold. The energy is building, the phone is starting to ring. Optimism is in the air.
During the depths of Covid 19, I have had a chance to reflect on just how lucky I’ve been to be part of such a great industry. I’ve had the good fortune to travel and speak in 54 countries, and all over the United States and its territories. I've keynoted in hockey rinks, on the deck of yachts, in popcorn-infused movie theaters, in warehouses, sports arenas, you name it. I have shared the platform with celebrities, presidents, crown princes, sheiks, and of course, thought leaders galore.
People are looking for lift in spirits and somehow, leaving your home base, traveling to a distant city to attend a meeting gets the creative juices flowing in a way that sitting at your computer never can.
Deep down inside we hope that maybe this presentation by this speaker will be the match that lights the fuse, that ignites the dream, that changes our world. I have never forgotten what speaker and former NSA president Naomi Rhode called "the privilege of the platform." I'm known to the industry as an innovation expert and futurist, but I've always known that my job on that platform is not about me, but it’s to be a vessel of dreams, that people are hungry to be taken to a better place in their thinking.
I used to peek out at the audience from behind the curtains and ask myself, "are you the one whom I came to serve today?"
After a speech in Maui some years ago, I met such a person. She waited till all the other well-wishers had shaken hands with me and then approached. She explained that she was a recently retired school superintendent and said, "when I came in here this morning, I was feeling pretty low. But what you said really affected me. And now I feel a sense of hope."
The meetings industry is coming back, and this is why.