Be Different

Event organisers are finding themselves under increasing pressure to make their events stand out from the rest and deliver sustained and real value for their clients. It’s no longer good enough to do things the way you’ve always done them. Sure, that approach may have brought you success in the past, and may well even yield further short-term success. But there’s no doubt that with increased competition and the information available to people in every perceivable sector, along with the pressure that comes with the demand of success, you just have to find a way to flip things on its head. That’s if you really want to stand out and make as big an impact as possible. This has become increasingly apparent in the MICE sector, as customers demand more and more from their programmes, regardless of whether it’s a simple meeting, an incentive programme, a conference or exhibition. Conference & Incentive Travel (C&IT) is one of the UK’s leading MICE industry brands, with a portfolio of print, digital and live event products. It’s a key source to staying in touch with the latest developments and people in the industry, but it is also active in the research space. Months ago it conducted its annual agency survey, which was used to compile this year’s ‘State of the Industry Report’. The report found that innovation and creativity was the top challenge faced by 10% of corporates, making it their third biggest challenge in 2016, up from 5% and the fifth biggest challenge in 2015. “The pressure is always on to change up the format of events and come up with unique experiences, venues and locations,” said the report. “Keeping up with the pace of change on the event tech side is also difficult, with new virtual reality devices constantly being released, plus apps galore that promise to provide a more engaging experience for delegates.” Following the release of the report, Abigail Wood, Vice-President: Relationship & Event Manager at Barclays Events, said that there are three main challenges to being creative with corporate events: budget, the fact that many calendared events are repeated year-on-year, and the mindset of stakeholders who like a certain way of doing things and aren’t as open to changes. “I think the amount of red tape we have these days does affect creativity,” says L’Oréal Head of Events Alison Williams. “Everyone is so much hotter on health and safety, which is a great thing, but it’s challenging to meet all the regulations.” Regardless, the goalposts have moved and the landscape has changed, and if you want to keep pace with what is cutting-edge, and to provide your clients with something unique and memorable, you are going to have to go the extra mile. In many cases, that is going to involve technology. “The nature of business has changed in the past decade and employees are more mobile and more technologically connected,” says Jan van der Putten, Vice-President Operations, Africa & Indian Ocean, Hilton Worldwide. “At the same time, global and collaborative interactions play an increasingly prominent role across industries. These realities don’t stop just because people attend a meeting or conference. People are constantly looking for different, innovative ways of thinking and doing things that have been done the same for years. In order to keep up with the ever-changing environment, it’s important to constantly reinvent yourself.” What’s important to note, however, is that change for change’s sake is not an effective approach. As with everything, there has to be a return on investment. “Everything must deliver,” says Wayne Hill, Peermont’s General Manager: Hotels & Resort Operations. Deliver, it must, but delivering a memorable event often has its foundation in the simplicity of just listening to what the client wants. “Engaging with the client at the very start and defining their ‘why’ achieves immeasurable success in their eyes before the event has even materialised,” says Lois Graham, Head of BCD Travel Meetings & Events. “This business has always been a about understanding the specific needs of each event and tailoring the offering to meet those ever changing needs,” says Rebone Motsatsi, Executive Commercial for Avis Budget Southern Africa. “This has not changed over the years.” Meetings & Conferences So, you’ve listened to your client, but what if that process leaves you more daunted than when you started? That’s because there’s no doubt that clients have become more demanding, often expecting better results from even smaller budgets. “The need to be ‘better than last year’ is indeed becoming a challenge to fulfil,” says Graham. “Recent discussions with a client evolved into us having to source an old abandoned warehouse to create their ‘wow’ experience.” Okay, so that example may be a bit extreme, although many meeting planners would probably disagree, with seemingly nothing off the table in terms of wacky requests from clients. What is driving this behaviour, and beyond the obvious, why the need to be significantly different from all that that’s gone before? “With the old fashioned way of conferencing, sometimes the message for the particular conference was lost,” says Wayne Ward, General Manager of Faircity Mapungubwe in Johannesburg. “Clients are now looking to keep meetings more innovative and creative in order to get the message across to the attendees.” As a result, Faircity Hotels & Apartments has re-thought its approach in the conference space and has come up with a host of interesting, new initiatives for its clients, such as a health and ‘banting’ conference package. Generally, says Ward, they are thinking out of the box and that applies to things such as refreshment breaks, where they are exploring fun activities such as croquet and skittles. Ward believes that seating has also become quite a talking point, with a high percentage of clients now looking at more relaxed seating such as lounge seating and half-moon seating (round tables). Further to that, his clients have indicated a desire for some sort of ‘surprise’ during a particular conference, which, of course, keeps delegates on their toes. On a similar theme, Peermont Hotels, Casinos & Resorts has re-looked the layout of its conference offering in some of its properties. “Our decision to build smaller and more intimate conference rooms for break-away sessions last year, has proven so popular that these are now frequently booked out months in advance for smaller meetings,” says Hill. “These rooms are already equipped with the whole AV package and we have appointed personalized waiting staff to attend to each request.” Van der Putten would seemingly agree. “Meetings are no longer done in a large ballroom at a hotel, brimming with rows of round tables or staid, stack chairs all facing the speaker at the front of the room,” he says. “Meeting and event spaces are now designed in a way that facilitates a conducive working environment for the attendants. Engaging layouts that cater to interactive sessions and multi-functional spaces with advanced technology integration are all vitality important.” That certainly taps into the prevailing theme of ‘personalisation’ and perhaps links with Ward’s take on old school meetings and events where messages were lost. A smaller, more personalized setting and environment certainly lends itself to a more focused approach with greater opportunity for good results. Other themes that have popped up are that of flexibility and simplicity, whilst just about every client wants their event to be technically well-equipped. Hilton Hotels & Resorts have tapped into this and recently launched a MICE initiative called ‘Meetings Simplified’. “This is a global offer which allows room for a lot more flexibility when booking a conference or meeting venue,” says Van der Putten. “It equips clients with the freedom to book and cancel a venue 24 hours prior to your meeting with no additional cancellation or booking fee. The service is available to smaller venues of roughly 25 delegates. The contract that is needed to be signed by the relevant contact is also only two pages long, so that it is quick and easy to read. It just simplifies the entire process from start to finish for ease of understanding for all parties involved.” Other trends So, you’ve identified why it’s important to be different, but where to from here? You may have every intention to take a different approach to your next event, but what if you’re just not that creative and a blank slate when it comes to thinking out of the box? Fortunately, you’re not alone, and there are trends out there that can serve as pointers. Van der Putten lists some of the trends Hilton has identified, as well as some key learnings when it comes to what their clients want:
  • Appetite for information. Attendees crave personalisation and communication
  • Meetings with clear goals or purpose have the highest satisfaction ratings
  • Access to strong wi-fi and digital tools
  • Comfortable seating, healthy menu options, ample break-out spaces
  • Relaxed environments in which to network
  • More than two-thirds of business professionals prefer meeting in-person
  • Coffee plays an essential role in face-to-face meetings
Hilton is not the only big hotel group attempting to get to know its conference delegate even better, as well as build on its offering. “Innovation is the name of the game and the meetings space is no exception,” says Hassan Ahdab, Starwood Hotels & Resorts’ Regional Vice-President Africa and Indian Ocean. “Not only is the format and size of meeting evolving, but the content that is being shared or the platforms or technology used to deliver this content is also evolving. The use of social media and live streaming, for example, is becoming popular in order to take the meeting content beyond the meeting room and allow more and more people to engage. The focus is on making it more interactive and engaging, keeping everyone involved.” All of this may be well and good, but other trends have emerged and one of them stands out as particularly interesting in the conference space. “’Unconferencing’ is a trend we’ve picked up,” says Themba Mthombeni, CEO of Duma Travel. “That’s where there’s no pre-set agenda, as a large part of it is developed through organic participation on site around a general idea. The schedule is driven by attendees and any attendee can claim a time and space within the event and initiate a discussion.” Those discussions may only take place in breakaway sessions, where a lot of the nitty gritty is drilled down to, and it’s here that meeting and conference organisers are also finding themselves under pressure to come up with something new and different. “Stimulating breakaway sessions are all the rage,” says Hill. “Moving outside for cooking, or playing games like Minute to Win it, Amazing Race, Not so Celebrity Apprentice, and Casino are still popular.” The bottom line is that the actual meeting space, whether it’s a conference room, breakaway space, coffee shop or auditorium is becoming a focal point for event organisers looking for an edge and a start to doing things differently. “Meeting spaces are becoming more innovative,” says Jean Martins, TCA Abu Dhabi South Africa Country Manager. “Clients demand creativity when it comes to space design. Spaces that are conducive to ‘free thinking’ are in high demand, as are innovative team-building activities.” And what about food and beverage? There’s an interesting sidebar (see page ..) looking at some suggestions regarding how you can go about a different approach. Hilton, it would seem, are on the same page. “Menu personalisation is on the rise as clients heed the need for unique and novel experiences,” says Van der Putten. “Conrad Pezula recently hosted a pharmaceutical client whose event focused on the difference between the left and right brain. For their lunch the chef carried this theme through and prepared an artistic canvas for them to ‘play with their food’ whilst enjoying lunch. The other half of the buffet was set up with precision and order, to represent left-brained people.” New and interesting trends and requests from clients are not exclusive to the hotel groups and conference venues of this world. Even suppliers in the car rental space are being exposed to demanding clients with interesting requests, it would seem. “We had a company who required vehicles to be wrapped and branded every weekend with devices to shuttle people from various venues,” says Motsatsi. “Another example was a customer requiring special gifts and flags to be put inside the vehicles, along with a special ‘meet & greet’ service at the airport, as the event involved winners of a competition, and they wanted these winners to get the VIP red carpet treatment.” Exhibitions The exhibition industry is not immune from the changing demands and needs of the clients it services. Exhibition organisers are under increasing pressure to keep their events relevant and attractive to those who have the spend, because even if they have the spend, there’s absolutely no doubt that marketers are under the whip when it comes to the return on investment a particular event will offer them. That means that exhibition organisers are having to come up with innovative ways in which to give those clients that ROI. So, how do they do that? “If you look at the global trends, it’s much more about experiential and creating memorable events,” says Carol Weaving, Managing Director of Thebe Reed Exhibitions, which organises Africa Travel Week in Cape Town that incorporates ILTM, IBTM and WTM Africa. “You’ve just got to be different with technology these days. There’s the opportunity to be different and your reach is different.” Weaving is right – technology offers event organisers a host of options with which to be different, whether it’s developing digital content, making use of interesting apps, or just adopting a different approach to the audio-visual component of your event. “Organisers are starting to focus more on the needs of the visitor base, with continuing investment in digital tools and in show content,” says AMRinternational’s ‘Globex: The global exhibitions organising market assessment and forecast to 2019’. “This trend is most in evidence in mature markets, but international organisers are also taking digital tools into their events in emerging economies. To date, most of the investment in digital has been directed towards improving show performance, but the hope remains that technology will provide the opportunity for new, meaningful revenue streams for organisers.” “You just have to be creative, and there are so many opportunities to do that,” says Weaving. “A lot of people are now starting to realise that they have to get out of the box. There’s this ‘business disruption’ trend.” One of the more interesting changes we’ve seen in the exhibition industry has been the move away from traditional stands and elaborately-decorated spaces within large shows, to smaller, more bespoke ‘table-top’ events that focus entirely on putting buyers and sellers together in a no-frills, more focused environment, without the bells and whistles of a fancy show. “It’s speed networking,” says Weaving. “They literally get five minutes, a bell rings, and they have to move to the next table. What they do, then, is set up appointments for later in the day.” According to Weaving, “it’s about writing business. You’re not there to fly a flag anymore.” What she means is, “forget the fancy stand and the costs that come with it. This is about facilitating meetings and relationships.” “Exhibition organisers need to be relationship brokers,” says Weaving. “They need to facilitate those buyer-seller meetings.” Another trend Weaving touches on is the evolution of exhibitions and how there is pressure on these types of events to offer even more than they’ve ever offered, sometimes bridging the gap between conferences and exhibitions. In this regard, there’s been reference to more “confex” events that are neither solely a conference nor exhibition. “Exhibitions used to be traditional exhibitions,” says Weaving. “Now it has to be content-centric.” But what about beyond the content? What other trends are emerging in the exhibition space? In February this year, nine employees of South Africa-based Scan Display attended Euroshop in Düsseldorf, Germany. Euroshop is considered the world’s number one trade fair for retail and exhibition spaces, showcasing the latest trends in the global exhibition industry. The show takes place every three years and this year it attracted more than 109,000 trade visitors representing 110 nations. The Scan Display team members picked up on a number of trends, more related to design than anything else:
  • The extensive use of fabric on walls and ceilingsof exhibition spaces to hide the infrastructure of modular systems and to give the illusion of a custom-built space
  • Colourways: neutrals, black and white are popular, as well as wood
  • Shape and form: rectangular, angular exhibition spaces are prevalent, with fewer curved spaces and shapes
  • Messaging: three-dimensional text is replacing large graphics. Message with text is far more prevalent than simply using large format graphics
  • Audio-visual is being superseded by person-to-person communication. The ‘have a stand, want a plasma’ days seem something of the past
  • Meeting places:many of the most popular stands used their spaces socially. Visitors could sit down and relax, drink coffee and speak to the exhibitors. These proved far more effective than more formal layouts
  • Retail spaces:these displayed the most creative interpretations. There is far more movement and interactivity in retail window displays
  • Greening:greater eco-awareness is promoting LED light applications (which use less energy) and the use of natural materials. The proliferation of LED light suppliers at the show, each with technically specific applications, is testament to this
Incentives This is a difficult space to be in, but then it’s probably no different to the other MICE sub-sectors. That being said, it’s probably the sub-sector with the greatest opportunity to differentiate oneself, what with the various elements that go into an incentive trip. Again, it comes down to creativity and thinking out of the box. So, where to start? Looking at some of the trends out there is always a good place to start. Incentive magazine recently identified five specific global trends it believes are currently shaping incentive travel across the world: Experiential Travel – these are one-of-a-kind experiences unique to the destination Wellness Travel – experiences that leave travellers healthier when they check out Bespoke Transportation – charter companies can set an itinerary, schedule and aircraft type All-Inclusive Properties – simplify things from a strategic and budgetary point of view Event Technology – social media has changed the way we communicate. Mobile apps are expected What these trends don’t tackle is the issue of reduced spend and how incentive trip organisers come up with fantastic programmes within the constraints of a budget that has a lot fewer zeros on it than the year before. “Due to the current economic situation and the ROE, there is a noticeable trend to reduce the size of groups and fix budgets up front, with clients considering less expensive destinations and exerting pressure on getting management fees reduced,” says Themba Mthombeni, CEO of Duma Travel. It’s not all doom and gloom, though. “Corporates are downscaling on their incentive travel, but they are investing more towards an ‘elaborate’ conference with extended stay options and creative activities,” says Sabine Blehle, Chief Operating Officer of Tourvest Destination Management Business & Sport Events (TDM BASE), which is made up of four brands, specialising in meetings, incentives, conferences, events and sport. “Through this we have experienced a shift from local conferencing to an increased demand towards regional and international conferencing.” That doesn’t sound too bad, with the spend just being moved around, and again the emphasis on creativity and coming up with a solution to the problem posed by less budget available. “Incentives have always been about being different,” says Mthombeni. “Declining budgets are compelling us to re-evaluate our product offering to include fresh concepts and innovative ideas.” That, many would agree, is a good thing, with incentive trip organisers really having to ‘earn their corn’ in offering expert advice to clients who want a fantastic incentive trip for their staff, but don’t have the big budgets to throw at it. “Clients generally leave creativity and innovation to the incentive house,” says Mthombeni. “There is a trend amongst some clients to specify the incentive destination they want to travel to and date of travel, which does not allow you to recommend different destinations in all instances. This applies to local, regional and international incentive destinations.” All of which means the incentive houses have their work cut out for them. Bottom line? “Clients will never scale down on their expectations and will continue to look for the ‘wow’ factor,” says Mthombeni. “This makes it very challenging for MICE operators to deliver above expectation, within a lower budget and margin.” Conclusion Whatever you do – even within the constraints of challenging budget conditions – you just have to be different. A different approach to the food you serve The International Association of Conference Centers (IACC) is the only global professional association that represents small to medium-sized venues focused on meetings, training courses and conferences. It currently has 385 members in 22 countries in the Americas, Europe and Australia. Below are some suggestions for changing up your food offering:
  1. Local is Everything – Attendees want to experience as much as they can about their destination and this includes locally-sourced ingredients for food and beverage consumed during a conference.
  2. Network Your Heart Out– Small plates of food items, continuously served in a reception format, add a welcome diversion to an extended meeting event and help maintain energy levels.
  3. Small is the New Big!– Bite-size desserts have overtaken larger portions in popularity—if for no other reason than conferees are watching their waistlines and cholesterol levels.
  4. In with Flavour, Out with Fats!– These include protein alternatives (quinoa, amaranth, tofu, beans), whole grains, leafy green vegetables (especially kale and spinach), low fat selections and low sugar substitutions.
  5. Making and Breaking Bread Together– Culinary team-building is red hot today and nothing brings a team together more than food.
  6. Contrasting Environments – Using outside spaces to create a change in scenery and provide a casual dining experience can breathe new life into conference attendees.
  7. Finale, NOT a Gala– Gone are the days when meetings ended with an unimaginative formal gala. Meeting planners want finales that create a dynamic and stimulating experience.
  8. That’s Theatre! A little drama is a good thing for ratcheting up the conference dining experience. Add a chef interactive station, accompanied by a highly personable.
  9. Go Micro for Max Effect– With the explosive popularity of microbreweries, conference planners are looking to chefs and sommeliers to provide pre-dinner receptions and speciality dining.
  10. Infused Tea Cocktails– Drinking tea has never been more fun than with the current trend of tea-infused cocktails.  So after raising a glass of microbrew, ask your mixologist for a hibiscus tea martini!
Abu Dhabi as another Middle East option? Do you feel like you and your clients have “been there and done that” with Dubai? Well, what about fellow emirate Abu Dhabi? “Abu Dhabi is employing a strong focus on meeting the demands from the meetings and congresses sector through first-class product – air travel, hotels and luxury retail,” says Jean Martins, TCA Abu Dhabi South Africa Country Manager. “The variety of Abu Dhabi’s products, hotels and attractions are a key driver behind the MICE sector so that the destination can deliver not only a venue, but a destination experience.” The Abu Dhabi Convention Bureau also promotes Abu Dhabi by offering incentives to organisers such as free consultation and discounted accommodation rates. “Abu Dhabi has a clear target for 2018 and that is to be listed among ICCA’s annual rankings of the business association meetings cities,” says Martins. “There is a growing demand for unique and different activities, from business to leisure, and organisers are looking for destinations that cater for work in the day and after-hour leisure activities.” According to Martins, Abu Dhabi offers accessibility, diversity & quality – “all with a difference.” If you’re looking for some Abu Dhabi pointers, Martins offers the following proposed MICE itinerary: Day one: Fly in early morning and take a two-hour transfer to the Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort. This is not only a 200-room resort, but a museum where authentic Arabian artifacts are on display. Here you can conference in a state-of-the-art 300-capacity convention room whilst overlooking the changing colours of the Liwa Desert. Have your welcome cocktails on the Royal Pavilion under the stars and indulge in Arabian cuisine, Bedouin-style. Day two: Experience camel trekking at dawn and watch the sun rise over the Empty Quarter dunes. After breakfast, make your way back to the city where you will have the opportunity to take in the culture of Abu Dhabi by visiting the Heritage Village and the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Check into one of Abu Dhabi’s top hotels and enjoy dinner at Saadiyat Beach Club, an Ibiza-style private beach club. Day three: Assault your senses by having your conference at Ferrari World, the world’s largest indoor theme park, sporting the world’s fastest roller coaster as well as the highest looped roller coaster. Combine your conference with a treasure hunt team-building activity in the park, ending with a ride around the F1 racetrack. Have dinner in the landmark Emirates Palace hotel and round off the evening with a gold-leafed cappuccino with your company logo on. Day four: End your experience with an Arabian Gulf cruise on the Belevari catamaran. Enjoy an on board dinner and sundowners after frolicking in the warm Arabian waters. The Abu Dhabi skyline at night is a unique experience in itself. Reunion as another island option? Are you looking for a ‘different’ Indian Ocean island option for your incentive trip? For so long now, Mauritius has been the go-to option in this space, particularly with South African leisure travellers and corporates. The Seychelles is another attractive proposition, particularly for those with bigger budgets, although it often finds itself priced out of the market. So, what else is there? Have you thought of Reunion – another ‘African’ island option? It’s actually not an African island. In fact, it’s a region of France, but its tourism authorities seems keen on properly tapping the South African market  and recently reinvested in this market by signing an agreement for a South Africa-based office for a further three years. According to Reunion Tourism, the island is “growing in popularity with South African travellers, thanks to its exceptional experiences in culture, romance, gastronomy, well-being, adventure and outdoor activities.” Strengthening the Reunion proposition, according to the tourism authorities, are the following:
  1. It’s a short flight away
  2. South African passport holders do not need a visa
  3. Delicious food with a tasty mix of European and African influences
  4. Breath-taking scenery
  5. One of the world’s most active volcanoes
  6. A destination for all – couples, families, young and old
  7. France at your doorstep, with an island twist
  8. Leisurely times on the beach
  9. Perfect playground for active holidays
  10. Safe, secure and top-notch medical facilities
  11. Great weather all year round
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