Meetings, conventions and exhibitions are evolving constantly and rapidly these days, driven by a host of factors ranging from changing attendance and financial patterns to the more sophisticated communications and technology demands of a new generation of delegates. But in an ongoing soft economy, the big question is how to successfully adapt when financing may be in short supply – and the answer is as important to clients as it is to the convention centres themselves.
While a decision to change the format of an event is relatively easy, it is not as simple a matter for a convention centre that is, after all, a literally concrete structure with only so much design flexibility. As far as finances are concerned, there are also challenges that need to be addressed, given that some of the most basic assumptions around convention centre financing – the role of governments, for example – are now under a lot of stress due to the ongoing financial uncertainties enveloping the world.
Responding to different service and configuration expectations as well as adapting financial models have thus become major pre-occupations for both convention centre managers and those engaged in planning for the facilities of the future. Here’s a look at some of the big issues facing convention centres today, and how this may affect interactions between convention centres and both their suppliers and clients.
Flexibility is the priority
Events used to have a largely predictable combination of space requirements, where even the proportions of different spaces were well established, and most convention centres were designed accordingly. Now, along with changing formats are coming spatial requirements that are testing the limits of how spaces with relatively fixed dimensions and particular combinations of finishes can respond. A major overhaul of spaces is simply not an option for many convention centres – and besides, there is little reason to think that these will not simply evolve again in the future.
For new design, the emphasis has shifted to flexibility – spaces that can serve a variety of purposes and that can be organized in a variety of ways without major disruption. In fact, “multi-purpose spaces” have become one of the most important design factors in new convention centres on the assumption that we really have little idea what the exact needs of the future will be.
Working in the envelope
For existing convention centres, the job is tougher, but lots of strategies exist that enable centres to create more flexibility and more are being developed every day. Large spaces can be subdivided to accommodate demands for more breakout spaces, while informal areas can be redeveloped in what may have been public or pre-function spaces to accommodate growing interest in small group gatherings. Often it can be a matter of something as simple as replacing or even just re-arranging furniture, particularly when meetings are spontaneous and self-generated.
On the other hand, in many cases finishes are being made less specialized so that the same area can serve many different functions and be differentiated through the use of lighting and floor treatments that can be more readily changed than distinctive finishes. In any case, making the best use of this flexibility demands good and early communications between the centre and client to make sure both are aware of the available options.
Designing for the business
Convention centres are also having to become increasingly realistic about the kind of business opportunities they can expect, based on external factors such as transportation access and accommodation as well as the capabilities of the centre itself, since design can and should be directed toward the best opportunities rather than creating a more generalized configuration that will require endless and potentially costly adaptation.
Another new and important trend along these lines can be seen in the refocusing of convention centre designs to put a priority on their ability to host multiple, simultaneous events rather than single larger ones. This is a logical reaction to the fact that the majority of events now in the market are of small to medium size and a capability to offer discrete and dedicated combinations of space to more than one event at a time not only expands the overall business opportunity but often offers greater efficiency in related areas such as accommodation, transportation and even the loading in and out processes.
Technology is king
Nowhere have expectations changed faster than in the world of technology, where new innovations and the rise of social networking as a major event component can create expectations and agendas far in advance of an event and when both sessions and presentations require ever-more sophisticated support up to and including remote participation. The good news is that much of the new technology is wireless and user-driven, which means that the main challenge for convention centres is often more related to capacity than hardware.
However, there is also some bad news: new technology and capacity have to be paid for. As demands grow and expectations for free services increase, the ability to finance required additional capacity becomes a huge challenge. This can create tensions that make it more difficult for convention centres and their clients to come to an understanding, particularly in times where finances are strained all around.
Another big technology question is based on the fact that as perhaps the most rapid area of change, it requires constant monitoring and updating of both equipment and expertise, which raises questions like what to invest in and who should do the investing.
In-house versus outsourcing has therefore become another part of the puzzle:
- Should convention centres be making these investments themselves, or look to outside suppliers to both supply the expertise and take the risk?
- Will larger events of the future be more likely to arrive with their own technology, and if so, how will this interface with in-house capabilities?
- Will areas like virtual or hybrid meetings eventually require dedicated spaces, complicating the configuration issue even further?
These are all questions that convention centres will need to address in order to be better prepared for eventualities, and once again, clients need to be a part of the discussion.
Food and beverage a distinguishing feature
One area that has evolved more than most is the matter of more sophisticated food and beverage (F&B). In fact, this has in many cases become a defining factor for many events and a big issue for both planners and delegates. Here again, convention centres have responded with innovation and creativity, to the point where one of the primary selling features many centres is their cuisine, and how it not only delivers quality but often reflects the local experience. One feature of particular note is how many centres now address their sustainability agenda through meal services, with local food products and sustainable preparation forming an important part of the product offering.
Unlike other service areas, this seems to be one where there is less resistance to incremental costs, likely because it is a matter of choice and the results are so immediately obvious to delegates. As such, it’s an area where once again early collaboration can create a win for both parties in terms of an enhanced delegate experience and optimal value for money.
Support service expectations are growing
Another area of increasing demand is that of overall event servicing, sometimes extending even to assistance with on-site coordination. Many convention centres are now being called upon to deliver these higher levels of event support not only because of increasing event complexity, but also because the client’s own resources may have been reduced as a result of corporate or association cutbacks and outsourcing.
Generally, convention centres have done everything they can to accommodate such requests – but when it reaches a point where they need to beef up their own staff, it quickly becomes a matter of cost increases and the question of who will pay. Interim measures are something everyone tries to address; however, when those expectations become ongoing, it again creates challenges around the whole financial equation.
New conditions demand new relationships
A lot of the financial basis for the meetings industry was built on the willingness of governments to invest in facilities that would attract major events in return for an anticipated benefit in the form of economic impacts from delegate spending. The formula still works – but more and more governments are simply incapable of making the major investments required to build and maintain costly facilities. Furthermore, this can only be expected to get worse, at least for the foreseeable future, while global economic uncertainties remain. Under these conditions, the expectation that convention centres will continue to make major concessions in order to secure business becomes less realistic, and alternatives need to be considered.
Various convention centres are now exploring new models for how risk and reward are shared, including financial concessions in return for participation in any upside that may result from increased attendance. Similarly, strategies that reduce costs and increase certainty – like multi-year agreements or guarantees of particular service levels – can introduce new ways of ensuring everyone can benefit from a successful event. These will have to be the innovations of the future if there is to be the kind of equitable distribution of costs and benefits needed to sustain the industry.
As noted, good communication is the key to all these issues – and should be a top priority for convention centres and clients alike. Knowing what challenges each party is facing, and being willing to pursue collective solutions to these has been a key to success in the past and will be even more important as we evolve together into a future that we can only begin to imagine.