Mark Cooper: “Everything has changed, but also nothing has changed”



# tags: Venues , Associations

Venues are facing new challenges as the events are coming back in a live or hybrid format. We have reached to Mark Cooper, IACC Meeting Venues, to understand how can event venues tackle the new landscape of business events.

Can you please start by explaining what is your association and what you do?

I’m the CEO of an organisation called IACC. It was formerly the International Association of Conference Centres, referred to now simply as IACC Meeting Venues. We are a collection of 400 dedicated and specialist small conference, meeting and training venues around the globe. We are in 26 countries, very strong in Europe. As an association, our reason of being is to be the thought leaders for delivering meetings in the future and we disseminate trends and research and bring together the creative minds to share ideas that matter across regions and across countries.

After so many months dealing with Covid-19, a lot has changed in the events industry. When you think about it, F&B was probably one of the areas where we saw more profound changes. What are your insights on this?

First of all, I would agree with you. Everything has changed, but also nothing has changed. When I say nothing has changed, it is our desire to meet in person and to solve problems in person. That has not gone away. But what we want to do and when we meet and the environments where we meet in have changed. We are very fortunate that the IACC member venues because they specialise in smaller training and smaller conferences, they have reopened for business earlier than larger meeting venues and arguably some of them never closed at all. And what we found is that food and beverage is really an interesting area that has changed. In the past we were very happy to be, for instance, in shared dining rooms, that would provide buffet lunches, there would be a mixture of different groups in the same dining area. And now, unsurprisingly, we see a real shift towards venues staging private lunches, private breakfast, private dinners for those groups. Whilst they still want to collaborate with each other within the same group, the same community, there is less appetite for doing that in a shared dining environment. As a result of that, of course venues have the ability to be more creative and they also brought in, for instance, a private chef, or a private team that will cater for that group for the duration of that meeting.

We also have seen again, linked to what we’ve experience as human beings over the last two years, a real desire to stage and hold some of those dining experiences outdoors, in the fresh air and away from high concentration areas indoors. Of course that’s been again fueled by that desire to be outdoors as much as possible. From Covid perspectives, we know the reasons why, but actually if you think about it we’ve always known that the fresh air and the outdoors open your mind and create a much more nicer social experience. So we’ve seen venues that deliberately extended their food and beverage service areas to include the outdoors. They’ve turned gardens into outdoor dining and outdoor bar facilities and we think that is really a long term solution for the industry.

We are coming out of this global pandemic much more aware of our carbon footprint. From looking at the amount of waste we created, and plastic packages when we were forced to stay at home and looked at our own rubbish bin and seen how much a household when we are not dining out or travelling consumes and throws away. We got attendees now that have seen this first-hand and coming back to live meetings they are less tolerant of seeing waste, they don’t want to see a buffet at the end of lunch service being wasted and thrown away and so they are much more aware of waste, they are contributing to and I expect we will see more measurement around the carbon footprint in meetings in the future, because we care about it.

So do you think that nowadays sustainability will be more relevant for clients, for participants?

I’m very confident that the answer to that question is yes and the reason being not only because we have worked out that we cannot overcome the power of nature and we’ve seen those effects firsthand that climate change is having around the world but also that there is a corporate desire for more sustainable practices. A lot of large organisations that use our venues for their meetings, conferences and training are linked to Stock Exchange, have investors, and those investors are pushing for the organisations they are investing in to have a greater social impact. So the desire to stage more sustainable meetings is not just coming from the attendee and from the venues, is coming from the organisations.

Venues and stakeholders and suppliers who are involved in our wonderful industry will have to get much better at the measurement of their carbon footprint as it relates to their whole event. Sustainable meetings and social responsible meetings are going to be something that is much more important in the future.

I’m sure you agree that profit is one of the main goals of any business. With the pandemic is it possible for a venue to be as profitable as it was before? And how can business models adjust?

Undoubtedly they will need to be profitable and attractive to those who want to work in it. But I do believe as well venues cannot return to deliver meetings and hospitality in the way they did before and be as profitable as they were before. We have to make this shift in terms of the product, in terms of the services, and realize that what our customers want to buy is different and we have to adapt our business models to do that. What might that new business models mean? Let me give you an example of what is likely to happen. We’ve seen through the decentralisation of some of the world’s largest corporate organisations, and when I say decentralisation what I mean is they are moving from a single headquarters in London, or Lisbon, or Paris, to spreading their work force more regionally and more home working and they are releasing those spaces. What they’ve done is that they have also released their internal meeting spaces. They have taken away that opportunity for individuals and small groups to have team meetings and that I believe is going to lead to the need of more external meetings and for more external meeting venues for bringing together regional groups of employees in less formal meeting environments as well. And there is an opportunity for us to develop our small meetings facilities and venues.

We also coin the phrase now that we are moving away from analog meetings and it has taken the last 2 years to really push us in the direction of digital meetings, so if you’re a venue that offers poor internet infrastructure you are still part of that analogue meeting venues. If you don’t change your credentials and make sure you’re robust in terms of internet infrastructure, have the skills of an IT team, if you’re not ready to embrace and deliver services to the new range of meetings, again I don’t believe the profitability success will be there. Part of this transformation, the venues need to make sure that they are communicating the credentials that meeting planners want in the future. There is a lot more that they need in terms of support from venues, outside just the standard hospitality, good food, a nice table, a nice chair and a nice meeting room environment. The credentials the venues need to offer, the services that they need to offer, need to go wider now, need to be broader, particularly related to, for instance, to the digital capabilities of the meeting and the needs because they are numerous now.

Information is now even more essential, what can venues do to make sure that information flows between all the people at an event, the stakeholders?

What we’ve seen in the last couple of years is an accelerated move towards virtual site inspections, for instance, so that again embracing the ability of the new technologies now and for information to flow between the venues and the meeting professional organising it in a different way. That has accelerated and the abilities to bring people into not only a zoom session from different stakeholder groups for a meeting, that doesn’t require us to get into a car or into an airplane to conduct those meetings. It’s very impressive. There are some great examples of virtual site inspections that is a combination of a zoom meeting and augmented reality and a walk through of the meeting space and being able to visualise it. That information flow has improved in my view and that links very well to our sustainable footprint. If we don’t have to travel twice to plan for a meeting in advance, we can actually be more productive as well.

There is also as well a lot more desire to book online, so because of the travel restrictions in place as well that’s another reason why it’s not easy for us to access a number of venues in person anymore, so having the information, rich information, videos, factsheets, everything that you would handover during a face-to-face meeting. Having that ability to do that and make a quick decision and book online and commit contract for an events space and food and beverage is something that we expect to see a lot more because we have a generation that’s coming into this industry now that don’t have the ways of working in the past than considering venues in their mind it can be much more transactional for them because they are comfortable on purchasing online.

We are talking about so many changes, what do you think it will happen to prices?

I believe the price will go up. It has to increase in the short term because of the increased cost of labour, services and products. And we’ve seen this in the marketplace because of how quickly our economies have open back up again. Also in the hospitality sector we are having to recruit and win back the hearts and minds. I called it putting the heart back in the hospitality. It doesn’t escape anybody that if we work in the hospitality sector, either in the last two years or during the economic crisis of 2008, or even back before then, as a subsequence of 9/11, those big shocks do to the way we work, travel, eat and meet, all of them translated into severe impact on the hospitality industry. So we are going to get to work harder to create the environment that people want to forge their career in hospitality, we are going to have to pay more, we’re going to have to bring the average hours down, is no longer acceptable to have a chef and expect him to work 80 hours a week, every week. As a direct impact of us staffing differently, of course the prices are going to go up. As we consider that, the value of meetings are also going to go up as well. The fact that we haven’t been able to meet has put a lens on something that we’ve missed dearly. The cost of meetings can go up and arguably needs to go up, but also the value of meetings in the attendees mind and the organisations mind is perhaps a little higher as well.

And do you think that clients are willing to pay more?

I’ll give you an example. What we’ve seen in some parts of the US, in countries like Denmark, in Sweden, Netherlands, where meetings have come back at such a ferocious rate that there isn’t actually the space there to be able to accommodate the demand for meetings. It has become a sellers’ market and they have been able to charge fair, but higher prices. Yes, within reason we have seen the prices increasing, we are seeing the acceptance of that from a clients perspective because it’s the same on all element of the procurement process. I believe it is an opportunity for some rightsizing as well where fair prices are charged and we are not just simply falling into a hyper competitive environment with cost cutting because that’s not good for the long term of the industry or the people who work within it.

* First published at Event Point International 16