Scanning for weak signals and making sense of them Meeting professionals need to be either following very closely or be on the leading edge of technology in a socially networked world. I think that you can expect that in five years everybody is going to want to have socially networked, mobile apps. Things that are on the cutting edge today, it is going to be blocking and tackling in five years. [They need to do what I call] trend-spotting. The signals that are weak today might be very important going forward.
You can't be in business today if you don't think global. Global thinking, languages, cultural differences, different regulations of different countries — just the knowledge of what it means to operate in the global world as opposed to our regional or domestic world. That's another key skill that I think needs to be part of the [meeting professional's] DNA.
As of today, nothing replaces — when you want to have group gatherings — face-to-face. The value you can get out of being in the bar until 2 a.m. with peers from around the country — that aspect of it I see probably being the one that has the longest tail, which is how can you network with people and really bond socially. That is something that is currently hard to replace by technology. Because at the end of the day, the delivery of the actual content is now technologically enabled by anybody who [can access] TelePresence — Cisco's TelePres-ence, that is the future.
The airlines are going to suffer and the hotels are going to suffer, because small business meetings will be conducted electronically with about 99 percent of the efficiency of being there live — without the travel headache. I think the social networking is going to be the stuff that is going to be harder to replicate.
That said, there is a generational story. For teenagers today — or our MBA [students] at Wharton — to “network,” it's as technologic as it is real-life. I think even the networking aspect of meetings is under attack by social networks, by peer groups, that are technologically enabled. I think that it's hard not to think that what has happened to so many other industries is not often going to happen to the meetings industry. For very special events, people are going to want to be there live. But at the end of the day, the technology is becoming so compelling and so cheap. Our lives are such that traveling has become so painful that it's hard not to see things moving to a much more technological environment.
[As an attendee,] I want to have the benefit of being part of the community. But I don't want to do the thing that my grandfather did as an attendee and my father did as an attendee. If I'm the meeting planner I would say, how can you really inject new life into the experience? One will inject new life into the experience by being much more multimedia, by having partnerships, by creating an experience. Much of the traditional content being delivered will now be deliverable electronically. The only way you could make me come to Vegas is if you really do a kick-ass event.
Then, you give me a kick-ass virtual experience — all immersion. For example, many retailers now are realizing [that] rather than having a whole bunch of stores that are carbon copies of each other in a particular region, they can have one. They put all of their resources in one anchor store where you actually have a virtual reality, virtual-reality fitting rooms. You get an experience.
Then the rest of the actual, normal content you would get from traditional conferences, you get that electronically. So rather than having a bunch of conferences every year in a particular industry that are kind of clones of each other, you could connect all of your resources into one kick-ass, really cool experience. You can have at one extreme this really kick-ass experience. Then kind of nothing in the middle. Then at the other extreme, just the rote dissemination of — via technology — traditional content. Digital content is changing, and the dissemination of content can be much more rich with multimedia.
[The conference model] that is the plain vanilla — let's sit in a room all day to listen to talking heads ... then let's go to the restaurant, we get drunk and go back to the hotel. That model is — I would say people will be much more selective, once they have experienced a kick-ass experience. You go to Orlando and you go to [The Wizarding World of] Harry Potter, or you go to [the Amazing Adventures of] Spider-Man [thrill ride] at Universal. It's very hard to go back and do the straight roller-coaster after you've done that.
Take the Best Buy example. People still like to touch stuff before they buy it. You can see this same thing in the exhibitor world. But what is happening is that people will go physically touch something at Best Buy. But then they go home and buy it online from somebody else. I can see that happening in the conference world as well, where you go to one or two really cool conferences. You get your fix, you get to touch things. Then you go back and the rest of the time you see the virtual [offerings]. It's going to be a tale of two cities — on one extreme, the really cool experiences; on the other, transactional dissemination.
Are meeting planners prepared? Say you had been a travel agent 20 years ago. With the benefit of hindsight, how would you have retooled to remain relevant? I would argue that ship has sailed [for travel agents]. It's too late. You're a meeting planner today. You are today where travel agents were 20 years ago. What are you going to do to retool yourself?