The best data may not provide answers, but it can raise some pretty interesting questions.
I'd just finished assembling the perspectives, facts, and figures for our 13th Annual Meetings Industry Forecast when I received an email about a new exhibition trends report from Amsterdam RAI. Wanting to make sure that I hadn't missed any new trends while culling information for that section of the forecast, I downloaded a PDF of RAI's Connected Society Trend Report.
It turns out that the report sets up a nice framework for our 20-plus pages of stats on lodging, travel, exhibitions, and technology. While it's easy to tease out from each section some of what's happening and what we can expect short-term — hotel-rate increases; slightly higher airfares and fewer mishandled bags; a growing demand to demonstrate meeting ROI; and a continued proliferation of apps and tech tools to automate processes and engage attendees — taken as a whole, what can all this information tell us about where the meetings industry is headed?
Our industry's value proposition, according to the trends report, is in helping participants make connections: “Technology makes it possible to connect everybody and everything — all the time. We call this the connected society. This trend has a huge impact on events, as connecting people is what events are all about.”
It used to be that people primarily went to conferences and conventions to learn from the speakers, and they did a little socializing on the side. But information and knowledge today is overly plentiful, as are the ways to access it. Conferences can no longer make the traditional model — speaker as teacher/attendee as student; exhibitor as seller/attendee as buyer — their main selling proposition.
Meetings technology must also forge connections. “The human factor behind technology is more important than the technology itself,” according to RAI's trends report. “People want to interact with people. Playing a game against a person you know is more fun than playing against a stranger. And this is more fun than playing against the computer.”
It's the people factor. That's why, if I were to pluck one string of data from our forecast that I found most surprising, it would be a study on online education. In 2012, 77 percent of academic leaders at 2,800-plus U.S. colleges said they perceive online education to be the same as or superior to face-to-face education. As massive open online courses (MOOCs) find widespread adoption and virtual platforms become increasingly sophisticated and interactive, why aren't academics more concerned about protecting their turf ? Probably because they recognize that it's not an either/ or proposition: In 2013, more students applied to a larger number of U.S. colleges than ever before.
What does this mean for the conference industry? Stay tuned. In next month's cover story, Senior Editor Barbara Palmer will explore the intersection between face-to-face and online learning.