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Meetings Industry Makes the Difference
May 7, 2015   
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Tom Hulton, Director of International Relations at IMEX Group, talks to the Voice’s Juliusz Kłosowski.

Why is the meetings industry important in today’s economies and the global economy as a whole? How would you describe its role in the contemporary world?
It would be hard to overestimate the impact of professionally organized conferences, congresses and other types of trade or business meetings of different scale. Directly and indirectly, the meetings industry generates employment, develops trade, drives exports, promotes creative enterprise, spreads knowledge and stimulates culture. Meetings are a key element of our culture and civilization, hence the meetings industry plays a very important role globally and locally. Firstly, jobs created directly by the industry: in the United States the figure was just a little under 2 million in 2012. The total contribution to the GDP in the U.S. was then around $115 billion, and the value in taxes was about $28 billion.

The industry brings significant revenue and positive drive to economies. Let me give you a different type of example, from Europe. The European Congress of Cardiology, organized in 2008 in Vienna, brought together 33,000 delegates from around the world. They accounted for 153,000 hotel nights . Half of them used Vienna’s public transportation. Each of them spent hundreds of euros per day. In summary, the total tax income for Vienna has been estimated at 5.4 million euros, and the total contribution to Austrian GDP at 106 million euros. And we are talking about just one, no matter how big, but one congress. With an appropriate number of smaller conferences the results would be (and are) also very attractive. And here is where Poland has great potential.

You mean Poland does not have the kind of infrastructure for such big meetings as Vienna, for example?
I am sure you can manage to organize relatively big events, however I see some Polish cities have an infrastructure especially well prepared for meetings of a smaller and medium size. Up to a thousand or a couple thousand, I’d say. That’s very encouraging since meetings up to one thousand are the majority of the market. Generally, this is the core of the business. In the UK, for example, 64 percent of meetings are on a smaller scale. And we are talking about a market where the total contribution of the meetings industry to the GDP was around 58 billion pounds in 2011, which translates into 2.9% of GDP. The meetings industry in the UK creates about half a million jobs, which is double that of the telecom industry.

In order to develop its meetings industry Poland needs to attract more international meetings, and this means it needs to promote its destinations. The problem is there are not sufficient funds for that in Poland. Any advice on how this could be remedied?
A good idea might be to draw on international experience. You may consider, for example, bringing in a form of a bed tax or local tourism fee, regardless of what you want to call it. A good part of the world’s meetings destinations is benefiting from this concept. We are talking about a situation where every visitor to a destination is contributing relatively small money to be used for the benefit of a local tourist product. If the product is the meetings industry, the money goes to pay for investment in the field, including marketing. For example, in the U.S. this is a very common solution. Almost every meeting destination uses it. In Europe it is also very popular. Vienna, Amsterdam, many successful destinations in the UK, France, Germany, Spain and other countries are benefiting from it. Some destinations are covering half or more of their marketing spending using funds coming from a bed tax.

Another good idea might be to consider supporting the meetings industry with subventions or financial support from government. This would definitely help Polish enterprises in the sector to compete at the international level. Nowadays, it is hard to expect much success when we speak about bringing international meetings to a new destination if one does not have support from the local authorities, City Hall, or the government. Subventions are a sensitive issue and the subject of considerable debate. However, they do bring in considerable return on the investment in an entirely transparent way. And this is very important.

IMEX, the leading international event for the meetings industry held every May in Frankfurt, includes the Politicians Forum, a meeting that is increasingly popular among government officials from around the world. You are responsible for the Forum and its development. How does the Forum work for participants?
The Forum is a place where, being a local politician or city mayor, you gain international contacts, a lot of networking opportunities with other politicians and knowledge about the meetings industry and how it is being stimulated and developed elsewhere. Importantly, this knowledge comes mainly from successful destinations, not from theoreticians or academics. The Politicians Forum includes a lot of case studies from successful destinations, an exchange of information about the economic and social impact of the meetings industry on cities. And that is what’s most important for a politician or city leader: to actually stimulate the development of the city, of local communities, local culture and social life—all this by developing the meetings industry and bringing better international recognition for the destination.
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