Politicians Forum 2015 review

Government and industry alignment tops agenda in Frankfurt IMEX_Politicians -Forum

James Latham, Founder, International Meetings Review, reports from the Politicians Forum 2015:

The theme of the 13th edition of the IMEX Politicians Forum, introduced by moderator Michael Hirst OBE, to 36 attending politicians and 89 meeting industry leaders was `How do I attract more meetings and events to my destination?`

Hirst drew on a litany of justifications for why destinations might want to invest in attracting business events to their cities, regions or countries; “Is it”, he asked of the politicians, “to attract trade and increase inward investment, stimulate job creation, spread knowledge, improve professional practices, enhance innovation and creative enterprise, nurture community cohesion, stimulate regeneration and infrastructure, sustain long term economic growth and stability, as well as enrich the visitor economy and shape your destinations?”, he asked them. “All of you”, he concluded, “are seeking sustainable solutions to strong economic development”.

Keynote identifies early collaboration through meetings

As an academic, not a member of the meetings industry, the fact that Professor Mary O`Kane (New South Wales chief scientist and engineer) delivered the keynote address was in itself significant. “We are, of course, fully aligned in New South Wales”, she said, referring to the role that research and academic institutions play in supporting the development of a knowledge economy in sectors identified for growth.

Ears pricked…..

“National, regional and local economies are increasingly knowledge intensive”, she said. “Knowledge is a fast-moving ephemeral global commodity. If your knowledge economy is going to be successful you need to be able to access leading-edge developments in knowledge and translate them into local things. And you need to access knowledge workers who can turn this leading-edge knowledge into something for you”, she opened.

Likening Australia to a big farm or quarry; “We mine and we grow things. But we invest a lot of effort into value adding to those disciplines, such as automated mining, and therefore we host many high-value conferences, for example on autonomous robotic systems.”

O`Kane explained that Australia learned how meetings and business events support the development of its knowledge economy the hard way.

The country had traditionally produced 3% of the world`s scientific papers. This was important because it allowed access to the other 97% and meant that Australia could remain fully informed. It was also important because it enabled Australia to take part in global research and collaboration whilst benchmarking where Australia sat within competitive indices including the Economic Forum Index and the Global Innovation Index - profilers for attracting investors and talent as well as measuring competitiveness in innovation.

But in the 1990s, Australia`s contribution to the global scientific body of knowledge declined. Studies revealed that this was because Australia was increasingly educating PhD students at home (compared to O`Kane`s generation who had studied overseas in the US, the UK and Italy for example). Young researchers finishing PhDs to doctorate level were no longer building the enormous international networks of their predecessors and as a result Australia was becoming disengaged from international knowledge-based networks and their associated collaborative research - two of the essential pillars to innovation and productivity growth according to the OECD.

If early career researchers were no longer accessing these networks, then Australia needed to find alternative channels.

Business events to the rescue

The most obvious means of re-connecting and re-engaging with the international community has been to aggressively seek out and attract international conferences and meetings in sectors of importance identified within economic development frameworks.

And when in town, O`Kane stressed that `out-of-conference` networking has proved just as important as the formal activity of conferences when it comes to building trust, relationships and developing collaborative research projects. Whether it be informally at a dinner overlooking Sydney Harbour, in a local laboratory, or subsequently online, conferences are yielding access to the world`s greatest minds, formulation and statement of specific problems, identifying frameworks for research-based solutions, and encouraging world-class knowledge workers to migrate to Australia.

The link between collaborative research and productivity

While introducing OECD`s Scoreboard for Knowledge Collaboration (1998-2013), O`Kane confirmed that high quality research as defined by citations (around the world) is shifting from individuals to groups and from single to multiple institutions (around the world). China, virtually obsolete within these rankings in 1998, had emerged through collaborative research (not just with Australia) as a significant intellectual powerhouse by 2008 in the production, co-publishing and citation of high-quality scientific research.

The parallels O`Kane drew between those countries that ranked highly for the co-authoring and publication of quality research with rankings for innovation and productivity were uncanny, suggesting an undeniable link between collaborative research and productivity.

The underlying question O`Kane then posed to politicians and industry in attendance was whether or not the early collaboration resulting in the co-publication of scientific research, and links to subsequent innovation and productivity rankings, could be tracked back [longitudinally] to attendance at specific conferences.

Separately, O`Kane confirmed her suspicions stating that “innovation and collaboration are very much contact sports”, continuing, “there`s a lot of evidence that early collaborations start through the meetings industry. Tracking that back is an important thing and something that I will be raising with the Global Innovation Index [because I`m on their Advisory Board]. It`s a very exciting thing to look at and to see if we can establish that link”.

Alignment to economic development strategy

In turning their attention to political cohesion, delegates shared their own experiences regarding the alignment of political institutions, government agencies and the private sector to a city, regional or national development framework.

Echoing Sydney`s academic interpretation, Geoff Donaghy, AIPC President and chief executive of the upcoming ICC Sydney imparted that before establishing the industry model for public-private partnership, destinations must have industry-government partnership based on a firm understanding of the tourism and especially `beyond tourism` benefits in innovation and knowledge, research, skills development, talent attraction, trade and investment. “Once a destination`s policy – at country state or city level - is set to target collaborative partnership in science, business, academia and professional development, then it is well on its way to success”, he said.

Jon Mamela of the Canadian Tourism Commission explained that Business Events Canada has aligned the organisation`s sales and marketing activity around the Federal Tourism Strategy, but also Canada`s Global Markets Action Plan in seven key verticals. By bringing private industry, universities and government to collectively focus on the verticals` association and other business events, and using federal representatives in embassies and consulates around the world to bring these events to Canada under the brand of `Beauty and Brains`, Canada is successfully pitching the combination of her knowledge assets with those of her unrivalled environment. This is important not just for winning bids, but also to introduce Canada to migrating knowledge workers to support sector development.

The Deputy Minister of the South African National Department of Tourism, Tokosile Xasa, explained that South Africa`s business events strategy is aligned to six sectors: manufacturing, mining and metals, business process outsourcing, creative industries, life sciences and ICT.

“Hosting major events in these sectors contributes to growing our knowledge economy and delivers micro-economic benefits in tourism”. 

Creating a community rallying call

Lionel Yeo of the Singapore Tourism Board explained that working across the spectrum of  congress ambassadors, industry and government to deliver a `Singapore Inc.`offer; “you need to frame policy and community objectives that can rally people. This would call on us to talk about the impact of business events beyond the (tourism) dollar impact”, he  said. “So, how does it play into a broader national economic strategy of building industry verticals? How does it play into a broader national strategy of attracting regional or global  company headquarters to be here? And how does it play in our positioning as a global hub  for talent, for ideas and for networks?”, he asked. “I think if we`re able to articulate  those policy and community goals then we have a better chance of rallying people behind  a common goal."

Building brand equity

Following a video intervention from SAP chief executive and IMEX Opening Ceremony  keynote, Bill McDermott, to attendees of the Forum, Paul Vandeventer, chief executive of  industry association MPI (Meeting Professionals International) was compelled to agree with  the corporate`s perspective.

Sharing research results from MPI`s recent Business Barometer Study, he commented; “Bill said it all. [Event] planners want to improve delegate numbers, realise a great experience and feel that they are getting great value for money. But importantly for destinations they need to invest in building and maintaining relationships and trust. They also need to develop a unique offer and this can be a cultural experience or a specialty in a sector or industry vertical.”

Ragnheidure Elin Arnadottir, Minister of Industry & Commerce for Iceland, explaining that location and accessibility have a significant bearing on business (or governmental) events destination selection emphasized that by being just three hours from anywhere in Europe and only five hours from East Coast US, location can be a major draw. No one can deny that the Gorbachev Reagan Summit of 1986 established Reykjavik`s meetings credentials and today Iceland provides more direct flights (114 per week) from Iceland to the US than the whole of the other Nordic capitals combined. The thrust of her intervention was, however, to promote a `nexus` position for the Transatlantic market, a position that emerging Middle East destinations such as Abu Dhabi major on for global events.

Neil Brownlee, Head of Business Events for Scotland, explained that hosting the recent Ryder Cup and the Commonwealth Games has been used to great effect in leveraging the country`s business events appeal. Brownlee warned government, however, that it should always recognise the marketing of a destination`s business events offer as a unique specialisation compared to cultural events marketing.” Don`t let (the marketing) get smothered by other types of events, be they sporting or cultural. They`re useful cousins in some respects but business events (marketing) is highly specialised and should be given over to nobody (other than specialists) to advocate it”, he stated.

Martin Lewis, Publisher of Intellectual Capitals echoed the comments from a media perspective calling for a destination`s differentiation to be knowledge-based. “The congress industry isn`t about bricks anymore, it`s about brains. It`s not about infrastructure, it`s about people and networks. It`s about the intellectual capital of a city and its unique selling point is being the honeypot of knowledge in a particular sector or discipline,” he claimed.

The emphasis on alignment to government sector development strategy and local expertise was consolidated by Matthias Schultze, Managing Director of the German Convention Bureau, which has recently conducted research into what it is that conference organisers want from destinations. The answer he said, “is knowledge”, quoting a local professor who quipped; “no knowledge, no meeting”, and concluding that he had no intention of competing against Brazil for its beaches…

With Germany number one in Europe and number two worldwide for hosting international association meetings, attracting 383m delegates and 3m meetings in 2014 alone, who`s to say that his strategic emphasis on Germany`s expertise in priority clusters is off the mark?

Read more on Germany's 'success through expertise'


A little bit pregnant?

This edition of the Politicians Forum certainly recognised the outputs that business events deliver in inward investment, knowledge transfer and talent acquisition aligned to a destination`s economic development and the contribution to its knowledge economy. But it remains important to acknowledge the high-value visitor economy that 2,000 or 10,000 delegates deliver when they come to town, especially for governments who are being called on to invest in convention centre infrastructure and destination marketing. Lest we forget amid the euphoria of industry alignment to broader economic development, tourism as a transformational sector in its own right is often ranked as highly as life sciences for many of the political classes – just ask Dubai.

A balanced approach by destinations is one which marries the economic impacts (in tourism) of a high-value visitor economy with those of the broader business event outputs (beyond tourism). To demonstrate this and more, here is one final video shown at the Forum. It certainly struck a chord with delegates and helped to illustrate the perfect storm resulting when those impacts and outputs converge as a result of a vision shared by both government and industry….


Political will is essential for a business events strategy to support a destination`s success and it requires significant investments in infrastructure and marketing. As Donaghy concluded, “To have the convention and exhibition facilities with the capacities that are demanded by an increasingly competitive marketplace is absolutely critical because without those facilities in a city, you are just not in this business quite frankly. And you can`t be in it just a little bit, just as you can`t be a little bit pregnant.”

The next IMEX Politicians Forum takes place April 19, 2016, in Frankfurt. More information here.