After postponing in late spring, facing down pandemic uncertainty, and mounting a large-scale communications and planning campaign, Meeting Professionals International
this week became the first meetings industry association to hold a large-scale, face-to-face event. Its World Education Congress opened in Grapevine, Texas, on Tuesday night with 644 in-person attendees at the Gaylord Texan Resort & Convention Center, plus 1,090 online attendees for the concurrent virtual event.
In a press conference at the start of the hybrid meeting, Paul VanDeventer, MPI’s president and CEO, talked about both the obligations and the emotion of meeting in person for the first time since last winter.
“There is a great responsibility that we have in hosting this, and hosting it well, because the industry is looking to us,” said VanDeventer. “In the last month, and even more so in the last couple of days, I've received countless messages from significant industry leaders—and many leaders outside our industry—who say, ‘the world is watching you.’”
The meeting, said VanDeventer, “is about fulfilling the mission of what we do.…Business events are critical to innovation; they're critical to economies, and they're critical to economic recovery. Our board, our staff, and our volunteer leaders have all been committed to host WEC if we can do so safely. And that is the intent this week: To demonstrate how a conference, a live event, can be put on in a new normal. … Duty of care is the most critical thing we'll be demonstrating, and attendees’ wellness is our top priority in every decision that we make.
“We're trying a lot of new things,” he continued. “We're trying new technologies; we're trying new ways to interact and network. We're having a dual program, digital and in person. There's a lot of complexity to that. But that is not our biggest risk. Our biggest risk is that we don't demonstrate the proper [procedures for] wellness.”
VanDeventer called the event an “emotional roller coaster” and, choking up a bit, praised the staff, volunteer leaders, and board for their work. “We've all had sleepless nights. I think the stresses wore on us and that makes it more emotional. But we believe in what we're doing, and I believe in this team, and I believe in our partners, and I'm just so impressed by how everyone’s come together.”
While 644 people attended the event in person, 360 others registered to come to Grapevine but took advantage of MPI’s risk-free registration policy. Because of the pandemic, attendees could get a full refund of registration and housing costs up until two weeks before the event. Alternatively, they could change their registration to the event’s online experience or defer their payment towards registration for WEC Las Vegas in mid-2021. Overall, this WEC will see significantly less revenue from the event than in previous years. While it normally draws 2,500 to 3,000 attendees and charges registration fees in excess of $1,000, this year’s prices were adjusted because of the financial distress the industry is facing to $799 in person or $299 for the virtual event.
During another segment of the press event, MPI’s COO Darren Temple talked about a process called future association strategic transformation, or FAST. The association is working on with consultancy MCI USA to create a roadmap for the next 18 to 24 months, and eventually a vision through 2025.
Out of the visioning process, MPI has developed a number of tactics, including plans to invest in marketing-automation platforms that include an AI component allowing them to connect better with members and non-members. “While we value our 16,000 members today,” Temple said, “we want to grow to be a community of over 200,000 engaged professionals. We want MPI to be the home for the industry, where you come for the best networking, the best education, and the best marketplace. That's our goal.”
They also want to improve the distribution channels for MPI education in order to grow the brand and to become an umbrella organization for the industry. “There are still 35 disparate [meetings] industry organizations in North America today. Some are very relevant, and some were just born out of fragmented special interest groups. We believe we can be the industry home for many of those organizations.”