GBTA Reflection: Is Bigger Always Better?

GBTA Reflection: Is Bigger Always Better?

By now, the 7,100 people who swarmed over the vast exhibit hall and jammed into scores of meeting rooms for the annual convention of the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) in Chicago last week are all back home on the job, accounting for expenses and wondering if it was worth it .

Here are three basic questions being asked in travel managers’ post-convention postmortems: Did we get our money’s worth sending people to this extravaganza, which took place over five days from August 3 to 7? Some companies spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to send people there and establish a marketing presence among the 400-plus exhibitors on the trade-show floor -- but is a giant, expensive lollapalooza in a gargantuan facility like McCormick Place, the country’s biggest convention center, really an efficient way for our people to spend four or five days? What did we get of it all?

I’m an outsider, a veteran travel columnist who has been to at least a dozen of these overproduced events over the years, not just the GBTA but even more lavish convention and trade shows by the business-jet industry and others. The nighttime corporate parties are always terrific, and the convention events themselves invariably present good opportunities for me to get to better know real players in the worlds of travel-buying and travel-selling, including the start-up innovators. Everything is grist for the mill.

But consider: I stayed at a Hilton Hampton Inn, a decidedly mid-level brand, which was a half-mile walk from McCormick Place. Convention organizers negotiate with destinations and venues for things like block rates at designated convention hotels -- but I had to wonder about how the Hampton Inn rate got negotiated. My standard room for the GBTA at the Hampton Inn – and incidentally, the WiFi in my room was unreliable in the early evenings – was $292 a night (including taxes and fees). One week after the convention ended, the same room rate was $198 (including taxes and fees).

There was a lot of discussion at the GBTA convention, not only in panels and workshops, but among attendees, about what travel managers and business travelers want these days in a convention or meeting. Is bigger always better?

McCormick Place is certainly big. It’s actually overwhelming. McCormick Place can and does attract some conventions with 80,000 or more attendees, dwarfing the GBTA’s 7,100. Its four connected buildings along Lake Michigan, two miles south of downtown Chicago, feature a bewildering maze of skywalks and escalators, and long, long corridors with sometimes baffling signage. Yet despite the expanses, many at the GBTA complained about too-small meetings rooms for popular workshop sessions that sometimes became filled to capacity, requiring the spillovers to gather glumly at designated TV viewing areas to watch presentations remotely.

The convention business is huge. Hard figures are elusive, but estimates indicate that conventions and meetings generate about $382 billion a year in spending in North America, according to a report last November by the events industry council at Oxford Economics.

The business is now undergoing disruption, as travel managers question the value of gigantic conventions, and as strong preferences of younger business travelers seep into planning consciousness. There is a lot of research on those preferences, but in general they include:

  • Demand for a level of technology at an event that is at least equal to the technology an attendee has at home
  • Emphasis on “green” concerns at the venue
  • Availability of healthy food options
  • Nearby restaurants and attractions worth visiting on off-time for “exceptional experiences”
  • Fewer “complex” meetings with thousands of attendees and more simple, better-focused ones

The list goes on. But it seemed to me and to others I spoke with that a gigantic venue like McCormick Place falls short on those counts. WiFi was often wobbly. Mountains of plastic cups flanked water coolers. Some meeting-room audio and visual systems were mediocre. Food outlets inside the center were meager and were basically of the sports-arena variety, and even the McDonald’s was shuttered by late afternoon.

McCormick Place is also marooned in what The Chicago Tribune described as “a barren section of Chicago.” The American Institute of Architects "Guide to Chicago" says of McCormick Place: "This structural tour de force, which brutally interrupts the sweep of the lakefront, is one of Chicago's biggest planning gaffes.”

Incidentally, it would be a mistake to assume that younger travelers and travel managers who listen to them want to avoid face-to-face meetings and events away from home. Overwhelmingly, they say they value meetings, but question whether what worked 20 or even 10 years ago is working as well today.

There’s been robust growth in simpler, more sharply focused meetings. Corporate travel managers, many of whom switch hats to act as meetings planners dealing with hotels and venues, say they need better data to more effectively analyze return-of-investment for meetings and conventions, which account for more than 40 percent of all business travel expenditures.

Charles de Gaspe Beaubien, the CEO of Groupize, which markets technology for sourcing, bidding, booking and tracking for simple corporate meetings, says, “None of us can fix what we can’t measure. The industry has struggled to collect meetings data, especially for simple meetings, and the lack of data is the main reason travel managers, CFOs, and procurement managers aren’t more focused on controlling this spend.”

He was one of the presenters at a GBTA session called “Finding and managing simple meetings in your travel program.” At the same panel, Hannah Kate McWilliams, a manager at Cvent who works with companies to develop strategic meetings management programs, said that simpler meetings are “not necessarily about size” but mainly about sharper focus, including the ability and more carefully evaluate spending and results.

Added Charles de Gaspe Beaubien, “People are looking at their meetings programs and saying, ‘We have got to be more efficient’.”

About the Author: Joe Sharkey
Joe Sharkey’s work appears in major national and international publications. For 19 years, until 2015, he was a columnist for the New York Times — for 16 years doing the weekly “On the Road” column on business travel, and before that the weekly “Jersey” column for three years. He is currently a columnist with Business Jet Traveler magazine, and an adjunct professor of journalism at the University of Arizona. A Vietnam veteran, he has written five books, four non-fiction and a novel. One of his nonfiction books, “Above Suspicion,” has been adapted as a major motion picture starring Emilia Clarke, Jack Huston, Thora Birch and Johnny Knoxville (and directed by Phillip Noyce), to be released soon. In January 2017, a new, revised edition of his book “Above Suspicion” was published in print and as an e-book by Open Road Media. Penguin Random House also released an audio book version in January. Open Road also published revised editions in e-book format of his true-crime books “Death Sentence” and “Deadly Greed.” In January 2018, the revised edition of “Death Sentence” was published in print by Open Road Media. In his newspaper career before the New York Times, he was an assistant national editor at the Wall Street Journal; the executive city editor of the Albany (N.Y.) Times-Union; and a reporter and columnist with the Philadelphia Inquirer. On Sept. 29, 2006, while on assignment, he was one of seven people on a business jet who survived a mid-air collision with a 737 at 37,000 feet over the Amazon in Brazil. All 154 on the commercial airliner died. His reports on the crash appeared on the front page of the New York Times and later in the Sunday Times of London Magazine. He and his wife Nancy (who is a professor of journalism at the University of Arizona) live in Tucson — where he is also working on a new novel about the exploits of an international travel writer who hates to travel. .