After attending MPI’s World Education Congress in June 2016, MM&E’s Julie Johnson caught up with MPI chief executive Paul VanDeventer for some thoughts on the current state of the meeting and event world. VanDeventer has led the Dallas-based professional development organization since 2013.
MPI, which stands for Meeting Professionals International, operates via 90-plus chapters and clubs in 24 countries.
MM&E: We’re hearing that the meeting and event industry is in a good place, seeing growth after challenging times. Do you agree with that?
VanDeventer: If you look at it from a U.S. and North American perspective, it’s clearly a healthy market, much stronger than a few years ago. If you look globally, it’s more of a mixed bag. We use a variety of data sources for information on that, such as American Express’s annual study, STR’s data, Cvent studies, and some other major influencers. If you look at all those, we’re seeing a combination of growth in meetings, budgets, and projected meetings. There are underlying positives. What we’re not seeing is the budget growing at the same rate as the size and frequency of meetings. So the planner is challenged to deliver more content to a larger audience, with less budget per person.
Another challenge is, it’s been a unique recession we’ve had. Normally you start to see forward projections in hotel building and construction; that all comes forward, and provides more inventory. We didn’t see that coming into this turnaround.
Yet another challenge is the amount of space planners have available, and the cost of it, which is still high. Planners have to look at new solutions, whether those are new venues, the secondary market, meetings at off-peak times… they’re having to get more creative.
MM&E: What are some other factors you think have influenced the industry’s current status?
VanDeventer: Something else that has fed into it is the fact that the workforce is now a majority of millennials. As the workforce changes and you have large growth in that area, you have to be able to educate and train those people. That’s driving a lot of meetings today. We have a “millennial attitude” that, one of the most important things to them is having a company investing in them and giving them opportunities to learn and grow. They want face-to-face interaction, and companies are recognizing that.
There has to be the ability to leverage modern technology to make meetings more effective, extend their reach, and integrate a combination of live-audience and remote experiences in the same meetings. That adds complexity for the planner, but it can be more exciting – and there’s more flexibility in how you put meetings together, especially for millennial audiences.
MM&E: What were your main goals for MPI when you assumed leadership of the organization?
VanDeventer: I took over in April 2013. I was brought in from outside the industry – and not from an association – to bring new ideas to MPI. While it’s still the largest association in our industry, it had been in a period of decline, so they looked for ideas from outside. I saw this as a great opportunity for myself and for MPI. My experience was in rebuilding brands, and one thing MPI had had for years was a strong and reputable brand. So my focus was to get back to an understanding of what the MPI brand stands for, how we are perceived in the market, and how to ensure we deliver the right value under the brand. We wanted to re-establish ourselves as a premier organization in the meeting industry, and I’d say we’ve made a lot of progress. We’ve had a laser focus on professional development. We look at ourselves in terms of whether we’re offering the education, networks, marketplaces and business relationships our members need to do business.
MM&E: What do you think remains to be accomplished under your leadership?
VanDeventer: If you look at what’s unique about MPI, there are a couple things. First, there’s the strength of the chapters, and the number of members who interact directly with us through those chapters. We’ve begun a more consistent approach to what we do for our chapters, providing them more member value and more tools for the volunteers who run them. Our chapters are led by 850 volunteers, and we think taking those leadership roles is one of the best professional development opportunities around.
Another area is our international scope. North America and Europe have been strong focuses, but we believe we could have greater strength in South America, Africa, and Asia. We have opportunities to develop value and resources in those markets. I’m not sure exactly what that model will look like yet, but we’re working on it.
MM&E: What was your professional background prior to taking the helm at MPI? How did it prepare you for this role?
VanDeventer: I’ve had the opportunity to work for some really strong and unique global brands. I worked for 3M out of college, then spent the bulk of my career at American Express in its card and travel businesses. Then I went to work for Mitchell International, in the automotive repair and insurance software business; it also had a well recognized brand, like MPI. Later I went to a small, startup health-care company that was sold to Walgreens, so I worked there for a while as well. These were all companies that built strength around delivering on brand promises, which is important for organizations like MPI.
MM&E: Are there any major upcoming plans, projects or announcements MPI currently is working on?
VanDeventer: There are some things going on that we think are exciting. First of all, we’d had the same model of community interaction and membership for the past 40-plus years; we have launched a new model for that. It’s about membership and engagement, part of which involves volunteering. Before, we were a “one-size-fits-all buffet” where you paid for membership and chose to consume the services you wanted.
Now, we are creating tiers and variations on it. You can be a full member, a more active member, or a member who’s active with us online. It’s a big change for us. We call it our new membership model. (Press releases with pertinent information are available at www.mpiweb.org.)
MM&E: What do you foresee for the new MPI MD community for medical planners? How has it been received so far?
VanDeventer: MPI MD is another part of this effort to expand opportunities for our communities’ interactions with MPI. Before, we had shied away from “special interest” groups or unique segments within MPI; but now we think there can be huge value to that. Looking at our work with Pat Schaumann, the HMCC (Healthcare Meeting Compliance Certificate) program, and the IMMPA legacy organization, we saw this as a way to develop more of these programs within MPI. It was our first foray back into it.
We already are working on a new senior planner segment under that program – for planners who consider themselves more senior, working on larger meetings with more strategic projects, people who’ve been in the business longer. We want them to interact with each other in live and digital formats, and we’re building that out for them.
MPI MD has been extremely well received to date – more than 900 people have said they want to be part of it. There’s been even quicker uptake than we expected.
MM&E: What, in your opinion, are the main competitive benefits that industry members receive from ongoing education and credentialing?
VanDeventer: I think there are two main aspects to this. The first is the personal aspect, and it’s something I constantly tell our members and groups I speak to, as well as my children: Your development is up to you. You have to figure out the ways you’ll advance yourself, whether it’s in a corporate, association, university or other setting. You have to design the path you want to make your career more rewarding. MPI will help provide the platform and learning experiences for that, designed around the needs of the membership community. It’s critical for your career and personal satisfaction. If you don’t learn and grow every day, life will not be as rewarding.
The second side of the equation is external. Whether it’s a government entity or a company investing in a meeting, groups look at this in every industry: The more we can formalize credentialing and earn credibility, the better we’ll be perceived from the outside, and the easier it will be to develop return on investment. Clients will see why it’s so important to hire professional meeting planners for their events.
MM&E: Do you feel that additional credentialing for meeting professionals should be mandatory?
VanDeventer: I think building awareness of the value of credentialing outside the industry is a natural evolution. I’m not sure if “mandatory” is the right word, but I think it should be part of the picture as we build awareness of credentialing in our industry. When people look to hire a planner, they’ll naturally request those types of credentials. When you hire a real estate agent or stock broker, you make sure those people have the right credentials. When you make a big investment in a large meeting, you also want to know the best and brightest will be part of that.
MM&E: Do you think programs such as the CMP (Certified Meeting Professional) and CMM (Certificate in Meeting Management) have reached the milestones set for them so far?
VanDeventer: We are extremely pleased with the progress made to date by the [Convention Industry Council’s] CMP program. We deliver training through our chapters to help people prepare for that.
The CMM is our unique advanced learning program for planners and suppliers. Like any good program, it evolves. We’ve changed the curriculum and teaching styles over the years. A year and a half ago, we took a third look at it, and went from using ad hoc teachers who were changed regularly, to a standard curriculum managed and delivered by the University of Virginia School of Business. It lends a credibility, consistency and professionalism we had not always had before.
MM&E: How are you envisioning the meeting industry’s future these days?
VanDeventer: If you look at the industry overall, the outlook is really positive and strong. I look back at nearly four years ago when I first came in, and people were asking, “Face-to-face meetings – will they still be viable?” But we’ve proven in the last few years that not only are they viable, they’re a critical part of innovation, education and getting more value out of the industry. It’s great to be in a position where we’re helping lead that effort.
There are risks involved, such as global terrorism concerns and world health issues. But we are an industry that faces challenges and remains full of innovation and excitement at the same time.
For more information, visit www.mpiweb.org.
WEC 2016 photos courtesy of Orange Photography.