New conference opportunities for the Caribbean

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By Cdr. Bud Slabbaert

“Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked,” Warren Buffet an American business tycoon who is considered one of the most successful investors in the world, was quoted to have said. The less affluent ordinarier would say that “you miss the water when the well goes dry.” Either way, that’s pretty much where we are right now. So, what to do and what alternatives are available for a region that is heavily depending on tourism. Hybrid Conferences!

A conference delegate generates an average economic impact of US$ 2,229 according to the Convention Center Annual Report of Orlando’s Orange County in Florida. Assuming that such relates to 3-day conferences whereby delegates spend on average five nights on location, it would mean at least US$ 446 per person per day. The Caribbean may not be Orlando, nevertheless, it may give a hint to suggest what number might be proper for the region here.

It is fairly realistic to say that conferences that gather more than five hundred people will be out of the question for the next six to twelve months. That is what conference organizers are confronted with when doing their planning. What lies beyond that, is foggy. Persons in charge of conference and event participation at companies are dealing with the same dilemma. On top of that, budgets may be shrinking because of the impact of a global recession. Although, some may argue that sponsors are shifting funds from 2020 to next year.

Usually those major conferences are held in metropolitan locations abroad with the appropriate large conference facilities and hotel capacity. Not typical for the Caribbean region. Organizers of those major conferences on their defense will argue, that social contact, seeing face-to-face and a hand shake are crucial for doing business. However, at this time and for the foreseeable future, the trend is social distancing, looking mask-to-mask, and elbow-to-elbow instead of a handshake.

Is there a new-normal in sight here, or are the changes just temporary until who knows when?  For one, planning meetings of less than five hundred participants should be targeted at this time. Maybe two hundred fifty is even less risky.  Companies will be looking for alternative methods of product and service marketing. They will explore new metrics for success. They are willing to invest in participating in an event model that offers a near-guarantee to reach their target audiences.

A true opportunity for the Caribbean! There is a dire need to develop new event models. Hybrid conferences, combining a humble in-person conference experience on location and a robust virtual component for remote audiences. The latter means that event organizers may need new additional expertise. They are confronted with the fact that they are managing two different types of events wrapped into one which results in some unique challenges. Stakeholders with different backgrounds should put their heads together.

A new rhythm of conferencing that puts the tingle in the fingers and a tingle in the feet of participants will be in demand. The number of virtual online event platforms as an alternative have fast grown recently, but virtual conferences are just not the same as the “real McCoy”. Plus, patience and interest are wearing out after a period of Webinars, and Zoom meetings with a series of boxes on a screen where it is hard to replicate the value and experience for attendees, speakers and marketers/sponsors.

In the Caribbean, the new conference model could be branded “Retreat” or “Summit”. Either one sounds appealing. A Retreat is like a sanctuary which gives a safe feeling. Presently Spot-on. A Summit is high-level meeting. Always Spot-on. These are appropriate brand names that suggest safety and excellence and just fit in nicely with the relaxing atmosphere and environment of the region. Hybrid not good? Hybrid means a crossbreed, thus not a thoroughbred.

Get in the groove and let some good professional discussions roll at a Retreat or Summit in the tropical zone which will be the “live hub” of the event. The goodies will also be made available via the internet to broaden the audiences.  Trying to blend in-person and virtual may be challenge. Yet, modern technology allows for various types of interactions to better replicate in-person events online. For the Caribbean region that is in need for economy diversification, there may be an opportunity for existing local entrepreneurs in the field of media production and for savvy young talent with creativity ambitions, to provide the needed assistance.

Will the big trade show business fully recover at some time? At some time, yes. However, the number may not be anywhere near pre-pandemic levels. In the meantime, a newly developed hybrid model will have shown its advantages and will remain to stay. It may turn out that such hybrid model is more targeted and cost effective and has an enduring value for participants in distant locations. Lots of marketing money is wasted to show off and trying to be more impressing than the competitor at major events. The hybrid model offers more of a focus-on exclusiveness opening for a more moderate marketing budget.

Looking at it from various angles, this is a chance for a Caribbean region that is looking for new forms of sustainability; creating an annual hybrid conference model that will last. Conferences are not just organized by industry organizations. Many are private initiatives for a particular purpose. Such initiatives may be developed here locally in the region.