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Meeting Planners Identify Challenges, Explore Solutions

Destination Michigan hosts thought leaders to explore issues facing the industry

By Kathy Gibbons

Kim Corcoran of Destination Michigan held lunch and learn events in Lansing and Ann Arbor to discuss challenges meeting planners currently face as well as possible solutions.

Photo by Laura Ayan

When Kim Corcoran, CMP, convened some lunch and learn events in January, she invited “thought leaders” from throughout Michigan’s meetings and events industry. Corcoran is the executive director of Destination Michigan, which is dedicated to connecting meeting planners with destination venues and suppliers around the state. Her goal was to spark conversations that would identify trends and challenges ahead in 2023 while coming up with solutions together.

Hosting a total of some 70 people including meeting planners, business owners, and representatives of convention and visitors bureaus as well as hotels and event spaces between gatherings in Lansing and Ann Arbor, Corcoran says several themes emerged. One was the challenge of anticipating attendance at business meetings and conferences.

Events were held in Lansing and Ann Arbor.

Photo by Laura Ayan

“We’re basically starting over with no history since the pandemic [began],” Corcoran says. “Where they used to get 200, some are saying they’re lower, only getting 100 or 150. On the other side of the spectrum are people who are doubling their attendance because, during the [height of the] pandemic, offering virtual [attendance] may have reached members who had never been to events before and now want to come. Or maybe there are a lot of new people in the space and maybe senior people didn’t feel they had to come and now people are coming for education. That’s one of the big issues we’re facing right now.”

Discussion of this challenge centered around the idea of planners being more conservative in their projections, but also having a contingency if registrations exceed expectations.

“That’s where you’re working with your CVBs to find additional hotels that may be in the area to use for overflow,” Corcoran says, adding that contracts booked years in advance need to have addendums with clauses that provide for adjustments in registration. “That’s where planners and suppliers should be working together to communicate.”

In fact, some planners said it’s a good idea to do a survey in advance to gauge interest in attending. “At least then you have an idea, ‘Are we going to be around the same numbers or higher or lower?” she says.

Kim Corcoran, executive director, Destination Michigan/Meetings Michigan

Courtesy photo

Budgeting for events is also particularly challenging right now. Corcoran points to fluctuating food costs, inflation, and staffing as key factors affecting expenses. “Most organizations set their budget sometime far in advance for their conferences, so a lot of them are having challenges with ‘How do we deal with the budget not being able to keep up,’” she notes.

Some planners are increasingly looking to sponsorships to help supplement their budgets and avoid raising ticket prices. Corcoran says this can be an opportunity to “think outside the box” to identify sponsors beyond direct vendors—say, a grocer or coffee company.

It’s also important to be forthright with corporate leadership about why budgets are going up, she adds. “We’re asking even the hotels and venues to provide talking points, to tell us what percent increase they’ve had year over year in food costs, labor costs,” she says. “The planners want to take those hard numbers to their leadership and tell them ‘This is why the meeting is costing more money.’”

Planners should also look to hotels and event venues to help cut costs through actions like simplifying menus. “They’re trying to find what items are easily sourced that are reliable, cost effective, and may be taking those hard-to-get items off the menu if there are supply chain issues or huge inflationary costs on certain items.”

Planners should also ask venues about piggybacking with other events that are happening around the same time—maybe adopting similar or duplicate menus so ingredients can be bought in larger quantities at a lower cost or utilizing the same audiovisual setup, for example.

“Bleisure,” or travel that combines business and leisure, is also a hot topic, Corcoran says, noting, “People want more experiences. They don’t just want meetings because they can get education; education is a dime a dozen now online … so when we are meeting in person, we need to create an experience and have people connecting because we weren’t connecting for several years.”