Over the past year, with the global economic downturn putting significant pressure on the ability for people to travel for both work and play, the global Travel & Tourism industry has seen a severe falling off in critical metrics: arrivals, revenues, investment, trade, employment to name the main.

Travellers needing more and more to get away from the stresses of today have had to turn to their computer screens to enjoy some travel escapism through the ‘I wish‘ travel planning process. Flight search engines, destination websites and other travel pages have increased in their wishful traveller audiences. Sun seekers now turn to sun.coms and sunbeds for maybe-one-day destination planning. And businesspeople now turn away from their corporate travel agents and turn on Skype and other video-conferencing technology to keep connected to key contacts across the country and world.

Business Travel has experienced a particular bruising in 2009. From small to large, businesses across the globe needing to manage costs have, since the beginning of the open usage of the R-word, recession, looked to travel budgets to find trimmable fat. Meetings, conferences, conventions and incentive trips have been cancelled. The entire MICE industry (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions) effectively shut down. There was no reason to celebrate, no reason to convene, no budget to incentivise. Banks were collapsing, businesses were closing and headcounts were being cut.

Even more painful, reputations were being ruined. Businesses seen to be conferencing were being openly accused (and often publicly shamed) for irresponsible spending on perks and parties when there were serious issues to deal with at the bottom line. The trips and tee-times and spa treatments had to stop, the politicians declared. Those days were over. Gratitude had to shift from annual get-aways to daily employment.

So even those businesses willing and able to spend on large scale business events were forced to cut back on their plans purely to keep corporate images lean and clean. Hotel rooms, empty. Banquet halls, empty. Conference rooms, empty. Plenary sessions, empty. Breakaway rooms, empty. Business centres, empty. Hopes for a return of bookings, empty.

As a result of the decline in MICE sector business the Tourism economy suffered further losses. Hotel and Conference Centre staff lost jobs in both big convention cities and on small island resorts as bookings were cancelled. Concerns grew as numbers fell. The business of Tourism, a front line business, felt both emotional and financial crisis. Destinations engineered for the MICE sector, the likes of Las Vegas and Dubai, saw black ink turn to red faster than printer ink cartridges could be replaced.

Even to this day, as the economic crisis is slowly and cautiously slipping into ‘recovery’ status in markets around the world, Business Tourism / the MICE sector, remains depressed. Alternatives to business travel have been adopted, especially in terms of e-conferencing and e-meetings. And extras are no longer expected.

There have been, however, significant studies undertaken during the Great Recession of 2008/9 questioning the risks of e-dependent business development. Particularly at the top. Regardless of how advanced our technology has become, the need for 3D grows the higher the importance of the decision becomes. Face-to-face is critical. Especially as global business forces cultures of incredible distance and differences to connect. Intuitively we all know this – there is no replacement for direct contact when the issue at hand is important to us.

The banning of business travel and events in 2009 has forced a rethink of why exactly business travel is needed. Going from 100% to 0% is not an option. There has to be a point of correction, the position on the scale where the right balance is found between investment and return.

Because the fact is this: when people meet, when they talk, when they share ideas, and when they create, opportunities and energy and excitement bubble up. And with all of this creative energy and growing possibility, solutions are found. Solutions which unlock growth, development, economic recovery and black ink.

Business travel has a role to play in economic recovery. A critical role. There is also the very real, very visible and very audible effect of the convergence of groups of people on a destination for a conference, convention, meeting or incentive event. Hotel reception desks become centres of organised chaos as wide-eyed, well uniformed staff are confronted by excited delegates seeking room keys, conference packs, tour information and currency exchange. At times the day the conference came to town can appear as the day the circus came to town. All the activity, all the running around, all that noise.

But all that noise is in fact music. It is the music of people meeting, people working, people moving forward.

As 2010 nears and begins to unfold, the challenge to the MICE / Business Tourism sector is not simply in rebuilding numbers of bookings, jobs and revenues, it is in rebuilding credibility. And the ownership of that challenge is the industry itself.

It is the industry which must step out and up, sharing with the global business community the importance of meetings, conferences and conventions to restimulating thinking, restimulating ideas and restimulating the economy.

The bottom line is this: everyone gets excited when the circus comes to town. It’s not about the clowns. It’s not about the aerial acts. It’s not about all of the theatrics taking place under the big top. It’s about all the possibility that lies within all of that creativity.

We need to get back into the tent. And like meetings, conferences and conventions which used to have golf and spa as treats, at the new circus you need to pay for your own popcorn and candy floss.

Copyright: ANITA MENDIRATTA 2009