Back in the saddle again

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Back in the saddle again

Pádraic Gilligan, SITE chief marketing officer, contemplates the swinging pendulum for incentives

Pádraic Gilligan, SITE chief marketing officer

By all accounts congeniality and Covid-19 were spread in equal measure by the thousands who descended upon Frankfurt recently for the first IMEX show in Europe since 2019.

All caution was thrown to the wind as we found each other again and feverishly embraced the opportunity to connect in-person, both metaphorically and physically.

We couldn’t keep our hands and faces off each other following a painful 20 months of strictly virtual that most of us, at the end of the day, couldn’t wait to see the end of.

But if high-pitched euphoria was a key theme in a brilliant IMEX story, there were other themes, too.

One concerns the many who didn’t make the show for the plain and simple reason of being way too busy with last-minute site inspections and programme operations.

For incentive travel professionals, business contracted in the year, for the year, is rare enough. In 2022 though, it’s almost the norm as corporations play catch-up on programme activity paused during the pandemic.

2022 is an unusual amalgamation of postponed programmes from 2020 and 2021, normal 2022 programmes, and site inspections for 2023 and beyond. Incentive agencies and, in many destinations the DMCs that support them, have never been busier.

But there’s a sting in the tail. Resources and overall staffing levels are nowhere near what they should be for this level of frenetic activity. The pandemic furloughs and layoffs are not coming back – yet, with some having found what they’re looking for elsewhere, often in the welcoming, bountiful arms of the tech sector. When you don’t have your people, to paraphrase the poet Yeats, “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold”.

This perfect storm of high levels of activity matched by low levels of resources will pass, just like the pandemic. We need to persevere, keep our heads down, try to hire and train new people, and await, perhaps, the return of the swinging pendulum, as our people realise that tech inducements like free food and branded Northface vests are no substitute for the raw, nervy excitement of planning and operating a live event.

Besides the general euphoria and the weeping and gnashing of teeth over our current operational challenges, IMEX surfaced a number of intriguing themes – the rise and rise of sustainability was one; the patchy, uneven nature of recovery was another: with some source markets and destinations approaching or even exceeding 2019 levels and others remaining, decisively, in the doldrums.

The three ‘Cs’ – Covid, conflict and climate change – were part of many conversations but, as always for our industry, our pathological positivity, built upon our remarkable resilience, was the dominant tone. We heard great survival stories, great pivot stories, and the palpable sense of hope was a third person in every two-way conversation.

As an industry, Covid-19 knocked us off the horse and, for months on end, it seemed like we were the horse, on all fours, crawling aimlessly in an arid desert. But the real horse has come back now and somehow, we’ve managed to climb back up and get back in the saddle again.

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