CMW interviews specialist consultancy GainingEdge executive chairman Gary Grimmer
Tell us how you came to set up GainingEdge – and about some highlights of your time at Melbourne CVB before that. How big is the GainingEdge network now and where do you see your USP?
Melbourne was my fourth bureau, third as CEO. I’m originally from the US and my first three bureaus were there. I wanted to work internationally, and Melbourne came looking.
The bureaus in Australia are well resourced and sophisticated. I always say that they ‘punch above their weight’ even though Australia isn’t on the way to anywhere else.
We had to convince people to hold meetings in a place that was harder to get to for a lot of delegates. In Melbourne, we were doing things that were pretty world-leading in those days, like running the AIME annual trade show, co-founding the BestCities Global Alliance and devising our own CRM system when those were not so common. We moved Melbourne close to top 30 in the world in the ICCA rankings.
After eight years there, it seemed like time to move on but my family and I didn’t want to leave Melbourne. I decided to consult other cities and countries and to work on projects that would benefit the industry. So, GainingEdge was born on 7 January, 2004. My wife had difficulty understanding why I would leave such a good job to take on a speculative venture, so I was pretty motivated to prove I wasn’t crazy. The first couple of years were pretty lean, but business was gradually growing.
Early successes were helping to establish the Serbia, South Africa and Malaysia national bureaus and conducting a total re-think for Vancouver after its hosting of the 2010 Winter Games. We moved into the convention centre consulting space to the point where we are typically working on 6-8 buildings in different parts of the world at any given time.
We’ve broadened our scope to include in-market sales representation, association management consulting and added a tourism practice because some of our clients, such as Panama, needed both convention and tourism consulting support. We’ve also been managing BestCities for the past 13 years.
We currently have 30 team members deployed all over the world. We call them ‘The Edgers’. We’re global, while most companies in this space operate regionally.
We also see our role as not just serving clients but also serving the industry. During the pandemic, we established our GEAR unit (GainingEdge Analysis & Research) which is now publishing two annual industry indices, the Global Destination Competitive Index and the Leveraging Intellectual Capital Report. This is providing benchmarking capabilities. Another example is one of our pro bono projects where we have supported the African Society of Association Executives. We’re also the lead consultants on the new ICCASkills global professional certification programme.
How did GainingEdge weather the Covid-19 crisis?
Early on we decided that keeping our team whole and making improvements to the company was a lot more important than profits. We also went into communications mode sending out regular advisories to the industry, doing our best to give insights into what to expect and how to approach the situation strategically. We also organised online knowledge exchange sessions and ‘recovery clinics’ for clients and contacts.
On the destination side we’re working with PROMTUR, the new Panama NTO, and also doing the destination development planning on NEOM, the new planned mega-city in Saudi Arabia.
On the venues side we’re advising on NEOM’s proposed convention and exhibition centre and doing operational and sales and marketing consulting to the new China National Convention Centre (CNCC-II) in Beijing. We’re also consulting Destination Canada on the largest event legacy-related project in the industry’s history, a three-year effort we’re conducting in partnership with Meet4Impact.
Now that the meetings industry is returning, where do you see the best potential and where are the bumps in the road?
Hopefully, we’re leaving the pandemic in our rear-view mirror, but it has left lasting effects, some that will be good. I think the biggest challenge in our industry now is that the carpet has been pulled out from under a lot of associations. Many are struggling for members and sponsors, so finances are an issue.
I’ve always thought that the supply side of our industry needs to move beyond thinking we’re only in the destination promotion and event servicing business. We need to see ourselves as being in the association business. That means going the extra mile for association clients and finding a role in supporting the association ecosystem.
I’m also focused on the issue of event legacy and we’re helping to advance the practice and the science. The most important strategic direction for our industry is to make legacy the core of what we do. Importantly, event legacies also directly support the aims of the UN SDGs.
How has the meetings industry changed and what is the role now of event tech?
The fact that big-tech has already planted stakes in the event space should be seen as a validation of how important our industry is, and not just commercially and economically but also socially. I see big-tech as platforms and the traditional industry players as the creative force. Think of it a bit like big companies creating app stores and smaller companies creating all the apps. We will always need our leading specialist tech firms driving innovation and helping our industry to leverage these platforms in ways that deliver better meeting experiences.
How are venues coping and coming back?
There are two aspects to this question. One is existing venues and how they are doing businesswise. The other is what’s happening with new developments. I’ll start with the developmental side.
Yes, some projects in conceptual mode went into hibernation. In general, we weren’t seeing new privately financed developments. Some projects in construction mode kept going because they were too far along to write off. On the other hand, public sector-initiated venues are developed under more long-term objectives and so have mostly kept ticking along. But, overall it bodes well for future venue investment. People want to meet in person and companies want to invest in sponsorship where people are meeting in person.
As for operations of existing venues, the best way to look at it is to correlate it to hotel and airline business. During the first third of the pandemic, the trend lines went straight south, and for meetings, it was all postponements and cancellations. Then there has been a gradual recovery. Most of the big centres are still facing challenging times as the return of the larger groups is lagging. However, meetings are a future business and most of us think Covid-19 is in the past now. Postponed meetings are beginning to be rescheduled and associations are beginning to gear back up. We anticipate conventions being managed on a shorter planning horizon until things have fully recovered, so things could get crowded in some markets.
Where do you see the most promising future opportunities now in the meetings industry?
One of the biggest negative trends before Covid was the commoditisation of our industry. The pandemic has changed that. The supply and demand sides of the equation are in a position now where they are going to need to work together to make things work again. To me, the biggest opportunity is to forge better partnerships.
The other key opportunity is to work together to position the association and meetings industries as vital to economic and social development. We need political and community support to be successful, and we’ve got the attention of these stakeholders now. We can leverage that in the rebuilding process.
You released your second annual report on Leveraging Intellectual Capital of convention destinations; talk us through some of the key findings.
The key findings come down to two things every year. First, how are destinations ranking in terms of their levels of intellectual capital? We define that as how much influence they have on global association boards, and we measure that by how many leaders on those boards are people from their communities.
The second is where we do a ratio on how each destination’s numbers of hosted conventions relate to their amount of intellectual capital. It’s essentially a benchmarking exercise. Destinations can use it as a tool for evaluating their business success. We highlight ‘cities to watch’ which yields insights in a competitive sense.