Maarten Vanneste is a man on a mission, with a message and a meetings manifesto.
He set up his first company back in 1982 on April Fool’s Day. But,
although Vanneste was only 19 at the time and, as he admits in the
book, a little green in the matters of business, he is definitely no
His book, Meeting Architecture: a Manifesto, puts him at the forefront
of blue sky thinking on the industry, at least on the content side of
He calls his own company Abbit’s work ‘meetings support’ and, indeed,
founded his Meetings Support Institute with the support of IMEX and
Vanneste believes that too many innovative young companies who come in
to the meetings industry are being lost to marketing.
It is a trend he worries about and says: “The key objective of the
MSI is to create a welcoming environment for those innovators in the
When Vanneste first started visiting industry trade shows in the late
1990s he says he saw only meeting venues among the exhibitors. “I saw
nothing that related to my world? no educators, no AV companies, no
production companies, no presentation specialists, meeting
photographers. There was nothing about education, networking or
He describes the feeling like being the little boy in The Emperor’s New
Clothes and wanting to shout ‘the emperor is naked’.
He had, he explains, found a shell and was looking for substance.
“The 2008 meeting industry is proficient in creating the shell in
which meetings take place. The only thing we have to do is look inside
that shell, put in a grain of sand and, after a few years, harvest the
While much is written about the economic impact of meetings, Vanneste
laments that little is written on the real reasons why people organise
meetings: the objectives of meetings. The “what to achieve in the minds
of participants” part is not addressed, he believes.
“The real reason why meetings are organised generates earnings
elsewhere, not at the destination,” Vanneste believes, and he gives the
example of people at a conference in Denver learning and applying
knowledge elsewhere, in South Africa, for example.
In Denver, or wherever the meeting may take place, the stakes are
totally in the tourism and hospitality side of the meeting, not in the
Vanneste says that because the industry is therefore part of the
tourism industry, it cultivates the tourism side. Because it is less
knowledgeable on the content side of meetings it remains part of the
tourism industry and attracts hospitality professionals, a sort of
industry Catch 22, he muses.
So, too, meeting planners, mostly have their hearts and minds anchored
in hospitality, believes Vanneste, who is really after the meeting
Some interesting observations from Vanneste include the lines that
“an incentive is a meeting that lacks education” and “an event is a
short meeting that invests highly in entertainment”.
One of the homilies on offer is: “only long term partners with a focus
on meetings and innovation can make a conference grow and prosper”.
Maybe what prompts much of Vanneste’s quest and drives his manifesto,
is highlighted in the case of the winner of the EIBTM technology award
in 2004 who concluded, after using the prize of a stand for three days
at the trade show: “These people (the meeting planners) are not
interested in our product. They have no influence or buying power, so
this is not our market. Meeting planners are only looking for and,
maybe, deciding on the destination and the venue to have their meeting,
not for tools to improve the networking at their meetings.” Vanneste is
convinced the power of networking should be more valued.
He claims the meeting magazines do not address the question of
meetings’ content sufficiently and alleges that professional tourism
takes 98 per cent of our professional trade show space.
He jumps to a provocative conclusion that the meeting industry is
rather like the metal industry calling itself the automotive industry,
or the wood industry calling itself the furniture industry.
The three trends that may help the industry become more complete and
“ultimately the rightful claimant of the term Meeting Industry are:
Procurement, ROI and Technology”.
Vanneste draws a five-level ROI evaluation pyramid:
1. Satisfaction & Perceived Value
4. Business Impact
On networking, the point about delving deeper is well made in the book:
“Magazines should not just have an article on how I, as a reader,
can network better at meetings, but also on how I, as a planner, can
help all participants at my meetings to achieve more effective
networking. Meeting planners should be able to design and implement
networking elements in meetings that establish exactly the specific
kind of networking that a particular meeting audience needs.”
Vanneste gives another example from 2005 of going to an educational
session on meeting strategy to find that the session was almost
entirely focused on the logistics of meeting and not on the substance
He also cites the example of the CMM programme he followed with MPI in 2004.
The course and the certificate were all about the strategic side of
general business practices, he says, such as marketing, communication,
negotiating, and so on, leading to a valuable certificate but not to
more knowledge about the essence of meeting and their objectives.
Vanneste dreams of the day that the industry institutes a similar
programme for the content side of meetings, “a programme in which
senior meeting planners can learn about the Learning in presentations,
network around Networking in conferences and get motivated about
Motivation for meeting participants”.
Vanneste concludes the first part of his book thus:
“Senior meeting planners today have a choice of becoming strategic
in several ways: leading a team of meeting planners, moving into
procurement or even moving away from the industry into marketing or
other management positions. Would it not be a valuable fourth option
for many senior meeting professionals to specialise in the content side
of the meetings?”
And here he advocates helping meeting owners with the substance instead of the shell.
“It could be a stepping stone towards a more strategic position in
the corporations but also a potential career goal for a meeting
Although Vanneste believes the meeting industry is immersed in the
tourism industry, this travel and hospitality side (a.k.a. the shell),
he says, is professional, global and is a strength that can be built
on. The second leg, as Vanneste puts it, is less developed and
organised. So that, rather than just measuring ROI, the objective of
the meeting professional should be to drive and increase ROI, going to
the real core of the business – learning and motivation.
“Developing the content side is the biggest opportunity this industry can find.”
How that can be done is a subject for the second half of the book,
which I thoroughly recommend as required reading for all meeting
His introduction to meetings content encapsulates the great truth
thus: “Meeting content is the raison d’etre of meetings. Meeting
content is why meetings are organised in the first place and is,
therefore, critical to the meeting industry – without meeting content
there is no need for meetings. No logistics are necessary, no venues
needed, there is no travel to a destination – therefore there are no
grounds for a meetings industry to exist.
“Luckily for all of us, these reasons are present, at least in the
minds of a number of people who keep organising meetings.”