Chill-out and chat zones: how to woo Generation Y

Olga Wojtas hears that conference tourism needs specialists who know what young consumers want

October 23, 2008

It is best not to inquire too closely into Rob Davidson's carbon footprint. In the last academic year, the University of Westminster senior lecturer clocked up more than 100 flights to destinations including Spain, Norway, Thailand, Poland, Tanzania, Romania, Iceland, Cyprus, Serbia and the United States.

Mr Davidson is an academic specialist in conference management. While it is a discipline he has championed for the past 20 years, it is covered by only a handful of UK institutions. "But there's another finger on that hand every year, and it's an area that people can't afford to ignore," he said.

"It's a great field for any young academics who want to rise quickly and make a name for themselves."

Governments across the globe are now realising the importance of the conference trade, which brings in high-spending delegates beyond seasonal tourism. Eastern Europe and the Middle East are particularly active, and Mr Davidson said they can learn from our mistakes, building, for example, conference centres that are light and airy rather than concrete bunkers.

Because of the dearth of courses both in the UK and internationally, experts such as Mr Davidson are in high demand. "As an academic discipline, there aren't enough of us to go around," he said.

He has been at Westminster for ten years, where he developed and teaches a masters programme in conference and events management. But four years ago, he moved to part-time status because of the amount of teaching and consultancy he was asked to do elsewhere.

"I bring back practical case studies that feed into my teaching," he said.

Mr Davidson graduated with an undergraduate degree in English literature from the University of Aberdeen, following that with a postgraduate qualification in vocational guidance at the University of Reading. He then became education and training manager at Visit Britain in London, sparking his interest in tourism and destination marketing.

After five years there, he became a freelance travel writer based in Montpellier, where he also did some university teaching. He enjoyed teaching and research, and specialised increasingly in business and conference tourism after seeing how a new convention centre helped transform Montpellier into France's fastest-growing city.

"Every city wants to be the venue for 1,000 cardiologists. Courses are being created as a result of people wanting to know how they can professionalise their conference industry."

And his research shows that the 25- to 35-year-olds of Generation Y want a very different type of conference from the traditional programme of presentations. He predicts that their preferences will radically alter the style of academic conferences. Generation Y is technologically savvy, well able to download presentations, and concerned about air miles.

Screen breaks

"The value to young people from face-to-face events is networking, which they can't get from their screens," Mr Davidson said.

"They want shorter presentations, fewer plenary sessions, much more working in small groups. They want to come and go if they're not interested in the speaker; they want chill-out zones where they can chat to other people, low seats, coffee, fruit juice, wi-fi access. The design of venues is going to have to change."

And younger delegates want to experience the destination, Mr Davidson said, rather than spending 36 hours in a convention centre that could be anywhere in the world.

"They want something that makes you think this is a conference in Spain - perhaps food from the region. They want to know where the conference food has been sourced from. And something else that comes up is corporate social responsibility, giving something back to the local people."

Younger delegates see it as an ethical issue when the destination is somewhere such as Rio de Janeiro or Johannesburg, which have disadvantaged local populations. They want, for example, to raise money at the gala dinner for a local charity, or to spend half a day playing football with local children.

The conference industry needs to adapt to the tastes and needs of new consumers, Mr Davidson said, but it must do so without alienating older people. And this will mean much more work for academics. "We need more textbooks, and more conceptual thinking, academic models rather than manuals," he argued.

More research is needed in areas such as destination branding: can the UK have one brand for leisure tourism and another for conferences? This can be crucial for a country such as Greece, which has built its leisure tourism industry on an image of being relaxed and laid-back.

"That's the last thing you want for a conference. You want efficiency and guarantees that people are going to deliver."

European conference management academics are set to attend the annual ATLAS (Association for Tourism and Leisure Education) conference next month in Poland; the key topic will be educating the next generation of business tourism professionals. It will mean another couple of flights for Mr Davidson, but he is not complaining.

"I thrive on travelling. I wake up in the morning and think: 'Which country am I in? I'll ask the chambermaid.' It's a big world, and I'd love to see it all."

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