Hosting its first-ever annual meeting outside the U.S. and Canada, MPI gathered 1,400 attendees, many with accompanying guests, in the Mexican Caribbean. A largely successful annual meeting did present a few unforeseen challenges.
Approximately 1,400 attendees, including more than 600 event planners, took part in this year’s Meeting Professionals International (MPI) World Education Congress (WEC). Held outside of the U.S. and Canada for the first time in MPI’s 50-year history, the gathering at the Barcelo Maya Riviera resort in Mexico’s Riviera Maya was smaller than those in previous years. The addition of families and guests counterbalanced the drop-off in attendees, with many taking advantage of the idyllic beachfront location.
The growth of MPI in the region played a big part in the decision to bring the gathering to the all-inclusive Barcelo resorts. According to Paul Van Deventer, president and CEO of MPI, the MPI community in Mexico has grown 60 percent since 2019 and has helped create two new chapters — Caribe Mexicano and Colombia — and two new clubs — Argentina and Ecuador.
The state of Quintana Roo invested approximately a million dollars to make this WEC a reality. “The cost is a lot, but the value is great,” said Javier Aranda Pedrero, director general and CEO of the Mexican Caribbean CVB.
Not Risk Averse
As with most firsts, there were challenges. “We take risks, so you don’t have to is the mantra of the team,” said Melinda Burdette, MPI’s director of events. “I have never done a perfect event. There are always hiccups. Just have to try to contain the chaos behind the curtain.”
One of the biggest hiccups of this event, in particular, was housing. There were no issues for those staying onsite at the Barcelo Maya Riviera resort. The congress headquarters was the 269,000-square-foot convention center adjacent to the adults-only, all-suite resort hotel. However, with only 850 suites, some had to stay off-site or at the five other resorts on the complex: Barcelo Maya Palace, Barcelo Maya Beach, Barcelo Maya Caribe, Barcelo Maya Colonial, and Barcelo Maya Tropical. That is where difficulties began.
To start off, one of these hotels had a wing with no working air conditioning, a serious issue in Mexico’s heat and humidity.
Meals, however, were the main challenge. Guests staying offsite could not take their meals at the Barcelo Maya Riviera. They had to return to the hotel they were staying for meal functions. Understandably this made some feel disconnected. Adding to the issue, the transportation between Barcelo Maya Riviera and the other properties was a hassle.
Conference meal functions at all-inclusive resorts are challenging. Unless the organizers buy out the full resort, which was not the case at MPI WEC, leisure guests share the dining area with conference attendees. Attendees scattered during lunch, potentially missing out on valuable networking opportunities. Plus, getting a restaurant reservation at the Barcelo Maya Riviera during MPI WEC was nearly impossible.
In a session entitled, “Don’t Say Pivot: Events in the New “Never Normal,” Burdette and Drew Holmgreen, MPI’s chief brand officer, shared lessons learned in bringing MPI WEC 23 to Mexico. They talked candidly about the challenges encountered without giving a public relations spin.
“Coming into Mexico, we didn’t know what we didn’t know,” said Burdette. In addition, to the housing challenges, there was the issue of getting supplies across the border as there was no advance warehouse for suppliers that exhibited in the marketplace.
MPI had 30 people on site, and everyone had to bring something in their suitcase for the conference. “Paul (MPI’s CEO) brought through swag that included 500 pens and 1,000 postcards,” said Burdette. Some, including Van Deventer, had their bag searched by officials, a nerve-wracking experience.
Housing still posed the biggest challenge. “It took us a year-and-a-half to get a housing contract,” said Burdette.
Adapting to the Destination
WECs are normally jam-packed from early morning until evening. Keeping the destination and those who brought guests in mind, MPI made room for an afternoon break, and shortened keynotes. In total, there were five general sessions and four keynotes. Several sessions were standing-room only, including one about AI and travel boycotts.
“That has been successful,” she said. “If we organize our education appropriately, and education is what we are known for, you will want to come back, and that is what happened.”
Being an all-inclusive resort was an added challenge. “We usually spend between $300,000 to $500,000 on F&B. That was cost shifted to the attendee,” she said.
Sponsored breakfasts and lunches were common in years past, but not this year. Why would an attendee leave their resort where they have already paid for their meals?
The Value of Local Partners
“It is imperative to hire a local company — a destination management company (DMC), or an event management company — to bridge the language barrier, bridge the gap to get to yes on a lot of things you are being told no,” said Burdette. “A company on the ground will understand a lot of things we may not understand.”
MPI turned to PRIM Events, a MICE agency that has hosted a slew of events at the Barcelo Arena Convention Center.
This was a change for MPI as it usually plans all its events without outside help. Van Deventer echoed Burdette. “There are big differences in how you do business when you cross the border. We had frustration points, challenges that would have probably been overcome a lot quicker if we just engaged sooner with a local partner,” said Van Deventer.
The organization has learned its lesson and will turn to a third party for help for its European Meetings and Events Conference (EMEC) in Luxembourg in 2024.
Entertaining and Engaging
The transfer from the airport to Barcelo was long, approximately an hour and a half. Some buses had musicians from Song Division on them. “It was a little bit of surprise and delight,” said Burdette.
MPI WEC did feature receptions, including the opening night at Xcaret, that brought 500 years of Mexico’s history to life. The President’s Dinner was at the Hilton Tulum, honoring Kitty Ratcliffe and MPI Chapter presidents. Others went to a reception at the Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya, where Paul Stanley, Lady Gaga, Prince, Tina Turner, and Freddie Mercury look-alikes mingled with the crowd.
The closing celebration, MPI Rendezvous, took over the Barcelo Maya Riviera pool area. The festivities included a drone display dancing in the night sky.
Building Momentum for Louisville
Last year, MPI WEC took place in San Francisco just as the industry regained its footing after the pandemic pause. There were close to 1,700 attendees live and 300 who attended virtually.
Grapevine, TX hosted the previous year’s gathering, and despite the pandemic, had 600 attendees in person. MPI WEC 2019 held in Toronto had 2,600 in attendance, half of which were meeting planners.
MPI decided to head to Mexico after St. Louis, originally selected to host the 2023 gathering, needed to postpone by a year as it is renovating its meeting facilities. St. Louis will follow Louisville, which is hosting next year’s WEC.
Burdette is already thinking ahead to WEC 2024 in Louisville. “We did a KICK (Kentucky International Convention Center) walk-through, and it feels like a typical conference center. We are going to have to do something to make it different,” she said. And given her track record of not being afraid to take chances, odds are she will.