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Study and Research
VOLUNTOURISM AT CONVENTIONS
Tara Pazanski, University of Florida
Lori Pennington-Gray, PhD, University of Florida
For this issue of the Research Forum section of The VolunTourist, our research guests are Tara Pazanski and Dr. Lori Pennington-Gray from the University of Florida. In their research, they examine the meetings & conventions market to explore meeting professionals' intent to include voluntourism as part of an annual meeting or convention. How may an individual's intention have been influenced? To answer this question, they focused their research on four variables: 1) Industry knowledge, 2) Attitudes, 3) Motivations, and 4) Past experiences.
Meetings and conventions are big business. In 2004, the meetings, incentive travel, convention, and exhibition industry contributed more than $122 billion to the United States’ economy, and directly created over 1.7 million jobs, according to the Convention Industry Council [CIC]. Just about every industry imaginable relies on the use of meetings and conventions to gather industry players, consumers, and partners together to discuss trends, prepare for future business, network, and receive further education. Both associations and corporations host meetings and conventions, and rely on the face-to-face interactions of customers, vendors, and employees to improve business relationships, thus increasing overall efficiency and profits margins.
However, as we all know, in recent years economic issues have interfered with the success of many different industries. This has affected the meetings industry, especially those responsible for planning and/or hosting large meetings and conventions. According to Meeting Professionals International’s [MPI] FutureWatch 2007, 46% of 1,433 surveyed meeting professionals did expect an increase in the number of meetings they would personally oversee, but only 48% of those expecting the increase expected a commensurate increase in their personal budgets, so their ability to be able to plan these extra events will be, to say the least, hindered. Ng (2007) indicated that up to 76% of meeting professionals have listed budget pressures and rising costs among their largest concerns for 2008. That, along with their concern over rising oil and gas prices, makes the lack of increase in budget even more problematic.
Meeting professionals feel a lot of pressure to not only arrange exceptional meetings and conventions, but also to plan fun and interesting free time activities for both convention attendees and their guests (spouses, children, business partners, employees). These activities usually take the form of a golf game, spa day, theme park outing, or other expensive pastime. However, expensive does not fit well with recent trends. This is where the idea of voluntourism comes in and provides a great inexpensive, memorable free-time activity that could be utilized as a team builder, ice breaker, spousal activity, etc.
For the purposes of this study, focus was placed on meeting professionals and their intentions to incorporate voluntourism in the meetings and/or conventions. The conceptual foundation for this study was based on four variables: 1) meeting planning experience; 1b) industry knowledge; 2) attitudes toward voluntourism; 2b) past experiences with voluntourism; 3) motivations to include voluntourism activities at conventions; and finally 4) past travel experiences. Each of these factors (knowledge, attitudes, motivations, and past experience) was looked at individually to see its effect on a meeting professional’s intention to include voluntourism in an upcoming meeting or convention – as can be seen in the Conceptual Model, below.
Figure 1: Conceptual Model
In order to gather information regarding meeting professionals’ intent to include voluntourism, a 43-question survey was created and distributed through email. The questions on the survey related not only to the four independent and one dependent variable, but also gauged each respondent’s professional profile and demographic information. The survey was administered online. An email blast was sent out to all contacts, directing them to the webpage where the survey instrument was located. The survey was available for a month. Two samples were used: 1) a list purchased from Teramedia, a private database company housed in Orlando, and 2) the membership email list of the Tallahassee Society of Association Executives. A reminder was sent to the latter list one week after asking those who had not yet completed the survey to take some time to respond.
A total of 100 completed usable responses were collected. Although the sample size was admittedly small, it was enough to be able to analyze the research questions and draw some preliminary findings.
The most often-cited length of conventions was three days (43% of respondents listed that as the average length of their conventions), while only 21% of respondents arranged conventions that lasted one or two days, and 36% of respondents planned conventions that lasted for four or more days. The amount of attendees per convention varied widely across the sample, from an average of less than 100 attendees per convention to an average of over 5,000 attendees per convention. In fact, 12% of the sample did not report an average number of attendees per convention, instead opting to respond that their average number of attendees per conventions varies. Budgets varied widely as well, from less than $100,000 per convention (32% of sample) up to over $1 million per convention (12% of sample). Seven percent of respondents also chose to disclose only that their budgets “vary.” This group of meeting professionals plan many free-time activities for their convention attendees, most often golf (64% of the sample include golf in their conventions), team building activities (54%), and attractions/theme parks (48%).
The dependent variable in this study was a meeting professional’s intentions to incorporate voluntourism into upcoming meetings and/or conventions. This variable was operationalized as a one item indicator called “intention to include.” Of the total respondents, 43% said they agreed or strongly agreed that they would include voluntourism in future plans.
Other than the knowledge variable, all the independent variables (attitudes, motivations, and past experiences) significantly correlated to the intention variable. Just over half (58%) of the respondents did demonstrate relatively high knowledge of voluntourism, but this did not correlate significantly with their intent to include it in an upcoming meeting or convention. This finding indicates a need for further education in voluntourism. Further education could potentially influence meeting professionals’ attitudes toward voluntourism, which (in this study) was shown to influence their intention to include voluntourism in their meetings.
Interestingly, this sample also admitted that what other people thought of their including voluntourism was an important variable related to whether they would include voluntourism activities in upcoming meetings/conventions. The finding has implications for both destination managers as well as meeting professionals. For example, destination managers could use voluntourism opportunities as products to differentiate themselves from the competition. Meeting professionals admittedly care about what others (bosses, peers, event attendees) think of their choices in activities, therefore, they make social choices about what activities to include in their meetings. Destinations need to provide a detailed list of voluntourism opportunities which exist in their destination so meeting professionals have the opportunity to include these in their plans. Another beneficial technique to inform meeting professionals about voluntourism opportunities is to create FAM trips targeted at meeting professionals so they can try it out for themselves before offering the activities to others. This would increase their knowledge as well as positive attitudes toward the opportunities.
Meeting professionals, on the other hand, must make it their responsibility to continually learn about voluntourism opportunities that work and ones that do not work. For example, as part of a continuing education program, a section could be added which covers the range of voluntourism opportunities and costs for varying types of conventions and meetings. A meeting professional must not only know of the benefits and expenditures necessary to implement a voluntourism program, but he or she must also be able to communicate these items to clients. It is the responsibility of the meeting professional to keep clients well-informed and updated.
Since there is so little research to draw on and/or critique, much more needs to be done in order to truly understand the concept of including voluntourism at conventions. There are many aspects that were not able to be touched on, yet should be in the future. For example, segmenting the type of meeting professionals could be further explored. Another angle to this research would be to conduct it based on how voluntourism effects convention attendees, or voluntourism destinations – both local tour operators and community members affected by the voluntourism effort. All groups represent a significant amount of information yet to be discovered.
I hope you enjoyed this edition’s Research Forum! If you have any questions or comments, please submit your questions to the Voluntourist newsletter, or send an e-mail to Tara Pazanski (email@example.com) to learn more!
See you next issue!
Nancy McGehee , Ph.D.
Hospitality and Tourism Management, Virginia Tech
For more Study & Research Articles visit Dr. McGehee's VolunTourism Research Forum. Go There >>>
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