Straight Talk: Paul Van Deventer, President and CEO, Meeting Professionals International
Having been at the helm of Meeting Professionals International (MPI) since 2013, Paul Van Deventer has steered the biggest and most vibrant meeting and event industry association on the globe through both challenging and triumphant times over the years. Yet 2022 is turning out to be one of the most celebratory for him and the MPI community at large.
“This year is MPI’s 50th anniversary, an anniversary shared with Disney World and National Public Radio, among others—a lot was going on in 1972!” he said. “It’s thrilling to be able to celebrate this benchmark for the association, but even more meaningful to be able to come together in person for MPI World Education Congress (WEC) after more than two years of the pandemic.”
As Van Deventer prepared to welcome thousands of industry colleagues to San Francisco June 21-23 for MPI WEC 2022, we checked in with this prominent and prolific events industry leader and advocate, who, beyond his role at MPI, has been on boards for the Events Industry Council (EIC), the Meetings Mean Business Coalition (MMB), the U.S. Travel Association, the Joint Meetings Industry Council (JMIC), Tourism Diversity Matters (TDM) and California State University Hospitality and Tourism Alliance Council.
Read on for Van Deventer's thoughts on how MPI significantly supported its community of event professionals during the pandemic and how it continues to help them thrive, the important lessons learned over the past two years, projections for the industry moving forward, the biggest highlights of WEC, and what he’s most excited about for this year and beyond.
What were some of the significant changes MPI navigated during the pandemic?
The meeting and event industry was one of the most negatively impacted by the effects of the pandemic and will likely be one of the last industries to fully recover. As the world’s largest professional meeting and event industry association, the economic fallout of the pandemic hit MPI and our community incredibly hard. In response, our board and leadership team quickly set two priorities to navigate through the pandemic: ensure MPI’s long-term financial stability, so that we would be able to support future generations of event professionals and proactively reach out to our community to provide much-needed professional and personal support. That support for the community manifested itself in enhanced online offerings from the MPI Academy, enabling professionals to not only continue their learning journeys during a time with fewer face-to-face events but also to keep them up to date on the evolving challenges in the meetings landscape, as well as provide personal wellness support. And to support financially challenged members of our community, MPI provided our on-demand content to any industry professional at no cost for an extended period throughout 2020. Additionally, the MPI Foundation substantially increased support for our community and members, providing over $1million in direct support to over 3,200 individuals since the start of the pandemic.
What are the biggest highlights of MPI WEC 2022, and how will it be a testament to the new era of events?
This year is MPI’s 50th anniversary, an anniversary shared with Disney World and National Public Radio, among others—a lot was going on in 1972! It’s thrilling to be able to celebrate this benchmark for the association, but even more meaningful to be able to come together in person after more than two years of the pandemic. At WEC, we’ll be highlighting the value of our members over the years while also looking to the future. What’s a community without the people? Our members are what has made MPI the success that it is, the best business events community in the world. As part of that, at WEC we’ll be recognizing 50 of our most influential members, 50 legacy contributors spanning the history of MPI and 50 up-and-coming professionals who will drive us through the association’s next five decades.
What makes San Francisco a great place for MPI WEC 2022?
The city and region have always been an important hub of innovation, technology, business and culture. The Bay Area is incredibly diverse and a leader in social progress and inclusivity, making it an ideal fit for our community, and industry which has innovation, diversity and social progress at our core. Our strengths and our principles are closely aligned.
What are some of the most difficult pain points event professionals are facing in the current climate, and how is MPI helping them overcome these challenges at MPI WEC 2022 and overall?
The return to business is great to see, but it’s not as simple as reopening the doors. People and organizations have been significantly affected by the pandemic, economically and psychologically. And most critically, while our industry is experiencing a flood of business, many organizations are finding it difficult to fill out their staffs and reengage service providers—our industry has acutely felt the “great resignation.” In our latest Meetings Outlook survey, 54% of respondents said they’re finding it difficult to fill job vacancies. At WEC, we’re providing the education that industry pros need to succeed and thrive in the “new normal”—whether they need a refresher on certain skills or need to learn something completely new. Our Career Collective will also be active throughout WEC to help participants hone resumes or get additional career advice from a team of professionals. As an industry, we need to work together to proactively tell the positive story of the rich array of rewarding career opportunities available in business events to attract a new workforce.
How do you think the industry will be the most changed moving out of the pandemic, and how can event professionals prepare?
Throughout this time, many have developed a clearer picture as to what can be accomplished via virtual gatherings and what result really requires being face to face. Meeting professionals can best prepare for a changed landscape by remaining focused on their evolving skillsets—from contract negotiations to creating hybrid events that are beneficial for all participants. Fortunately, MPI and others in our industry are here to help. In our case, that help comes in the form of education (WEC, the MPI Academy) and building your network and cultivating relationships (MPI chapters and our online communities).
We’re seeing that at this time, networking and spending time with peers is more sought after than ever. We went without regular face-to-face interactions for so long, people are craving that now. The general population has also, hopefully, realized how much they were taking in-person events for granted—from graduations and concerts to conferences and dining out with friends. To varying degrees, we all need to spend time physically around others.
What are the most important lessons you’ve learned over the past two years, both professionally and personally?
One of the key lessons I’ve taken from this time has been the importance of belonging to a community. As much as I enjoy traveling to industry events, meeting MPI members and engaging with our diverse base of partners, I love spending time with my family. The forced limit on travel early on in the pandemic reminded me to focus more on a work-life balance that respects my loved ones, colleagues and the MPI community. And critically for our industry, the pandemic taught the world the critical importance and value of face-to-face meetings and events.
What are you most excited about for the events industry this year and beyond?
Our industry is filled with creative and resilient individuals, and I can’t wait to see what they do next! Think about it: This industry has made it through world wars, previous pandemics, 9/11 and the 2008 financial crash and is well on the road to recovery from the pandemic. What has been consistent is that business event professionals have learned from each of those crises and powered our industry to strong recoveries and new heights of innovation and creativity, ensuring that we deliver exceptional experiences for clients and participants.