IMEX America update – business is strong but Australasia may have to wait

IMEX America
(L-R) Donna Kessler with 212f's Jo Strachan and ETM's Jamie Bonner back in Vegas for IMEX America.

Tourism Portfolio’s Donna Kessler hit the show floor at last week’s IMEX America event in Las Vegas, finding plenty of positives but a few worrying signs for Australia and New Zealand as well. She shares her insights below.

It was certainly great to be back at IMEX America in person this year – a feeling felt right across the show floor in the impressive Mandalay Bay Resort.

Organisers said there were 12,000 in attendance which included 4,000 buyers and 3,300 of these hosted, and I think they’re pretty spot on. It was busy and hectic with Covid apparently no longer a concern because the kisses and hugs between old acquaintances were happening everywhere. There was talk of the potential for Covid returning in the US and European winter but more on that later.

I heard that some exhibitors were late to register simply because they were so busy back home. Requests for proposals are at an all-time high and some participants were wondering how they were going to get those done when they were attending this event.

But come they did and there was a genuine buzz around. Everyone was happy to be back.

Much of the talk, aside from the mountain of RFPs people had to complete, was the challenge with staff shortages. This was expressed by event agencies, DMCs and venue operators.

The Tourism Australia stand had 30 partners on it, and every time I walked past they were busy. The Gold Coast Convention and Exhibition Centre were one of them and they told me they had had some great results which will have a positive effect on the future of the Gold Coast.

New Zealand also had a stand with about 10 partners, and they too were busy.

But if anybody expects that Australia or New Zealand will be back to pre-pandemic levels from the US or Europe anytime soon then I think they are mistaken.

I spoke to a number of US-based incentive houses who told me that incentives are staying closer to home at present, with many going to the Caribbean. Budgets are pretty much as they were pre-pandemic, so what they save on shorter flights they are put into their programs – upgrading hotels and activities.

More than one told me that the US is in recession, whether some people wanted to admit it or not, and that will clearly have an impact on the incentive travel sector in another six to 12 months.

Sustainability was also becoming more important in this market. One incentive travel planner told me a recent event they were working on was cancelled one month out because the new CEO said he was uncomfortable with the carbon footprint the event was having.

That kind of thinking is something we’re all going to have to address moving forward.

In the US domestically, I was told larger events have scaled right back or are being broken into smaller events with significantly reduced numbers.

In the US and Europe there is also concern that winter in the Northern Hemisphere could see once higher Covid numbers and potentially a reduction in travel. But at this stage that’s not being considered a major issue because meetings and incentives are traditionally held outside of this period.

Then again, if Covid numbers do rise, the challenge of venue availability for the rest of the year will be impacted.

I also caught up with Liz Maxwell, from ESP Ventures in New Zealand, who told me Australia continued to be popular for groups. She said Fiji and Noumea had also been strong but, in her opinion, they were now being overloaded and were struggling with service levels.

She said Port Douglas was trending for incentives and with Air New Zealand offering direct flights to Tasmania, it was also gaining traction as a viable option.

Maxwell also said programs to Australia are quite small but the budgets are still there. Incentive ‘winners’ are achieving targets but the challenge is that numbers are having to be capped in line with venue and airline capacities.

Other overseas destinations of interest for her groups include Singapore, Hawaii, the US, Vietnam and Europe. In many of these, though, airfare and accommodation prices are significantly impacting programs.

It was interesting to read in the IMEX-written press that exhibitors at this year’s event are reporting very long business pipelines. Tourism Ireland, for example, apparently announced at the end of the event they had confirmed a piece of business worth EUR 10 million for 2028. Another exhibitor, Destination DC secured a piece of business for 2026.

These both sounded more like the lead times for association events than corporate meetings and incentives and maybe that’s a general shift.

What is clear from this IMEX America is that people are happy to be back, happy to be busy, and happy to have survived the past two years.

The other clear thing I found was that people love getting together. They’ve missed it and they intend to do more of it if they can.