The great divide

The following from SITE CMO Pádraic Gilligan originally appeared in Conference and Meetings World.

When I reflect on the content of some recent conferences, webinars and podcasts I’m reminded of George Bernard Shaw’s much quoted comment about the US and Great Britain being “two countries divided by a common language”.

The great divide this time, however, is not about the correct way to pronounce tomato or spell “colour” or whether a “fanny pack” is a perfectly legitimate way of describing an item of great personal value.

It’s neither orthography, linguistics or semantics. This time, it’s about the relative importance of CSR and sustainability as incentive travel recovers following the pandemic pause.

This emerged forcefully last April at SITE Global Conference in Dublin during a panel discussion chaired by Jennifer Attersall, Director of Incentive Travel for Destination Canada. During the panel, Chris Parnham, the UK-based Managing Director of Absolute Corporate Events and US-based Patty Karsten, VP of Industry Relations & Event Solutions for BI Worldwide, reported diametrically opposing positions on the relative importance of CSR and sustainability for incentive travel.

For Karsten, programme elements featuring sustainability or highlighting sustainability practices were not asked for or required by her clients. For Parnham though, these were increasingly central to event design.

The great divide was touched on again in a more recent SITE webinar, also facilitated by Attersall, where Patty Karsten and Canada-based Ellie MacPherson of Creative Group reported no real change since the pre-pandemic days in how their North American clientbase regarded incentive travel, or how success was defined and understood.

In his report on a recent UK roundtable that brought together opinions from across the incentive industry — agencies, corporates, venues — Alistair Turner of Eight PR and Marketing sketched out a dramatically different set of industry trends with CSR and sustainability decisively at the forefront.

Turner spotlighted how the roundtable pinpointed a massive transition in the incentive travel industry, from “corporate junket into something more sustainable, embracing transformative travel, wellness, and cultural enrichment”. He reported how, “you can’t have a conversation about events (with a client) without talking about sustainability”.

The great divide is borne out, too, in preliminary results from the global Incentive Travel Index, an annual study of the incentive travel industry that was conducted in June/July 2022 by SITE Foundation, Incentive Research Foundation (IRF) and Financial & Insurance Conference Professionals (FICP).

When asked to evaluate the relative importance of 14 ingredients or activities to a successful programme, CSR is three times more important for UK buyers than US buyers, and sustainability is two and a half times more important. This isn’t a mere fissure, it’s a veritable chasm the width of the Grand Canyon.

Plus, it begs the deeper, more fundamental question. As agency professionals, is our job simply to meet client needs or do we have a duty to lead clients and meet, as yet, unidentified requirements?

Many corporations are proactively evaluating their positions in relation to such macro issues as the environment, eco-systems, climate change, consumption, diversity, equity, inclusion — issues generally categorised under the generic labels of sustainability and CSR by our industry.

For those corporations who choose to ignore the signs of the times, do we as agencies not have a duty to lead by highlighting how sustainability and CSR can be incorporated into programme design for the benefit of all, most especially our common home?

Written by

Pádraic Gilligan

Pádraic Gilligan


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