The European meetings industry is estimated to be worth â‚¬100bn a year. This is a huge sum.
In 2006, Germany alone attracted 300m visitors to more than 2.6m events held in 6,000 different venues.
But while the recent HBI Meetings Industry Report 2008 said the industry was buoyant, it also made clear that it faced both problems and challenges.
In a wide-ranging opening to the report, Des McLaughlin, managing director of HBI (formerly Hotel Brokers International), looked at the changes the meetings management industry was going through as well as those to come.
The most evident trend he said was the growing role of procurement - a mirror image of what has happened in recent years in travel management.
Procurement, Mr McLaughlin said, was "wrestling control over meetings spend from disparate corporate departments." But he said this was not working where those involved were from a commodities background rather than from a service sector background.
"The skills are not always transferable and purchasing meetings space or events services is totally different to buying stationery," he warned.
But for whoever is doing the buying, the biggest challenge they face is accurately capturing and quantifying spend on meetings. This is the problem that has dogged those who have tried to control meetings spend in many companies. With so many stakeholders, so many different buyers and arrangers, many companies simply have no idea how much they spend or with whom. Nor is it been easy to prise people away from organising what they regard as "their meeting".
Mr McLaughlin gives some good advice. "Best practice here is for companies to analyse spend for at least a year before they issue an RFP, because lack of hard data makes it very difficult for the supplier to create and manage a consolidated programme," he said.
But while in managed travel, there are tools to drive compliance, in meetings management, for the reasons stated above, corporates are reluctant to use them. The answer here, HBI advises, is to give the arrangers a choice of preferred venues, a "controlled freedom", which will push up compliance.
But this highlights one of the main problems facing meetings management: the lack of an equivalent tool to travel's GDSs.
"Everyone in the meetings sector is awaiting the emergence of the meetings equivalent of the travel GDS. Without that centralised system, we believe that adoption amongst those venue groups whose meetings space is bookable online will remain low," he said.
HBI said that only 20% of the 6,000-7,000 meetings venues in the UK are bookable online. "Until you have 70-80% of the market with full electronic distribution, we can't see this Holy Grail being found," Mr McLaughlin said.
Rates in this buoyant market are also a problem with many hotel groups looking to increase them.
Even, ironically, increased competition can persuade some venues to up their prices. While the other side of the coin is that few planners can or are able to take advantage of yield management practices which produce lower rates for meetings on Mondays or Fridays.
The demand for something different, somewhere which other companies have not used is growing with planners moving away from the "three and four star meetings product" to the unique and specialist venues.
This has led some hotel groups to re-brand themselves as meetings specialists, like the DeVere Venues or Principal Hotels which has bought the Hayley Conference Centres.
But the lack of a GDS style tool is again evident with Mr McLaughlin pointing out that independent hotels have to make sure they are part of the electronic distribution channels - which is not always the case.
"They need to be more aggressive in their sales if they are to be part of preferred programmes, because procurement is not going to seek them out. Getting noticed is the hard part," he said.
The role of the agent is also changing, he said, with clients expecting much more from them.
"Instead of being relied on purely to fulfil transaction requests, HBI is being asked to advise on best practice, assist with contract checking, billing payments and using online technology," he said. It meant agents often effectively managed a client's meetings programme.
In both medium and long term, Mr McLaughlin expected there to be more competition for client business. "Where the venue placement were once unchallenged, travel management companies are now muscling in. 69% of TMCs plan to book meetings for their clients in the near future."
This is something the bigger agencies have been doing for several years, most likely the natural result of the drive to control and consolidate spend in the two areas of travel and meetings.