Conference research – the state of the art (Judith Mair)

In this post Judith Mair reflects back on the field of conferences research five years after the publication of her ground-breaking book “Conferences and Conventions: A Research Perspective”

Judith Mair book cover

I started my PhD in 2000, and at that time I was fascinated by the thought that technology would remove the need for us to meet face-to-face. I wanted to study video-conferencing, but my supervisors persuaded me that this might not be the most theoretically rigorous topic. So instead I moved on to thinking about why we attend conferences, and what influences us to attend particular conferences when we have many to choose from… I assumed that the technology would come up as an important feature, but actually, all my research (and everyone else’s!) seemed to be suggesting that there was something special about meeting up with people in a conference environment that simply couldn’t be replicated by technology. My PhD thesis (completed in 2005) was about the conference attendance decision-making process and highlighted the key factors that people take into account when deciding whether or not to attend a conference. These were (briefly): opportunities for networking, personal and professional development, the location, the cost, the time and convenience of the conference and perceived health and wellbeing at the conference destination (including personal safety and security) (see Mair & Thompson, 2009).

Technology didn’t even rate a mention!

Since the early 2000’s, research into all aspects of conferences and conventions has expanded considerably, although there is still plenty of room for more. Some of it focuses on running conferences as a business (operations, logistics, marketing etc) (see eg. Tony Rogers’ post), while other studies consider the demand side, both in terms of how conference locations are selected, and how attendees decide whether or not to attend (see posts by Donald Nicolson and Nicholas Rowe). However, much of this knowledge was located in disparate fields and it seemed timely to draw it together in the form of a research book. Thus ‘Conferences and Conventions: A Research Perspective’ was born.

Published in 2014 by Routledge, I tried to bring together into one volume some of the depth and breadth of our knowledge on conferences. The book synthesised research on the key players involved in conferences (attendees, professional conference organisers, meeting planners, conference venues and facilities, convention and visitor bureaux) with studies on conference destination image, and the economic, social and environmental impacts of conferences. The book also had a strong focus on trends that, at the time of writing, could be foreseen as having significant effects on the industry, including climate change, new technologies, societal and demographic changes, and risk and crisis management. Having presented a round-up of the existing research into many aspects of conferences, the book then proposed a research agenda for future conference studies. As it is now five years since the book was published, it is timely to look at that research agenda with a view to assessing how (or if) researchers have been tackling those areas identified as being under-researched.

When I wrote the book, I was still interested in new technologies and how they may be revolutionising conferences. I highlighted virtual and augmented reality as a trend that could change the way that conferences are organised and attended. I also suggested that social media and mobile apps (particularly those designed for individual events) could have a significant impact on conference organisation. Since publication, there has been much research on events and social media in particular, albeit with fewer studies focusing specifically on conferences. However, the VR/AR aspect remains under-investigated, so technology and its impact on conferences still seems to offer plenty of research opportunities.

I also highlighted the importance of understanding global demographic change, with its implications for conferences in Asia (most specifically China and India, although other Asian nations such as Korea, Japan and Singapore are also major players in the conference industry). There is an ongoing strand of research into the Asian Century, but again, limited research has focussed on conferences specifically. Again, there is plenty of space to expand our knowledge further here.

Finally, I noted that research into risk and crisis management for conferences appeared to be lacking. I still feel that this is an area where more research is needed, particularly given the size and scale of the conference industry. However, some studies are beginning to emerge to investigate this crucial area and so while our knowledge is in its infancy, at least we are making progress here.

One area that I argued was badly in need of research was the question of gender and conference attendance. Although there had been some early studies noting the importance of taking the needs and wants of women into account when designing conferences, this had been an area badly in need of further study. However, I’m thrilled to report that there is now a growing body of knowledge and research into women and conferences – long may it continue! (see e.g. Mair & Frew 2018; Walters 2018; Henderson 2018; see also Conference Inference posts on care).

However, other areas remain neglected by researchers. Climate change was, and to my mind still is, one of the biggest challenges for us an all aspects of our lives. In 2014, I was only aware of one journal article (Mair 2011) that specifically focused on the impacts of climate change for events generally (I wrote it!), and nothing specific on conferences and conventions, and so it seemed that this was an avenue that was ripe for further studies. Fast forward 5 years, and there is still a gaping hole in our knowledge of what global climate change might mean for the business events sector.

There have been some studies investigating sustainable practices for business events venues, and some work on encouraging greening of the industry, but overall, the impacts of climate change on conferences remains largely ignored in the academic literature. The impacts of climate change will not be felt equally around the globe and some destinations will be winners in terms of being able to attract more conferences and delegates, but many others will be losers, as the increasing frequency and intensity of severe weather events (among other impacts) render these destinations less and less suitable for hosting large scale conferences. This crucial area badly needs more research.

Overall, I am a little surprised that the field hasn’t moved on more than it has in the past five years… but this gives us all the justification we need to continue to research and study this fascinating field!

About Judith Mair

Judith Mair_HR_1 smallAssociate Professor Judith Mair is Leader of the Tourism Discipline Group of the UQ Business School, University of Queensland, Australia. Her research interests include the impacts of tourism and events on community and society; consumer behaviour in tourism and events; the relationship between events and climate change; and business and major events. Judith is working on a number of projects including researching the links between events and social capital; understanding the benefits for attendees of attending conferences and conventions; and assessing the potential impacts of climate change on the tourism and events sector. She is the author and/or editor of four books, ‘The Routledge Handbook of Events’, ‘Conferences and Conventions: A Research Perspective’; ‘Events and Sustainability’; and ‘Festival Encounters’, all published by Routledge as well as over 40 academic papers in internationally recognised journals. Judith tweets @JudithMair       


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