Social licence or ‘SLO’ (Social Licence to Operate) is not a new concept. Not any more than sustainability is a new concept. The expression SLO was first coined in 1997 and related to the mining industry. Much has been written about it since. It is essentially the theory that successful businesses need to maintain a level of acceptance or approval by local communities and stakeholders. Social Licence to Operate and sustainability are linked at two levels. The sustainability of the business or industry is at stake, and sustainable practices are a factor in achieving SLO.

Most articles on SLO share a common theory which is essential, that SLO can be defined as a scale. The bottom of the scale is usually coloured red and is bad news. It signifies licence that is “withheld or withdrawn.” The next level is yellow and represents an imperfect improvement, “acceptance and tolerance”, but lingering mistrust and wariness. Light green denotes the positive end of the scale, where there is “approval and support.”

The ultimate expression of SLO, the green tip of the scale, is reserved for “psychological association” and is essentially a bond of trust. It refers to a state where there is a united front between the business, government and broader community, a sense of collaboration and a broadly recognised, shared vested interest in the business’s success.

Are we associated or dis-associated?  So, what does this all have to do with associations and meetings? Do associations and meetings even need social licence? And, if so, where do we think our industry would fit on the scale? Let’s start with where we are, and the answer isn’t a simple one. The answer can vary depending on individual associations, types of associations and in which parts of the world they operate. Consider NGOs.

While NGOs generally would have a considerable psychological association with the communities of people they serve, they also come up against government distrust and restrictions in various parts of the world. Having government buy-in is an essential part of the social licence equation. Where NGOs operate freely, they would probably exist in the yellow or light-green zones, either “acceptance and tolerance” or “approval and support.” But, if they aren’t allowed to operate freely, they tend toward the red zone, “licence withheld.” So, it’s clear that NGOs need social licence as a prerequisite to success wherever they operate.

Most associations are different from NGOs because they focus on developing professional or trade communities. There, the interests of the associations and those of governments and broader local communities might more closely align. However, the unfortunate truth in our industry is that few countries fully understand and thus embrace associations and their meetings as fundamental drivers of change and progress. That means, for the most part, that our industry hasn’t reached the “psychological association” state. It could be argued that we exist in a “fundamentally dis-associated” state. This is not in the sense of psychological withdrawal but rather that we simply lack a high degree of connectivity with governments and communities concerning the work of associations and the meetings we are holding.

There’s a degree of irony here. We are talking about associations being dis-associated. To be clear, they clearly have “psychological association” with their direct communities of interest. What they generally lack is a clear perception of relevance to broader communities. So, how could our industry hope to have a high degree of social licence when in most cases, we are not actively associated but rather passively disassociated?

“The unfortunate truth in our industry is that few countries fully understand and thus embrace associations and their meetings as fundamental drivers of change and progress”

A Potential for Disruption  Of course, this raises the question of whether we should care. How important is social licence to us? Well, apparently not so important that we’ve spent much time on it. But that begs the question, should it be important? I believe there are two possible negative impacts of a lack of social licence: the downside risk and the opportunity cost.

Let’s start on the risk side of this equation. Though it may seem counterintuitive, let’s talk a bit about tourism. We all know about a trend that began forming years ago: the growing negative sentiment in some communities concerning tourism. The tourism industry gave this trend a name, “over-tourism.” In places like Barcelona, Venice and Hawaii, local communities began voicing and voting their displeasure. They felt that tourists were overrunning their communities. One key example was the literal waves of tourists coming off cruise ships. There’s something particularly noticeable about hundreds and thousands of people disembarking a ship simultaneously and coursing en masse through space-limited historic precincts.

Generally, those involved in meetings, be it planners or the destination suppliers supporting them, believed that we were less affected by the “over tourism” push-back. Yes, a convention centre can have a similar effect to a cruise ship when people attending large meetings leave the building at the end of the day. But most meetings are not of that scale. They aren’t as concentrated in “tourism precincts”, and the foot traffic tends to be more distributed. However, none of those distinctions matter if the meetings industry is conflated in people’s minds with tourism. And unfortunately, in most communities, that is exactly how things are seen.

This confusion is essentially our fault as an industry. That’s because for so many years, at least at the destination level, we thought our value proposition was about generating visitor spending. Let’s face it, most convention bureaus outside of North America and Australia are in departments that are responding to tourism ministers. So, if the people trying to bring conventions to cities are tourism promoters, and a city is suffering from over-tourism, then conventions will be in the firing lines along with tourism. The risk is that efforts to attract and support inbound meetings could be disrupted.

A Hawaii Case Study  A bellwether example of disruption might be the Hawaii Visitors & Convention Bureau. In June, the state tourism authority (HTA) announced that the bureau would lose the contract it had held for decades. Instead, a multi-year tourism marketing contract worth tens of millions of dollars per year was awarded to the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement. It is a local not-for-profit agency whose stated mission is “to enhance the cultural, economic, political and community development of native Hawaiians.”

The narrative around the switch was that the bureau had failed to demonstrate caring for local community priorities and needs. Instead, it only focused on the hospitality industry’s commercial interests. So, the bureau lost major funding because it lacked social licence, and the Council is receiving the budget because it has social licence. It is clearly focused on community priorities and needs. It is possible that the Council may perform as well or better than the bureau at generating sustainable, socially responsible and community-appropriate tourism. The point is that if the bureau were adequately focused on the broader interests of the community it served and had social licence, it would still be the lead marketing agency for Hawaii. Indeed, it would probably fulfil that role in close collaboration with the Council and other community organisations.

How the situation in Hawaii affects the convention industry is yet to be seen. On the one hand, it is not hard to imagine that losing funding for tourism promotion will reduce resources to support the meetings industry. The point is that to the extent that the meetings industry is not catering to community interests and priorities, it exists in a state of jeopardy should it ever come to be seen as a problem instead of a solution.

“If it’s true that social licence will be a key focus for associations and destinations in the future, then we will be seeing a fundamental change in how meetings are organised”

Turning Opportunity Cost to Opportunity Gained  This brings us to the second issue, which is opportunity cost. That’s a situation where failure to take advantage of an opportunity results in missing the gain of the opportunity afforded. What opportunities could social licence bring our industry? It wouldn’t be wrong if local communities and governments took a genuine interest in our actions. The “psychological association” would be very healthy and might express itself in many ways, for example, new and better infrastructure, improved policies, increased funding for marketing, meetings support and subvention, enhanced support for civil society in general, and the list goes on.

Assuming that social licence would be a boon to our industry, how would we achieve it? The two fundamentals there in my mind are purpose and engagement. What is the purpose of most association meetings? Historically, the objective was primarily knowledge sharing and network development for the association’s community of interest. For destination promoters, it was bringing in people who would spend money. Neither of those outcomes is going to be powerful drivers of social licence. However, another trend in our industry could be a powerful driver of social licence. That trend is the growing interest and focuses on event legacy. Again, everyone is talking about it, but we have a long way to go before event legacy becomes a core purpose of meetings rather than a contemplated after-effect.

When the industry and host destinations become more strategic about leveraging positive impacts from meetings, they can achieve a confluence of interests. Legacies can benefit all the key stakeholders. They can help advance the association’s mission and benefit its members, and they can help build the field of interest in the host community. Also, they can provide measurable benefits to local communities and help deliver positive outcomes to governmental priorities. When all that happens, legacies can help create the “psychological association” that will drive sustainable success for a community’s civil society and meetings industry.

Anticipating Change in How Meetings are Organised  So, if event legacy is a key purpose, what is the key to engagement? In a sense, legacy visions are the welcome mat and engagement in the process of achieving those visions is the invitation to the party. Increasingly associations are looking for opportunities to more meaningfully engage with the broader community in the destinations where they are meeting. They are doing that because many of them see community awareness as an important factor in the success of their missions. Increasingly, associations, local host committees and destination promoters should all be thinking creatively about ways to increase community access and involvement in their events.

As for government involvement, our industry has focused on messages rather than experiences. Having government officials actively involved in meetings is a much more effective way to gain their interest, confidence and support. If it’s true that social licence will be a key focus for associations and destinations in the future, then we will be seeing a fundamental change in how meetings are organised. That change will show up in the way host committees operate. Expect to see host committees structured to elevate their focus on legacy, government, and community engagement. If they do their work effectively, our industry can transition from dis-associated to psychologically associated. The resulting social licence will help our industry become much stronger and more successful in the future.