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Finally, the business meeting gets some respect

I've long believed in the power of pageantry to inform and inspire.

Even in our digital age, bringing people together, in person, is essential to building great organizations.


Businessman jumping during meeting
Fuse | Getty Images

I say this as the CEO of business-software company, SAP, and weeks away from hosting Sapphire, a technology conference of 25,000 employees, customers and partners in Orlando.

When people meet face-to-face or sit side-by-side to network, to learn, to celebrate and to share, they are moved in ways that no other medium can match.

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I've witnessed this phenomenon throughout my career:

As a young sales rep, my former company's spectacular year-end incentive trip for its top producers always motivated me to perform at my peak for another year.

As district manager for Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, I brought back my district's canceled holiday party, and the renewed loyalty helped propel the district to first place from last. Twenty years later, my former colleagues still recall the night they filled the banquet hall in one of Puerto Rico's finest hotels.

And as a senior vice president, I flew hundreds of employees to San Antonio for a meticulously orchestrated kick-off event. For three days, our senior leaders and support staffers attended rallies and seminars while taking over the city's convention center and two large hotels. The experience was indelible, and its messages enabled us to almost double revenues to $4 billion.

For more than 30 years, I've witnessed how conferences, seminars and meetings yield tremendous value for companies.

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Yet they are also a boon for local and regional economies. In the U.S. alone, meetings contribute more than $280 billion in direct spend each year, while putting another $88 billion back into the economy through federal, state and local taxes, according to the Convention Industry Council. For local markets, every convention, trade show and exhibition brings to town visitors who stay in area hotels, eat in restaurants, and shop in neighborhood stores. Meetings also spur local employment.

It's refreshing to see it get more of the respect it deserves: This year, April 16 officially becomes North American Meeting Industry Day.

At no place will a meeting's benefits be more on display than at SAP's Sapphire conference. For more than 25 years, SAP and our partners have used this annual event to launch new products, to train people, to cement relationships, make news and, most significant, to connect with customers, old and new. Each year brings undeniable ROI: In 2013, for every 1 euro invested, we booked 175 euros in new business. Sapphire remains one of our most lucrative investments.

Seven years ago, when Starbucks was in the early stages of its turnaround, CEO Howard Schultz spent $30 million to bring 10,000 store managers to New Orleans so he could personally explain the company's dire straits and his plan to recover. Schultz later called the conference "a galvanizing moment," key to the company's future success. Today, Starbucks stock is trading near all-time highs.

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And every year, with Draft Day, the National Football League nurtures fan loyalty by turning the first-round draft picks into interactive theater. Draft Day's live audience, star presenters, surprise deals, social media buzz and red-carpet pomp is an incredible brand-building event for the NFL—and just may be the country's most celebrated live, sports-related meeting.

There is no doubt that great things happen for companies and for economies when people come together face-to-face. From a dinner for 10 to a conference for 10,000, meetings are where brands are built and relationships are forged; where hearts are won and minds are open; and where deals close and new opportunities emerge. I firmly believe the winners of tomorrow will be leaders who understand the power of pageantry and invest in that power today.

Commentary by Bill McDermott, CEO and a member of the executive board of SAP. Follow him on Twitter @BillRMcDermott.