Recessionary concerns blanketed Meeting Professionals International's annual Professional Education Conference in Honolulu this year, most obviously in the show's attendance: Only 1,485 attendees came to the Hawaii Convention Center last month for the show, the lowest attendance for any annual MPI convention since 1992—and about 40 percent less than last year's record PEC attendance of 2,461.
Anecdotally, corporate meeting planners comprised a large chunk of the missing. Many large companies that had sent many planners in the past sent but a handful this year.
Though the industry is only a few months removed from the nightmarish impact of Sept. 11, most attendees seemed to consider the economic slowdown and distant locale, rather than the lingering threat of terror, as the primary culprits for the sparse attendance.
The tentacles of Sept. 11, though, won't recede from this industry's consciousness for a very long time, and the Corporate Circle of Excellence responded by studying the concepts and practices of corporate meetings and attendee security. The group resolved that planners should work closely with and solicit recommendations from in-house corporate security departments to evaluate all security options.
"We've worked with corporate security for site selection, and we're going to put a restructured policy in place that will cover security for all meetings, not just ones that include senior management," said Andrea McGrath, assistant director of conference services for Northfield, Ill.-based Kraft Foods.
Another significant change in the post-hijacking industry is a newfound willingness by hotels to share specific security information and contingency plans before the start of a meeting, said Angie Pfiefer, director of travel and meeting management services for Winnipeg-based Investors Group Financial Services. "It's become baseline operation," she said.
Also, at least one buyer was aided in locating attendees on Sept. 11 because his company developed a meeting registration feature on its intranet. Ford Motor Co. manager of global special events Peter King was in Phoenix with a team of senior management that morning when the news broke and was able to inform them quickly of the whereabouts of their attendees.
"Because that process was put into place, I was able to find out with one phone call where our meetings were and who was at them," King said. "We demonstrated that we could find this out right away, that we have our stuff together and should have a key role in creating a new corporate crisis management policy."
Given the post-terror spike in interest in travel alternatives, the once-prevalent attitude that videoconferencing usage could eliminate planner jobs seems to have cooled. Though some buyers reported that they are further integrating such communication tools into their meeting programs, there was no agreement as to the potential future usage of videoconferencing and Webconferencing.
"I don't believe there will be a decline as things get back to normal," said Christine Duffy, president and COO of Maritz Travel Co.'s Philadelphia-based McGettigan subsidiary. "Travel alternatives have become an aspect of programs that both planners and suppliers are becoming familiar with."
According to Margaret Moynihan, Wilson, Conn.-based director of meetings and travel at Deloitte & Touche, travel alternatives shouldn't eliminate jobs. "People are using videoconferencing and Webconferencing, but planners still must organize hotel space for videoconferences and register attendees," Moynihan said.
Sign of the times: An independent meetings management firm has developed a structure to enable laid-off corporate planners to continue to service their meeting programs. Industry veteran Tony Korody said his firm, Santa Monica-based FEP Inc., effectively would act as a go-between with the company and its former employees. The company outsources its meetings business to FEP, which, in turn, subcontracts it out to the laid-off planners. The plan allows the corporation to work with an established meetings management company and the planners who know the corporate culture, Korody said, and frees planners from the burden of creating independent planning companies. As to why corporations would need his company as a middleman instead of dealing with the ex-employees directly, Korody said, "corporations have a fiduciary responsibility to deal with legitimate companies. It also protects the company from legal action down the road." Korody hasn't signed anybody up for the program, but only developed it last month.
MPI soon will develop educational curricula based on its Women On Their Way initiative, now that results from its extensive survey have been tabulated. The survey found that 40 percent of female respondents control meeting budgets of more than $2 million, while only 25 percent of male respondents do so. The association hasn't yet drawn any conclusions from the data, but will do so over the course of the year. The findings also show that women are more likely than men to work on highly visible assignments to advance their career, and encourage risk and invite dissent when leaders.