by By Cheryl-Anne Sturken | February 01, 2009

FICP2The timing could not have been worse. As the Financial & Insurance Conference Planners association gathered in Cancún, Mexico, for its 51st annual conference last fall, the news that American International Group had spent more than $400,000 on a lavish incentive program, days after receiving an $85 billion federal bailout, was still reverberating through the hallways of corporate America.

Speaking at FICP's opening general session, which drew a record-breaking crowd of 600, outgoing president Patricia Kerr, CMP, director, conference planning and recognition, for Waterloo, Ontario-based Manulife Financial, tackled the controversy. "Some might think this is an inappropriate time to hold this type of event, but I strongly disagree," she said. "The timing couldn't be more important."

To a standing-room-only crowd of financial and insurance planners, as well as suppliers, Kerr urged the audience to set the bar high for themselves, despite the current environment, and to continue to work at delivering value and opportunity to their companies' bottom line. "Because of broad generalizations, meetings and incentives are misunderstood," said Kerr. "We are here because business as we knew it has disappeared. We are moving beyond familiar boundaries, and we need to be prepared."

Indeed, FICP's reaction to the AIG story, and its efforts to continue to grow its membership in a period of economic hardship, hold lessons for meeting professionals of all stripes.

Stand and deliver
Days before its leadership arrived in Cancún, the Chicago-based FICP, in an unusual move, released a tersely worded official statement rebuking the media's coverage of "excessive spending of certain financial institutions on meetings and events" and reminded its members of the important role they play in driving their companies' profitability.

"Our members pride themselves on producing meetings and conferences that generate strategic business results. We'd like to set the record straight on the meeting and event business," the statement announced. "Meetings get results. They firm up partnerships and inspire successes. When economic times are tough, it's vital for employees to be able to come together to share ideas and skills, to create solutions and set long-term strategic goals. In exceptionally competitive and unstable market conditions, strategically focused meetings, events and sales conferences boost business and deliver results."

Steve Bova, executive director for FICP, says planners in the financial and insurance sector are hungry for knowledge to guide them: "I hoped people would leave Cancún and go back to their offices and tell their fellow employees and management how valuable it was to attend -- that they had greater understanding of the markets and how their company fits in. There is comfort in knowing you are not alone in a particular situation."

The new playing field
While 72 percent of suppliers reported they had meetings for the third quarter of 2008 and beyond canceled at their properties (see chart below), the news from the event's Marketplace, where 340 suppliers manned booths, was not all gloomy.

According to Randy Lambe, senior sales manager for a collection of Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, including Fairmont Banff Springs and Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, while meeting business had fallen off, new and unexpected business opportunities had materialized. "Canada is seen as a good price and close to home. In the last few months, we booked several groups that had pulled back business from Europe," said Lambe. Still, he added, because those properties also represent luxury icons in Fairmont's collection, several planners told him it would be very difficult to justify selecting those hotels for a program.

Michael Drinkwalter, senior sales manager for the Renaissance Orlando Resort at SeaWorld, also believes perception will affect site selection in 2009. "We are taking the word resort out of our name, because it is costing us group business," says Drinkwalter. "Many planners, including pharmaceutical planners, have told us they are not allowed to go to a property that has ‘resort' in the name."

One insurance meeting planner, who asked not to be identified, says she is looking forward to FICP's 2009 November convention, to be held in Toronto. "I had a hard time justifying why I needed to go to Cancún, because it's a resort destination," she explains. "Toronto is a global business center, so when we meet there next year, more planners from my department will be able to attend."

Brian Slot, director, meetings, conventions and incentive travel, the Americas, for Travel Alberta, the marketing organization for the Canada's Alberta province, says the new direct service between Mexico City International Airport and Edmonton International Airport inaugurated in June 2008 already is reaping rewards for the northern province.

"We have gotten inbound group business from Mexico, which is new to us and very exciting," says Slot. "Does this mean the loss of U.S. groups won't hurt? No. It just gives us the opportunity to work a market we did not have before."

Looking ahead
For the remainder of 2009, FICP will concentrate on growing its membership. According to Bova, financial planners now represent 17 percent of FICP's ranks, up from 10 percent in 2006, when the association changed its name from Insurance Conference Planners Association to reflect the merging of insurance and financial companies.

"So much has changed in our industry in a short time, it is difficult to take a quick snapshot," says Steve Bova. "Strategic planning is important if we are to deliver what our members need, and we are going to concentrate on just that."

At the event's closing session, FICP's newly elected president, Cindy Wheaton, CMP, manager, group meetings and incentives for Columbus, Ohio-based Nationwide Financial Network, took the baton from Kerr and echoed her rallying cry. "It is clear that each of us has to work smarter, more creatively, and be more productive, and we must continue to bring real value to our companies," she said. "We all need to leverage opportunities on a daily basis."