by Michael J. Shapiro | February 01, 2010

Gary Pearson had the good fortune in 2009 to deal with only two major meeting cancellations. Pearson, director of corporate meetings and events for Chicago-based Aon Service Corp., credits the insurance company's sound approval policy for limiting the number of ill-advised gatherings planned during the tumultuous time. But Aon's two cancellations were representative of the beating taken by the insurance and finance segments overall -- in both cases the decision to pull the plug was motivated by perception issues.

The first canceled event was to have taken place last January. Explains Pearson, "We were going to bring our top execs from around the world together in Miami, and with everything else that was going on [in the industry], our CEO just said, ‘No, that's not a smart move.' " The other axed event was the company's only incentive, set for last spring in Cancún, Mexico. That was postponed, due more to internal than external perception issues, says Pearson. "They froze salaries last year at around the same time, and I think they just decided, ‘How can we freeze salaries and let these guys go out and spend so much in Mexico?' So they decided to hold back on that, too." The incentive trip has been rescheduled for this April, again in Cancún.

In light of the hundreds of meetings canceled by high-profile recipients of Troubled Asset Recovery Program funds, Aon (not a TARP recipient) fared remarkably well. Pearson is confident that the company's group bookings will be strong in 2010, and there are indications elsewhere within the industry that financial and insurance company meetings are slowly getting back on track, while incentive trips proceed even more cautiously.

Taking the pulse
FICP VP Jan HennesseyAbout 100 meeting professionals gathered behind closed doors during last November's annual conference of Financial & Insurance Conference Planners, held in Toronto. "We asked them some questions about today and about moving forward," explains Jan Hennessey, FICP's vice president of communications. The FICP board was pleasantly surprised by some of the results. Although nearly everyone experienced cancellations in 2009, most in the room were back to booking meetings for 2010. Even more encouraging was the fact that about 20 percent of those gathered intend to book international events in 2010 and 2011.

A nearly unanimous show of hands indicated that meeting budgets would remain flat this year. Hennessey believes this validates the notion that meetings axed in 2009 are back on the books for 2010, even if they haven't yet been confirmed. Also reassuring: Among those who hadn't yet started booking meetings for 2010, several said their planning staffs were still intact. "To us, that means that leaders must believe meetings are coming back," Hennessey says.