January 01, 2002
Meetings & Conventions - Change of Plans - January 2002

Current Issue
January 2002

Moving Forward

The events that changed a nation have rewritten the rules for planners. Here’s what meetings will look like this year

Reported and written by the staff of Meetings & Conventions
Photograph by Robert Clark

  As we enter a new year, anxieties about travel, safety and financial instability loom large in the collective psyche. Anguish over what has transpired, and fear about what is yet to come, have influenced most of our actions and decisions since Sept. 11. Meetings have not stopped, but longstanding plans suddenly have become tentative as corporations and associations rethink what is relevant and appropriate.

Many have made changes. Perhaps the locale was deemed too far or too flashy, the agenda too trivial. Every element of future meetings is being revisited with a sensitivity mindful of a highly stressed audience.

While various meetings have been canceled, current events have given rise to new gatherings. Some firms are convening town hall-style to address new security measures, policy changes or, in some cases, cutbacks. “People are nervous. They’re questioning the solvency of their companies,” says Howard Givner, president of Paint the Town Red, a special events firm in New York City. “CEOs feel it’s important to communicate in a personal way.”

What will the meetings of 2002 look like? M&C spoke to planners, presenters and suppliers about how they’re reshaping events of the near future.

Firms play it straight
Where to? Today, site-selection decisions are made according to new criteria, considering new logistical hurdles and safety concerns.

Looking at airlift. “Because of reduced flight schedules, planners are going to have to rethink how they select a destination,” says Christine Duffy, COO of Philadelphia-based McGettigan Partners, a division of Fenton, Mo.-based Maritz Travel Co. “For large gather- ings, they may have to consider staggering arrival and departure days, and that is going to change how they put together their meeting itineraries.”

Stressing security. Corporate planners are now making security a top priority. “In the past,” Duffy says, “you just hired staff through the hotel.” Now, planners are asking to speak directly with security to find out what measures are in place and to discuss evacuation plans as part of the site selection process.

Going regional. Nortel Networks Corp., a Toronto-based communications firm, does not want to have one gathering for all of its 5,000 North American employees this year. At press time, the firm was considering holding its February meeting in five destinations, including New York City, and simultaneously broadcasting the main sessions to the various locales via satellite, according to a supplier bidding on the business.

Sleeping cheaper. Secaucus, N.J.-based Panasonic Consumer Electronics booked a block of rooms at a Candlewood Suites property to house staff attending a recent trade show, says senior administrative manager of events and meetings Mildred Nuñez.

Making it important. How critical is the meeting? Lincoln, R.I.-based Amica Mutual Insurance is putting future events to that test. “Many of us have looked at meetings and travel to see what is essential,” says Margaret Munroe, senior assistant vice president of corporate communications, the department that plans meetings. Amica canceled a management conference to be held shortly after Sept. 11; the still-uncertain airline schedules and employee anxiety were deciding factors. “When we sent out the cancellation memo, there was a collective sigh of relief,” Munroe says.

Gail Rubenstein, director of corporate travel and meeting services for the Pawtucket, R.I.-based Hasbro toy company, is another of the many corporate planners who told M&C, “Most of our meetings have been cut back.” Typically, her department coordinates 100 to 125 meetings annually; for 2002, she has just about a dozen on the books.

Adjusting contracts. St. Petersburg, Fla.-based Raymond James Financial is one of many firms changing the wording in hotel contracts. Jennifer Mason, CMP, supervisor of corporate meetings for the financial services company, says while civil disorders and curtailment of transportation have always been covered in her hotel contracts under the force majeure clause, “we did go back and add in the word ‘terrorism.’”

Using the Web. Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart is just one of countless companies that bumped an event in this case, an analyst meeting to the Web after Sept. 11. Indeed, the attacks gave fresh impetus to a trend: Far-flung networks of desktops increasingly are substituting for traditional conference rooms.

Staying grounded. Says Jennifer Mason, “We’re re-evaluating transportation. Where normally people would fly, it now makes more sense for them to drive.” For one recent meeting, she says, only half of the 150 attendees opted to fly to the in-state destination, with others carpooling in vans rented by the firm.

“With the waiting at the airport,” adds Amica’s Munroe, “you might as well drive.”

Last November, BostonCoach (www.bostoncoach.com) introduced city- to-city service in Lincoln Town Cars, playing to those who want to get there by car without doing the driving. A one-way, door-to-door trip from New York City to Washington, D.C., for example, was priced at $399. Those with the budget and patience could shell out $1,359 for a 15-hour drive (including comfort stops) from San Francisco to Phoenix.

Toning it down. Sun Microsystems went ahead with its late-September product launch in New York City, but changes were called for. “Initially it was planned to be a very exuberant event,” says Maria Villarino, senior marketing manager for the Santa Clara, Calif.-based tech firm, “but now that wasn’t appropriate, so we toned it down to a more straightforward format.” Gone were the raucous music and flashy lighting effects of past events.

Letting them chat. Since Sept. 11, “there is now no need for ice breakers,” says Mike Haskell, founder of Adventure Quest, a Bowdoinham, Maine, company that teaches leadership skills. “People are really eager to talk and to listen.”

Combining meetings. For the past year, Tom Keville, director of meetings and events at Accenture, a Boston-based consulting firm, urged management to combine meetings held in close proximity. With flying now more delay-prone than ever, he says, some departments have finally seen the light, scheduling internal conferences and briefings back-to-back so attendees have to take only one trip.

Scaling down shows. Panasonic is taking a hard look at its trade show expenditures, says Mildred Nuñez. “We are studying all of our events on a case-by-case basis. We have to cut all our expenses by 20 percent.” Panasonic pulled out of some shows entirely and cut back on lighting, booth displays and personnel for upcoming events. “We only have one staff member going to shows that would formerly have had two,” says Nuñez.

Associations take stock
The past year was a bleak one for associations. Many reported low attendance numbers and dwindling sponsorship dollars, particularly after Sept. 11. But today the stage might be set for a rally.

“Associations are about bringing people together, and people want to get together, to belong to something, more than ever now,” says Susan Sarfati, president and CEO of the Greater Washington Society of Association Executives based in Washington, D.C. “Associations are now looking at the big picture. They are concentrating on where their bread and butter comes from and leaving the frills aside.”

Among some tactics association planners are employing this year:
Adding social time. “The focus of meetings is changing,” says Mary Power, president of the McLean, Va.-based Convention Industry Council. “Planners are building more social time into their programs, because attendees want to network more. They want to exchange ideas, to bond.”

Providing relevant content. Agendas will need to be truly compelling to convince attendees to spend money and time to travel to meetings, says John Parke, president and CEO of Leadership Synergies in Chicago and a member of Dallas-based Meeting Professionals International’s board of directors. “Associations are going to have to be proactive and creative,” he notes. “MPI itself is shifting its meeting content to focus more on security, technology and how to develop a crisis action plan. Those are the issues our members tell us they are most concerned about.”

Talking about safety. Planners should be up front with potential attendees about security measures in place for the meeting, because that will be a leading factor in the decision to attend, says Mary Power. “We are going to have to let them know a crisis plan is in place in the city they are going to,” she says.

Thinking regional. “In order to fill their room blocks, associations will have to work extra hard to drive regional travel,” says Tim Durant, executive vice president of Quincy, Mass.-based Passkey. “They will have to put more money toward marketing their meetings.”

The new agenda
Familiar subjects still fill the pages of convention programs, but educators are looking at old topics in a new light. Contracts, security, economizing all common seminar themes of previous times have taken on a new urgency as the country continues to face a sluggish economy and a new war.

Meeting the need. Like many groups, the Society of Incentive & Travel Executives modified 40 percent of the educational content for its December conference in Lisbon, Portugal, says CEO Jill Harrington. Changes were made to sessions on contracts, crisis management and partnering.

Going deep. “We need to get way past the superficial on security,” says Jim Gilmore, a speaker for Aurora, Ohio-based consulting firm Strategic Horizons. “How about a speaker from Israel or Ireland? Educationally, we need people who have had some life experiences, so they can help tell us what our mind-set should be.”

Serious topics require in-depth attention, adds Gilmore. Quick top-10 lists on issues like security “are going to come off really bad now. If you do that kind of approach, it could backfire,” he says.

Getting real. As new concerns have shaken up employee priorities, planners and executives will have to learn how to address business topics without giving the impression of being self-indulgent or trite.

“You need to get to the core of what people are really talking about,” says Gilmore. The company might want to set forth five new agenda items, he adds, but they need to be presented with a sensitivity to current events, or “there’s a risk that it will come off as being superficial.”

A time to heal. The biggest educational need this year is the most personal: How can we restore a sense of comfort and calm to our lives? Issues of home, relaxation and stability are finding their way onto agendas.

“These concerns are prevalent,” says Los Angeles-based educational speaker Dr. Barton Goldsmith, “and it makes for a huge new challenge in business.” Goldsmith, who worked with companies and families devastated by the 1994 earthquake in California, teaches managers therapy skills and advises clients to create one-on-one weekly meetings between managers and employees.

“It sounds touchy-feely, but there’s a real bottom-line payoff,” says Goldsmith.

Hotels go courting
At best, 2001 was proving to be a disappointment to hoteliers. Then came Sept. 11, and the bottom dropped out completely. Now, it appears 2002 might be a year when, for the first time in a long while, hotels will be tripping over each other to get planners’ attention.

“Hotels have learned there is a real need for partnership,” says David Scypinski, senior vice president of industry relations for White Plains, N.Y.-based Starwood Hotels & Resorts. “We need to understand there is give in a relationship.”

Among the changes hoteliers are implementing:
Reprogramming the sales force. Every major hotel chain is demanding that its sales force focus on developing relationships with meeting planners, rather than simply selling a one-time piece of business. “We have always had a customer focus,” says JoAnn Kurtz-Ahlers, vice president of sales and business development for the Atlanta-based Ritz-Carlton Hotel Corp., “but now we are taking a greater customized approach to look at the issues they are up against and how we can help solve them.”

“Relationship is the key to any sales opportunity,” says Ty Helms, vice president of sales for Chicago-based Hyatt Hotels & Resorts. “It is not one side versus the other. The buyer-seller relationship should never have gotten to this. We are working to educate our younger salespeople who have only experienced the up cycle.”

Allowing flexibility in contracts. Says Helms, “We are in the process of re-evaluating contracts and retraining our salespeople to understand clauses and the flexibility that will be required in order to secure pieces of business in the coming months.”

The thorny issue of attrition is among the areas Marriott International is addressing, says Steve Richard, vice president of alliance account sales for the Bethesda, Md.-based chain. “It is something we are trying to work through. I think we have to be more flexible with ourselves,” he says.

A note of caution, though, to planners hoping to move in for the kill on a weakened supplier market: Fairness is still part of the game. “I have planners who wanted to cancel in October for mid-2002, claiming acts of God,” says Scypinski. “Our ability to be reasonable is certainly there, but it is stretched. If planners need to cancel or have extra attrition, they need to partner with us and bring something back.”

Giving all. Six Continents Hotels, which includes Inter-Continental and Crowne Plaza, is inviting clients to present their wish lists. “When demand diminishes, options become readily available,” says Peter Babbini, vice president of sales and revenue management, company-managed hotels, for the Atlanta-based firm. “It used to be we gave planners one or two items, like meeting space or coffee breaks, out of a package of five options. Now we are giving them the whole package as part of the deal.”

Very serious about service. “Service is a greater issue than ever before,” according to Kurtz-Ahlers. “We have to deliver even more than before, because each guest is valued that much more.”

Babbini agrees. “I can’t tell you how big a focus service is,” he says. “Our people understand concerns about traveling, and they appreciate guests making the commitment to come to their hotel.”

Due to downsizing in the industry, says Hyatt’s Helms, planners might be more concerned about service than price. “We are assuring that the service will be there for them, and it will.”

Equipped with technology. Hotels are keenly aware that, with attendance down and travel dollars scarce, many planners are considering whether to reach out to off-site attendees via options such as videoconferencing and audio hookups. To capture such clients, hotels are touting their in-house tech resources.

Steve Richard of Marriott International says his chain’s sales force is being proactive in letting planners know they have the ability to meet any technology needs that might arise. “I think it will supplement meetings, not replace them. And we want the customer to know we have the capability in-house.”

View from third parties
A mix of emotional devastation and financial strife has dealt a blow to the special events industry. “Companies feel it’s inappropriate to party, drink and carry on as if nothing happened,” says Rachel Mark, vice president of sales and marketing for the New York Fun Factory, an event production company in Manhattan. Some of Mark’s clients who last year held $70,000 holiday galas did nothing to ring in the new year, while a number of firms opted to give their holiday event budgets to charity. Likewise, “All the business we would have booked between Sept. 11 and Dec. 1 never materialized,” says Jim Kirsch, president and CEO of Abigail Kirsch Culinary Productions in Tarrytown, N.Y. “That’s a tremendous part of the booking period for holiday events.”

For many, part of the difficulty in predicting the business climate for 2002 is the new trend in last-minute business. Buyers are taking a lot of time to commit on events, says Kirsch. “We have events where they have the budget, then they don’t have the budget. They’re canceled, then they’re booked.” Bill Kubiak, vice president of technical operations for The Meetinghouse Companies Inc., a special events production company in Elmhurst, Ill., says planners are calling one month out and confirming the event just two weeks out. (See related Newsline story, “Last-Minute Bookings Surge,” on page 20.) Still meeting. Yet, some suppliers are looking to 2002 with encouragement. While many larger firms are slashing meetings budgets and cutting staff, Howard Givner of Paint the Town Red says, “Midsize firms are reluctant to make these about-faces. They wait longer to let people go.” And the more personal events run by smaller companies “have stood up far better than ones for larger firms,” he adds.

Toward better times. Erik Franklin, CMP, meeting and events manager for the destination management company Seattle VIP Services, expects 2002 to be “vibrant” considering what looks like a healthy first quarter. Likewise, Janet Elkins, president of EventWorks in Los Angeles, is encouraged by the mere fact that she has work to do and more work is in the pipeline. “We’re busy writing proposals for events through the spring,” she says, “which gives me a level of optimism.”

Since anthrax was detected at postal sites around the country, association and trade show managers face a new wrinkle in marketing their events: how to reach out to an audience that doesn’t want to be touched.

To compensate for consumer apprehension about the mail, marketers should consider using digital marketing,” recommends Forrester Research, a Cambridge, Mass.-based consulting firm, in an October 2001 report. Indeed, Forrester estimates e-marketing will grow to become a $6.8 billion business over the next five years.

Suppliers that provide platforms for e-mail marketing campaigns are already noting a surge in interest. “When comparing last August to October, we had a 125 percent increase in inquiries from prospective new clients,” says Chuck Ghoorah, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Arlington, Va.-based Cvent. And current clients are relying on e-mail to a greater extent, says Ghoorah. Customers used Cvent 50 percent more frequently in October 2001 than they did the previous August.

Industry organizations such as the Dallas-based International Association for Exhibition Management are encouraging their members to become more 21st-century in their marketing tactics. “We’re recommending that if our members don’t yet have a relationship with an e-marketing company, they begin one, or at least take into account that mail delivery might be slower,” says IAEM president Steven Hacker.


imageSpeakers are finding it tougher than ever to make their talks meaningful to a concerned audience. Some advice:

Be inclusive. Lenora Billings-Harris, a Greensboro, N.C.-based speaker on diversity, has changed some slides and handouts to include a greater variety of cultures and religions.

Move on. “One of our speakers dwelled on Sept. 11 for too long,” recalls Richard Schelp, managing partner at Executive Speakers Bureau in Memphis, Tenn. “People are looking for an ounce of insight, but mostly they want messages of inspiration and hope.”

Give guidance. “Attendees want how-to and what-to-do presentations,” says Mike Haskell, a speaker and founder of Adventure Quest, a Bowdoinham, Maine, company teaching leadership skills. The most important consideration for groups is how they are going to get through the present crisis.

Get personal. “More than ever, we have to take responsibility for the quality of our lives,” says Donald Ardell, Ph.D., a Tampa, Fla.-based speaker on health and wellness. “We need information on health, illness and relationships.”

Joke with caution. “Healing comes from laughter,” says Jim Montoya, executive vice president of the Indianapolis-based International Association of Speakers Bureaus, “but good taste is now more important than ever. We’ve all changed, and speakers are adjusting with the times.”


IMAGEWill employees still be motivated by travel in 2002 and beyond? Mary Ellen Dobrowolski, director of travel and events for House of Lloyd, admits, “I really don’t know.” But the Grandview, Mo.-based gift company doesn’t plan to change its incentive rewards anytime soon. This year, winners will choose one of three reward programs: Monte Carlo, Hawaii or a Caribbean cruise. And Dobrowolski is already finalizing similar options for 2003 and 2004, to include Hawaii and international destinations.

Peggy Domber, senior vice president of Boston-based Fleet Bank, decided to ask participants whether they would prefer to go ahead with the planned incentive trip to France for this spring or switch to a domestic alternative. The overwhelming majority wanted to stay with the France program.

Others, however, are skittish about travel, particularly to overseas destinations. Expect to see more firms holding programs in North America this year, according to Jill Harrington, executive vice president of the New York City-based Society of Incentive & Travel Executives. Many are choosing places that can be reached by car, bus or train, and they’re letting winners bring family members.

Merchandise is gaining favor, too. Some organizations are turning to items such as high-end watches, crystal and electronics as rewards this year, rather than travel, says Karen Renk, executive director of the Naperville, Ill.-based Incentive Marketing Association.


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