Meetings & Conventions: East Needs West, and Vice Versa
East Needs West, and Vice Versa
BY DAVID GHITELMAN
Japan's economic crisis opens the door to U.S. meeting
In the early '80s, I edited a monthly newsletter for the
Consulate General of Japan in New York City. My job was to promote
goodwill through increased understanding of the economic powerhouse
at the far side of the Pacific.
Heaven knows, at that time goodwill between our two nations was
in short supply. This was the era when American autoworkers would
buy a new Japanese car and attack it with sledgehammers to express
their anger with Japan's trade policies. My bosses would watch the
evening news and shudder.
Many Americans, in turn, were afraid of Japan's success. The
American auto industry had long been the pride of the nation. All
of a sudden, Detroit gas guzzlers began to look like dinosaurs with
internal combustion engines. A similar fate appeared to await the
U.S. consumer electronics business. It had become next to
impossible to buy a television set that wasn't made in Japan.
And things would soon get worse. I remember a luncheon/product
launch I attended shortly before leaving the consulate. I was still
new to the world of corporate entertaining and was more dazzled by
the setting -- Tavern on the Green, that New York City eatery so
neatly tucked into the western flank of Central Park -- than the
product being promoted. Also, I was skeptical about whether
Americans would take to a device that would render their
collections of vinyl records obsolete.
CD players were just the tip of the iceberg. There were also
video cameras, video cassette recorders and video games. Then
Japanese companies started to buy such prime packages of U.S. real
estate as New York City's Rockefeller Center. Our leading purveyor
of pop paranoia, Michael Crichton, wrote a novel, Rising
Sun (subsequently made into a major motion picture), about a
fiendish Japanese scheme to take over the world.
Fortunately, the Japanese turned out to pose no more real danger
to us than the raptors from one of Crichton's other bestselling
fantasies, Jurassic Park. In 1990, stock and real estate
prices crashed in Japan. While many individual companies recovered,
the overall economy has never quite regained its fierce,
Although I served loyally at the consulate for nearly three
years, I was not privileged to travel to Japan until I joined
M&C. In the spring of 1992, I visited six Japanese
cities in eight days. Everywhere I was shown gleaming new
convention centers and sparkling new hotels. The country, I was
told, had learned from the example of places like Baltimore.
Japan's megalopoli were going directly from being centers of
manufacturing to a new role as post-industrial information society
hubs without passing through the rust-belt stage that had
devastated so many American cities.
The convention business was going to be a vital component of
this promising future. Groups from around the world would come to
these freshly minted meeting palaces. The word
"internationalization" was on everyone's lips.
Those convention centers sure looked spiffy, but I couldn't
figure out what nation those international groups were supposed to
come from. Certainly, they wouldn't be coming in any large numbers
from the United States. In the early '90s, the high price of the
yen and the low cost of the dollar made travel there prohibitively
Then, last autumn, following the economic meltdown of Southeast
Asia, and simultaneous with the collapse of the Korean economy, the
Japanese financial system began going down the tubes. Just a decade
ago, we were afraid that the Japanese were going to take us over.
Now, our fear is that they are going to pull us down with them.
Should the Japanese economy fall into a serious recession (or
worse), the U.S. economy could be badly wounded. Lower wages could
give Japanese-made goods a significant price advantage, and it
could once again become much cheaper to produce Toyotas in Nagoya
than in Tennessee. Also, if Japanese consumers have less disposable
income, they will buy fewer American things, from computer software
to hotel stays in Hawaii.
The silver lining: A Japanese slowdown supplies U.S. meeting
planners and their attendees an excellent opportunity to profit
from the current crisis, use some of the finest meeting facilities
in the world and, at the same time, help restore the Japanese
It's no longer my job to foster goodwill between the Americans
and the Japanese. But if it were, now would be a much easier time
to make a convincing case for cooperation, respect and mutual
support. Today, we can go to Japan and see for ourselves -- without
breaking the bank -- that all that hostility was born of ignorance,
and friendly competition is what can keep East and West in perfect
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