Leaders of the meetings industry say they aren't going to take it anymore. They're rallying to respond to what they consider unfair criticism from the president, Congress and the mass media in the wake of high-profile cases of perceived extravagance on the part of companies conducting expensive events after receiving federal bailout funds.
In January, a coalition was formed to fight back and now counts as members the American Hotel and Lodging Association, ASAE & The Center for Association Leadership, Destination Marketing Association International, the International Association of Exhibitions and Events, Meeting Professionals International, the National Business Travel Association, the Professional Convention Management Association, SITE and the U.S. Travel Association.
"We need to mobilize a grassroots army," said Roger Dow, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based USTA. "We must make our collective voice heard."
There is some indication members of congress have heard the cries from hoteliers, destinations and myriad businesses involved in the meetings world. At the end of February, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) announced on his website that he would sponsor a bill to "prevent any recipient of TARP funds from hosting, sponsoring or paying for conferences, holiday parties or entertainment events." But when Kerry formally introduced the TARP Taxpayer Protection and Corporate Responsibility Act of 2009, the word conferences was left out.
By early March, a number of websites had been launched to help members of the industry get the word out about the number of jobs (more than 1 million) and amount in dollars (more than $100 billion) generated by meetings. The sites also offer tools to help planners contact lawmakers and to help them support their events internally. Chief among these is the coalition's Meetings Mean Business (meetingsmeanbusiness.com) campaign.
In response to the U.S. Treasury's efforts to restrict how companies getting bailouts use the money, the coalition has released its own set of guidelines (tinyurl.com/aqwjp2) to help corporations create a board-approval process for all types of meetings.
Meanwhile, the embattled meetings industry is showing some signs of renewal. "We have had some clients who canceled programs who have asked how they can reinstate them," said Christine Duffy, president and CEO of Maritz Travel in Fenton, Mo., whose company ran the AIG executive retreat in California last October that first set media and congressional tongues wagging, and also ran the controversial Northern Trust events surrounding the professional golf tournament the bank sponsored in February.
Duffy, a former board chair of MPI, was instrumental in launching the new industry coalition. "People want to be engaged, not isolated and worried," she said.