By the end of 2009, meeting cancellations and postponements are estimated to cost hotels, destinations and other industry suppliers $2.5 billion in lost revenue. But canceling or rescheduling meetings doesn’t only affect people on the supply side. According to a study conducted for the Professional Convention Management Association, its Education Foundation and American Express by Y Partnership, meeting professionals expect to pay an average of $81,000 in cancellation/rebooking fees for each meeting they cancel, postpone or rebook.

Of all the association, corporate and independent planners surveyed, 90 percent said current meeting budget cuts were due to the general state of the economy, and more than half (53%) expect the trend to continue in 2010. Forty-one percent plan to cancel, rebook or postpone a 2009 or 2010 meeting due to economic concerns; 22 percent expect to do so because of current downsizing or consolidation; and eight percent cite current negative media coverage about the meetings industry, perception and policy issues as major deciding factors. Among corporate planners, that percentage jumps to 44 percent.

Which leaves meeting professionals in an awkward position. They need to be good fiscal stewards for their company, client or association, and that sometimes means canceling an event to save money. But if an organization isn’t holding meetings, it doesn’t need anyone to plan them or it may decide to outsource the planning of events to a third party.

So how can planners make the case for meeting?

Step one: Know the goals.

Before you can prove a meeting or event is successful, you need to know what “success” means to all the stakeholders. Ask stakeholders:

  • Historically, what has been the purpose of this event? Has it helped the organization achieve those goals?
  • How can you measure the return on investment or return on objective?
  • If the event wasn’t tracked before, what kind of questions need to be included in a survey of past attendees/sponsors/exhibitors/stakeholders to determine success metrics?
  • Who needs to know this information? How does it need to be communicated?

Step two: Get strategic.

Transparency and accountability is key. Know how to communicate what the meeting or event contributes to the organization’s bottom line. Align all elements of the meeting with the stated goals or business objectives. Be able to answer these questions:

  • If this meeting doesn’t happen, would the organization be able to achieve those goals in any other way?
  • Out of all the methods the organization has developed to achieve those goals, how cost- and time-efficient is the meeting when compared to other options?
  • Do the benefits outweigh the costs?
  • If the meeting is canceled, postponed or rescheduled, what are the potential negative consequences or perceptions that could arise from that?

Step three: Fight perceptions with facts.

This past year, a company spent $1 million in cancellation fees to move a meeting from the politically unpopular city of Las Vegas to the more “appropriate” city of San Francisco. It may be argued that spending that amount of money for nothing in this economic climate was more inappropriate. Planners caught in similar dilemmas should consider the following:

  • If a company has reduced staff or cut benefits and salaries, paying exorbitant cancellation fees to meet somewhere else may look worse to employees than not moving or canceling the meeting.
  • Some of the best deals and value propositions may be coming from destinations that received bad press. What is more important to the company: Being fiscally responsible and delivering the best experiences, or paying more for less because they’re afraid of media censure?
  • If the planning process has been transparent and it’s clear that meeting expenditures have a legitimate business purpose, the CEO or meeting stakeholders will have nothing to hide, whether or not they attract media attention.
  • If your company has accepted government assistance, download a copy of the Treasury Rules Toolkit, so you understand how to be transparent and compliant with government regulations.
  • Industry advocacy sites like keepamericameeting.org, meetingsmeanbusiness.com and ustravel.org have lots of statistics, studies and talking points planners can use. For example, did you know that:
    • 87 percent of Americans who have attended an out-of-town meeting or convention for work say it is important to running a strong business?
    • 40 percent of business travelers say a client was converted by a face to face meeting?
    • Or that 81 percent of senior executives admit that during teleconferences, they’re sending e-mails?

More than ever, the general public, media outlets and politicians are paying attention to meetings. And this attention presents a great opportunity for meeting professionals to raise their profile within the workforce. By getting strategic about how meetings and events help organizations achieve their goals; educating themselves and key stakeholders about the affect meetings have on employee morale, sales revenue and operational success; and learning to communicate why face to face meetings are critically important, especially in challenging times, they will have the opportunity to become much more than just the person who plans meetings, they have the potential to become part of the leadership team.