If 2009 was “the perfect storm” that disrupted the meetings industry, then Danielle Babilino insists she was the poster child for everything that could have gone wrong.
“I represent the five-diamond, five-star Wynn/Encore in Las Vegas, which opened in December 2008,” explained the senior vice president of hotel sales at the 2010 Meetings Exploration Conference opening session in Atlanta last month. “This administration has really made it hard for us to do what we do best — be the convention capital of the world.”
But, Babilino was quick to point out the silver lining. “Our teams are far stronger in 2010 than they were in 2009, because we had to learn how to build relationships,” she continued.
Fellow panelist Gary Sain, president and CEO of the Orlando/Orange County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said a lot of things in 2010 will be positive. “[After all], we came back after 9/11 much faster than we expected.”
Not all in attendance were so positive, however. “There were five to seven million less rooms sold every month in 2009,” said Dave Lutz, managing director of Velvet Chainsaw Consulting. “It will take eight to 10 years to get back to 2007 levels, with inflation.”
Geoffrey Freeman, senior vice president of public affairs for the U.S. Travel Association said one of the biggest threats facing the meetings industry is that planners and suppliers fail to see how their livelihood is connected to and affected by other segments of the travel industry, such as business and leisure. “We miss aspects that affect the other parts of the industry because we think it’s not our problem,” Freeman said. “The policy makers don’t take our industry seriously. The president didn’t have to say, ‘You can’t go to Las Vegas on the taxpayer’s dime.’ He … just as easily could have said, ‘I want you to cut back on the billions of dollars you spend on advertising or on duplicate market research.’ We are seen as something frivolous and somewhat unnecessary. How we change the perception of meetings from frivolous to essential is our challenge.”
Freeman then outlined a plan of action he hoped the meeting professionals in the room would adapt. “We need to connect the dots and realize when we’re being assaulted so we know when to fight back,” he said. “The Dec. 25 [plane] bombing incident is just as big a problem as the remarks of the president. We have to build the value proposition; the Oxford Economics survey was a great study, but we need three or four more of those. We have to become missionaries for this industry. We have to defend and promote this industry; we can’t let up. And we have to educate the business community about the value of face-to-face meetings.”
Sain added that on the supplier side, convention and visitors bureaus should host regular media days where they can share news about the economic value of the meetings industry. “For example, there is one new job created in Florida for every 85 visitors,” he said. He also stressed the need for a spokesperson who is not directly invested in the meetings industry. “We need a campaign from a CEO of McDonald’s or another big corporation saying that ‘the best return we get is from face-to-face meetings.'”
For meeting planners caught in the media spotlight or grappling with perception issues, Freeman counseled: “Don’t fall into the trap of defending the rate; defend the value of the meeting. MeetingsMeanBusiness.com has some great information you can use.”
During the ensuing Q&A, an audience member pointed out that local Atlanta talk show hosts had been having a field day criticizing the DeKalb County School Board for accepting government funds to send teachers to a Los Angeles-based convention. “The minute you hear something like that, every one of you needs to be on the phone to the radio station,” Freeman said. “And send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, and let us know who you are.”