OK — the past few days covering the MPI MeetDifferent convention has blown my mind. Actually, there’s been so much going on with news releases and press conferences that I’ve skipped the educational sessions so I could process the information and write about it. If you haven’t been there, check out the link above and watch some of the Webcasts.
In a nutshell: A war has been declared on the meetings industry.
It all started with the Troubled Assets Relief Program — the bank bailout bill. Shortly after accepting TARP funds, AIG was reamed in the press for a $440,000 “executive retreat” it held at Monarch Bay in California. It wasn’t an executive retreat, it was an incentives program for independent brokers that had been planned well in advance, but it became the catalyst of what MPI calls the “AIG effect.” When the future president of the United States calls out your meeting as an example of corporate greed, as Barack Obama did AIG during the presidential debates, its only a matter of time before it becomes a crime to meet.
AIG canceled 160 meetings. But it wasn’t until several months later that the CEO went on Larry King to defend how important they were for his company’s economic recovery — meaning meetings and incentives were the quickest way for AIG to generate the revenue needed to pay the taxpayers back their TARP money, and now, since they couldn’t do it, recovery was going to take a lot longer.
But media scrutiny continued. Primerica’s 55,000 person June biennial conference in Atlanta was canceled. Wells Fargo took out a full page ad this week talking about how messed up it was that he was forced to cancel a Las Vegas event that was a legitimate and necessary business expense because of bad press. But it’s happening all over — a lot of companies canceled holiday parties because they felt it would be inappropriate to hold them after laying off employees. And a lot of companies that have nothing to do with the TARP funds are canceling events because of the perception that they’re excessive.
A coalition of meeting industry associations like MPI, SITE, DMAI, PCMA, IAEE, NBTA, AHLA and US Travel had already mobilized — they were planning to come together Feb. 17 to discuss strategy and had a 12-18-month game plan and had raised 60 percent of the $1 million needed to do an economic impact study. But they had to think and act a lot quicker than they expected.
On Jan. 6, Sen. Feinstein of California put a bill before the Senate (SB 133) that called for TARP-assisted companies to put into place guidelines on conferences, events and employee recognition programs. Sen. Dodd put an amendment on another bill that in effect asked for the same thing but required a larger swath of companies to be held accountable to the regulations and that those requirements be made retroactive. This week, the US Treasury Department issued a statement that companies receiving TARP assistance must post guidelines for use of meetings and events on their Web sites, to ensure transparency and accountability.
The coalition, led by US Travel, was told they had three days to respond by posting their own industry-sanctioned recommendations for TARP companies to adopt. The coalition has developed those guidelines and you can find them and talking points here.
So here is your chance to be proactive. Before the government starts to put any more pressure on the industry to cancel events. Before the media can spin any more stories that inaccurately paint a picture of events and meetings as being anything other than legitimate and effective and necessary means of doing business they are, you need to arm yourself with this knowledge. You need to start to measure the business impact of your events, if you’re not already. And start telling our side of the story: How meetings and events are the quickest way to help this economy recover.
Meetings are the solution, not the problem. Spread the word.