Jim Louis, CIO and meeting planner at Best Meetings Inc., Bloomington, Minn., is one of the co-founders of The Meetings Community, a three-year-old, volunteer-driven meetings-industry listserv and Web site. MeCo, as the community is known, recently announced plans to incorporate as a nonprofit association before the end of the year. We talked to Louis about MeCo's success and the reason's for the upcoming transition to a 501(c)(6) organization.

Association Meetings: Why has MeCo decided to move to an association structure?

Jim Louis: One reason is liability. We'd like to broaden our educational programming, including some face-to-face events, but without some sort of organization behind us, the MeCo moderators would become personally liable for the events. We also want to look at more partnerships with organizations. For example, we'd like to join the Convention Industry Council, and we would need a formalized business structure to do that.

The long-term viability of MeCo is also a concern. We want to be sure that if we come to a place where, for example, Google stops offering free Google Groups [the current host of the listserv], we have some sort of structure in place if we needed to then start raising money to support our activities.

AM: How is MeCo now organized and how would that change?

Louis: MeCo is now funded by contributions from the moderators and their companies. I'm working with co-founder Dan Parks to explore board structures that are based on a community model and we want to ensure openness and community involvement going forward. We're committed to running the MeCo listserv and other current services free of charge and with openness in terms of finances. The association will be run with down-to-the-check transparency.

AM: What has surprised you about MeCo over the years?

Louis: It's surprised me how much the listserv has grown and how much people have wanted to contribute to its success. When we started, my goal was to get 300 members and around 20 messages a day. That seemed like a critical mass. Today the listserv has close to 2,500 members and averages 50 messages a day. We started with six moderators in 2006 and have grown to 13, including two suppliers.

We also organize informal “meet ups” at industry association meetings, offer a free online job board, and allow planners to post canceled room blocks, among other things. One of the newest plans, still in the works, is to launch a student-mentoring program later this year. And branches continue to grow from us. There are now MeCo LinkedIn and Facebook groups.

AM: Since you launched in 2006, what have been the hottest topics discussed on the MeCo listserv?

Louis: In our first year, one of the most controversial topics was Marriott's decision to begin requiring that meeting planning companies have IATA numbers. We also saw a lot of talk about the quality of industry associations and members' frustrations with them. Today, all the industry associations have at least one member on MeCo; some push out content and some don't. Members have also had a lot to say about the downturn in the economy, and, recently, the news about meetings canceled by companies receiving government TARP funds, and the Keep America Meeting petition.

AM: And does MeCo take a stance on the issues?

Louis: We try to stay neutral. For example, since the downturn in the economy and the change from a seller's market to a buyer's market, that means something different to all our different constituencies. Corporate planners are canceling, independent planners may pick up work in a downturn, and associations right now really aren't doing much different. The moderators really don't want to take a side.

Meetingsnet.Com:

  • A drop in convention business has resulted in the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority suspending a plan to expand and renovate the Las Vegas Convention Center.

  • The American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Magazine Publishers of America canceled their 2009 annual meetings, both casualties of the economic recession.

  • Dave Scypinski, formerly of Starwood Hotels & Resorts, and Fred Shea, formerly of Hyatt Hotels North America, have joined meeting planning company ConferenceDirect as senior vice presidents.

  • The Business Travel Coalition has launched tVillage Talent Connections as a service project to assist unemployed, about-to-be-unemployed, or underemployed colleagues in all travel and tourism industry segments. This no-cost program will be run on the LinkedIn platform.

Building a Coalition

The Meeting, Event, and Incentive Coalition, which has come together to lobby government on the importance of meetings and to develop model meeting policies for TARP fund recipients, includes representatives from the U.S. Travel Association, Meeting Professionals International, the National Business Travel Association, the Professional Convention Management Association, Site (formerly the Society of Incentive and Travel Executives), the American Hotel and Lodging Association, and Destination Marketing Association International, in addition to various industry suppliers like Maritz and Carlson.

In March, the Coalition launched an information and advertising campaign called “Meetings Mean Business” to fight “irresponsible attacks” from the government and the media, says Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association. The campaign, headquartered online at www.meetingsmeanbusiness.com, includes talking points on the value of meetings, sample letters to legislators and newspapers, and the Keep America Meeting petition. The goal is to collect 1 million signatures.