“Despite the economy, the level of engagement of our membership is at an all-time high,” said John Folks, at a press conference held during the Professional Convention Management Association Annual Meeting in Dallas in January. Folks, PCMA's board of directors chairman, was upbeat about the show's attendance numbers (tracking ahead of last year's New Orleans conference, which drew 3,134 delegates) and its showcase of new formats and new ideas.

Participants in Party with a Purpose, one of the PCMA Foundation's major annual fundraising events, had a boot-stomping good time at the world-famous Gilley's bar at this year's Dallas conference.

Among the innovations at this year's show were live webcasts of the general and plenary sessions, and PCMA TV, a video reel of news highlights and session summaries, created through a partnership with Convention News Television and posted on the conference Web site.

At the conference the sense that the meetings industry is not out of the woods just yet — economically or perceptually — was palpable. Along with practical advice on social media, contracts, exhibitions, and sponsorships were sessions on the current state of meetings, predictions about future trends, and thoughts on how best to cope with today's shifting meetings environment.

CEOs Speak Out

Deborah Sexton, president and CEO, PCMA, sounded optimistic at a one-of-a-kind gathering of the lead executives of the meetings industry's major associations held at the conference. “The numbers are surprisingly good,” she said of this year's annual meeting. “I already feel like we've entered the recovery.” But PCMA, like many other associations this year, found the registrations coming in later than ever this year, many in the last 30 days before the meeting.

Jonathan Tisch, chairman and CEO of Loews Hotels, led the discussion among the execs as they attempted to forecast the meetings business.

“We as an industry are making progress; we are speaking in one voice,” said Tisch. He was speaking in the aftermath of the “AIG effect” from late 2008 and 2009, which resulted in the cancellation of hundreds of meetings and incentives when “all demand generators collapsed at the same time.” As positive outcomes from the incredibly harsh year, he pointed to the coalition of industry associations created to fund a nationwide study on the economic impact of meetings.

Tisch warned of more trouble ahead for the hotel industry. “Hotels are highly leveraged and can't refinance. In 2011 and 2012 many hotel loans will come due. When will credit markets start to unfreeze? Hotels financed in 2005-2006 were opened in 2009, but we're seeing hotels close, even those run by people who know how to run hotels,” he said.

Shift Happens

At another session that focused on the shifting marketplace, Isaac Collazo, vice president, performance strategy and planning, The Americas, InterContinental Hotels Group, predicted that while occupancy will grow this year, we shouldn't expect a full recovery until 2013. Rates, which he forecasts will drop a bit this year, also should bounce back by 2013. But don't use today's environment to be unreasonable in your rate requests, said Shelley Cohen Renn, director of meetings and programs with the Bethesda, Md.-based American Association of Blood Banks. “Don't request a lower rate just because it's out there. If you need to renegotiate rates, know your group's history, and get data” to support your request.

The biggest shift, however, may be as surprising as it is overdue. As Eric Janecke, marketing director with the Hilton New Orleans Riverside, said, “We're all waiting for the next pendulum swing. But the pendulum won't swing to the hotelier or the planner — it's swinging toward the guest.”

Renn said this holds true for the association as well as the hotel side. AABB understands that many attendees now have to pay their own way, and the association offers scholarships to help make it affordable. It also took all those little things that are free to the organization but valuable to attendees — such as a seat at the keynote speakers breakfast, and front row seats at keynote addresses — and gave them out to attendees throughout its 2009 annual conference in New Orleans. “We called it random acts of conference kindness, or ROCKs,” she said, adding that the ROCKs were a small way to let attendees know AABB appreciates their investing their time and money in the meeting, and that the organization wants to invest in them in return.

New Year, New Formats

At the opening reception on Sunday evening, held at the Dallas Convention Center, PCMA and the host city created a memorable event, buzzing with four interactive themes: western, sports, fashion, and midway. Attendees could pose for a photo with members of the Dallas Cowboys football team, wobble through a fun house, ride a mechanical bull, get a fashion makeover, and turn into a cartoon at the Dance Heads booth, among other activities.

The conference's educational agenda began January 11, with an opening general session headlined by Nancy Brinker, founder of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure organization. Brinker spoke movingly about how every person can make a difference to a community, a cause, an organization, or even the world if they put their passions to work, a force she called “the power of one.” Keynote speaker and author Kjell Nordstrom defined the new socioeconomic landscape tomorrow's meetings will have to negotiate, and how only the most adaptable and/or most attractive businesses and products will survive.

Also held in conjunction with the convention was a “Diamonds and Denim”-themed Hall of Leaders Gala at the Dallas Fairmont Hotel, where the Convention Industry Council inducted five new honorees: M. Theresa Breining, CMP, CMM; Thomas M. Mobley, Jr.; Steve Porter; Preston Robert Tisch; and Jerry A. Wayne.
— Sue Pelletier and Betsy Bair

Meetingsnet.com:

  • Registered Traveler services provider FLO Corp. has partnered with Cogent Systems to restore RT services at airports and to enroll frequent travelers in the Transportation Security Administration-sponsored RT program.

  • Major industry organizations have aligned under the Convention Industry Council to promote the benefits of meetings, exhibitions, and events, and to conduct a new study measuring their economic significance.