WHILE MEETING PLANNING has been around for decades, only over the last 25 years has the profession really become, well, a profession. Membership in Meeting Professionals International has increased fivefold, to 19,000 since the early 1980s, and the business world has finally taken notice of this $102 billion industry.
How did we get here — and where are we going next? Corporate Meeting & Incentives turned to leaders from six corners of the industry — hotels, meetings, incentives, training, conference centers, and the airlines — for their insights.
THIRTY-FOUR YEARS IS A LONG TIME to spend with one company, but that's how long Roger Dow spent with Marriott International. For a while, he also left to start a brand-new hotel company, Adam's Mark Hotels.
What was most important to planners 25 years ago, when Dow had just started with Marriott? “‘How does your space look, will I fit, and will you give me good service?’ were the questions asked by planners in those days. It didn't get more complex than that,” he says.
That's not the case anymore, says Dow, who left Marriott to join the Travel Industry Association of America as president and CEO on January 1. Planners and hoteliers have less time and resources and more people looking over their shoulders. Hoteliers' focus is on the bottom line because of the financial pressures they are feeling from owners. Today, both sides put far more energy intoand protecting themselves from cancellation than they put into the old concerns of space and service.
“The handshake and the relationship are still there, but then comes the 30-page,” Dow says. And with it, a tension that wasn't there before.
In the early 1990s, Dow also saw the definition of meetings start to change. As he puts it, the focus shifted from delivering events with “sizzle” — where the goals were networking and relationship-building — to content-driven meetings for which the investment in time, money, and resources needed to be justified, and where there needs to be a return on investment.
On the hotel side, he sees a change in the way that properties evaluate business. In the past 10 years, more weight has been given to revenue per available room and average daily rate, which, he says, has put too much focus on the room rate and not on the broader effect of revenues generated by ancillary spending at meetings.
But judging by the increase in meeting space being built, especially in the past 10 years, there's no question that this is an important piece of business for hotels. “The number of venues that the corporate planner of the 400- to 1,500-person conference has to choose from has gone up substantially,” he says — and this trend will only continue.
BILL BOYD RECALLS the first corporate incentive group he took into China back in the early 1980s. “We were on minibuses going from Macao to Zhong Chen, and literally, people would line the roadways because it was the first time they had ever seen a minibus.”
When Boyd left as president of Vanguard Incentives in 1980 to start Dallas-based Sunbelt Motivation and Travel, “incentive travel was such a new animal, nobody understood it — not even the folks at the destinations.
“I'm here to tell you, the infrastructure just wasn't there,” states Boyd, past president of Meeting Professionals International and current president of the Society of& Travel Executives. Finding exotic destinations that had the airlift, lodging, amenities, and transportation to accommodate a group was one of the biggest challenges he had.
All that has changed as incentive travel has become more mainstream. Savvy tourism officials in places such as Dubai, Croatia, and Costa Rica, to name a few, realize that incentives are a fertile marketplace and are developing their destinations to get a share of this multibillion-dollar market.
Another big issue in the early days was negotiating with airlines for group discounts. “You could get some results, but it was a full-time job,” he says. Airline deregulation and the e-ticketing phenomenon in the 1990s made it easier to book group flights. “Nowadays, it's not very difficult to put together a group of 120 to Cancun.”
Because it has become easier to book flights, Boyd predicts that incentive houses will either adapt to the new environment or languish. For an incentive company to survive, “they have to get involved in something other than travel fulfillment. They have to become strategic partners in determiningthrough the design of incentive travel programs.” If incentive houses don't adapt, he says, they will be replaced by destination management companies.
The most significant issue facing incentive professionals, says Boyd, is corporate accountability, best demonstrated by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. “Nobody underestimates the impact of Sarbanes-Oxley. Where you could have had a 17-year relationship with a customer who you've become so close to,” he says, buying decisions are now dictated by procurement, “and they're going to go with the cheapest bidder. It has absolutely changed the way that we do business.”
What hasn't changed is the excitement that surrounds incentive travel and exotic destinations. “It's the reason I have stayed in the industry all these years,” he says. “It's just a lot of fun.”
IN THE EARLY '80s, the conference center industry was going through a kind of identity crisis, says Burt Cabanas, president and CEO of Benchmark Hospitality, Woodlands, Texas, which manages more than 20 conference center resorts in the United States and one in Tokyo. Conference centers were reassessing their standing in the marketplace and transforming themselves from single-purpose facilities for corporate learning to venues that placed equal emphasis on learning, leisure, and hospitality.
In the early days, “there was more of a desire to be in a secluded, retreat-like environment,” says Cabanas, who was president of the International Association of Conference Centers from 1982 to 1984. “Companies looked for the kind of facilities where they could sequester their people and have their full attention.” But a new breed of attendees, the baby boomers, demanded more amenities and activities. As a result, conference centers shifted their focus, combining the best aspects of hotels and resorts with a productive learning environment.
The biggest early users of conference centers were Fortune 100 companies based in the eastern United States. “The culture of the conference center concept moved west very slowly,” he says. Then, in the late 1980s, when a handful of conference centers became very profitable and caught the attention of investors and meeting planners, the tide started changing. From that point on, conference centers were recognized as a viable product line.
Where the old image of conference centers was one of assembly-line meals and multiple occupancy rooms, “now there is an expectation of a higher level of service, more akin to a four-star hotel.”
Even today, conference centers, as identified by IACC, capture only about 7 percent of the meeting market. And the lines between conference centers, resorts, and hotels can be somewhat blurred. “There will always be that resort or hotel that puts the conference center moniker in their name, but at the end of the day, they're still a hotel,” he says, if they don't have rooms dedicated to meetings 24 hours a day, ergonomic chairs, in-house audiovisual, and the other amenities that IACC members provide.
“The differences are subtle — unless you are a meeting planner. Meeting planners these days are more loyal to facilities that provide good service and the best environment to have a productive meeting.”
“IN 1980, when I was working for the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants as the head of the meeting and travel department, I don't think anybody even knew what a meeting planner was,” says Doug Heath, former executive director at MPI from 1982 to 1990 and current professor of hospitality management at the University of North Texas in Denton.
But while the meeting planning profession has certainly grown in number and stature since the early '80s — back in the days when MPI had only 4,200 members — some things remain the same. “I think the most significant issue is still the same — trying to get meeting management recognized as more than counting coffee cups,” he says. “The recognition of the meeting planning profession hasn't come as far as it needs to.”
The biggest change Heath has seen over the years has been the rapid emergence of technology. “I think back to the early days, when we were doing guarantees for meal functions and recording registration — all manually,” he recalls. Today, technological advancements have drastically reduced mailing costs, simplified registration and other processes, and improved peer-to-peer networking, communication, and the ability to disseminate information.
But technology has also created more work and responsibility for meeting planners, Heath says. “Suddenly, we went from dealing with very limited data to almost too much. In getting more data, you end up doing more work.”
As a result of these shifts, today's meeting planners are more like business managers, he says. Where, 25 years ago, planners often moved into their roles from positions as secretaries or administrative assistants, today they are expected to manage significant budgets. “In the old days, we didn't even ask about the objectives of the meeting,” Heath says — let alone assess whether they were reached.
“That's where I'm seeing the profession rising up — planners actually becoming part of the corporate vision.”
Heath's students, and not just those who are in the hospitality management program, recognize the business applications of meetings. Business majors and students from other disciplines take his course at UNT because they realize the importance of meetings to business. As this next generation moves up through the corporate ranks, it will only enhance the meeting profession more.
WHEN DARRYL JENKINS got a job teaching at the Aviation Institute at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., in 1988, it was definitely one of those cases of being in the wrong place at the right time.
He found himself stranded in the nation's capital thanks to a temporary shutdown by now-defunct Eastern Airlines. During the weeklong layover, he met the man who hired him at the Aviation Institute and, a short time later, the woman who would become his wife. “I've been here ever since,” he says.
Jenkins has been working in the airline industry for 30 years as a travel agent, consultant, director at the Aviation Institute, the author of seven books, and also a visiting professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University's main campus in Daytona Beach, Fla., where he currently works.
Negotiating group travel has become much easier than it used to be, says Jenkins. “You don't have to be a negotiator. The new fares that they have out there now are generally better than the negotiated fares were.”
In the early 1980s, negotiating group rates was a big part of planners' jobs. Most airlines did not have set discounts for group travel, so meeting planners had to work at negotiating good rates. “The thing that I remember most about those times is the enormous amount of uncertainty. Nobody knew what they were doing on either side of the table,” Jenkins says.
The effects of deregulation are still being felt, most recently in January when Delta Air Lines eliminated its meeting discount rate as part of a fare restructuring plan. Other airlines may follow suit, but none has as yet. (See News & Info, page 10.) Jenkins believes that the industry will respond with fare structures that are much simpler and easier to understand, citing Air Canada, which recently restructured into five rate classes from which the customer can choose.
The simpler scheme will make booking group travel easier than ever. “Most of the complexity, most of the negotiating framework, is gone now,” explains Jenkins. “That's the purpose of the simple fare structure — so you don't have to do negotiations.”
WHEN HOWARD FEIERTAG was leading workshops at the MPI Institute back in the early '80s, the hot topic was negotiating. “One of the questions I used to raise in the workshop was: How many people here are intimidated when they have to negotiate with a hotel sales manager?” he says. “All the hands went up.”
How things have changed. “Now they're not intimidated,” Feiertag jokes. “Now, they want to fight.”
A 40-year veteran of the hospitality industry, Feiertag — who is an instructor in the Department of Hospitality and Tourism Management, Pamplin College of Business at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Va. — is one of the most respected educators in the industry. Over the past quarter century, he has seen meeting planning training evolve in both content and delivery.
“In those days, it was really kind of basic,” he says. The profession was coming into its own in the early 1980s, but many practitioners were not trained meeting professionals, and most just fell into the job. Contracts and negotiations were part of the curriculum — but at a very basic level. The bulk of the workshops dealt with “room setup and what kind of food to serve,” he says.
Now, the hot topics are return on investment, contracts and negotiations, evaluation and measurement of meetings, cancellation clauses, and. “What's the purpose of the meeting? What's the objective? What do we want to accomplish? That's what we teach now.”
The introduction of the Certified Meeting Professional certification in 1985 elevated training to a new level, explains Feiertag. This led to an increasing number of educational programs being offered by industry associations, including MPI, the Convention Industry Council, and the Professional Convention Management Association. “The education got better, and there was more interest among planners.”
Feiertag was among the first 15 people to earn a CMP in 1985. Since then, as the industry has evolved, the exam has gotten tougher. “If I had to take the exam today, I couldn't pass it,” he jokes. “It was tough then, but not like it is today.”
Technology has also changed the way that training is delivered. Other than the educational sessions delivered at annual and chapter meetings of the large associations, most meeting planning training is now done either online, through webconferences, or using software.
And as the industry has matured, a growing number of colleges and universities are offering meeting management as part of their curriculum. Close to 150 universities have hospitality and hotel management programs, with many of those offering courses in meeting management, and 10 colleges offer degrees in meeting management. That number will only grow, he predicts.