How to survive the current economic crisis was a running theme of the opening general session at Meeting Professionals International¹s MeetDifferent conference, which kicked off on Sunday. MPI Chairman Larry Luteran, Hilton Hotels Corp.¹s senior vice president of group sales and industry relations, welcomed a crowd of nearly 2,000 attendees to Atlanta, urging them to think about how they could ³survive and thrive² during this challenging time.

In a break from the traditional keynote speaker, MPI’s opening general session used a news broadcast format, moderated by Terry Savage, a personal finance expert and Chicago Sun Times syndicated columnist. The session, which was also broadcast over the Web in real time, consisted of panel discussions with industry experts on everything from “personal branding” to job security to redesigning learning formats for meetings. Attendees were invited to submit questions via text message, which Savage incorporated into the discussion.

Addressing the group, Savage said, “We’re all in this together. We need to make sure we are concentrating on the opportunities that arise in tough times. Our survival depends on our ability to redefine [the meetings] industry.”

The call to redefine the industry was especially timely given the recent negative press surrounding meetings planned by companies such as Wells Fargo and AIG. Savage commented on the ad Wells Fargo had placed in several major newspapers on Sunday announcing that it has canceled all employee recognition events for the remainder of the year. In addition, new regulations passed by the U.S. Treasury Department for companies that have received funds from the government’s Troubled Asset Relief Program will now include oversight on expenditures for conferences and events.

The new regulations and recent negative media attention prompted a quick response from the meetings and travel industry. Speaking during the general session, Roger Dow, CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, and Christine Duffy, president and CEO of Maritz Travel, announced they are working together—along with six other industry associations—to educate congress on the importance and value of the meetings industry. The new group is called the Meeting, Event, and Incentive Coalition, and it includes representatives from the U.S. Travel Association, MPI, the National Business Travel Association, the Professional Convention Management Association, Site, the American Hotel and Lodging Association, and Destination Marketing Association International, in addition to various industry corporations like Maritz and Carlson.

According to Dow, the coalition is working on a series of policy guidelines for meetings, which are intended to preempt any additional government regulations on meetings and will help companies define the business reasons for holding meetings in order to justify expenditures. The group is also planning a 12-month communication and public-relations campaign, intended to get the message out about the business need for meetings, and it has two public relations firms on retainer for this purpose. “Meetings and events have come under attack,” said Duffy. “It’s about telling the other side of the story. … Our industry must speak with one voice.”

Savage commended Dow and Duffy for their actions and urged attendees to also contact political leaders about the misguided perception of meetings that exists in the media. “Tell them: ‘We are part of the solution, not the problem. Canceled meetings are actually costing the economy millions!’”

MPI also released the complete findings from its FutureWatch 2009 study during the conference, which is now available on the MPI Web site. Another new offering at this year’s MeetDifferent was a social networking tool called Pathable, which allows attendees who complete a profile online to connect, post messages, and have conversations via the Web-based tool before, during, and after the event.

The general session wrapped up with an address from MPI President and CEO Bruce MacMillan, who said, “We are the human connections in business. Some of the rules of the game are changing, but some things haven’t changed. … Igniting the power of communication and connections is what we do.”

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