The crowd at last week’s Motivaton Show was abuzz with talk of the economy and the future of meetings and incentives. That buzz started in a Tuesday morning session room, where a panel of experts offered their thoughts on the state of the industry. Moderated by Betsy Bair, editorial director, MeetingsNet, and Barbara Scofidio, editor, Corporate Meetings & Incentives, the panel included Beth Cooper-Zobott, director, conference services, Equity Residential; Brenda Anderson, CEO, Society of Incentive & Travel Executives; Cynthia Dugan, CMP, CMM, manager, meetings & events, Abbott Nutrition International; Scott Graf, president, BCD Meetings and Incentives; and Louann Cashill, CMP, CMM, meeting services manager, Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A. Here’s a taste of the conversation:

1. Uncertainty Rules … Three large meetings have become eight smaller meetings, and the changes may continue for Cooper-Zobott at Equity Residential. “Executives are not wanting to act because they don’t know what will happen week to week,” she said. Meanwhile, Cashill said Toyota has put a hold on “nonessential meetings.” Case in point: She had been sourcing eight programs; now half those meetings are off the books.

2. … But Panic Doesn’t “We saw some panic, with people wanting to cancel programs because of the perception issue,” said Cashill. “Now it’s leveling off. But people are looking very closely at each meeting, asking if they really need to have it.”

3. Turning from Seller’s Market to Buyer’s … “I have Vegas calling me,” said Cashill. “You know it’s rough out there when Vegas is calling you.”

4. … But Hotels Still Driving the Deal When she calls hotels for meeting space without sleeping rooms, reported Cooper-Zobott, some of them won’t even bid. Even with sleeping rooms, she says, “sometimes hotels want to wait and take a chance that a better piece of business is going to come along.” BCD’s Graf pointed out that short lead times can sometimes work in a planner’s favor—if you can find space. “Inside 45 days, you can drive a pretty good bargain,” he said. “That’s when it turns into a buyer’s market.”

5. Rising Airfare Digs Into Incentive Budgets For many, incentive meeting budgets are flat. But as Graf pointed out, rising airfares make a stable budget a decreased budget. “When air takes a bigger portion of the budget, that leaves less money available for food and beverage and other meeting elements. Your attendee is getting a little less ‘wow.’” The answer: Choose destinations with the best lift and fewest connections.

6. Let ’Em See You Sweat Educate your internal customers about how they need to help you get the best deals for them. “We do such a great job taking care of our customers that they think we can always pull a rabbit out of the hat,” said Dugan from Abbott Nutrition International. “Now I’m asking them if they even have an inkling of a meeting coming up to tell us, so we can start looking into sites.”

7. One Company’s Cancellation Is Another Company’s Treasure Regularly checking online networking resources to find canceled space can pay off. Try two Google groups, the Meetings Community (MeCo) and MiForum, both of which can be found through http://groups.google.com. Membership is required, but sign-up is simple. Or try the Marketplace area of StarCite.com (registration required). SITE members can go to www.site-intl.org and view the member bulletin board; the International Association of Conference Centers posts hot rates www.iacconline.org); and site selection company HelmsBriscoe offers deals (www.helmsbriscoe.com).

8. Procurement and Planning: Find the Balance “There was a real reaction when procurement first started getting involved with meetings and incentives. People saw it as the commoditization of the incentive industry. It was all about the money and not about relationships,” said SITE’s Anderson. “But the pendulum does swing, and it’s coming back.” Graf agreed. “Several years ago when procurement got involved, it seemed that I couldn’t get in touch with my decision-maker contacts,” he said. “Now there is a healthy balance. You need to embrace procurement—educate them and be educated by them.”

9. Outsource Logistics, Raise Your Reputation “There is no better way to position your department as strategic than to outsource logistics,” said Cashill of Toyota. “That way, instead of comparing rooming lists and flight manifests, you can focus on things like creating a crisis management plan, developing preferred-supplier relationships, and working with your branding department on messaging and theming.”

10. The Applause Line: Enough with the Airline Fees! Bravely facing the room of meeting executives, a representative of United Airlines stood and asked the room to offer suggestions for the airlines. Cooper-Zobott took the challenge. “Stop nickel-and-diming us. Give us a flat fare, even if it’s higher, with everything included—food, baggage, fuel.” When the applause died down, she continued, “We need to have all the fees in the ticket price because otherwise corporate travel policies will start changing to say you can’t check a bag now.” An audience member responded that he didn’t mind the fees, but pleaded for the process to be changed so that baggage fees could be easily managed for groups.