In late February, Northern Trust gathered employees and clients in Los Angeles for a golf tournament and headline entertainment. When reports of the event surfaced, the Chicago-based bank, which received $1.5 billion in federal bailout money, joined AIG, Wells Fargo, and other financial institutions on the firing line for holding events deemed inappropriate for companies shored up by the government's Troubled Asset Relief Program.

The Northern Trust event became a lightning rod, bringing prominent legislators to the bully pulpit to rage against unseemly use of taxpayer funds, but also galvanizing industry leaders to fight back against negative perceptions.

Among the lawmakers speaking out was Rep. Barney Frank, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, who with 17 colleagues, sent a letter to Northern Trust's chief executive demanding repayment of entertainment expenses. Separately, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., introduced legislation to prevent companies that have received TARP funds from hosting, sponsoring, or paying for conferences, holiday parties, and entertainment events during the year in which they receive funds, unless they get a waiver from the Secretary of the Treasury.

The industry has responded on numerous fronts, with a major push coming from a coalition of industry organizations, led by the U.S. Travel Association. In early March, the coalition unveiled the “Meetings Mean Business” campaign. Its Web site, www.meetingsmeanbusiness.com, offers resources such as sample letters to legislators and a link to a recommended meetings and events policy for companies receiving taxpayer bailout funds. (See box above.)

The campaign also has a paid advertising component, which placed a full-page ad in USA Today. More are expected to follow. The ad challenged readers to dial-down the anti-meeting rhetoric: “Want to lose one million more jobs? Just keep talking,” read the headline. Ten top hotel companies also banded together to run ads on prominent Web sites read by U.S. legislators.

During a conference call with hotel companies, convention bureaus, independent planners, media, and others, Roger Dow, president and CEO of U.S. Travel, said the Meetings Mean Business campaign will address the three “Vs” of meetings and incentives: Value to business, Value to the community, and the Victims of cancellations. The industry coalition hopes ultimately to convince the Treasury Department to use its model meetings and events policy as the basis for regulating meetings at companies receiving emergency government lending, to quiet negative rhetoric, and to defeat bills that aim “to become the nation's meeting planner,” Dow said.

Dow said that a “grassroots army,” is needed for the effort. “It's time for our industry to stand up and be heard,” he said.

One organization that took him to heart was the Spokane (Wash.) Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau, which hosted a rally in March that drew over 200 elected officials, business owners, and industry employees. Participants wore pins and carried signs that said, “Meetings Mean Business.”

Keep It Home

Nick DeBenedictis, chairman of the Philadelphia CVB, also took action. In a March 5 editorial in the Philadelphia Daily News, he called on businesses to meet locally. “This is the year to bring, or keep, meetings and conventions home in Philadelphia,” he wrote. “Meeting-related activities stimulate the economy and help maintain and increase jobs in the hospitality industry — restaurant staff and hotel housekeepers to valet and taxi drivers and everyone in between — affecting the people who need to stay employed during challenging economic times.”

Sidebar #1: What's on Meetingsmeanbusiness.com?

  • Sample letters that can be sent to Congressional representatives and local newspaper editors that explain the importance of meetings

  • A meetings and events policy recommended for companies receiving taxpayer bailout funds

  • A link to the Keep America Meeting petition, which will be delivered to the White House, Congress and Fortune 200 business leaders

  • Statistics on the value of meetings to the U.S. economy

  • Recent articles about business travel and the economy