The outlook for meeting planning is full of change and challenge, said a panel of experts at the 2008 Motivation Show in September. Moderated by Betsy Bair, editorial director, MeetingsNet; and Barbara Scofidio, editor of Corporate Meetings & Incentives, the panel included (above, left to right) Beth Cooper-Zobott, director, conference services, Equity Residential; Louann Cashill, CMP, CMM, meeting services manager, Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A.; Scott Graf, president, BCD Meetings and Incentives; Brenda Anderson, CEO, Society of Incentive & Travel Executives; Cynthia Dugan, CMP, CMM, manager, meetings & events, Abbott Nutrition International. Among their comments:

  • Uncertainty rules

    Three large meetings are now eight smaller meetings, and the changes may keep coming for Cooper-Zobott: “Executives don't want to act because they don't know what will happen week to week.” 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.

  • Buyer's market on the way?

    “I have Vegas calling me,” said Cashill. “You know it's rough out there when Vegas is calling you.”

  • Or are hotels still driving the deal?

    When she calls hotels for meeting space without sleeping rooms, said Cooper-Zobott, some of them won't even bid. Even with sleeping rooms, she said, “sometimes hotels wait and take a chance that a better piece of business will come along.”

  • Rising airfares dig into budgets

    Graf pointed out that rising airfares turn a flat budget into a decreased budget. “When air takes a bigger portion, that leaves less for other meeting elements. Your attendee is getting a little less ‘wow,’” he said. The answer: Choose destinations with the best lift.

  • One company's cancellation is another company'streasure

    Check online networking resources to find canceled space: Try the Meetings Community (MeCo) and MiForum, both of which can be found through http://groups.google.com. Or try the Marketplace area of StarCite.com (registration required). SITE members can view the member bulletin board (www.site-intl.org); and site-selection firm HelmsBriscoe tracks hotel deals (www.helmsbriscoe.com).

  • Outsource logistics

    “There is no better way to position your department as strategic than to outsource logistics,” said Cashill. “Instead of comparing rooming lists, you can focus on things like creating a crisis management plan, preferred-supplier relationships, and working with your branding department on messaging.”

  • The applause line: enough with theairline fees!

    Facing the room of meeting executives, a United Airlines rep asked for 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 the fees in the ticket price, otherwise corporate travel policies will start saying you can't check a bag.”

Strategic Reading

The cost of food and beverage is one of the biggest expenses of any meeting, so getting the best value for your company means understanding the many facets of catered events. Published last month, A Meeting Planner's Guide to Catered Events, by Patti J. Shock and John M. Stefanelli, can help. It provides a primer for topics such as on-premise and off-premise catering, room set-up, how caterers approach staffing, and contract negotiations. The book also includes review questions, a glossary of industry terms, and “professional advice” boxes, with information gathered from meeting pros writing on the industry listservs, MeCo and MiForum.