There was a moment during the Green Meeting Industry Council’s 2011 Sustainable Meetings Conference last week in Portland, Ore., when more than 300 meeting professionals glimpsed the end of the world as they’ve known it.

Ian Lee, an airline industry analyst at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business, had just made the case that six out of 14 European airlines will go out of business by 2015 if oil prices stay above $100 per barrel. If prices reach $150 per barrel, nine of the 14 will disappear.

As this column went to (virtual) press, the price of Brent Crude, one of the main market indices for oil, stood at $112.43, with mounting unrest in the Middle East and North Africa.

The conference broadcast its general sessions, and about 40 percent of on-site participants were simultaneously online, so the Twitter stream lit up when Lee released his data. “If airline travel reverts to the way it was in the 50s and 60s, what will that mean for all of us?” wrote Judy Kucharuk of Footprint Management Systems Inc. “What about those whose livelihood depends on face-to-face meetings?”

“Your industry won’t disappear,” Lee told participants, “but you’re going to be much more judicious” about using regional alternatives like rail, relying more heavily on hybrid meeting formats, and only sending people by air when there’s no alternative.

This is not the first our industry has heard of peak oil, the idea that world oil production capacity has hit—or will soon hit—its peak, and the consequence will be rising fuel prices. In 2009, economist Jeff Rubin argued that everything in our economy is built on cheap oil, so everything will be affected when supplies dwindle.

This is tough news for our industry, and the problem doesn’t end with air travel. Oil is critical to meeting venues and hotels, and to the ground transportation that brings food to their kitchens and collateral to our exhibit halls.

But peak oil is happening right now, ready or not, so the question is what to do about it. Here are steps you can take to prepare:

  • Localize: Local sourcing is one of the best ways to cut your carbon footprint. You may even end up saving money. When the relentlessly sustainable Portland DoubleTree, site of the GMIC conference, switched from frozen Atlantic to fresh (and tastier) Pacific salmon, costs plummeted from $21 to $6 per pound.
  • Hybridize: The simplistic answer to peak oil is to do away with live meetings. But meeting professionals know what will be lost if our clients give up the benefits of face-to-face dialogue. This is one more reason to pay close attention to hybrid meeting experiments like EventCamp Twin Cities and GMIC’s own Game ON! format. If more of us gain experience with hybrids, the state of the art will advance more quickly.
  • Join GMIC: Our industry has no better resource for explaining sustainability issues like peak oil. I’ve never seen oil pricing on a meetings and events curriculum, but our industry will be at risk until more of us understand the threat and the opportunity.

Mitchell Beer, CMM, is president of The Conference Publishers Inc., Ottawa, one of the world’s leading specialists in capturing and repurposing conference content. Beer blogs at http://theconferencepublishers.com/blog and tweets as @mitchellbeer. Beer, who serves on the GMIC board, was responsible for adding Ian Lee to the opening panel at the GMIC conference.