One of the lasting lessons of the recent economic crash is that no meeting should expect to survive if it can’t demonstrate its value. The multimillion-dollar question is whether we know how to track and report that value in a way that makes sense to clients and decision-makers.

The industry’s work on meeting-measurement tools was well under way when the crash hit, and many meeting organizations have kept up the effort in the face of tight budgets and competing priorities. Meeting Professionals International routinely surveys planners’ measurement practices in its annual FutureWatch survey, and Reed Exhibitions broke important new ground early last month when it announced a global online education evaluation agreement with New York–based MeetingMetrics.

Even so, we shouldn’t be too quick to put that check mark beside the line that reminds us to measure the results of every meeting. Some evaluation is almost certainly better than none, and the industry is slowly, gradually learning to do a difficult job better. But the latest FutureWatch results show that the transition from anecdotal “smile sheets” to solid, reliable data is far from complete.

And even when we have the right measurement tools, I’m not convinced that we gather the information our clients most want to see.

The conference session I covered recently at the Hemophilia 2010 World Congress in Buenos Aires is a good point of contrast. We were on site at the conference last week, producing the daily newspaper, and I show only the slightest bias in my client’s favor when I predict that they’ll receive strong reviews for the things we usually like to measure: The planning was very solid, and I expect the financial ROI showed up wherever it was expected to.

But there was so much more to this conference than dollars, euros, Argentine pesos, and logistics. At the hemophilia congress, you experience the quiet courage of people who’ve dedicated their lives to fighting a serious, inherited disease, as patients or as health professionals. You hear the louder voices of advocacy for access to treatment in every corner of the world.

And sometimes, you get to hear the kind of statistics that were presented in my session: It’s taken decades to reach this point, but people with mild to moderate hemophilia now live almost as long in the U.K. as their neighbors with no blood disorders. That’s the kind of metric that matters to the people who attend and sponsor the meetings we plan and supply. But it’s not the information we usually gather on site, or bring back to our clients, to underscore the importance of our meetings as the places where knowledge, ideas, and informal discussions come together.

As an industry, we won’t be able to answer the right questions if we don’t start asking them in the first place. For a health conference, the questions are about lives saved, treatments made possible, and the onsite discussions that contributed to those results. How we frame the conversation matters. Until we can express our value in terms that make sense to our clients, meetings will be vulnerable whenever budget-cutters come to call.

Mitchell Beer, CMM, is president and CEO of The Conference Publishers Inc., one of the world’s leading specialists in capturing and repurposing conference content. Beer blogs at http://theconferencepublishers.com/blog. Send comments, facts, arguments, or column ideas to mitchell@theconferencepublishers.com.