When Meeting Professionals International first brought a panel of industry experts together for a frank discussion on the meetings market last August at its World Education Congress in Las Vegas, concern about the economy predominated the conversation. But no one knew then just how sharply the market would fall off in six short months.

The same panelists—Michael Beardsley, CEO of InnFluent LLC; Vincent LaRuffa, vice president of resort sales and marketing for Universal Orlando Resort; and Chris Meyer, CEM, CMP, vice president of convention sales for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority—reconvened in Atlanta last week during MPI’s MeetDifferent conference to discuss the state of the industry and just how much has changed since they last spoke.

Addressing a group of about 100 attendees, Betsy Bondurant, CMP, CMM, president of Bondurant Consulting, and moderator of the session, said, “When we met last August, the industry was completely different. … There was concern about a slowing economy, but frankly, we didn’t have a clue.”

In the past few months, factors such as the “AIG effect” (corporate meeting cutbacks and cancellations made because of concerns about the public’s perception of the industry) and proposed government oversight into meeting spend have coupled with the recession to create “the perfect storm” for the meetings and travel industry, said Orlando’s LaRuffa.

As one of the country’s most popular destinations for groups and meetings, Orlando is a snapshot of the industry as whole, he added. Unfortunately, that snapshot is pretty bleak. Ultimately, 2008 proved to be a record year for group cancellations in Orlando, and 2009 cancellations are on pace to exceed 2008 levels, he said. These cancellations are coming almost exclusively from the corporate market.

Making matters worse, “We have 4,500 rooms coming into the luxury segment in 2009 and 2010,” LaRuffa said. “That is going to exacerbate what is already a challenge.”

The Orlando market is not nearly as dire as that of Las Vegas, however. “I wish we only had 4,500 rooms coming [online] in Vegas,” said the LVCVA’s Meyer. “We have 13,000 rooms opening this year.”

Las Vegas has felt the brunt of cancellations made in an attempt to counter public perception issues stemming from recent negative press aimed at companies that have received government bailout funds. “Besides the AIG effect, we now have the Wells Fargo effect to go with it,” said Meyer.

One bright spot for planners: better concessions. Items such as Internet access, meeting room rental fees, and food and beverage are all up for negotiation in this economy, said the panelists. Hoteliers are also willing to be more flexible on attrition and cancellation terms.

So far, this buyer’s market has done little to boost group sales. Hotel occupancy dropped 8 percent in the last three months, according to Smith Travel Research. “We are actually seeing occupancy rates declining in the double digits,” added LaRuffa. “If we are not the cheerleaders for the industry, then who is? But I am having a hard time getting my pom-poms in the air.”