“It’s chaos right now. Every day is a new adventure. There’s nothing in the handbook about weathering an economic downtown, in an election year, with a war on. It’s just a very different time,” says Maura Gast, executive director at the Irving [Texas] Convention and Visitors Bureau.

We talked with Gast just a few days after the federal bailout package was passed by Congress to get her take on the meetings and conventions climate. She has plenty of experience to bring to the conversation, including more than 17 years with her destination marketing organization (five as executive director), and she’s chairwoman of the board of directors of Destination Marketing Association International, only the third female to hold that position in its 94-year history.

“Destination marketing organization staffers, hoteliers, and other industry partners who have been in the industry for less than 10 years probably haven’t been on this roller coaster yet,” she says. “But for those of us who’ve been on this ride before, it’s different this time.”

The way Gast sees it, we’ll eventually “roll through” this economic downturn, but the meetings industry is going to have to operate leaner and more efficiently. “We’ve all got to be more conservative, more cautious,” she said. “Critical business meetings will continue but will take place over two days instead of three. Companies aren’t spending $100,000 on a keynote. They’re foregoing the ‘nice-tos’ and going to the ‘need-tos.’”

Hotels are also being careful about how they react to the downturn, continues Gast. “We’ve started to see a little bit of ‘give’ on rate, but hotels remain more willing to sacrifice on occupancy. It has been very positive to see that hoteliers have been more cautious in their selling strategies this time and have not immediately embraced deep discounting as the only solution to stimulate sales. Hoteliers who experienced the very long recovery period from dramatic rate discounts in 2001 are aware of the impact that sort of reaction has on their business."