Financial & Insurance Conference Planners, an association of insurance and financial services industry meeting planners, recently met with a sample of its planner members and hospitality partners to identify trends in the industry. These are the common themes regarding booking activity, meeting design, and meeting perception that emerged from that conversation:

1. Meetings are rebounding.
Insurance and financial meetings bookings are rebounding as of late, although at varying rates. For some companies, the first quarter of 2012 brought booking levels similar to those in peak season. Others have seen a rebound at a slower pace. Even though there is an overall surge in bookings, meetings still look different than before the economic downturn. Many meetings have been consolidated and are planned for fewer nights or fewer attendees. International meetings seem to be the slowest to bounce back and regional locations are increasingly being considered.

2. Short-term bookings continue.
The trend of short-term bookings is still prevalent. Incentive meetings are experiencing greater lead times, back to the normal two or three years out, and for some meetings planners are drafting a short-list of options further out, but many still are not contracting until the 18–24 month timeframe. This shorter lead time is proving challenging as hotel occupancy rates increase, which ultimately limits the availability of group rooms. Shorter lead times may continue as companies are looking for more flexibility and are trying to avoid cancellation fees. With an increase in the number of bookings, and shorter lead times to plan, the need for planners to be more strategic is becoming increasingly important.

3. Staffing and budgets are flat.
The idea of doing more with less is still very relevant and may continue to be long-term. The biggest impact on this trend is related to staffing constraints. As the number of meetings increases, the availability of current staff is decreasing, and planners do not have the means to hire additional planners. To assist during peak times, many planners are outsourcing tasks to third-party vendors, freelance planners, or simply recruiting staff from other departments. Flat budgets are also requiring meeting professionals to do more with less. With hotel demand increasing, costs are rising. Planners are challenged to provide the exceptional experiences attendees expect, but on budgets that have not increased with the rise in demand. The number of meeting attendees and incentive qualifiers are also increasing, requiring planners to stretch each dollar even more.

4. Planners focus on strategy—feel more valued.
The perception of meetings has changed within most organizations, mostly in that return on investment has taken the spotlight. In the past, meetings may have been held for the sake of holding meetings; however, now more than ever all meetings must be justified and provide outcomes with actionable results. This increased focus on deliverables has positioned planners to be strategic partners with management, working together to provide the experience attendees expect along with the business results that management needs. Planners are seen as more valued and respected, as they are asked to come to the table more often than ever before.

5. Meeting design is evolving as priorities shift.
Meetings and incentive programs have simplified and consolidated over the past couple of years. Many incentives are being combined with meetings, and the length of both has shortened. This provides both a cost savings on travel and less time out of the office for employees.

Overall meeting spend and time devoted to conducting business activities while on site are being closely reviewed. Companies are continuing to watch spending on travel and entertainment, and they are seeking a measurable business return on every aspect of the meeting’s agenda. The focus on attendee perks or gifts has been replaced by the inclusion of corporate social responsibility activities that promote teambuilding and giving back to local communities.

6. Planners are looking for fresh venue options.
A stall in new property construction and shortage of large luxury properties in the U.S. has planners sourcing international options or ways to make repeat visits to U.S. properties new and fresh. Locations that provide contained entertainment, so that attendees have more free time, are also a draw. With overall budgets remaining flat, many planners are being forced to think outside the box to create new experiences that will not incur additional expenses.

7. Planners have the pulse of top performers.
While planners are charged with continuing to deliver quality and consistency on a flat budget, proving return on investment may be just as challenging. Many showcase this by driving business results while staying within budget, and also by providing high-level experiences with low risk. In addition to analyzing survey feedback, planners are often positioned to gauge attendees’ moods and actions, affording management valuable insight into the morale and expectations of top performers and attendees.