BETWEEN THE meeting-related fallout from the war with Iraq and the escalating incidences of severe acute respiratory syndrome, times have never been tougher for the meeting business. But when the going gets tough, the tough get together to strengthen their community and find ways to combat the growing meeting malaise.

That was the case at the 17th Annual New England Meetings Industry Conference and Exposition, held April 2 at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston. More than 1,300 meeting and hospitality professionals (a 126-person increase from 2002) came from around New England — and around the country — to build on the strength of their community. The increase pleased but did not surprise Beth Hamiroune, director of national accounts with Associated Luxury Hotels, Wellesley, Mass., and volunteer president of Meeting Professionals International's New England Chapter, which hosted the meeting in conjunction with 11 other industry associations.

Networking is especially important in today's brutal climate, says Hamiroune. “When hotels are eliminating cancellation and attrition policies, they need to know and trust the planners they work with so they know that when a meeting is canceled, it's for the right reasons, not just that the planner got a last-minute better deal somewhere else. Your credibility is the thing that will get you through the absolutely crazy negotiations taking place these days.”

Sessions included back-to-basic topics such as “Maximizing Your Meeting Dollars” and “Ten Tips for Avoiding Litigation,” as well as several sessions aimed at helping planners through rough employment times.

At the luncheon, the community-building got literal with centerpieces donated by Providence, R.I.'s convention and visitors bureau: a big box of Tinkertoys. Each table was challenged to build the tallest, most stable structure they could right on the table. By the lunch's end, 12-foot towers dipped and swayed over many tables, and the judges had their work cut out to choose the winner. After a live auction and a presentation from Sam Silverstein, president of Sam Silverstein Enterprises, on building dynamic relationships, everyone flocked to the more than 300 booths in the expo hall.

Despite almost universal acknowledgement that business was down, spirits were amazingly high among the planners and suppliers. The NEMICE program has become so successful, notes Hamiroune, that MPI is considering launching similar regional programs in other parts of the country.