I'm writing this in late June, having just returned from the 2008 FICP Education Forum. As always, the forum had many takeaways. This year, there was a feeling of watchful waiting, similar to the atmosphere at the FICP (then ICPA) annual meeting post-9/11, in November 2001. Planners and hospitality partners seemed to be shoring up for tough times. Conversations inside and outside the education sessions focused on finding solutions to the meetings fallout from a depressed financial-services sector and a lousy economy. (Read our cover story, beginning on page 32.) For me, there were four big ideas woven through the three-day conference:

  1. Be prepared

    Companies are tightening their belts and their meetings spend. “I laugh when I hear people talking about flat budgets,” said a senior-level planner at a large insurance company. “When you factor in rising costs, they're really talking about lower budgets.” As well, I heard a lot more buzz about dealing with meeting cancellations. A hotel sales rep got a call on her cellphone with the news that a financial sales meeting had canceled — just six weeks out. She was distressed that the planner was asking for all deposits to be returned and all attrition fees to be waived in exchange for a promise of rebooking in 2009. But, she was going to try to meet the planner's demands. Is the market softening? You bet. Planners and suppliers need to be prepared for the next business cycle.

  2. Set standards

    It is more important than ever for planners to take a leadership position, whether it be in terms of implementing standard operating procedures for their departments, launching green and corporate social responsibility initiatives at their meetings, or adhering to ethical practices. The message: Don't wait for others to tell you what to do. Set standards, stick to them, and you'll be in shape to weather the storm.

  3. Prove your value

    Measure, document, be accountable. Track meetings spend and learn the tools of strategic meetings management. Show your corporate execs both the quantifiable and nonquantifiable value of the meetings department. “I never thought that the CFO would be my friend,” said one veteran planner. “But now that I send him the data on meetings spend, he understands our value — and communicates that value to the other departments within our company.”

  4. Forge partnerships

    Strong partnerships between industry suppliers and planners have always characterized the insurance meeting planning sector. (There's a reason why FICP supplier affiliates are called Hospitality Partners.) Today, partnerships on every level — within companies, on every facet of the supply chain, and even between competitors — are more important than ever. One destination management company president, when asked how he handled a dicey bidding war aimed at getting low-ball pricing, answered that he became friendly with his competition and together they took a stand to reject that business. Brilliant.

These four best practices discussed at the forum were right on target. Planners and hospitality partners who step up to the plate will be well equipped to handle the rough road ahead.