Younger generations don’t always seek out and consider the wisdom of their more seasoned counterparts, said a trio of experts from BridgeWorks, a firm specializing in managing multigenerational workforces, at the Financial & Insurance Conference Planners 2012 Annual Conference. Not so when that seasoned exec is meeting industry legend Roger Dow, president & CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, who also presented to FICP attendees. Indeed, the four generations in the audience listened intently to Dow’s central message about meetings: “We’re seen as a frivolous industry. We’re not frivolous. We’re critical. We educate America, we employ America, we make a difference.”

All meeting professionals suffered the repercussions of meetings’ bad rap in the wake of the mortgage crisis, but none more than financial and insurance conference planners. (The whole debacle was named for a financial company, after all.) “Everyone ran for cover,” Dow said. “Meetings were canceled left and right.”

He showed a video that started with some of the most damning media sound bytes then segued into a change in tone that he and the U.S. Travel Association along with other industry partners were able to effect both behind the scenes and with the major public relations campaign “Keep America Meeting.”

The travel industry consortium also conducted an economic impact study, ultimately calculating the size of the meetings industry at $813 billion—more than two-and-a-half times the size of the auto industry.

And a subsequent ROI study by Oxford Economics showed that every $1 companies spend on business travel returns more than $12 in revenue and nearly $4 in profit.

Dow urged planners to gather more data from their meetings to demonstrate their success. “Show how what you do meets objectives in terms of increasing sales, retention, new product knowledge, understanding a changing marketplace,” he said. “Do pre- and post-meeting surveys showing that the folks who attended the conference are more likely to stay with the company, or can sell with more confidence because they understand the products.”

 

Redbutton.tv was one of many technology vendors at the FICP Annual Conference this year. Here, Diane Goodman, CMP, Goodman Speakers Bureau, gets some guidance from Sam Stanton while Kimball Anderson talks with Chris Raio of John Hancock. Redbutton.tv provides a number of ways to “socialize” your meeting, from on-site photo kiosks and the ability for attendees to send instant photo e-cards to friends back home, to complete social media management at your event, from promotion to curation to contests to measurement.

 

Eric Ly, one of the founders of LinkedIn and now
CEO of Presdo, presented an education session
on social media and events.

 

Use Your Inflection Points

Looking back, the meetings and travel industry was strengthened and unified by this “inflection point,” Dow said. “We had taken ourselves for granted and suddenly we were at a precipice. We had to pull together.”

Planners may reach their own inflection points: “Your boss leaves, your budget is cut—don’t sit there. Figure out what to do. Launch your career to another level.”

In another area where Dow’s presentation dovetailed with the keynote from BridgeWorks, he echoed their call to focus on a half-full glass. Rather than asking what keeps you up at night, they suggested, think about what gets you up in the morning. Or as Dow put it, figure out your “one thing”—the thing you’re working for, that gives you purpose.

And as meeting planners, strive to create event experiences that “light the fire within” for attendees. How? One way, it turns out, would be to tap younger colleagues and attendees for their thoughts and ideas.

U.S. Travel President & CEO Roger Dow


What’s Next

The challenges are not over for meetings, of course. Planners already are feeling the effects of higher demand for hotel space and a lack of new hotel supply. “Companies have been reticent to sign contracts, thinking they don’t have to worry about it because they can always find space somewhere else,” Dow said. “That world is changing.”

In addition to increasing group demand, leisure travel and inbound international travel are increasing, which is an especially big factor in places like New York. “Finding space will become more challenging. You’ll need to educate your folks on rates.”

Planners already are seeing a bigger slice of their budgets being taken by airfare, and that’s unlikely to change as long as fuel prices remain high. A new issue in air travel will be airport capacity, said Dow. The World Travel Organization projects 100 million inbound international visitors by 2020—or an additional 18 full planes a day landing at the major U.S. gateways. U.S. Travel therefore is focusing some of its attention on infrastructure investment such as airport expansion.

“This is a great industry,” Dow said in closing, telling planners not to let themselves be narrowly defined by others. Do the work that will shift perception from “She’s just our planner” to “Thank God she’s on our team.”