As CEO of Site (formerly the Society of Incentive and Travel Executives), Chicago-based BRENDA ANDERSON is a key player in efforts to lobby government and media on the importance of meetings and events to the economy. We reached her by phone in Washington, D.C., after she finished a strategy session with Roger Dow, CEO of the U.S. Travel Association. With Site, U.S. Travel is one of seven founding association members of the Meeting, Event, and Incentive Coalition. Anderson filled us in on the coalition's plans, and why we in the industry need to speak with one voice.
Financial & Insurance Meetings: The industry coalition that Site and six other associations established in October has issued model meeting and incentive guidelines for companies receiving TARP [Troubled Asset Relief Program] funds. What's next on the coalition's agenda?
Brenda Anderson: We're focusing on three main fronts: Legislation/lobbying, public relations, and grass roots. It's important to realize that separate organizations typically have their own agenda, but we have come together for the common good of the meetings, incentives, and travel industries. It is the power of our collective voice that can help to reverse the domino effect of meetings and incentives cancellations.
FIM: Where does the Keep America Meeting Campaign and its online petition fit in?
Anderson: Keep America Meeting is the grass-roots part of the picture, and we know how powerful that can be. I urge every industry association to encourage their members to sign the online petition [see sidebar at left].
FIM: The huge stimulus plan that President Obama signed into law on February 17 places meetings-related restrictions on TARP recipient companies. Is this going to further hurt the industry?
Anderson: What has become known as the Dodd amendment severely restricts compensation and bonuses for top executives at companies that receive TARP funding, and travel is included under its “compensation” heading. The part of the amendment that references travel is only about 10 percent, but it is critical to our industry — and it applies retroactively to those companies that are already receiving TARP monies. The good news is that this part of the bill now goes into a rule-making process at the Treasury [to define the standards with which to implement the policy measures], and we should have another few months to influence the language of those policy standards. Our goal is for the amendment to incorporate the coalition's model policy for approval of meetings, events, and incentive/recognition travel [see sidebar on page 9].
Coalition members have worked diligently to get the attention of Sen. [Christopher] Dodd [D-Conn.], and he has told us that he is supportive of our guidelines. Our goal to self-regulate our industry — we don't want the government to tell us what constitutes a legitimate meeting or incentive program.
FIM: What's the next step in the coalition's PR campaign?
Anderson: We're about to roll out a public relations tool kit so that people can take immediate steps to communicate the value and return on investment of meetings and events to their local media and congressional representatives. We'll have templates for letters to editors and letters to congressmen, for example, all with key messaging points. There will be access for anyone to go online and download the materials.
FIM: If I were a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, what would you say to me about the economic impact of meetings and incentives?
Anderson: The amount of canceled or postponed business due to knee-jerk, fear-based reactions, is devastating. Meetings and events represent a $244 billion dollar industry that creates nearly $39 billion in tax revenues at the federal, state, and local levels. I can talk about why meetings and incentives work to help the economy and I can prove the value and return on investment of incentive programs. But it's also vital to understand that this is about the front desk clerks, and the taxicab drivers, and the housekeepers — all the working people in this industry who are being hurt by meeting cancellations. Meetings and events in this country account for about 2.4 million jobs. The media think they are reaching out and stopping the hand of the CEO who has demonstrated bad judgment and excess, but what's happened is the antithesis of that. There's also a misconception that recognition and motivation events are only for the highest-paid salespeople.
FIM: You sound very passionate when you speak about incentives.
Anderson: My first incentive trip, back in 1986, changed my life. I was a branch manager at a large employment agency and worked my butt off to qualify for a recognition trip to New York City. Part of the program was having tea at the top of the World Trade Center with the CEO, who asked me to talk about how I had succeeded in my job. Can you imagine how I felt, getting attention from the CEO of a billion-dollar company?
You can't put a price on the loyalty that motivational events create. Every year after that, I had to qualify. About six years later, I became the youngest regional vice president in the company. And when I got to that level, I used incentives to motivate my sales force and my employees.
FIM: You joined Site in 2001, when there was an economic downturn in the aftermath of September 11. Are there corollaries to today's situation?
Anderson: Both have many emotional components, but in 2001 there was a strong esprit de corps for everyone to get back on their feet. Today, there's a lot of finger-pointing and running for cover.
FIM: Will running for cover help ?
Anderson: No. We are hoping that industry leaders, who already are in the spotlight, will step up to defend meetings and events. This is no time to try to play it safe — the best defense is always a strong offense.
FIM: What are your projections for 2009 and 2010?
Anderson: It's clear from the number of cancellations that there is confusion in the marketplace about how to move forward with motivational events. However, I believe that in 12 to 18 months, the companies that are continuing on with their programs are going to have the real success stories. I do realize that these are tough times that require companies to be sensitive about their spending. But now more than ever, we need to focus on the return on investment that meetings and events create.
The most important things this year are to establish our collective voice, lead with courage, and promote the business case for meetings and events. We know that there will be a backlash in the health of those companies that are canceling or postponing meetings and incentives. We must try to create a tipping point and stop the domino effect — then, make sure we are poised to come out of the gate very strong in 2010.
Destination Marketing Association International and U.S. Travel Association have merged their foundations. The new institution is called the Destination & Travel Foundation and will focus on the needs of destination marketing professionals and the impact of travel around the world.
According to new findings from the EventView 2009: North America study, companies that have a process for post-event measurement are twice as likely to receive increases in their marketing budgets as those that do not.
The Business Travel Coalition has launched tVillage Talent Connections as a service project to assist unemployed, about-to-be-unemployed, or underemployed colleagues in all travel and tourism industry segments. This no-cost program will be run on the LinkedIn platform.
The Meetings Community, the three-year-old,-driven meetings-industry listserv and Web site, plans to incorporate as a nonprofit association before the end of the year. MeCo, hosted by Google Groups, has close to 2,500 members.
Sidebar #1 : Send a Message
The Keep America Meeting campaign has been drawing attention to the importance of meetings in the U.S. economy and giving people a way to show their support for the industry. An e-mail petition asks signers to “send a message to our legislators nationwide that we need them to take the proactive step of publicly supporting the meetings and events industry in order to hasten the U.S. recovery.”
Keep America Meeting was created by TBA Global, a meeting andcompany, in partnership with the U.S. Travel Association and with support from the Event Marketing Institute. It is endorsed by a nonpartisan group of associations, publishers, and companies, including , Site, and the MeetingsNet magazines.
In late February the site added industry-coalition-endorsed letters to local media and elected officials; links to social networks; promotional downloads including print ads, e-mail buttons, and logos; and links to industry articles. The goal is a million signatures. Sign up at keepamericameeting.com.
Sidebar #2: Model Guidelines for Meetings
The Meeting, Event, and Incentive Coalition is lobbying for the Treasury to adopt its model meetings and incentives guidelines for companies receiving Troubled Asset Relief Program funding. Some key points in the guidelines:
The CEO shall be responsible for implementing adequate controls to assure that meetings, events, and incentive/recognition travel organized by the company serve legitimate business purposes and are cost-justified.
All proposed meetings, events, and incentive/recognition travel organized by the company must serve one or more specified legitimate business purpose. Each with a cost exceeding $75,000 must be supported by a written business case identifying a specific business purpose.
Total annual expenses for meetings, events and incentive/recognition travel shall not exceed 15 percent of the company's total sales and marketing spend.
The amount spent for an employee performance incentive/recognition event shall not exceed 2 percent of the total compensation of eligible participants or 10 percent of total award-earners' compensation.
The process for approving meetings, events, and incentive/recognition travel, and the procedures for assuring adherence to this policy, will be subject to independent audit to confirm policy adherence.
At least 90 percent of incentive program attendees shall be other than senior executives from the host organization.
Performance incentives shall not promote excessive or unnecessary risk-taking or manipulation of financial results.
All internal meetings or events attended only by senior executives and/or board members shall be devoted to specific business purposes, and participating senior executives shall be responsible for any expenses incurred for non-business-related activities.