The tide has turned.

Not the seller's market. That'll be around a while longer.

Rather, it's the perception — and the reality — of the meeting planning profession.

“The old guard saw meeting planners as spenders of money,” says Jennifer Squeglia, CMP, of RLC Events in Marlborough, Mass. “We have more than proven that we are savers of money.” Beyond that, she adds, meeting planners have become strategic partners in the essential communications exercise that every meeting represents.

Our survey bears this out. Respondents have an average of 12 years of experience and most have brought strategic meetings management practices such as registration of meetings in a centralized database, preferred-supplier programs, and tracking of meeting spend to their companies. It wasn't so long ago that these practices were the exception, not the rule.

“One way to gain a seat at the leadership table is through tracking of spend, savings, and outcomes and reporting these regularly to area heads and finance officers,” says one longtime meeting services director at a major insurer. He believes he is considered a strategic partner by senior management at his company because he has taken on the role of meeting adviser, not just meeting planner. As he explains it: “Planners need to be consultative rather than order takers and operators. They will earn their seats at the table through consistent, sound advice on best value for the dollar and best method of message delivery. At times this may seem counterproductive, because the best delivery might not be through meetings; however, planners will gain respect without the impression of a bias.”

Kim Boriin, CMP, senior event marketing specialist, Guardian Investor Services, New York, and vice president, education, Financial & Insurance Conference Planners, makes the point that meetings today have goals beyond just getting field forces together for presentations, rewards, or education. Meetings are integral to a company's entire marketing plan. “A meeting is an invitation to share an experience,” he says, “to be part of a brand's family. The brand has a look and a feel that comprises all the senses. Corporations are grasping that much better, from the C-level down. They are asking anyone handling sales and marketing to figure that into how they're creating their business plans.”

Out from behind the desk

Many planners are relying on peer networking and industry education to boost their skills in this more demanding environment. Squeglia, who led the education committee of the design team for the recent 2007 FICP Annual Conference, believes that planners turned out in record numbers in part because of the variety and level of educational workshops offered. She also believes they were attracted by the chance to network with each other. More than half of our survey respondents have attained “manager,” “director,” or “vice president” titles — that's a deep pool of experience to draw from. “Knowledge is power,” Squeglia says. “The more you learn, the more you benefit, the more you bring to your seat at the leadership table.” So, despite the fact that survey respondents declared that not having enough time in the day was their No. 1 challenge, Squeglia advises, “Invest time in yourself, because that is what keeps you on track.”

Boriin concludes, “One of the key elements of the insurance and financial services industry is that with all the regulations involved to hold a meeting, you have to stay within the boundaries that are set. That makes us an important piece of the company's business. It's not something you outsource to a third party that can put on a brilliant meeting but does not have an in-depth understanding of compliance. Our positions really lend themselves to partnerships with senior management.”

Sellers Stay in Driver's Seat

Two of the top five challenges respondents say they face right now relate to the hotel seller's market: increasing guest room and F&B rates and lack of hotel availability.

Those challenges will stay high on the list throughout 2008, according to the recent American Express Annual Global Business Travel Forecast.

The report predicts business travel demand will again outweigh supply this year, driving hikes in airfare and hotel room rates.

In fact, hotel rates are projected to experience high double-digit increases in demand-heavy markets across the U.S., Europe, and Asia. Because of these increases, American Express predicts a 9 percent rise in worldwide meeting spend.

Incentives: Niche Strength

With four out of five respondents expecting their incentive budgets to increase or stay the same in 2008 as compared to 2007, insurance and financial services companies clearly believe in the motivational power of the group travel experience. And those budgets are robust: Respondents spent an average of $3.1 million on incentive meetings last year. That's way more than the average in corporate America overall, which came in at a (relatively) paltry $164,000 in 2006, according to the U.S. Incentive Merchandise and Travel Marketplace Study, recently released by The Incentive Federation, an umbrella organization that conducts lobbying and research efforts on behalf of the incentive industry.

Some 61 percent of respondents to our survey reported that qualification requirements for incentive meeting attendance increased in 2007 over 2006 — up 10 percent from our survey two years ago, when 51 percent of planners said qualification requirements for incentive meeting attendance increased in 2005 over 2004.

A spa remains as necessary as sleeping rooms for planners considering incentive conference sites: 97 percent said a full-service spa was important, with 58 percent calling it “extremely important.” On-site golf is nearly as critical: 95 percent consider it important and 45 percent call it “extremely important.”

Respondents are ever more likely to look at overseas destinations to inspire qualifiers, with 89 percent having held an international meeting or intending to hold one within the next 12 months.

Of those, 5 percent are planning an international program for the first time in 2008.

Training: On the Rise

Slightly more than one-third of respondents will hold more training meetings in 2008 than in 2007, and for one in five, their training budget will increase this year over last. Meanwhile, 55 percent say their training budgets will remain steady and 60 percent say they will hold the same number of training meetings this year as last year. With rules tightening with regard to sales practices and meeting practices, it's no surprise the average total attendance at training meetings in 2007 was 3,115 attendees.

And if you're a hotel chain, pay attention to the properties in your clients' own backyards: 69 percent of respondents said training meetings are held at “hotels near the home office.” The most popular venue for training meetings was a city hotel, cited by 72 percent of respondents. Also in demand are airport hotels (57 percent), conference centers (51 percent), and suburban hotels (43 percent).

Growing Paychecks

Two years ago, respondents to our survey predicted they would get 3.4 percent raises. Since then, your average salary has risen a healthy 10.4 percent, to $74,000 in 2007 from $67,000 in 2005. If you're over 40 or you have earned the title of director or manager, you're doing even better, with an average salary of $83,000.

Men continue to earn more than women, although the gap has narrowed from a 43 percent difference in 2005 to a 27 percent difference in 2007. The average salary of female respondents climbed 16 percent during the past two years, from $61,000 to $71,000. Men's average salaries grew 3 percent, from $87,000 to $90,000.

Methodology Our e-mail survey of 433 FICP member planners was conducted between October 10 and November 8, 2007, by Penton Research (a unit of Penton Media, parent company of Financial & Insurance Meetings). It generated 127 complete surveys, an effective response rate of 29 percent.

Certain numeric totals on the survey charts in this article will not add up to 100 percent. The greater totals are due to multiple-answer questions, and the lesser totals occur in cases where some respondents gave no answer.

For analysis purposes, all responses given in Canadian dollars were converted into U.S. dollars.

All statistics are for the year 2007, unless otherwise noted.