Given the harsh realities facing insurers, particularly after September 11, the seven staffers in the Fireman's Fund meetings and travel management department were bracing themselves for some thinning of their ranks. But no one expected five of them to get pink slips on October 30. The Novato, Calif., firm has already lined up outside contractors to take over their duties, part of an overall corporate decision to outsource a number of functions.

Ken Pickle, manager of incentives and conferences for Seattle-based Safeco Insurance Cos., has seen his department and resources eroding, thanks to several workforce reductions. A travel coordinator on his team was laid off last fall, and a technical director in the company's media department, who Pickle uses for on-site production, was let go a few months ago.

Are these isolated examples, or precursors of more meeting department downsizing in the financial services industry?

“A lot of companies are disbanding their meeting departments and retaining planners as consultants,” says Leila MacFeeley, now president of Leila M. MacFeeley & Associates in Greenland, N.H. MacFeeley started her independent meeting planning firm in 1993, when Prudential Insurance Co. (now Prudential Financial) eliminated her job as vice president of conferences and travel. When times get tough, she says, “anything that is not a profit-based job is looked at.”

Brett Barrowman, director of conference and travel management services for American Fidelity Group, Oklahoma City, dismisses the notion that insurance company meeting departments are undergoing a shake-out. Barrowman — also current president of the Insurance Conference Planners Association — says consolidation among companies has resulted in some job losses, but otherwise decisions to slash departments “ebb and flow by the desires of the organization.”

Meeting Professionals International's Edwin L. Griffin Jr. agrees, noting that the size of corporate meeting planning departments follows economic cycles. “Five years ago, companies downsized a lot of their meeting departments and started outsourcing,” says Griffin, MPI president and CEO. “About two years ago, when the economy was so robust, companies started bringing them back, and the number of corporate planners grew again.”

Karen Hopkinson, executive director of ICPA, also sees a cyclical pattern. “Insurance companies downsize their meeting departments because they are looking to save money. We may be getting to that part of the cycle again. But they don't actually save money, and then they try to pull the department in-house again.”

Nevertheless, it is clear that mergers and acquisitions in the financial services sector are causing internal meeting planning jobs to disappear, as merged companies eliminate duplicate functions. And that activity only stands to heat up in the coming months. “The September 11 terrorist attacks are clearly accelerating the ongoing consolidation and globalization of the insurance industry,” comments Bill Chrnelich, a partner with PricewaterhouseCoopers.