It's no secret that financial services meetings have been hit hard by the economic slowdown. “Meeting and travel are the low-hanging fruit when companies start watching their costs,” says Jan Hennessey, director of meetings and travel management for Fireman's Fund Insurance Co., Novato, Calif. “Like all insurance companies, we've had a tough couple of years, and we're restructuring and have a new CEO, so we're really watching our expenses. In terms of meetings, we've kept our large customer-incentive events in place, and while we haven't reduced their quality, we are inviting fewer people. For our internal business meetings, we're keeping closer to home and holding them in locations that are less expensive to fly to. And I think we'll continue to watch meetings and events costs just as carefully even when the economy gets stronger again.”

Does the economic downturn signal the beginning of a buyer's market for meeting planners? “The scenario forces everyone to sell smarter and buy smarter,” says Jonathan T. Howe, senior partner at Howe & Hutton, a Chicago-based law firm that specializes in the meetings industry. “The corporate planner has more bargaining power now because hotels want to put heads in beds.”

Hennessey reports that hotel salespeople have become more aggressive in asking for her business. “A few years ago, it seemed like they weren't selling at all — they didn't have to,” she says. “Now they're having to get out there and prospect.”

Your bargaining clout all comes down to the relationship you have built with the hotel. “A lot of problems can be avoided by keeping in touch and communicating,” says Howe. “I tell people on both sides of the business to remember this saying: ‘I can't blame you for bad news, but I can blame you for not telling me about it.’”

Loews Hotels Executive Vice President Charlotte St. Martin agrees. “With planners who keep us in the loop, even if they have to cancel or if there's attrition, we'll work out a way that penalties can be applied to future meetings. The more open a customer is with us about the problems they might be having, the more flexible we'll be with them.”