“It’s not the budget, it’s the perception.”

That’s what more than one financial services meeting planner gave as the reason for their companies canceling incentive programs in 2009. Perception is reality right now, and the perception among the public and shareholders is that incentive meetings represent financial irresponsibility.

That’s tough news for members of Financial & Insurance Conference Planners, gathered at the Fiesta Americana Grand Coral Beach Cancun for their 51st Annual Conference.

FICP President Patricia Kerr, CMP, director, distribution sales support, Manulife Financial, addressed “the perception issue” on the opening morning of the conference.

“I cringe at the reports of irresponsible corporate spending, especially during times of such market volatility. But I am equally concerned that the role of meetings, conferences, and incentive programs is being misrepresented,” she said. “I pride myself on producing meetings that generate strategic business results. So today it is more important than ever that we emphasize to our management and general business partners the importance of not making sweeping generalizations regarding the meeting and incentive business.”

Kerr continued in defense of meetings. “The sharing of ideas, transference of skills, creation of solutions, and development of long-term strategic objectives are critical to business success, especially in times of economic hardship. Sales conferences are a powerful business weapon; such events motivate, train, and allow for the transference of best practices while driving sales and allowing for corporate growth and economic stability.”

She also told the gathering that she sat down with Manulife Canada’s president and CEO last week to discuss the future of meetings. “Hopefully, his positive outlook provides reassurance to some,” she said. “He stressed that in exceptionally competitive and unstable market conditions, a company’s ability to develop and orchestrate strategically focused meetings, events, and sales conferences is directly related to business value, profitability, and delivery of results. He stressed a focus on fiscal responsibility, but he also highlighted that the cancellation of meetings, sales conferences, and events would be both short-sighted and irresponsible, and would ignore the vital role that these functions play within a corporation’s success.”

Kerr went on to encourage her fellow planners to be creative, to share ideas and strategies, and to embrace the timing of this FICP conference as ideal rather than unfortunate. “All of us need to take advantage of the opportunity we have right now to discuss the challenges we are facing,” she said. “Now is the time to be strong and positive.”