Former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan reportedly called the performance of the scrap metal industry one of the leading indicators of the economy. “We’re one of the first to fall when the economy begins to falter and one of the first to pick up again when the economy begins to bloom,” says Chuck Carr, vice president, member services at Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Washington, Does a successful meeting for the scrap recycling industry mean good times are on the way for the industry, and thus the economy? “We’re all encouraged. There are a lot of people who say that they are beginning to see a light at the end of the tunnel,” says Carr.

As a meeting professional, Carr is encouraged because ISRI’s annual conference in May at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas scored the association’s second-highest registration ever, with 4,302 attendees. Further, the exhibit hall was the largest ever, selling out all 360,000 square feet. Yes, it was down 1,400 attendees from 2008, when ISRI attracted 5,700 people to the same site, but ISRI never had a number even close to that before, so it was a bit of an anomaly, explains Carr. Given the new environment that associations find themselves operating under in 2009, second-best is an achievement. But it took some renegotiated contracts, a big name speaker, and lots of maneuvering.

Carr did not let the abnormally high attendance numbers from 2008 lead him to bulk up his block for 2009. “I block very conservatively. I probably didn’t capture any more than 65 percent of the attendees at this convention in my block,” he says. He preferred to deal with the problem of finding more rooms instead of paying an attrition fee. And having a conservative room block allows him to build trust with the hotel suppliers. “They know they can trust the numbers they are getting from me,” says Carr. “It causes me a lot of heartburn in strong economy as I try to find additional rooms, but it’s a risk I’d rather take than not.”

Consequently, ISRI filled the block easily some 60 days before the show. Attrition was not an issue, nor would it have been, as Carr was able to negotiate it out of the contract. ISRI was also helped out by the fact that Mandalay Bay agreed to negotiate lower room rates for attendees.

Initially, ISRI worked with the hotel to offer some kind of value-added incentive for guests—free Internet, free spa visits, and an airfare credit for a return visit. But by December, the bottom dropped out of the economy and hoteliers were scrambling to fill rooms. “The entire city was in a fire-sale situation,” says Carr. Competing properties were lowering their rates, so the Mandalay Bay had no choice but to do the same. “Without a lot of prompting, they offered lower room rates for our contract, and, in fact, came to us and lowered it twice over the course of about three weeks,” explains Carr. “That just shows a business that understands the value of its customers and wanted to make sure they not only held onto the rooms, but that they were offering their convention customers some of the deals that the itinerant traffic was getting.” ISRI is committed to return to the hotel in 2012 and may return again after that.

Programming and Politicians
While the block was met, attendance rates were still running behind past years. “Our numbers were showing up very, very weak,” says Carr. Over the last six weeks, however, registration rates picked up significantly and Carr believes it had to do with the strength of the program. People who were concerned about the economy or time out of the office waited until the last minute, but then when they saw the program, the networking opportunities, and the largest exhibit hall the show has ever had, they realized they couldn’t afford to miss it, he says.

While Carr hadn’t gone over the numbers yet, consolidation among associations that serve the recycling industry may have helped boost the numbers. Last year, ISRI acquired the International Association of Electronic Recyclers, so they were integrated into the 2009 ISRI show. ISRI also offered content for tire recyclers, making the show appeal to a broader segment of the recycling industry.

But a big draw, says Carr, was the keynote speaker, former President Bill Clinton. “My analysis of attendance in the past said the name of the speaker had very little impact on our attendance, but Bill Clinton may well be an exception to that rule,” he says. He set the room for 40 percent higher attendance than normal for a keynoter, but they had to bring in additional chairs at the last minute—and even that wasn’t enough, as there was standing-room only during the former president’s speech.