Robert J. (Bob) Donovan is vice president, meetings and travel services, for the American Hospital Association, based in Chicago. He's been with the AHA for 32 years, and has been associated with the meeting and convention division since 1983, when Bob discovered the Professional Convention Management Association. It would become his extended “familia” (he loves “The Sopranos”), joining his immediate family: wife, Sara, three grown children, and one grandchild.

Bob was honored at the May 2001 Professional Achievement Dinner in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the PCMA Education Foundation and attended by 1,000 people, for “his unending devotion to PCMA.”

MM talked with Bob poolside at the Washington Hilton about the changes he's seen at the AHA.

On AHA's evolution of meetings

What's really changed in my job in the past few years is centralization. The AHA has gone from a decentralized purchasing arrangement to a centralized department of meetings and travel services. That allows us to leverage our buying power with hotels, car rental firms, and airlines. I think in 1999 we documented well over $1 million in savings.

Before, we had 22 people signing contracts, 27 different people negotiating, paying commissions to 14 different groups. I think Kim Baker, director, meetings and travel services, wrote our attrition clause. We try to be fair. We don't go for “no attrition.” We go for 80 percent.

Most of the time hotels are willing to work with you, within a specified period of time, to replace the business. If you had a 1,000-room block, you picked up 600 rooms, you owe them 200 rooms. You say, “What if we give you 200 or 250 rooms next year?” Since we're an umbrella organization [AHA has 13 personal membership affiliated healthcare societies], we have a lot of meetings, so we're able to replace business.

One of the things we did recently, which has been successful for us: If the AHA is paying for you to attend a governance meeting, you must book through our department. So we garner hundreds of free tickets each year, [preferred airline deals give the company/association so many free tickets for so many flights booked], which helps lower our costs.

On the economic downturn's effect on AHA meetings

We have not seen any fall-off in our attendance. The fall-off is more on the corporate side. And we're sometimes there to [take advantage] of that. So, that drives the hotel prices down, and sometimes we can fill holes. We have flexibility as we do a lot of short-term business. We're told by some of our suppliers that they treat us more like a corporate account.

On the biggest change in meetings

The biggest change is people's time: the four-day meeting became a three-day meeting, the three-day meeting became a two-day meeting, the two-day meeting became a one-day meeting, the one-day meeting became a conference call.

On retirement (I'm only 55!):

I'm not retiring anytime soon. I like the industry I'm in. When I was 35, I thought people who were 55 didn't work very hard. Well, I've never worked harder in my life!