In a typical recession, alternate revenue streams like revved up new membership drives and member-retention programs could bolster declining attendance and exhibitor participation. But today’s environment isn’t hospitable to those revenue sources; as ASAE’s president and CEO Michael Olson says, "If an association’s meetings revenue is down, it’s almost certain that the association’s bottom line is down as well."
And most are down. David DuBois, CMP, president of Chicago-based Professional Conference Management Association, says that statistically speaking, association meeting attendance is down an average of 15 percent relative to pickup. "Some are right on; others are down 35, 40, 50 percent," he says. "We expect this to be the reality through the first quarter of next year."
Philanthropic organizations have an additional worry: America’s outpouring of generosity to September 11 funds means an additional shortfall of donations in a year already made tight by the looming recession. However, Natasha Kalteis, director of meetings and conventions for the Washington, D.C.–based General Federation of Women’s Clubs, believes her meetings will do just fine. "I expected a 10 percent dropoff for our meeting this fall," she says. She was pleasantly surprised to find her room block filled. And she expects to do well with her annual meeting as well: "People want to feel that they’re contributing to something larger than themselves since September 11, and our annual meeting, scheduled for June 2002 in Kansas City, Mo., will provide a way for them to do that."
Professional societies, whose meeting attendees comprises individual membership organizations, generally are taking less of a hit than many trade associations, where corporate members are dealing with financial difficulties of their own and exhibitors are reducing booth size and staff. "What’s happening on Wall Street will continue to be a good barometer for what’s happening with the meetings business," says DuBois.
Still, professional associations with a large international contingency are seeing a dropoff in overseas delegates. "I’ve heard of entire blocks of cancellations from different specific countries," says Olson. In addition to a reluctance to travel too far from home, some international attendees are finding it more difficult to get visas, and overseas exhibitors worry that customs slowdowns will prevent their materials from arriving in time for the show. But some of it may be due to a classic culture clash, according to Steven Hacker, president of the International Association of Exhibition Managers. "A CVB executive who had just returned from a mission in Japan said that the common corporate conclusion there was not to send people to the U.S. for the next 12 months to allow us appropriate time to mourn [the September 11 tragedies]. When they were assured that wasn’t necessary, they said they’d re-evaluate."
Some associations are making their attendance numbers, or even experiencing a higher attendance than they did a year ago. Lisa J. Mikita, CMP, assistant director, conferences and meetings, Association of Legal Administrators in Vernon Hills, Ill., thinks she’s one of the lucky ones. "Our numbers have been steadily increasing for our annual education conference each year, and we believe this trend will continue." It held true for her Northeast Regional Conference, which was held September 20 to 22 in Hershey, Pa. "Attendance was close to perfect for everyone that pre-registered. Instead of retreating, our members wanted to see each other face to face."
Other associations aren’t so fortunate. Michelle Reeder-Dauten, who plans meetings for the Investment Recovery Association, Mission, Kansas, says her November conference was down about 30 percent. IRA’s main membership core is based on the Fortune 1000, which means the meeting was impacted by corporate travel restrictions and holds on nonessential travel. "Education is considered nonessential travel, unfortunately," she says.
"It could have been worse," Reeder-Dauten continues. "We were down 50 percent when I walked out the door to go to the meeting. Those who came had a great time, and we had great support from our associate member companies. A lot had other shows cancel on them, and they were just pleased we were there."
She’s not alone. "We’re looking at 1989 attendance numbers with 2001 expenses," says Diane Watanabe, conference manager with Morristown, N.J.-based Financial Executives International of her November 2001 meeting, which at press time was experiencing a 24 percent drop in attendance.
Edina Lessack, CMP, Meetings & Events USA, Chicago, experienced both extremes during twoshe managed the week after the attacks in September. One was down 40 percent, but the other, a statewide meeting for social workers, had no slippage. She credits the large drive-in audience, and the fact that they offered continuing education credits for recertification, for that meeting’s success. Lisa Holt, director of meetings and conventions with Alexandria, Va.-based Society of Human Resource Management, also says her regional seminars are among the programs holding strong in the remainder of this year.
While the industry remains hopeful for a steady return to pre-September 11 levels in both the numbers of meetings held and attendance, the question of when that will happen is still up in the air. Most industry professionals surveyed for this article were counting on a comeback by the second quarter of 2002, but not everyone is optimistic about a quick rebound. "Every city is making the assumption thatwill be 10 to 20 percent higher than it was before September 11," says Tom Muldoon, president of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau. "My opinion is that it’s going to take two years, if nothing else happens, to build attendance numbers back up again at conventions and trade shows."