The specter of Hurricane Michelle, forecast to hit the Yucatan Peninsula on November 4, the opening day of the ICCA general assembly in Cancun, Mexico, barely fazed the conference attendees, who had weathered a much tougher storm since September 11.

"We never for one minute considered canceling the Congress," said Tuula Lindberg, ICCA president and managing director of the Helsinki-Finland Congress Bureau at a press conference during ICCA, The International Meetings Association, based in The Netherlands. The association is dominated by meeting suppliers based in 76 countries, mainly convention bureaus, convention centers, airlines, and PCOs (professional congress organizers), who were reeling from event cancellations since 9/11. In addition, ICCA has a small advisory board of clients/meeting organizers who also attend the annual conference.

Initially projected by the Cancun Convention Bureau to attract 550 people, the 5th ICCA Congress & Exhibition, incorporating the 40th ICCA General Assembly, finished up with 387 attendees at the Melia Cancun. "It’s a demonstration of a commitment by our members," said Tom Hulton, CEO. "It was quite a task for people to get here."

ICCA’s volunteer education committee, again, spread all over the world, quickly went into action after 9/11 to revamp the conference’s educational offerings in the wake of the tragedy and its global affects on travel and meetings. "We had to address the current crisis, even though the future is so uncertain," said Hulton. "ICCA is taking it extremely seriously in cooperation with our other industry organizations. We need to create a direction for the future, we need to be prepared."

Wake-Up Call
How did ICCA, with seven categories of membership and chapters located all over the world, use its conference to create an action plan for responding to 9/11?

First, it held an open forum about the crisis, moderated by Elizabeth Rich, manager, Business Events Council of Australia, who gave the attendees a wake-up call: "This industry is in danger of becoming a 20th century phenomenon in a 21st century technology age. The heart of the meetings industry is about communication, not tourism," she said. "We are in the communications industry first and foremost, and the implications of technology on face-to-face meetings are huge. How many of us are focused on meetings’ ROI and its communication success? It’s our job to help our clients figure out what is best done face to face and what can be done remotely."

Rich said that the meetings industry had been headed for more remote meetings even before 9/11, and that those events had merely sped up the use of technology as a communications option.

Each chapter was then asked how 9/11 had affected its region of the world. Ranging from quotes of "25 percent occupancy in some of London’s finest hotels," to South Africa being "the flavor of the month—it’s actually now considered to be safe," the attendees got a fairly good picture of how the U.S. tragedy had affected convention centers, hotels, and destinations all over the world.

The head of operational planning and monitoring of the South African Police Service, Pretoria, who had overseen law enforcement during that country’s most violent days, spoke about security and contingency planning surrounding large events.

He reiterated that is the city, facility, and the organizers’ responsibility to keep people safe at events.

Rich wrapped up the session by recommending that ICCA approach the United Nations, which is celebrating "The UN Year of Dialogue among Civilizations." "Maybe they would support a campaign of face to face meetings," she said.

The next morning interested members gathered at roundtables to create an action plan for ICCA and how it could best help its members.

Among the points discussed: ICCA needs to provide operational procedures for security for events, offer contract management advice, give advice on national tactics such as lobbying, set up task forces on specific subject areas, create linkages with other industry associations and organizations, help avoid overlap in the industry, communicate what others are doing, create forums for industry discussions, and create high-level linkages to airlines and hotels, link each other to global recovery strategies.