The meetings industry’s need for a reputation management plan became all too apparent in 2008 when insurance giant AIG was excoriated in the press and the public eye for what was deemed to be lavish spending on a recognition event after the company received an $85 billion loan from the federal government. But it didn’t end there. Just this spring scandal broke out anew as the Government Services Administration was caught indulging in some flagrant spending misadventures at its 2010 Western Regions Conference near Las Vegas.

Meeting Professionals International members had expressed their concern to MPI leadership that they didn’t think enough was being done to make sure the industry is ready to fight back should such issues arise again.

In response, MPI held a panel discussion on meetings industry advocacy at its World Education Congress, which attracted around 2,200 people to St. Louis in late July. The panel, which was moderated by Anthony Del Gaudio, senior vice president of hotel sales with Loews Hotels, also included Kevin Hinton, executive vice president of Associated Luxury Hotels International and chairman for MPI’s 2012–2013 international board of directors; Christine Duffy, president and CEO of the Cruise Lines International Association; Michael Massari, senior vice president at Caesars Entertainment Corporation; and Roger Rickard, partner at Revent, LLC, founder of Voices in Advocacy, and author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective Advocates.
 
It’s Not Just a National Issue
Del Gaudio began by pointing out that people may think this is being handled by the national associations like MPI and the U.S. Travel Association. Why should this be a problem for individual meeting professionals, their organizations, and their local chapters?
 
As Massari pointed out, the effects can definitely be felt locally. When President Obama put down Las Vegas in February 2009 by saying, “You can’t go take a trip to Las Vegas or go down to the Super Bowl on the taxpayers’ dime,” Massari said, “We got $15 million in cancellations the next day.” So what do you do when the President says not to meet in Vegas? “We realized we had to get engaged, had to get involved,” Massari said.
 
Rickard said that while it’s important for national organizations to advocate for the industry, all politics are local, and so involvement also has to be on the local level, be it on a chapter or even individual basis. Massari added that individuals and chapters know the local scene, including the local economic impact of the meetings business in general, and that of their own organizations. Who better to provide that information to local politicians, who can then begin to move that intelligence up to the state and national levels. And, he said, mayors are more likely to listen to their local constituents than anyone in Washington. “It’s our obligation to have these conversations with our own local politicians.” Invite them to chapter meetings, invite them to your own meetings so they can see the value in action, Rickard said.
 
He added that the most effective way to get a politician’s attention is to send a handwritten note that explains who you are and what you represent, why the issue is important to you and your organization, and what the politician can do to help. The average member of Congress gets 40 million e-mails a year, he said, but only a handful of handwritten notes, so those get noticed.
 
A Canadian in the audience brought up something her MPI chapter did that Rickard said was a tactically brilliant move. As part of Canadian National Meetings Industry Day a gift is given to someone who is not in the industry but who has had an impact on the meetings industry. The Calgary chapter gave an award to the mayor of Calgary, who came trailing radio, TV, and newspaper staff to report on what meetings does for that city.
 
Rickard pointed out that, while it’s important to work on the local level, there also are a lot of other stakeholder groups that meeting professionals can partner with to build these relationships. “We don’t have to build it alone,” he said. Duffy agreed, saying, “There are lots of other industries who do this work very well” from which meeting professionals can learn a lot about proactive reputation management.
 
Hinton said MPI has created a grassroots communications task force to develop crisis-response talking points. The group will look at the work being done by other groups to aggregate and looking for the best way to package what’s already being done. The Chapter Business Summit meeting in September also will include a sharing of best practices from chapters that, like Calgary, are already achieving some success with their local relationship-building efforts. There also are some resources at the One Industry One Voice section of the MPI Web site, Hinton said.
 
Don’t Wait Until There’s a Crisis
Duffy said that one thing she has learned as she has navigated through crises including 9/11 and the AIG scandal is that you can’t wait until a crisis happens and expect politicians and the media to understand the meetings industry. As Rickard said, “You don’t want to build the bridge when the river’s already rising.” Instead, as Massari pointed out, build those essential relationships now, so when you need to call on that person, you have “relationship equity” to draw on.

Duffy added that it’s not just about people on the Hill: “We also need to build relationships with the media. With the 24/7 news cycle and the demands of social media, media need to know immediately where to go and who to call on,” she said. “We have to get ahead of that, and not just talk among ourselves and the trade media.” As Massari pointed out, “It’s easy to call meetings boondoggles.” The industry needs to work on the media bias toward negative news about meetings.
 
The need to have a media plan in place ahead of time was one thing Duffy learned first-hand after the cruise industry faced what she called its biggest crisis in 100 years in January with the wreck of the Costa Concordia in Italy. “In one week we had 669 million hits on Google—it was a global crisis,” she said. CLIA found it needed spokespeople outside of the cruise industry who hold positions of authority and could speak eloquently and effectively its behalf. She said CLIA now has identified 50 outside spokespeople who have been briefed on the issues and who are committed to working with the organization when there’s a crisis. “It costs money and time, and you have to be willing to support that. Think about who’s best to deliver messages on your behalf,” she said.
 
And stay committed to this as an ongoing effort, Duffy said. “Everyone’s ready to jump on the bandwagon when someone says something bad about the meetings industry, but we tend to have short memories. This takes commitment, it takes work every day. We can’t look for a quick win.”
 
Future Threats
There is no shortage of challenges going on right now, the panelists said. Among the examples are the restrictions on pharmaceutical meetings and new legislation that seeks to restrict government meetings and spending. Duffy added that the whole experience of travel is another area to focus on, because if travel becomes too onerous, it could lead to fewer meetings.
 
She cited as an example of progress the Brand USA initiative launched under the Travel Promotion Act to promote the U.S. as an international destination. While there has been progress in opening up the U.S. to some countries that have had visa waiver issues, there still are problems to deal with, said Rickard. As Massari said, “Many in Brazil have to travel 1,000 miles just to get a visa.”
 
With that said, the panelists agreed that the industry has made progress since 2008. In addition to improvements in the visa waiver program, Duffy pointed to President Obama moving from Vegas-bashing to saying travel is a great economic driver and job creator in the U.S. But there’s still a long way to go, said Rickard.
 
To get there, Massari said, “Engage. Activate. Get involved in this. Realize that it’s a part of your job, that it has a major impact on your business.”
 
Hinton added, “It’s not somebody else’s job, it’s ours. We have a lot of voices to contribute.” Del Gaudio urged the audience to speak to local corporations, local press, local politicians, and fellow employees. “Make sure you’re all saying the same thing about the value of this industry. Educate yourself on the economic impact of your business on your local economic community” so you’re prepared if you get that call.
 
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