Through the years, Allen Konopacki, a well-respected trade show consultant and convention industry researcher, has seen the industry rebound from recessions and depressions, hurricanes and earthquakes, even wars. Meetingsnet recently had the opportunity to get his perspective about the impact of 9-11.

Meetingsnet: Do you believe the meeting and hospitality industries will bounce back from the terrorist attacks of 9-11, and if so, when?

Konopacki: We’re beginning to see the pendulum swing already. People who I had been talking to a week ago said we couldn’t possibly go to a convention. Today and yesterday, many of these people are beginning to think about getting back on track.

The PRINT 2001 show was in the fifth day of an eight-day exposition in Chicago at the time the terrorist action took place. The show went to silence, as you would expect, similar to what we saw at the time of Desert Storm. But the next day, business continued. Not at the same level, but it continued. And not in the same way, not writing orders, but discussions that were at a very different level than might have taken place before. People creating business relationships.

Q: Are you saying this will bring people closer together?

A: Absolutely. This is a time when people need to bond together—and that’s what a convention does, bring people together. We want to talk about how this is going to impact our business, and you can’t do that via the Internet or through videoconferencing as well as you can by being together.

Q: We have never been through this kind of tragedy before.

A: You’re right. This is a first-time experience for a lot of people. Think about it: 44 percent of people today are too young to remember the assassination of President Kennedy; 86 don’t remember the stock market crash of the 20s; 68 percent have no recollection of World War 2.

We first have to overcome the psychological burden of understanding, of learning how to cope with it. This is the first time we’ve gone through this, and we don’t know what to do. People are afraid of flying, but they have to realize that the system as it was did work. The weapons used just weren’t considered weapons then. Now they are. There’s a whole new set of security now. Terrorists may have changed our security at airports, but we still have to fly.

It’s like the MGM Hotel fire in Las Vegas. What came out of tthat was better fire safety guards. People still stay on upper level floors, and now they’re safer doing that than they were before.

If you look at other parts of the world, most notably Israel, and look at how other countries have gone through this experience, how do they exist? Israel doesn’t shut down the government. Iraq, Iran, they don’t shut down. They continue to fly, to conduct business, they continue to put value into their lives as they dig through the rubble.

This is a world event—people are going to remember where they were. Now we have to put things in perspective, and the perspective is that yes, this is impacting all of us, but it doesn’t mean we’ll no longer exist.

Q: What about the impact on trade shows, which has been significant?

A: The loss to the industry, I’d guestimate, was somewhere in the range of $1.5 billion, based on annual dollars the convention industry generates.

When I take a look at why shows have cancelled, it was mostly driven by exhibitors. One exhibitor would cancel, then another would cancel just because the other guy cancelled, not for any reason of their own. There was a snowball effect. When you have your three, four, or five biggest exhibitors cancel, the integrity of the show has changed. These large companies cancelled because of what other exhibitors were doing. What they don’t realize is that fewer people at the exhibition just means they’ll have perhaps a few less browsers. The ones who do come will be the serious buyers.

But you have to look at what attendees of major meetings are saying: Don’t cancel, postpone and reschedule. They’re saying: The meetings may be smaller, but the meetings will be more important.

Q: How can the hospitality industry help itself?

A: The Hiltons, Hyatts, and Sheratons need to be proactive, not reactive. They need to say that in light of world events, they’re having a very liberal policy on cancellations for several weeks—but President Bush has said we need to get back to business as usual, and that’s what they’re gong to be doing. And they hope that their customers’ business will be able to do the same as soon as possible.

Allen Konopacki is president of the INCOMM Center for Research and Sales Training in Chicago. He has consulted for almost 400 Fortune 500 companies, including General Motors, Microsoft, Shell Oil, and Whirlpool. He can be reached at (312) 642-9377, or through his Web site www.tradeshowresearch.com.