FutureWatch, the four-year-old flagship survey of Meeting Professionals International, released its 2006 results last week, offering a wide-angle snapshot of the trends influencing meetings and meeting planners.

Among the take-aways from the broad-ranging study, commissioned in partnership with American Express, is that meeting planners are bracing for a challenging year ahead. Three out of four “client-side planners” (and an even greater percentage of suppliers) predict rising hotel rates, and only 22 percent expect improvements in supplier concessions or flexibility in attrition or cancellation clauses. Beyond that, “workload” is cited as the No. 1 internal/organization trend affecting these planners, followed by “organizational budget changes” then “shifting organizational goals/strategies.”

Of course, not everyone comes at the industry from the same perspective.Short lead times is the trend most affecting the meeting “intermediaries” who responded to the survey. We learn this because, for the first time, instead of lumping respondents into two categories--planners and suppliers--MPI broke out the type of respondents even further. This year’s survey results include cross-tabulations from “client-side planners” (corporate, association, government/nonprofit), “intermediaries” (independent planners, third-party planners, destination management companies, association management companies), and “suppliers” (hotels, convention centers, production companies, etc.).

Several indicators point toward growth in the meeting industry in 2006. Client-side planners and intermediaries expect the total number of meetings to increase over 2005 by 7 percent and 21 percent, respectively. Suppliers agree, predicting a 10 percent bump in the number of meetings they host. MPI also found that planners anticipate average expenditure per meeting to rise by 7 percent in 2006, with intermediaries expecting a 14 percent jump.

It follows that many respondents see meeting expenditures taking a larger percentage of their organization’s total budget next year. While half the respondents thought meeting costs would remain flat as a percentage of the overall budget, a full 42 percent of client-side planners saw meetings using a larger portion of the pie. When asked to rank the environmental trends affecting their jobs and the industry, client-side planners clearly saw dollar signs: Travel costs, the economy, and the cost of oil and gas came in first, second, and third, respectively.

In addition to examining the indicators of the meeting industry’s overall health and growth, the FutureWatch study also queried planners about meeting management at their organizations. A few key points:

  • Almost one in four U.S. client-side planners report that their organizations have “fully implemented” a meeting management consolidation process, such as adopting preferred-supplier programs or new technologies to help standardize purchasing. However, 33 percent say they have “not considered” such a program.
  • On average, corporate respondents outsourced 10 percent of their meeting business to intermediaries in 2005 (as a percentage of total spend). In 2006, they anticipate that to increase to 11 percent.
  • Association respondents outsourced just 3 percent of meeting business to intermediaries in 2005, but expect that to rise to 5 percent in 2006.
  • More than two in five intermediaries (42 percent) say their main contact at a client organization is the meeting department, while 10 percent say it’s procurement, 35 percent say it’s the department that owns the meeting, and 12 percent have other contacts.
  • A quarter of the intermediaries and 11 percent of suppliers report that more than half the time meeting clients require them to be a preferred supplier.
  • The typical lead time for booking hotel and support services is expected to jump from 23 weeks in 2005 to 31 weeks in 2006. For meeting space, respondents predict booking 40 weeks in advance this year versus 29 weeks in 2005.

MPI’s FutureWatch survey can be reviewed in full at the MPI Web site, with more on planner/supplier partnerships and the role of meeting professionals in the buying process and organizational strategy. Data is based on 1,268 responses, a healthy 7.5 percent response rate, but not as strong as the past two years