Between the meeting-related fallout from the war with Iraq and the growing threat of severe acute respiratory syndrome, times have never been tougher for the meeting business. But when the going gets tough, the tough get together to strengthen their community and find ways to combat the growing meeting malaise.

That was the case at the 17th Annual New England Meetings Industry Conference and Exposition, held April 2 at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston. More than 1,300 meeting and hospitality professionals came from around New England—and around the country—to build on the strength of their community and provide a united front against today’s threats to the industry. The 2002 NEMICE meeting attracted 1,174.

The increase pleased but did not surprise Beth Hamiroune, director of national accounts with Associated Luxury Hotels, Wellesley, Mass., and volunteer president of Meeting Professionals International’s New England Chapter, which hosted the meeting in conjunction with 11 other industry associations.

"Our platform for this year is ‘building our community together,’ she says. "When we work together, each challenge strengthens our community." Networking is especially important in today’s brutal climate, she adds. "When hotels are eliminating cancellation and attrition policies, they need to know and trust the planners they work with so they know that when a meeting is canceled, it’s for the right reasons, not just that they got a last-minute better deal somewhere else. Your credibility is the thing that will get you through the absolutely crazy negotiations taking place these days." And the more planners learn from their peers and hospitality partners, the more credibility they have with their employers, which is more important than ever now that so many planners are being laid off.

Hamiroune says that this year’s program was a back-to-basics one for just that reason. Sessions focused on topics such as "Maximizing Your Meeting Dollars" and "Ten Tips for Avoiding Litigation," evergreen essentials which are on the front burner again these days. There also were several sessions that aimed to help planners through rough employment times, including "Managing Yourself While You Manage Crisis," "Marketing Yourself and Managing Your Career," and "The Road to Independence—Starting Your Own Business."

But at the luncheon, the community-building got literal with centerpieces donated by Providence, R.I.’s CVB: a big box of Tinkertoys. Each table was challenged to build the tallest, most stable structure we could right on the table. While it quickly became apparent there were no budding structural engineers at my table, we weren’t even aware of our jackets and ties dragging in the chicken as we struggled to figure out how to put the darn things together. (Where’s a five-year-old when you need one?) By the lunch’s end, 12-foot towers dipped and swayed over many tables, and the judges had their work cut out to choose the winner. After a live auction and a presentation from Sam Silverstein, president of Sam Silverstein Enterprises, on building dynamic relationships, everyone flocked to the more than 300 booths in the expo hall.

Despite almost universal acknowledgement that business was down, spirits were amazingly high among the planners and suppliers. Hamiroune credits the resilience and dedication of both the NEMICE volunteer staff and the participants: "I can’t believe how much of their souls they give to their work," she says.

The NEMICE program has become so successful, Hamiroune adds, that MPI is considering beginning similar regional programs in other parts of the country.