As companies shed their on-staff planners and outsource their meetings to travel agencies who are relatively new to this part of the business, planners warn that the quality of meetings could suffer.

"An agency outstanding in handling vacations won't necessarily be able to handle meetings," says Christine Duffy, president and COO at Philadelphia-based travel management firm McGettigan Partners. A meetings specialist for 20 years, Duffy says that her company, which does $1 billion annually in group sales, has made a "huge investment in technology to manage meetings"--an infrastructure the average-sized agency can't possibly match.

On the other hand, travel agencies say their general knowledge and experience in booking air gives them an edge over the meeting planner. For example, at the Princeton Travel Center, a Connecticut agency that has expanded into meetings due to the demands of its corporate clients, corporate account manager Denise Wallace has been working on her CMP certification through the training program at Meeting Professionals International for the past two years. Meetings now account for approximately 25 percent of the firm's $7 to $10 million in annual sales, and Wallace said her agency's ability to negotiate with airlines as well as the hotels give it an edge. "I have insight into the travel industry, and I'm amazed at what meeting planners don't know," she says.

Indeed, while the controversy between some planners and agents may seem to indicate a growing rift, in actuality the essence of the trend may be the growing convergence of agencies and meeting planners. Rich Worldwide Travel, a Harrison, New York, agency doing $165 million in annual sales, has long used its specialty group travel department to take care of the air needs for corporate planners. It also has its own meeting department, which accounts for about 10 percent of overall business. (President Nathan E. Devore says he's able to do both because he never competes for the business of the corporate planners he works with.)

Precisely because meetings planning is so specialized, Devore hires planners-"people who've done it for large organizations"-to staff the division. Who's most valuable? "The meeting planner who knows Sabre."