The economic storm may be over, but there are many challenges on the horizon—from government regulations to air travel hassles—that the meetings industry needs to confront head on, said Christine Duffy, president, Cruise Lines Industry Association, during her keynote address at the 7th Annual Pharmaceutical Meeting Management Forum, held March 27–29 in Philadelphia. “A good offense is our best defense,” she said, citing the importance of continued vigilance and advocacy in the face of these challenges.

Perhaps the biggest concern right now is government regulation. “Government is going to play a bigger role in the lives of pharmaceutical meeting managers and travel professionals,” Duffy told the audience of more than 750 at the conference, which was co-sponsored by the Center for Business Intelligence and Medical Meetings magazine. Federal regulations, including the Physician Payment Sunshine Act, are going to require that meeting professionals create strict compliance guidelines. As other keynote presenters at PMMF stated, the penalty for noncompliance could be steep. It’s a job that at least one meeting planner at the conference said has literally kept her up at night thinking about how to carry out the requirement to report all payments made to physicians.

Another factor that could affect meetings is the potential for budget cuts. While the recession may be over, many municipalities, companies, and other organizations are still operating under price pressures. And the economic uncertainty is causing people to take longer to make decisions, including decisions about meetings. “We have to prove meetings are an essential activity that can’t be cut,” said Duffy.

The Convention Industry Council’s Economic Significance of the Meetings Industry Report, which says meetings generate $263 billion in spending and contribute more to the GDP than the auto industry, is a good tool for making the case for face-to-face meetings. “We need to do a better job of educating the public about what we do,” she said. “Public perception of what we do should be positive, not negative. We’re bigger than the auto industry, but we’re not asking for a bailout.”

The misconceptions about meetings go from the statehouse to Capitol Hill, she said, citing a recent report from the U.S. General Services Administration that concluded that the best way to save money and protect the environment was to curb travel and reduce the number of meetings government agencies hold. Duffy and other travel and meetings industry advocates discussed this when they met with members of President Obama’s staff; now the policy is being revisited. “If we are not paying attention, these things can get out of hand.”

The meetings industry has made great progress on the advocacy front since the economic meltdown of 2008 and the resulting “AIG effect,” said Duffy, Some of the successes include the passage of the Travel Promotion Act, the creation of the Corporation for Travel Promotion, and the aforementioned Economic Significance of Meetings study, among others.

Another tough challenge: The hassles of air transportation that can deter people from hopping on a plane to attend a meeting. Security issues, air delays, baggage fees, and other inconveniences have made people reluctant to travel, so the industry needs to advocate for changes there as well, she said. And it is, she said, citing the U.S. Travel Association’s recommendations for reducing air travel hassles. But the meetings industry must continue to drive the legislative agenda or it will be overlooked once again. “We have been operating in an invisible industry,” she said. “We have to take responsibility for that.

But it’s more than just external challenges like regulations, public perception, and travel hassles that meeting managers now face, she said: Meetings themselves must be more effective. It’s not enough to just deliver a message; now meeting professionals have to deliver an engaging customer experience. “Time and attention are the new currency,” Duffy said. “When we bring people to conferences like this, it had better be good.”

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