Riding the wave of national prosperity, association meetings and trade shows continue a four-year growth pattern, according to the results of Association Meetings' annual trend report. Attendance at 1998 meetings and trade shows increased for 60 percent of our respondents, up from 48.5 percent reporting an increase at their 1997 events in last year's survey. A majority of respondents also indicated increases in 1998 meeting budgets, expenditures, and revenues. (See charts on opposite page.) Some icing on the cake: 58 percent of respondents with trade shows said exhibit sales had risen last year, while only eight percent indicated a decrease.

As the cost of putting on association events rises, however, so does the cost of attending them. Slightly more than half of respondents indicated that registration fees had risen last year, while 36 percent indicated that these fees were the fastest growing revenue source associated with the annual meeting. Sponsorship revenue was the fastest growing revenue source for a slightly smaller percentage of respondents this year.

Perhaps not surprisingly, then, keeping registration fees affordable ranked as the number one concern for the majority of respondents this year. "Our registration fee has nearly doubled in three years, and we feel we've reached the ceiling of what we can charge attendees--but not what we will be charged in rising costs to put on the meeting," commented one association CEO.

The fastest growing cost item associated with the annual meeting was meeting room rental fees, according to 24.5 percent of respondents, with audiovisual fees and convention center rental costs placing second and third, respectively.

The outsourcing trend evidenced in the last two Association Meetings' trend reports continues, with 36 percent of the sample this year outsourcing housing, 32 percent registration, 20 percent trade show management, 15 percent marketing and promotion, and 13 percent site selection.

A new question this year: We asked planners using site selection companies whether their vendors had a preferred relationship with a hotel or hotel companies. Forty-four percent said that they did not, while 36 percent admitted they were not sure if such a relationship existed, and 20 percent said their vendors did.

Another new question this year asked whether the association's trade show is owned by the association: 61 percent said yes, six percent no, and 33 percent said the question did not apply. In light of the trade show acquisition trend led by for-profit companies, it will be interesting to see if these percentages change much in next year's survey.

Issues of Major Concern: Affordability As noted above, the area that was of greatest concern to 66 percent of respondents was keeping registration fees affordable. Negotiating fair contracts with facilities ranked a very close second. Creating more revenue sources at meetings and at trade shows, dealing with hotel attrition clauses, and getting preferred dates and facilities were also noted as top concerns, as in last year's survey results.

However, doing more with the same or fewer staff moved up from a seventh place last year to third place this year. At the bottom of the scale were concerns regarding building international participation at meetings and trade shows, declining exhibitor and attendee numbers due to corporate mergers, being able to book small meetings, and keeping exhibitor costs affordable.

In the commentary section on the issues portion of the survey, many respondents said that the industry needs to put more focus on establishing norms for fair attrition clauses and for hotel contracts in general. "We are repeatedly battling multiple attrition clauses--on sleeping rooms, food and beverage, and meeting rooms-- that are very unreasonable," wrote one meeting manager. "It's getting ridiculous."

The most popular tactic for managing rising costs at meetings was to increase sponsorship dollars, followed by pumping up registration fees, finding less expensive venues to hold meetings, and cutting back on food and beverage functions at meetings. Only 14 percent said they would use more videoconferencing instead of live meetings as a cost-cutting method. These results are all consistent with last year's findings.

And so is this: 62.5 percent of respondents said that hotel companies were taking unfair advantage of association meeting business during the current seller's market.

Last year's most frequently cited preferredsecond-tier meetings destination among respondents was Albuquerque, N.M. The most popular choice this year was Denver, Colo., with Albuquerque; Portland, Ore.; San Antonio; San Diego; and Seattle placing just behind that city. Other strong contenders in this year's survey were Tampa, Fla.; Nashville; Minneapolis; Milwaukee, Jacksonville, Fla.; and Kansas City, Mo.

Regarding housing management, slightly more than half of respondents indicated that hotels should pay any housing fees associated with the meeting--up three percent from last year's survey. Moreover, a resounding 95 percent of respondents said they would be willing to support the industry effort to standardize contract language, meeting terminology, requests for proposals, banquet event order forms, housing management, and meeting profiles. That is good news for the initiative now being led by the Convention Liaison Council to come up with "accepted practices" for the industry in these areas.

Another new question this year asked whether respondents use their own contracts with hotels: 29 percent said yes. Moreover, 17 percent said they routinely refuse to sign hotel attrition clauses, and 63 percent felt that hotel companies should offer an association some kind of incentive when the group picks up more room nights or more food and beverage than originally committed to in their hotel contracts.

Technology Issues: Controlling Costs This year we asked how many respondents have integrated databases that automatically link membership data and meeting registration information. A surprising 78 percent said that they did--surprising because traditionally data sharing between meetings and membership departments was difficult, as the two operated on entirely separate computer systems. Integrated systems automatically update membership information, such as a change of address, when registration information is keyed in, and they allow the association to develop sophisticated marketing profiles of members and exhibitors.

Consistent with last year's findings: More than 70 percent of respondents use the Web to research and help plan meetings, and 58.8 percent said that attendees could register for the meeting via the Internet. Fifty-two percent said they regularly use e-mail to communicate with hotel partners--up from 37 percent last year. Also up is the percentage that use listservs and those that say attendees are able to use the Internet to book hotel rooms--both up from 18 percent last year. (See chart, page 44.)

For the first time, we asked how many readers had electronic commerce capabilities for members and/or exhibitors, and a strong 20 percent checked off "yes." No doubt this percentage will climb dramatically over the next few years as more and more associations follow businesses into the world of e-commerce.

As in last year's survey, this year's biggest technology challenge for respondents related to various types of cost concerns, including the exploding cost of audiovisual rentals (especially LCD projectors). One association management company commented: "The client never anticipates such costly AV, and they also wind up having to hire technical support, which blows the budget. Setup time is increasing as [the use of] AV technology does, and there is a need to block an extra half day and pay for it simply for AV setups and rehearsals."

Other major areas of frustration revolved around members who do not have access to computers and the Web, and around hotels that a) do not provide meeting rooms equipped even with a phone line, and b) have to rekey rooming lists and banquet event orders, which then have to be checked by association staff for errors.

Of those respondents using the Web, many felt they were at the crossroads of whether to look at technology services as a revenue source or as a cost of doing business.

When asked which type of software is used for meeting planning, 34 percent checked off custom/proprietary software, 28 percent said they use MS Access, 15 percent use PC Nametag, 13.2 percent use Filemaker Pro--similar percentages to last year's responses. Only four percent said they use PlanSoft.

Salaries: Mixed Results First the good news: In this year's sample of respondents, there was close salary parity between male and female chief paid executives/CEOs of associations. But the overall median salary--for both sexes was $63,000, lower than last year's overall median figure of $74,950 for CEOs. (The median is the midpoint of the range of salaries reported, a more accurate reflection than the mean or average salary.)

Median 1998 Salaries No doubt the declining median salary has to do with the smaller number of male CEOs (30 percent) in this year's survey compared to last year's (70 percent).

Male meetings directors and managers earned a higher median salary than their female counterparts by $13,000. This also varies from last year's findings in which there was more parity between males and females in this category, although the median salary overall in this category is about the same as last year. The number of males in this category in this year's survey was about the same.

As in last year's survey, the salary differential between males and females is most dramatic in the category of exposition directors and managers: last year there was a $23,000 difference in median salaries between males and females in this category. This year the difference was $31,000, but the data is again skewed since we had a very small sample size in this category.

New this year: We compared salaries of males and females with years of experience. In every category (02 years, 3-5 years, 69 years, 1012 years, and 12+) the males earned $12,000 to $14,000 more in median salaries than females--except for those with 12 or more years of experience. In this category, females earned a median salary of $66,000 compared to $60,000 of males. For women association executives, it may pay to hang in there.

Survey Methodology For the second year in a row, we used e-mail instead of "snail mail" to conduct our survey. This year, however, we e-mailed the 32-question survey to a cross-section of 1,190 readers from the magazine's circulation list. (Last year our base list was just under 1,000 readers.) Respondents were able to hyperlink from our e-mail to a Web site where the survey was posted. We received 175 usable responses, a 14 percent response rate. Survey results were compiled by Research Results in Fitchburg, Mass.

Respondents were offered a chance to enter a contest to win a piece of leather luggage (retail $500). A winner will be picked at random from those who submitted their names; the winner will be announced in the August issue of this magazine. To all those who took the time to respond, many thanks for your contribution.