When a group of convention professionals talks about what keeps them up at night it's bound to be a conversation that takes a lot twists and turns. That's what we found when we gathered eight industry veterans for a discussion this summer in Boston during the annual meeting of ASAE and the Center for Association Leadership.

Themes ranged from the declining value of personal relationships in buyer-seller negotiations to the strain and drain of trying to do more with less. But most of all, the group wanted to focus on the big-picture issues facing the meetings industry. What's going to happen when the baby boomers of our industry retire? And what kind of future is ahead for face-to-face meetings? Following is a condensed version of our discussion, edited for length and clarity.

Dale Silverman: What keeps me up at night more than anything else is the disappearing relationship between hotels and us. They have such pressures put on them by corporate and legal. We end up spending so much time on contract clauses to cover all the what-ifs that hopefully will never happen instead of concentrating on making the best event.

A. Renée Battle:: My organization has told me that I cannot sign any more attrition clauses, and, of course, the hotels say we have to. We're coming to compromise, and all of this takes up much more of my time. Another thing that keeps me up is trying to do more with less at our meetings. Nobody wants peanuts any more. I have to meet our budget parameters. I am responsible for 30 percent of our total income. That's a lot of pressure.

Lauren Kramer-Whelan: As a medical association, we have pharma regulations to comply with. For our annual meeting in a few weeks, we have yet to get — despite our best efforts — disclaimers or disclosures from 344 physicians. Without them, physicians can't speak at our meeting. I don't think I can overstate how much of a concern this area is for us. Beyond that, hiring and training staff is another issue.

Jonathan Howe: I guess what keeps me up is worrying that meeting planners and hoteliers don't have anything that keeps them up at night!

Kramer-Whelan: He sleeps very well! [Laughter around the table.]

Howe: Well, I would agree with Dale and Renée. We're not going back to the good old days of doing business on the back of a cocktail napkin. Contracts are getting bigger and bigger because without a contract you have no rights or responsibilities, so a contract has to cover all the avenues out there. And we've added new layers of relationships in the negotiation process — revenue managers and procurement people — and that makes the process more difficult.

Joan Eisenstodt: I have to say first that I am fascinated, dumbfounded, and angry that we are still doing meetings the same way we did 35 years ago. Meetings still look and feel exactly the same. Regarding contracts, in my opinion our industry is finally getting smarter — in the past we truly didn't manage the contractual piece of what we did. But a lot of what we're doing now as a company is what I would call “crisis contract management,” and part of that is renegotiating a contract because a property changes flags or ownership. And this speaks to the relationship issue. I can maintain great relationships but not necessarily with hotel ownership companies, which is where a lot of decisions are coming from. I think we are seeing a sea change because hotel owners are increasingly calling the shots.

Victoria Smith: My biggest concern has to do with resources and internal staffing. I worry about being able to deliver a good meeting experience. And since 9/11, our meetings have been shrinking, so retaining members is another issue.

Amy Phillips: We too are grappling with pharma codes. Among other things, [pharma] companies can't fund social events, so our challenge is to create new nondues revenue sources. Another concern: How can our association compete with specialized education meetings? Also, how do we build a meeting planning staff committed to mission of the association? Hiring staff that doesn't have an interest in why we are planning the meeting is not something I want to do.

Brad Weaber: Our company is undergoing tremendous change, a reorganization bringing three businesses together to provide a full-service, integrated solution — a very big task, and very exciting. Looking outside our company, what keeps me up at night is what keeps my clients up. I love talking to CEOs and executive directors. What I hear are questions like, “How can we find and engage younger members?” And interestingly, “How can we find a way to lower the amount of [operating] revenue derived from meetings?”

Silverman: That's because 10 years ago nobody thought that a meeting could just not happen. But in today's environment, it's very possible your major funding source could just be canceled.

Weaber: I also think we have to be forward-thinking in looking at the future of bringing people together. Will it be strictly about face-to-face meetings, or are there other more efficient ways of bringing people together to drive business?

Regina McGee: Let's circle back to that question because it's a big one. Now that we've heard everyone's concerns, let's focus first on what seems to be one theme — staffing issues. Amy, why is it tough to find staff interested in the mission of the association? Is this something new?

Phillips: I think it's a reflection of a new expectation of our industry — that meeting professionals are not interested in just logistics. If you want a seat at the leadership table, you better take an interest in the organization for which you work. I don't want to be seen as a meeting planner. I am an association executive, and it's important for my staff to see that. [See sidebar, page 16.]

Smith: I think a lot of young people are impatient. They want to be a manager right away…. I am really trying my hardest to take the time to help staff do a better job, to get them to take ownership of what they do, so we don't have to micromanage them.

Silverman: On the other hand, our staffing issue is that we can't find people in their early careers to groom for senior positions. There seem to be a lot of entry-level candidates or very senior people looking to spend just a few more years working. I think it's because there is a shrinking demographic behind the baby boomers.

Weaber: Some 40 percent of senior-level executives in our industry are going to retire in the next five to seven years. I think that is amazing information. This is going to force change in our industry, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Change creates opportunity. We have to be thought leaders. We have a responsibility to grow this industry. What do we need to do to encourage the next generation?

Eisenstodt: I agree. There are so many new people in meeting planning and hotel sales, and they are not getting the training on the history of the industry, including that it's about building relationships. I think time starvation is part of the issue. We're all too busy to even go out to dinner together, let alone go to committee meetings. We've lost some of the cohesiveness that has always been a part of this business.

Kramer-Whelan: It's such a different world now. The expectation is that you are always “on.” We're doing everything through screens. I'd like to throw my BlackBerry under the bed! Meanwhile, industry icons like Bill Peeper [president of the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau. See article, page 20] and John Marks [former president and chief executive officer of the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau] are retiring. And as a new generation comes up, I think many are developing a lot of bad habits. I am not sure they have gotten Meeting Planning 101 down. And it's partially our fault because we are not out there enough [helping to train them].

Weaber: I really think it's exciting that we're about to make this huge demographic transition. But I am shocked at how little thought has been given to how life will look for us seven to 10 years from now, how we will be doing business.

McGee: How do you think we will be doing business?

Weaber: I've seen some things that Microsoft is working on, and I can't be too specific because I have a confidentiality agreement, but let's say it's a little like science fiction. It's holographic, and I think it's going to change the way business travel is done.

Phillips: I am fascinated, Brad, about what kind of investment organizations would need to put into that kind of technology for it to replace meetings.

McGee: Yes, We've heard before how new technology was going to do away with face-to-face meetings. Is this something that is a decade or more on the horizon?

Weaber: This is something we're going to see in less than five years. Corporations will be the leaders in changing the way business travel is done. Procurement is looking for extreme ROI and they are looking for technology to provide a solution….I think we are going to see people coming together regionally in pockets, but not coming together in mega-events.

Eisenstodt: Corbin Ball has written a lot about how the cost of technology alternatives to face-to-face meetings is coming down.…I think 9/11 did a lot as far as companies weighing the costs and benefits of business travel. Also, what's happening to airlines is a big factor. We're talking now about the survival of the legacy carriers at this point. But even with all these things on the horizon, nothing has really changed. We aren't doing meetings differently. We've got to shake up this industry! Associations in particular are reluctant to change. They need to at least take baby steps.

What's Up with Blue Ocean Buzz?

Several times in our roundtable conversation, participants referred to Blue Ocean Strategy. “What the heck is that?,” I wondered, not for the first time. I had heard Blue Ocean Strategy cited as a driving factor behind the reorganization of Meeting Professionals International earlier this year. Obviously, it was time for me to get to the bottom of this ocean.

When Googled, the term yield more than 8 million hits. Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make Competition Irrelevant, by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne, was published by Harvard Business School Press last year and has since become an international best seller — and a new guiding light for seemingly everyone from football coaches to Nintendo game makers.

The gist of the book's premise: There are a lot of red oceans out there. These are the bloody waters where competitors fight it out for market share. As the waters get more crowded, chances for growth and profit are reduced. Blue oceans, on the other hand, are new, untapped market spaces. Organizations will always need to be able to fight it out in the red seas, but if they are to seize new profit and growth opportunities, they've got to be able to find/create blue ocean space.

The trouble is red-ocean strategy has predominated in the business world for decades, say business pundits, so there aren't a lot of practical guidelines for finding or creating blue ocean space and for managing the associated risks. That is, until Blue Ocean Strategy. The authors hit blue waters when they published this book.
Regina McGee

2006 Roundtable Participants

A. Renée Battle, CMP

Director, Meetings and Conventions,
American Public Transportation Association
Washington, D.C.

Joan Eisenstodt

Chief Strategist,
Eisenstodt Associates, LLC
Washington, D.C.

Jonathan Howe, Esq.

Founding Partner and President,
Howe & Hutton Ltd.
Chicago, Ill.

Amy L. Phillips

Director, Meetings and Industry Relations,
American Academy of Physician Assistants
Alexandria, Va.

Dale Karen Silverman, CAE, SPHR

Executive Vice President,
Association of Woodworking & Furnishings Suppliers
Commerce, Calif.

Victoria Smith

Director, Conference Development,
American Council of Life Insurers
Washington, D.C.

Lauren Kramer-Whelan, CMP

Director of Meetings,
American Academy of Otolaryngology — Head and Neck Surgery Foundation
Alexandria, Va.

Brad Weaber, CMP

Executive Vice President & Chief Customer Officer,
Experient Inc. (formerly Conferon)
Arlington, Va.

Be a Big-Picture Planner

Regina McGee: There's been so much rhetoric in recent years about how meeting planners need to be strategic players. Is there really a strategic role for planners, or is meeting planning fundamentally about logistics?

[Chorus of “No's!” from around the room]

Lauren Kramer-Whelan: I do think there is strategic role to play. I am moving into a development role and that's a logical way to go and a very strategic role. It depends on how you play it.

Amy Phillips: A planner who skips a board meeting is totally behind on the issues. You have to have a seat at that table.

A. Renée Battle: When I go to a board meeting the board is asking me questions like what to do about professional development.…They are not asking me to serve them coffee.

Jonathan Howe: Not to bash the CMP exam, but that's all about counting coffee cups and knowing formulas. We need to teach strategic thinking.

Dale Silverman: I think it's very interesting that people who are responsible for so much revenue generation often aren't given respect within the association.

Joan Eisenstodt: The association world tends to be very stuck.…People get too boxed in by labels. Really, everyone should have a strategic role, everyone should be looking at the bigger picture.

Back to October 2006 Issue