It would be hard to find anyone who's traveled the career path of TYRA W. HILLIARD, Esq., CMP. Having moved from meeting planner to CVB staffer to hotel catering pro to lawyer to educator, Hilliard has a rare perspective on the industry. Now, she's combining her skills as a consultant and teacher in George Washington University's Department of Tourism & Hospitality Management while maintaining a Washington, D.C., law practice that represents associations, nonprofits, and independent meeting and event professionals.

Association Meetings How many legal issues come up in the world of meetings and events?

Hilliard: More than you would think. In fact, it was my experience as a meeting and conference planner and hotel catering manager that eventually drove me to law school. I realized that one of the biggest issues for meetings was contracts and liability. That was even before attrition and cancellation clauses were common and before we had so many monetary damages just for performance issues. There were a couple of attorneys specializing in the meetings industry back then, but not too many. I decided that was a niche that would be good for me, and, best case scenario, I would be able to help planners with the kinds of legal issues that I wished I had known more about when I was a planner.

AM: Looking back at 2008, airlines' reduced schedules and other woes have played havoc with meetings. From a legal perspective, can planners protect themselves?

Hilliard: When maintenance issues grounded the American Airlines MD-80 fleet in March, that created attrition situations for a lot of groups. People couldn't get to their meetings or couldn't get home from them. And with cutbacks, established routes to second-tier cities were suddenly no longer there, which created some interesting issues. The problem is that the law doesn't always look at that as a no-fault sort of thing. To some extent, this is a business risk that you take when you choose a destination for your meeting and your people book their airfare. Everybody wants a contract clause that will protect them like a suit of armor, but I don't think there is such a thing. But language has come out of some of those situations that's been applied in similar situations that can protect people, like making sure they negotiate strong attrition clauses.

AM: Do meeting planners need an attorney on hand to do that?

Hilliard: Well, there are times when you absolutely need a lawyer. Do you need a lawyer to review every single contract if you're a meeting planner? Probably not. But that being said, it's really a much more complex answer than that. I do know several experienced meeting planners who specialize in contract negotiations, and they certainly get the issues. The problem is people who say, “Wow, this has never happened to me,” or “I never thought about how airlines being grounded would play into my force majeure or attrition clause.”

I do have a problem when meeting planners want a one-size-fits-all clause they can drop into a contract and they think that it's going to protect them from and against everything. Even a lawyer can't draft that. If they did, it would be a 35-page clause.

AM: Do planners need to change the way they work in 2009 as a result of the economic downturn and the buyer's market?

Hilliard: I think they really do. Veteran meeting planners understand that the business is cyclical, and that in a buyer's market, they need to be prepared to ask for things they haven't been getting for the last couple of years. Hotels need to realize they're not going to get the rates that they were getting. And because of a high chance of cancellations, planners definitely should be looking at new strategies [to control the contractual risk] or even dusting off some old ones from the last buyer's market if they were around for that one a few years ago.

AM: Which is less stressful, being a meeting planner or being a lawyer?

Hilliard: To some extent, I'd say being a lawyer is less stressful. Although, honestly, what I consider myself to be now is more of a legal educator and not so much a lawyer who's practicing law. It's a little bit easier to tell people the letter of the law, explain to them the spirit of the law, but then they have to make the business decision.

New Home for APEX

The Convention Industry Council's Accepted Practices Exchange program (APEX) recently got a Web makeover. The new site, apexsolution.org, has an events calendar, testimonials, CIC facts, and a sign-up form for e-news updates. It also contains the APEX templates and panel reports, and allows planners to order APEX Powershop through the technology tab. (Visit meetingsnet.com's Education Central for a webinar on Powershop.) APEX also has two new commissioners: Teri Tonioli, CMP, senior vp, strategic account management, with Experient Inc., Twinsburg, Ohio; and Phil Cavanagh, who heads up the events team at office supply giant Staples.