As meeting planning has gotten more complex, so have the ethical issues facing the industry. Just ask Dobby Wall, director of meeting services for the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) in Alexandria, VA. As a former ethics committee member for both the American Society of Association Executives and the Professional Convention Management Association, Wall has grappled with some of the stickiest issues out there, most recently the issue of whether it is fair for associations to tack on fees to hotel room rates without disclosing them to attendees.
"Any time an association makes money from the attendee without the attendee knowing it, you have an ethical problem," she says. "Hotels are now insisting on disclosure because meeting planners haven't, and it's a shame on us." How's that for a stand?
On the other hand, Wall believes it is only fair that hotels and convention centers "reveal commissions they receive from vendors as a result of our meeting business," such as fees paid by food and beverage concessions to the convention center, or those paid by an audiovisual company to a hotel. "I'd like to see the whole exclusives situation taken on as an antitrust issue," Wall says, acknowledging that such an approach is unlikely.
There has been much clamor lately for industry associations to set standards or ethical guidelines for everything from facilityto the payment of third-party fees (to housing companies). But Wall cautions that strict standards can be dangerous. "You've got to allow for some flexibility, or you run the risk of providing inadequate customer service." But, she adds, "Certainly the industry should take a stand on what would be appropriate, especially regarding disclosure issues."
Team Success In an industry marked by frequent career moves, Wall seems to have found a comfortable home at the APTA. She joined the association in 1984 as exhibit manager, and was named director of meeting services in 1990. Her team is responsible for two national meetings a year, drawing from 4,000 to 7,000 participants, with 50 simultaneous educational sessions plus a 150,000- to 200,000-square-foot exposition.
Before signing up with the APTA, Wall was a senior meeting planner for Moshman Associates, a management consulting firm in Bethesda, MD, where she planned and coordinated the first White House Conference on Handicapped Individuals and a White House Conference for the Elderly. What was the change to the not-for-profit sector like?
"At the consulting company, there were a lot of Type-A personalities," Wall says. "It was a place that moved a lot of people through because they burned out. Coming to the association environment, where people have the time to foster relationships, was a great change."
One of the things she is most proud of is the team effort involved in putting on APTA events. "I think of our successful events as a team success, not an individual accomplishment." Perhaps the greatest team success she's had so far, in her view, was coordinating the World Confederation for Physical Therapy in 1995. Members bid to host the event, which is held every four years. The APTA won the bid in 1987, and by 1993, "I was working practically full-time on it," says Wall. The meeting drew about 10,000 people from 84 countries to Washington, DC, resulting in the largest exposition ever for that event.
When asked what she would identify as the biggest issue facing association planners today, Wall says it's much the same issue facing anyone in the business world: doing more with less in an age of higher expectations. "Technology has added to our workload. Things like fax and e-mail mean people expect faster turnaround. Although our workload has increased, we have not added to our staff. Another ten hours a day would help!"
Looking at the APTA meetings, Wall says that, like many healthcare groups, they are grappling with the massive structural changes brought on by managed health care. On the one hand, the group's February combined-sections meeting has seen an average attendance growth of ten percent a year. But attendance at the June annual meeting has been either stagnant or declining.
One reason, says Wall, is that members would prefer to travel within a 100- to 200-mile radius for their continuing education to minimize time away from their practices. Another is that in today's HMO-dominated environment, decisions are being made differently: "Administrators make the decision who will attend the meeting," Wall says. "Continuing education dollars are available to the department, not the individual."
Moreover, as healthcare companies have been bought up, the number of companies exhibiting at the June event is shrinking, or the companies are taking smaller space. Wall says that if the trend continues after this year's June meeting, the association will need to revisit the conference and exposition structure.
Relationships Are Key When she is able to squeeze in some relaxation time, Wall enjoys reading, playing tennis and golf, and being out with her husband on their boat, which they keep on Lake Anna in Fredericksburg, VA. What keeps her satisfied as a meeting planner are the relationships she's maintained.
"The more importance that we place on relationships--trusting one another, and partnering--then the more exceptional the experiences we have," Wall says. She believes this strategy is especially important in today's seller's market. "Relationships are what drive us, make it fun. They are why we continue to do what we do."