In early March, a New York Times article proclaimed that “Incentive Travel Has Returned.” I wanted to believe it, and the photo of one of the featured incentive winners and his wife on the beach in St. Barts was lovely.

But the reality was that the story was almost surely pitched by one of the incentive house giants interviewed, and all of the people interviewed (other than the CEO of the company that held the trip) have much to gain from this “trend.” Declared the president of one incentive house quoted in the story: “The burn-at-the-stake attitude toward incentive travel is gone.”

Well, we might not be running for our lives any more, but we’re not going back to the same place, either. Many companies that are continuing their travel programs face tighter budgets. In fact, in our January Incentive Trends Survey (done in conjunction with the Incentive Research Foundation and online at meetingsnet.com), we found that more than a third of respondents (38 percent) will avoid five-star properties this year (up from 23 percent last year), and 21 percent will avoid using resorts or resort destinations (up from 11 percent last year). And 31 percent will move from an international location to a domestic one to cut costs—so St. Barts is not for everyone.

Even worse, world events of early 2011 could have a huge impact on the turnaround we’ve all been anticipating. As I write this column, my heart is heavy for the Japanese people after the March 8 earthquake and tsunami—and the horrendous nuclear catastrophe. The devastation from this tragedy is incomprehensible, and there’s no question that its effects will be felt worldwide.

Then there’s the ever-increasing turmoil in the Middle East and the resulting climb in gas prices, which will surely slow the U.S. recovery. Columnist Mitchell Beer declared that “Peak Oil” (the theoretical point of maximum global petroleum extraction) is happening right now.

OK, enough, you say. Time for some positive news. It comes in the form of the Convention Industry Council’s just-released Economic Significance Study, which shows the critical importance of the meetings and incentives industry to the U.S. economy. Did you know that this industry creates $263 billion in spending, $27 billion in tax revenue, and is bigger than the auto industry? But the most powerful data? It employs 1.7 million people.

For the first time, the industry has data it can use to make a difference in how it is perceived by the government and the media. For far too long, its economic significance has been unclear. Said Karen Kotowski, executive director of the CIC: “As the nation grapples with effective ways to work its way out of a recession, the meetings industry will play a critical role in supporting jobs in communities across America, creating environments that foster innovation, consensus, and business success.”

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