Last week brought the bad news we all had hoped to avoid. When the U.S. Congress reached a deal to raise the debt ceiling, it looked like the economy had dodged a bullet—until stock markets began ricocheting back and forth, losing all the value they’d gained in 2011 in a single day.
Then on Friday evening, Standard & Poor’s announced an unprecedented downgrade in the U.S. government’s credit rating, declaring itself “pessimistic about the capacity of Congress and the administration” to cut the deficit and stabilize the country’s finances.
As analysts quickly pointed out, S&P is not one to talk about financial credibility: “I really find it quite amazing that a credit agency that could rate mortgage-backed securities AAA has decided to downgrade the U.S. government,” said Gregg Salvaggio, senior vice president of Washington-based Tempus Consulting. But the damage was done, and there is little hope that this week will bring a sudden economic turnaround.
It’s too soon to say for sure that the next recession is upon us, but we know what happened last time. As soon as the economy crashed, corporate finance offices began searching for easy ways to cut costs. Incentive programs came under intense scrutiny, luxury destinations took a serious hit, and the value of face-to-face meetings was easily forgotten in the rush to slash budgets. In the second wave, associations lost members and sponsorship dollars that have still not fully returned.
Since the last crash, I’ve looked for any sign that the industry has learned the lessons of 2008 and acquired the resilience to anticipate and withstand the next one. During Meeting Professionals International’s World Education Congress last month, I saw little evidence that we’re ready.
The talk from the main stage emphasized that there’s no “new normal” to fall back on, and I heard many echoes of keynote Simon Sinek’s insistence that meeting professionals learn the “why” behind their events and organizations. MPI also hosted some smart new content: Mariela McIlwraith’s session on innovative pricing, McIlwraith and Elizabeth Henderson’s cogent and engaging exposé on sustainable meeting standards, and Mary Boone’s case study of a massively successful hybrid meeting orchestrated by high-tech giant SAP.
But in the halls, too much of the conversation was still about tired old generalities like leadership, personal branding, and basic logistics that leave meeting professionals unprepared to meet the bigger challenges ahead. The need to define our value in business terms has almost become an industry cliché, but far too few of us have learned how to read a strategic plan, follow economic trends, and position meetings as an essential part of the solution.
For anyone who hasn’t made that transition, we’ll soon find out if it’s too late. But if the debt ceiling and the downgrade turn out to be a blip, not a crash, we should take last week’s news as fair warning: Tough times are ahead, and we ignore the signs at our peril.
Mitchell Beer, CMM, is president of The Conference Publishers Inc., Ottawa, one of the world’s leading specialists in capturing and repurposing conference content. Beer blogs at http://theconferencepublishers.com/blog and tweets as @mitchellbeer.